A READERS' GUIDE TO ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: AMERICANA-ZOMBIES.
Reed, Lou: What a long, strange trip it's been: from dope-fiend gutter poet to PBS-sanctioned American master; from playing in Andy Warhol's multimedia project Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground back in the '60s to giving a command performance for Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel at the White House. And he wrote some good songs, too. (See also Velvet Underground.)
R.E.M.: The Beatles of the post-punk era. While most rock snobs will fess up to a kudzu-covered copy of Chronic Town or Reckoning in their stacks of vinyl, others flat-out hate R.E.M. These are the people who don't cry at the end of It's a Wonderful Life, and they are to be avoided at all costs.
Richard Meltzer: Back in the day, Meltzer, Nick Tosches and Lester Bangs formed a terrible triumvirate of rowdy, hard-drinking rock scribblers--angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of rock--feared and loathed by the music industry's power elite. Like Bangs, Meltzer didn't just write about rock 'n' roll; he lived it, drank it, smoked it, felt it up, snorted it down and puked it up all over the page the morning after.
Shaggs, The: Three sisters from rural New Hampshire who, when they strapped on their instruments, were just this side of collapse. The Wiggin family was, by all accounts, a study in Pepperidge Farm country gothic. Daddy Austin Wiggin Jr. worked in the cotton mill and applied every coffee-canful of cash he could earn toward his dream: that his three eldest daughters--Betty, Helen and Dot--would one day become international pop stars. Just one problem: Despite years of music lessons, none of the Wiggin girls could play or sing in a way that you would call "good." But to Austin and succeeding generations of astute listeners, it was beeyootiful music when his daughters picked up their guitars and beat on the drums together in the same room, if not always on the same song. Recorded in 1969, Philosophy of the World is as much an intriguing anthropological find as it is a timeless, albeit unintentional, statement of outsider art. Not so much music as a vaporous particle mist of sound, Philosophy has lost none of its primitive, crayon-drawing charm in the last 30 years. Everyone should hear it once.
Spence, Skip: Like Syd Barrett, Spence was a crazy diamond who reached for the secret too soon. After wandering in and out of grace in the late '60s, he spent the next 30 years howling at the moon in a trailer park oblivion of welfare and disease, until his death in the spring of 1999 at age 53. The original drummer for Jefferson Airplane, Spence went on to sing, compose and play guitar with Moby Grape, a powerhouse San Francisco psych-pop group that seemed destined for a commercial glory that would never come. In 1968, while in New York recording the Grape's second album, Spence disappeared for a few acid-flashed days with a woman known to be a practicing witch. When he returned, Spence was one crispy duck. Convinced that Grape drummer Don Stevenson was Satan, Spence chopped his way through the door to the drummer's hotel room with a fire ax. Not finding him inside, he took a taxi over to the studio, ax still in hand, where he was arrested and eventually committed to Bellevue Hospital for six months. During his incarceration, he would write the songs that comprise Oar, his lone solo album. Upon his release from Bellevue, Spence bought a motorcycle and, still wearing his prison blue uniform, drove straight to Nashville to record this material--singing, playing and arranging every fractured note. Four days later, he pointed his bike toward the heart of the sun, disappearing into the '70s and beyond, more or less never to be heard from again. He was 22 years old.
T. Rex: Marc Bolan was born with rock star DNA--one part hippie starchild, one part mod con man, one part Teddy Boy rocker. His story begins in London circa 1967, where the former mod-boy fashion model joins John's Children, a psych-folk outfit of minor significance that can be heard on the new Nuggets II boxed set. When John's Children call it a career in 1968, Bolan forms Tyrannosaurus Rex, yet another psych-folk outfit whose flower child sympathies are typified by album titles like My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair, But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brow. By 1971, Bolan had gone fully electric, shortening the name to T. Rex and strapping his unicorns-and-wizards spirituality to a revved-up rock motor and put the pedal to the glam-metal, spewing out plumes of crunchy fuzzed-out guitar from the exhaust. Electric Warrior and The Slider--the two essential T.Rex albums--netted Bolan a string of chart hits, but the arc of his commercial rise and fall was startlingly brief. After aligning himself with the emerging punk movement--to which he was an acknowledged inspiration--Bolan's comeback attempt was cut short by a fatal car crash in 1977.
Tom Waits: Even as a young man, he sounded like he was born old and smoking. When he emerged in the early '70s in El Lay, he seemed like a figure from another time: a rumpled, bourbon-fed balladeer, holding up a drunk piano, eyes closed, 80-proof chords dancing the Tarantella with his bullfrog croak of a voice, pirouetting in the halo of smoke and stubble ringing his low-slung tweed dude cap. Waits' first seven albums marked his early incarnation as a crushed romantic huffing the last remaining fumes of the Beat-and-Jazz era. On albums like Heart of a Saturday Night, Small Change and Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits hung his weary, gonna-drink-the-lights-out persona on a dancing skeleton of upright bass and plaintive piano chords. It was a Tin Pan Alley full of hoboes and grifters, dancing girls and desperate characters, barroom wit and gutter poetry. In the '80s he switched labels and steered his music into the deep left field of what has become known as the Island Years. Albums like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years play like a series of disembodied ham radio broadcasts colored with otherworldly instrumentation, clanking percussion and surreal street reportage.
Tricky: A street sorcerer adept at the art of black magic realism, Tricky cuts his bliss with a sprinkle of menace and alchemical electronica. His voodoo draws its spellbinding power from the languid collisions of rhythm and incantation, and the chimerical atmospherics he conjures. Not surprisingly, he smokes enough pot to deforest Humboldt County.
Underground, Paisley: A loose-knit cabal of L.A. scenesters who rallied under the flag of retro-psychedelia and rootsy Americana in the early '80s. Named, rather cloyingly, after the paisley shirts that were the de riguer thrift-store wardrobe of anyone involved in the then-burgeoning '60s revival, the Paisley Underground included the Dream Syndicate, the Three O'Clock, the Rain Parade, the Bangs, True West, the Long Ryders, the Unclaimed and Green on Red.
Underground, Velvet: To paraphrase Lester Bangs, we will never agree on anything like we agree on the Velvet Underground. Beginners are well advised to start with the urban magic realism of their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, also known as The Banana Album. Easily 20 years ahead of its time, this seminal classic paints a graphic portrait of the cruel vanity and supersonic velocity of life in Warhol's factory scene: a hipster funhouse of hustlers and homosexuals; artists and fakirs; needles and whips; speeding supermodels and jet-set glamour. The lyrics cue the music's whiplash fluctuation from gentleness to juggernaut, and if you listen closely you can distill the parts from the sum: Nico's diva-of-doom vocals; the tomboy stomp of Maureen Tucker's trashcans-and-tambourines drumming; the post-hypnotic suggestiveness of John Cale's viola; the sweet jangle and sitar-like clangor of Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison's tangled guitar interplay.
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