Creating an Underground Awards Show with the Nick Movie Awards

If you were on Twitter the day that the 2019 Oscar nominations were announced, you may have noticed a little viral excitement about an alternate set of awards called the Elsie’s.

16 year old actress Elsie Fisher, who’s probably best known for her starring role in the 2018 film Eighth Grade, took to Twitter to declare that, “I’ve decided to start my own film awards because sometimes other ones suck, so here are the nominations for the first annual Elsie Awards.”

And from there she proceeded to announce her nominations for the typical categories like Best Actress and Best Director, as well as innovations like Best Horror Feature, Best Young Performer, and Best Independent Feature. 

Her nominations referenced films with impeccable cool cred–like The Lighthouse, The Farewell, Hustlers, and Us–and sought to implicitly critique the lack of diversity among the actual Oscar nominations.

I think I first saw the thread when comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted about it, but there were a bunch of articles posted about it within the day on sites like Teen Vogue and Indiewire praising Fisher for her good taste, inclusivity, and plucky ingenuity for taking matters into her hands.

However, to a select handful of people, this whole idea of the Elsie’s sounded strangely familiar. 

See, there’s another individually produced, underground movie awards ceremony that’s been around for nearly 30 years now, and that’s the Nick Movie Awards.

Established in 1992 by Nick Ivankovic, the Nick Movie Awards began as a way for Nick to honor his favorite films and performances each year. In the years since, the Nick Movie Awards have grown from a literal bedroom project to an annual event that has included parties, trivia, viewer’s choice categories, online voting, and even its own signature menu items.

Nick grew up in Schererville, Indiana, and attended Butler University as an Accounting major. He’s been a finance professional for 20 years and is currently based in Los Angeles, California.  

I asked him to join the show this week to talk through the history of the NMAs (as they’re affectionately known) and to give a more in-depth glimpse into his nominations for the 2019 movie year.

(You can stream our chat via the embed here, on Anchor, or pretty much anywhere else you source your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Google Podcasts.)

Read More

My Favorite Songs of 2019

As I’ve written before, I started making year-end mixes back in 2004 as a way to avoid spending a ton of money on Christmas presents and to share some of my favorite new music with my pals. I haven’t skipped a year, and I’m so pleased to have everything archived on the site here in the “Mixes” tab you see above.

This mix and all my notes will live in perpetuity there, but I wanted also to be sure to post everything in my main blog feed as well. I’ve embedded the Mixcloud player below so you can stream the mix, in its sequenced order, right here while you’re reading. But I also finally broke down and put it up on Spotify and Apple Music as well.

I hope you enjoy listening to these songs as much as I have all year! I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts and musings as well.

I give you my “Best of 2019: Songs Build Little Rooms in Time” mix.

1. Let’s Go on the Run—Chance the Rapper, feat. Knox Fortune (The Big Day)
2. Sports/Best in Show—Viagra Boys (Street Worms)
3. bad guy—Billie Eilish (WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?)
4. Kill Switch—Ride (This Is Not a Safe Place)
5. Veka—Zola Jesus (Okovi)
6. My Little Treasures—Richard Hawley (Further)
7. Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company—The Divine Comedy (Office Politics)
8. Ride Around—Matt Ox (OX)
9. Le Responsable—The King Khan Experience (Turkey Ride)
10. 8 AM—The Marcus King Band (Carolina Confessions)
11. MILES—Jamila Woods (LEGACY! LEGACY!)
12. Empty Handed—Robben Ford (Purple House)
13. Jerome—Lizzo (Cuz I Love You)
14. Hard to Be Alone—Tal Wilkenfeld (Love Remains)
15. We Are the People—Iggy Pop (Free)
16. Snow Is Falling in Manhattan—Purple Mountains (Purple Mountains)

Read More

Tom Verlaine, Live in Chicago

ticket stub for television concert in chicago

Circa 2006(ish?), I’d been working on a book about punk rock at my publishing gig and was chatting about it with my dad at one my semi-regular visits to see him in his nursing home.

His brain had been altered in funny ways by his strokes. The slurred speech and loss of function on one half of his body were the most obvious/typical/expected. Some people were shocked by his outbursts of anger and assumed that they too must have been a result of the strokes; I struggled to adequately convey to those people that, no, that was actually the same old Terry, his temper just exacerbated by his frustrations with his new physical limitations. His anger categorically was not a personality change stemming from brain trauma. (Though, I guess, depending on how you look at it, the loss of his ability to mask that anger probably was a side effect of his brain changes. At any rate.)

But, the one change that did seem chemical (or borderline spiritual) was that some kind of mental door had opened to his deep, personal past, and he found he could remember things that he hadn’t thought about in years. Often it was nothing profound–one afternoon he went on a jag telling a series of jokes that he’d probably learned as a five year old. But on that day, as I was talking about how interesting I was finding the New York punk history I’d been reading about in the manuscript, he casually mentioned, “oh, I always really liked and respected Tom Verlaine’s playing.”

My mind = blown.

I didn’t grow up with the rock and roll affinities that a lot of folks my age did. My dad had always been mostly a jazz guy (with some doo-wop and other 50s-era “oldies” thrown in for good measure). Sure, he introduced us to “Good Vibrations” and a few of the Beatles’ earliest singles on 45, but there was certainly no Stones, no Zep, no Floyd. He gifted my brother some Hendrix recordings when my brother started to learn to play guitar, but I don’t remember ever hearing Jimi around the house prior to that. Not that my dad outright avoided guitar–he liked shredders like Pat Metheny and Joe Satriani, but also Jose Feliciano and Christopher Parkening. He prized technique and technical wizardry, no matter the instrument, his Virgo sun basking in all that exactitude.

Oddly, this was also where I think his masculinity felt most safe asserting itself. He was SO sensitive in so many ways, but he really got off on high-testosterone demonstrations of “chops,” exclaiming over complicated time signatures and outrageously high notes and ridiculously fast fingering the way I assume other dads enthused about sports stars’ athletic prowess. So, in that sense, Tom Verlaine–a guy playing extended, complicated, thinky solos in jazz-inflected modes–wasn’t exactly anathema to my dad’s sensibility.

It was just more–when in the hell and where in the hell was my dad listening to Tom Verlaine? My dad knew Television?? This square, accordion-playing, Polish-American nerd from Indiana knew about Marquee Moon?! When had that happened and where had I been and why hadn’t I known? Why was this information suddenly coming to light now?

The great joke being, of course, that I needed to learn about Television myself before I could be impressed with my dad knowing about them. Only took me til I was about 27, so, good job me being both a dick and a snob about it.

*

Brian and I had seen Television play live once before, in the spring of 2014 at the Metro in Chicago. It was an excellent show, and I even included it in my 2014 year-end zine on my short list of favorite concerts of the year. As far as I can remember, none of the players talked to the audience that night; in fact Verlaine even seemed borderline aggrieved by being on stage in front of a crowd at all. But that in no way diminished my enjoyment of the set; in fact, it kind of instantly catapulted the band into a weird personal pantheon of artists like Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) and Stanley Kubrick whom I love specifically because of the way deadpan presentation combines with extreme technical precision in their art to create a sort of ecstatic tension between heart and mind.

And because the show was so brainy, and their engagement with the audience so limited to the strictly musical, it was the perfect playground for me to practice my idea of psychically reading the players on stage. (You can read more about this, and see how I read drummer Billy Ficca and Verlaine himself, in my piece Musical Chakras.) The whole night was almost more like performance art or a classical concert than a typical rock show, and pretty much confirmed my idea of Television being an aggressively cerebral band.

Truth be told, I tend not to listen to their albums all that often, though Brian always knows he can make me laugh if he randomly throws that stabbing, two-note riff from “Marquee Moon” into any given song he may be playing on his own guitar. Still, I felt like I knew what to expect when we got tickets for their first set at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday, May 10.  Imagine my surprise, though, when I walked in, braced for a chilly though intellectually nourishing night of music to find them…loose? To find Verlaine not only talking to the crowd but telling jokes? Jokes?! 

My mind = blown.

Let’s be honest–growing older, it’s harder and harder for me to be impressed by much anymore. I remember that youthful sense of feeling like I’d just had sex on a spaceship if the energy at a concert was electric and alive and if I was in the right frame of mind to receive its blessing. I don’t go out expecting to come home feeling like that these days. A softer sense of contentment, of aesthetic satiation, though, does still arise from time to time–with young artists still figuring out the limits of their own power, yes, but even more encouragingly with old dogs who’ve resisted calcifying into audience-pleasing tricks and have instead managed to stay connected to a current of vitality and discovery. I’ve experienced that with Peter Gabriel, with Iggy Pop, with King Crimson, with Bob Dylan, and now with Television. It’s nice to be reminded that an old door doesn’t always have to open onto the past; it opens into the future sometimes too.

A Year of “Wichita Lineman” Covers

Back in 2017, I spent the year trawling the internet for interesting cover versions of the Jimmy Webb composition “Wichita Lineman.” Here’s a list of the versions I listened to and my notes on what I learned listening to them.


JANUARY–STONE TEMPLE PILOTS, FEATURING GLEN CAMPBELL
I loved the way that last year’s batch of covers of “I’m Waiting for the Man” turned out, but I couldn’t really imagine dragging the series on indefinitely, focused on just that song. (I was already starting to have trouble scraping together additional interesting cover versions each month.) So I figured why not just pivot to a new song for the new year. And after my boyfriend sat down with his guitar to start learning “Wichita Lineman” for an event at his school, I knew I’d found the perfect next song.

Because–it is indeed a perfect song. Perfectly, perfectly composed by the great Jimmy Webb and given its highest expression by the incomparable Glen Campbell. (I sort of ruefully chuckled after the clock ticked over to 2017 that, despite his Alzheimer’s, at least the celebrity deathsweep of 2016 left Glen Campbell behind.) His definitive version from his 1968 album of the same name is one of a handful of songs that will reliably bring me to tears nearly any time I hear it. So, let’s just get that out of the way now–no one will ever surpass it. Which, I think, is why doing a covers series around this song might be kind of fun. Like, if you know you’ll never record a better version than the one that already exists, what do you do with it? Let’s find out.

That being said, I’m going to cheat a little bit on this first one.

Yes, it’s Glen Campbell on vocals and his signature baritone guitar. But, he’s being backed by the Stone Temple Pilots (sans Scott Weiland). Just like I loved White Denim for having the balls to tackle Steely Dan’s “Peg,” I love that STP not only covered “Wichita Lineman” but covered it with the maestro himself singing lead (and, clearly, as the video shows, putting them through their paces musically). They do a lovely, restrained, refined, respectful take on it that’s all the more impressive for feeling genuinely laid back. As I’ve argued about them a couple times before, in considering what kind of hole Scott Weiland left in rock music, and in that band specifically, the DeLeos (and their cohorts) are clearly at the mercy, not necessarily in a bad way, of the quality of their frontmen. Here, they’re working, if only for a moment, with the best of the best, and it shows.


FEBRUARY–SAMMY DAVIS JR.
As I documented a few years ago, I became obsessed with the Sammy Davis Jr. live concert album The Sounds of ’66 after Brian brought home a copy of the CD and pressed it into my hands. I’d never thought much about Davis one way or another (well, despite being horrified after watching the original Ocean’s Eleven a number of years ago that they made him drive a fucking garbage truck while the rest of the guys were cavorting in the casino). But after living with that album for a while, I completely fell in love, convinced that he was indeed one of the greatest entertainers of all time. And I was of course delighted to discover that he’d covered “Wichita Lineman.”

His proper album recording appears on 1970’s Something for Everyone, and I found two different pieces of footage of him performing it–one on Dean Martin’s show and one on his own show, Sammy and Company. The Dean Martin Show version is maybe a little cheesy; it’s just Davis performing solo with a mic and a tambourine to a canned track. To my eyes, he fares much better on his own show when, like on The Sounds of ’66, he can lean into the support of a full backing band.

Unlike when Glen Campbell sings “Wichita Lineman” with his illusion of plainspoken subtlety (which is of course devilishly hard to actually pull off), Davis goes in the opposite direction. His delivery is HUGE, all characteristic razzle dazzle, with only a loose fidelity to the lyrics and melody. Which, I think, is a brilliant way to honor the song, by not being at all precious about it.

Contemporary covers of “Wichita Lineman” (which I’ll of course write more about below) tend to be overly reverent, similar to the gaggle of painfully earnest covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that were proliferating for a while there in the late ’90s/early 2000s. But Davis, as the consummate showman, knows that he’s the attraction here, that the song, no matter how masterfully composed, is supporting him. Which allows different, often unnoticed aspects of the song’s brilliance to be brought to the fore–like a certain funkiness in the signature instrumental riff, the bigness of that soaring melody line, and a twist in some of the phrasing that actually turns the song from melancholic and wistful to full of pride.

I mean, yes, obviously, it’s bombastic and over the top, but that’s what makes it so awesome–having the confidence to not only go all out, but having the chops (and then some) to make it cook.


MARCH–KEITH URBAN
Keith Urban seems like he’s having more fun being Keith Urban than should be strictly legal. I’ve always thought he’s just a straight-up terrific guitar player, and I confess I even have a soft spot for his cologne, “Phoenix.”

In this live cover of “Wichita Lineman,” he starts off perilously close to frat-boy singalong territory, but then quickly elevates it with a combination of his fleet strumming patterns, his winningly earnest singing, and the fact that he does a measure or two of Glen Campbell’s baritone guitar solo in a funny little bit of neener-neener vocalizing (which even cracks him up).


APRIL–JOSE FELICIANO
A couple years ago, my boyfriend and I were going through a box of my dad’s old 45s, and we came across Jose Feliciano’s absolutely incredible version of “Light My Fire.” My dad, evidently a pretty big fan, had also been known to play Feliciano’s album Steppin’ Out around the house and in the car in the early ’90s, so I have lots of fond memories of his music. So, I was naturally delighted to come across his instrumental cover of “Wichita Lineman” (even though I wish he’d sung on it as well–I would have loved to hear his soaring tenor hit that “still on the liiiiiine…!”).

Having grown up playing piano, I think I’ll always consider the guitar somewhat magical, and Feliciano is nothing short of a wizard. His dexterity and fluidity with the instrument makes it seem like he can pull more music out of those six strings than should be physically possible, especially given that it’s all acoustic, without the benefit of amps or effects pedals or anything like that. I love the gentle, flamenco-style introduction, but it’s his run getting into the solo around 1:36 that really makes my heart leap out of my chest. Casually rendered mastery at its smoothest.


MAY–RITA WILSON
Rita Wilson is apparently living my dream life.* (*Please note, however, that being married to Tom Hanks does not constitute any part of anything I ever dream about.) Not only is she a successful actress and producer, she also released an album called AM/FM in 2012 that’s full of super groovy and singable stuff like “Never My Love” and “Cherish” (someone’s a fan of the Association) and, yes, “Wichita Lineman.”

I totally understand the temptation to do an incredibly reverent version of this song. It just feels at this point like a secular American hymn. But the plinky piano and drippy strings on her recording unfortunately sound like they were flown in from a late-’80s Narada recording session. Her vocals are the saving grace here, though; they are, for the most part, simple and heartfelt. The one thing I do especially love about her take is that she sings the first line without alteration–“I am a lineman for the county”–rather than trying to fidget around with “I am a linewoman” or some equally unnecessary gender pivot.


JUNE–SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS
One of the sort of implicit concerns I’ve been curious about examining with this covers series is the question of identity. The identity of a song, the identity of a band or singer. How do they interact? Does one dominate the other? When and how does the hallmark of an identity become a blessing, or a curse, to any given performance? To whom does it matter, and why?

The Scud Mountain Boys’ cover of “Wichita Lineman” is a case where the identity of the song itself wins out, but in a way that just seems genuinely humble without being overly reverent.

I think it would be easy to listen to a group of guys playing ultra low-key like this and gripe that they’re not really “doing” anything. Especially given that, like, who even knows who the Scud Mountain Boys are? Isn’t the goal of a band to announce, as loudly and specifically as possible, “here I am! Here is how I am different from all the other bands!”? (Ahem, the Scuds are referenced most often these days in discussions of Joe Pernice’s career as a singer and songwriter, which is a polite way of saying that unless you were frequenting the club circuit in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early to mid ’90s, there’s little chance you’ve probably heard of or cared about them. And yes, I myself only know about them via being a fan of The Pernice Brothers’ album Overcome By Happiness.) I mean, I’m the kind of person who raves about the “labyrinthine complexity” of King Crimson, so, like, I totally admit to having a tendency to privilege flash and pizzazz, to crave the unmistakable.

But really, there’s no reason for this particular version of this particular song to be anything fancy. The Scuds were smart enough to realize here that they could best serve the piece not by trying to reinvent it, but just by presenting it, which takes a certain level of confidence and maturity that not every musician or band has. It’s a risk, but, to my ears, it paid off.


JULY–THE TERRY FELUS TRIO
In continuing to reflect deeply on my dad’s musicianship, I figured this would be the perfect time to bust out his cover of “Wichita Lineman” (which is the second song in a Glen Campbell medley, after “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”).

Personnel-wise, I’m fairly certain that this is not actually the version of the Terry Felus Trio that I grew up with. It’s my dad on Cordovox, I can tell that much, but I have no idea who the singer or drummer are. Throughout my childhood, the drummer and primary vocalist for the group was Don Graves, and though it might be him on drums, it’s definitely not his voice. (For reference, check out Donny’s incredible tenor on their version of the great Bee Gees tune “How Deep Is Your Love?” recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1982.) Whoever it is, though, does a great, simple but soulful take on it. The thing that really cracks me up here, though, is my dad’s immediately identifiable playing style. He would only have been 24 at the time this was recorded, but those jazzy chord stabs and the mini glissandos would remain a consistent part of his instrumental voice for the rest of his life.

And though as the years went on he played the Cordovox less and less, moving on to regular piano/keyboards and even just regular accordion, that sound will always be synonymous with Terry Felus to me. About ten years ago, I was in Boston for a friend’s wedding, and the day before the ceremony, I had dinner at a raw food restaurant with another friend in the North End neighborhood of the city, where the rowdy Saint Anthony’s Feast street festival was in full swing. As we dodged drunken revelers in the narrow streets, snaking our way through the festivities to get to the restaurant in time for our reservation, we happened to walk past a small stage where someone was actually playing a Cordovox. I hadn’t heard one in years at that point, and tears instantly sprang to my eyes. The sound of the thing was so familiar and so specific, and I was so grateful to be reminded of how singularly my dad utilized it in his work for so many of my, and his, formative years. You’ll hear it in full flower on “Wichita Lineman” here, in all its perfect, loungy goofiness and beauty.


AUGUST–DENNIS BROWN
I often get flummoxed when I hear people talk about, say, redecorating their house, and they insist that, because the blue paint they picked for the walls dried exactly two shades darker than they were expecting, the whole job is now ruined. I’m always like, “wow, where does that level of specificity come from and why does it matter?” Until, of course, I remember that my own similarly microscopic gradations of taste manifest themselves musically rather than visually. Like, I love dance music…but only when it has enough bass. New Wave and Synth Britannia stuff? No thanks! Brian will often playfully test my taste-o-meter in this genre, pulling up early ’80s English pop obscurities on YouTube until I realize what he’s doing and will start shouting, “ugh, no! It’s too bleepy bloopy!!” Similarly, I have very specific rules about the kind of reggae that I prefer to listen to–late-career Bob Marley is out (too preachy and weirdly stiff); early Bob Marley is awesome (Catch a Fire, yessss); but the totally demented King Tubby dub stuff is the very best of all (“Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber,” anyone??).

I’m not sure what flavor of reggae I was expecting when I found a recording of Dennis Brown singing “Wichita Lineman,” but I was pleasantly surprised to find how low-key and straight-ahead it is (at least until the solo; more on which momentarily).

Dennis Brown’s name is likely best known to most of us hipsters of a certain age as the nominal subject of the Mountain Goats’ “Song for Dennis Brown” from The Sunset Tree. But he’s also a straight-up musical hero in Jamaica. No less than Bob Marley said that Brown was his favorite singer, and it’s easy to hear why. His pipes are smoother than smooth, with a seemingly effortless panache. And if the dates I’m seeing online are accurate, he only would have been about 15 when he recorded this. (!!)

The tempo here is gloriously relaxed; if the song’s narrator is still on the line, he may end up being here for quite some time to come, so what’s the rush? The tempo, combined with the absurdly charismatic vocal, really pulls the song out of the realm of existential inquiry and reconfigures it as something more like a love song. Perhaps a love song to music itself? As the pop culture writer Matthew Perpetua once said about Huey Lewis, “If any other band in the world was playing this song it might make you cry, but Huey Lewis simply cannot sing without smiling. HE LOVES SINGING SO MUCH!!!!!” And it’s pretty much the same thing here. The song itself can be such a heartbreaker, but there’s nothing but joy in this particular vocal take.

And then there’s the guitar solo in the middle, where I suddenly remembered, oh yeah, these reggae guys were making all these crazy, inventive sounds with the most basic studio set-ups. I asked Brian what kind of effects pedal they would have been using to get a sound like that, and his response was basically “I have no idea.” Not because it’s necessarily complicated–today it would be easy to use a wah-wah to get that effect and call it a day. But in the very early ’70s, it would have been something unwieldy like an Echoplex, or some kind of panning effect in the mixing board itself. However it was generated, it’s pure ear candy, something fun and slightly off-kilter for no other reason but sheer delight. Glorious stuff.


SEPTEMBER–GUNS N’ ROSES
I know I haven’t written anything yet about Glen Campbell’s death, and I really think it’s because I kinda just can’t. I can’t wrap my head around how to process the enormity of his musical legacy, which is different than even the kind of cultural legacy left by, say, Bowie or Prince. But I love that apparently no such processing was necessary for Guns N’ Roses to cover “Wichita Lineman” as a tribute to Campbell at their August 30 show in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

The fact that it’s not a particularly “good” or skillful cover, combined with the fact that they were sort of actively willing to alienate most of their audience, who most assuredly were not Glen Campbell fans (in the original footage of this I saw right after it was posted on YouTube, there was a woman who screamed, around the 1:55 mark, “I have no idea what this song is!”), to me, just means that they were really, sincerely committed to playing this song. I love that! It’s so pure.

Axl totally rushes through the first few lines of the verse, almost crashing and burning before the song had a chance to get into a groove. And even once they do manage to lock in, it all still seems incredibly tentative, like a group of middle school students who are just learning to play their instruments and are nervously stumbling through their debut performance at the talent show to the general indifference of the audience.

They are, though, of course, actually really good musicians, so Slash’s acoustic guitar flourishes kind of pull the whole thing together, as does the drummer when he really lays into the beat toward the end. And, how can you not love that big grin and shrug that Slash gives right after the final note rings out? I’ve made that exact same face on stage so many times over the years, that “maybe we pulled it off? Who knows?!” gesture of giving it your best shot, knowing it might have been a little shaky, but also knowing what’s done is done, no take-backs, and thank god it’s over.

“For Glen,” Axl says solemnly at the end. The sweet, plainspoken, vulnerable earnestness of it is actually in perfect keeping with the song’s spirit of dignified melancholy.


OCTOBER–REM
Sure, I saw them live once back in 2004, and Automatic for the People will always be a perfect album to listen to on a long drive in grey, cloudy weather, but I’ve never actually been the biggest fan of REM. I actually find them pretty boring most of the time! So I was all set to bag on their cover of “Wichita Lineman.”

Especially since they manage, somehow, to not play Jimmy Webb’s beautiful chord progressions accurately in a few key parts. But I couldn’t bring myself to be too hard on them, given that the recording is from ’94, when Michael Stipe was at the full height of his powers vocally. Ignore what the rest of the band is doing (OK, maybe give a little love to the nice and easy beat that Bill Berry lays down for it) and take a few moments to bask in Stipe’s weird, serpentine charisma and earnest, plaintive voice. That’s one of the main things I’ve discovered over the course of this year that makes the biggest difference to a successful cover of this song–the quality of the vocal. And of course that’s not always just about having a “good” voice. It’s more being willing to sing the song honestly and with a modicum of vulnerability. That was, like, Stipe’s whole deal, especially in that era of his career, which makes this a more than fine version of the song, despite the rest of its flaws.

For extra credit, compare it to Stipe’s performance of “Wichita Lineman” on New Year’s Eve 2011, sitting in at one of Patti Smith’s solo shows in New York City. The band is much stronger (and know how to actually play the damn song), but Stipe, without his youthful live-wire edge, slides into a technically proficient but much more emotionally distant, even smug, take on the melody. It’s actually the disappointment of this performance, despite the fact that it’s overall much smoother, that convinced me of the merits of the take from ’94.


NOVEMBER–CASSANDRA WILSON
This recording of Cassandra Wilson singing “Wichita Lineman” from her album Belly of the Sun was one of the first I found when I started researching different versions of this song.

First and foremost, my god, what a divine voice. There’s pleasure to be found in all kinds of different vocal styles, to be sure, but every once in a while, it just feels really good to let your ears be graced by the talents of someone with an exceptional command of their instrument. And that’s really the main selling point of this version, her utterly gorgeous deep alto range and subtly masterful phrasing and delivery. (Get your earbuds out if you wanna hear the smallest, loveliest intake of breath at about minute 2:59.)

The shimmery arrangement is pleasant enough (I nerded out a bit when I connected a few dots to discover that the guitarist, Marvin Sewell, has occasionally collaborated with one of my favorite drummers, Brian Blade). And I can kind of understand why she would do one of those jazz pivots where you change the shes to hes, although rewriting one of the most iconic first-lines-of-a-song in popular music history (to “my man’s a lineman for the county”) creates just enough of a speed bump that the song doesn’t 100% recover from the dissonance between your expectation and what you actually hear.

I very much wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for the change; I tried to hear it from a feminist/Shakespeare’s sister perspective, like, well, what does the character of this woman have to say about the guy who’s been out searching in the sun for another overload?? But, the lyric change alone doesn’t automatically turn it into a proper response song; it just kind of repeats everything the guy character already wants for himself in her voice. Which is…fine, it’s fine to love someone and want for them what they want for themselves. But then…why not just sing the lyric as written? Brian and I laugh a lot about lyrics where some rock dude is wailin’ about how he’s been working out at the docks or whatever, and we’re like, “sir, you’ve never worked the docks a day in your life.” Which is to say, suspension of disbelief is already such a big part of what it means to be a performer, and I sincerely don’t think at this point anyone is going to be confused to hear a woman singing the words “I am a lineman for the county.”


DECEMBER–THE FELUS CREMINS BAND
The primary lesson I took away from listening to and thinking through this year’s worth of covers of “Wichita Lineman” is that the best way to tackle this song is with ruthless honesty. And I don’t necessarily mean to equate honesty with simplicity; I think Sammy Davis Jr.’s bombastic take is just as honest as Dennis Brown’s reggae smoothness, which is just as honest as the Scud Mountain Boys’ stripped-down approach. The best versions let the best of an artist’s truth shine through.

After how much fun Brian and I had at the end of 2016 recording our take on “I’m Waiting for the Man,” I knew I definitely wanted to close out this year with our own cover of “Wichita Lineman.” And of course, I came down with a terrible cold in late December, so all my convictions about honesty being the best approach were going to be put to the test, given that my voice is not in the best shape its ever been in. But hopefully the depth of our affection for this song comes through loud and clear.

A Year of “I’m Waiting for the Man” Covers

Back in 2016, I spent the year trawling the internet for interesting cover versions of the Velvet Underground song “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Here’s a list of the versions I listened to and my notes on what I learned listening to them.

JANUARY–DAVID BOWIE
I mentioned to my boyfriend (the biggest Velvet Underground fan that I know) that he should start a Tumblr strictly dedicated to recordings of people covering “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and as soon as it came out of my mouth, I was like, damn, I’m totally stealing my own idea. So, here’s the inaugural entry, of who else but David Bowie cranking it out in rehearsal, visibly cracking himself up throughout.

FEBRUARY–RICHARD HAWLEY
It was appropriate, given the circumstances of his passing in January, to start my “I’m Waiting for the Man” covers series with David Bowie, but this version by Richard Hawley is really #1 in my heart. I first heard it in a hotel room in Drumshanbo, Ireland, in the summer of 2012, over the tinny speakers on an iPad. It actually ups the ante on Lou Reed’s effortless cool by completely avoiding any kind of derivative rock arrangement, aiming instead for a kind of down-tempo lounge rave-up style that somehow still leaves enough room for a sense of sublime depravity.

MARCH–THE BLACK VELVET BAND
There’s of course plenty of professional musicians who have covered “I’m Waiting for the Man”–and I’ll be posting a bunch more of them below–but I just couldn’t resist sharing this winningly rough-around-the-edges recording of a couple of young Italian buskers playing it outside some mall-esque boardwalk with a cigar-box guitar. A number of years ago, I got slightly obsessed with French rap music, and after hearing this cover (as well as this bombastic-fantastic version of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”), I could easily see myself getting on a similar kind of Italian rock kick.

APRIL–ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
I was gonna be a little rough on this cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” by Echo & the Bunnymen. I was all set to talk about how, sure, it seems like it’d be easy to blow through a cover of this song, just because it doesn’t necessarily require a fancy arrangement–as long as you can keep all the lyrics straight, you’re basically set–though, if that’s all you’re going to do, why bother? I was going to go on a long tirade about how you actually do have to do something fancy to the arrangement in order to compensate for not having, y’know, Lou Reed fronting the band with his magnificent attitude and the Velvets’ extremely specific late-’60s New York dirtbag sound that’s always seemingly on the verge of coming completely unhinged. But, then I realized that Ian McCulloch was probably just like, “why in God’s name to I have to lead this whole thing off with an ad for bloody Jägermeister?” and then decided to pull out one of the first songs he probably ever learned to cover as a young musician just to get through the damn taping. In that sense, playing a completely pedestrian cover of a song that’s pretty guaranteed to elicit a happy “oh yeah, I love that song!” response from a crowd of NME journo-snobs is actually kinda punk rock indeed.

MAY–JULIETTE LEWIS
This version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” comes from this lovely little bit of non-professionally filmed footage of a 2010 Juliette Lewis show in Paris. It’s exactly what a cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” should be, which is to say, kind of a mess. I love that the first, like, two minutes of the video is just technical trouble getting all the amps and mics to work, French heckling, and Lewis vamping to kill time. And then the performance of the song itself is just shoutin’, shoutin’, shoutin’. There’s absolutely no nuance, nor should there be. I cringe with acute recognition, especially during her little improvised monologue, at how much she clearly LOVES being on stage and how hard she’s working to keep the performance together and make the audience happy. It’s a disaster, and it’s perfect.
JUNE–BECK
I heave a big sigh over Beck’s “Record Club” cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” recorded with (according to Stereogum) Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Brian Lebarton, Bram Inscore, Yo, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Holmes, and Thorunn Magnusdottir. I will go to the mat for Beck as a vocalist any day of the week, but as far as what writer Amrit Singh hears as “a loopy and ramshackle strain of psychedelia,” I mostly hear as a needlessly sloppy in-joke among pros who should’ve known better. Just because the Velvets sounded like they were falling apart, musically, doesn’t mean that they actually were and I always kind of take it as an affront to Lou Reed’s massive (if ornery) intellect when people are like, “yeah, let’s just fart through this; it’ll sound cool.”
JULY–THE DISTRICTS
Argh, I wish The Districts had covered the entirety of “I’m Waiting for the Man” rather than just using a couple verses as an intro to their own song. Nevertheless, even if it’s not a full cover, I couldn’t resist highlighting this video clip this month because of how much I adore their rough and tumble tribute to Lou Reed (apparently performed and recorded on the actual day of his death). The lead singer’s vocal affectations are pure 2010s (that kind of yelpy, choked enunciation that, even in a rock context, always sounds about an inch away from all that nuevo-banjo white-bread hoedown music that I’m still patiently waiting to fall out of style), but I don’t think I’ll ever not love that slightly falling apart, we-can-barely-play-our-instruments sensibility unique to really young kids just waking up to the power of playing a few simple chords really fast and really loud.

AUGUST–THE TUBES
I tend to be a sucker for people rewriting, bobbling, misremembering, or otherwise changing the lyrics on the fly during a performance of a song, so I was especially delighted by this short video of The Tubes speeding through a verse or two of “I’m Waiting for the Man” with only the most scant fidelity to the actual words.

SEPTEMBER–OF MONTREAL
Hey, music nerds–remember when we were all suddenly huge fans of the band Of Montreal a decade ago, thanks to the release of their confessional, psychedelic, and completely insane album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Those were the days. Before Pitchfork anointed it Best New Music, I’d mostly remembered the band for their annoyingly catchy song “Fun Loving Nun,” which I used to play occasionally on the radio show I hosted for a few years at Indiana University’s student station WIUS. Anyway, I lost track of them a bit after I found 2010’s False Priest to be a bit on the side of diminishing returns, but apparently Kevin Barnes is still out there bare-torso’d, glamming it up, if this terrific cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” is any indication. It’s properly loud and relentless, if just slightly embarrassingly fanboyish.

OCTOBER–VANESSA PARADIS
I went through a phase a while ago where I got really into contemporary French pop music. I love the through-the-looking-glass quality of it, how even when it’s trying to be faithful to American or UK standards of production and style, it’s ever so slightly strange, wonderfully so. Simultaneously too precise and too nonchalant. So it is with Vanessa Paradis’s take on “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Every note is in the exact right place, she sings all the lyrics faithfully in English, yet it’s suffused with a kind of winking shrugginess. Like, she’s not going to try that hard to whip herself and her band into any sort of punk-esque rock ‘n’ roll frenzy despite all the outward appearances to the contrary. Bonus points for the shortest sax solo I think I’ve ever heard and for the two George Michael lookalike backup singers.

NOVEMBER–Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
As the year has worn on, I’ve been getting nervous that I’d start running out of interesting covers of “I’m Waiting for the Man.” I needn’t have worried this month–I happily discovered Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark’s 1980 version, which was apparently the B-side to their single “Messages.” My boyfriend and I laugh a lot about how I, irrationally, have very little tolerance for that herky-jerky late ’70s/early ’80s “Synth Britannia” stuff. (Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that, though I do love repetitious dance music, there’s not enough bass in the genre for my tastes.) However, if given the choice between another overblown bar band rave-up version of the song and an endearingly tinny take on it that clocks in at less than three minutes yet still manages to include a shrill and reedy keyboard solo, give me the early ’80s version any day of the week. Plus! I have no idea where the video footage that’s linked to the song on YouTube comes from, but I love the awkward B-movie artiness of it. (Is that yogurt that he’s eating in what feels like one long take for, like, three straight minutes?)

 

DECEMBER–THE FELUS CREMINS BAND
I wish I could say I’d planned this idea in advance, but it only came to me a few weeks ago. Of course it felt supremely obvious as soon as I thought of it. But, for the final cover version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” this year, I present…me! Click here to listen to The Felus Cremins Band covering the song in our living room.

The Joke About Josh Groban

When I was 23 and working my first big-girl job in Chicago, I split my time in the office between two departments. I worked in the department I had applied to be in (the department I wanted to be in) for three days a week, and then a department that simply needed extra clerical help for the other two. My ambition was satisfied by the former, but the latter satisfied my cravings for community and friendship, which felt especially acute at that point when I was new to the city and new to adulting. It also allowed me to persist, for a brief period of time, in the fantasy that working in an office actually was as dirty-glamorous as working in an office seemed like it should be, in a very early-2000s indie movie kind of way.

That department was headed up by professionals but was largely staffed with other folks similar to me who were in some sense slumming it for a paycheck. We were also physically adjacent to the customer service department, which was staffed by a bunch of gorgeous punks, all of whom I fell desperately in love with en masse. They adopted me like a pet, introduced me to their other gorgeous scuzzball friends, and generally helped knock quite a bit of the lingering small-town shine off me. Work got done around the edges of a lot of banter and pop culture references and plans to carouse at the nearby bar at 5:01 on the dot.

Since I knew my time in this department was limited (looking back on it, I think it only lasted about five months total, although my memories of it are expansive and loom large), I didn’t invest much energy in decorating my cubicle. I would occasionally change the background image of my computer desktop, but that was about the extent of it.

It’s maybe worth noting here that, in those days immediately before the ascendance of social media, it was still kind of a novelty to find things on the internet that felt useful or relevant or somehow representative of one’s life. It seems almost impossible to conceive of now, but for so long anything other than, say, a word processing program used to type papers for school seemed like it was exclusively the domain of, I dunno, hackers. Like, you had to be tech-savvy in this very specific way to get computers to “do” anything worthwhile. But as search engines became more sophisticated and user-friendly, it was suddenly possible to see more general interest material at the click of a button.

Around this time, the singer Josh Groban was reaching an early peak of his popularity. I have no idea where I first heard of him. I feel like my dad had seen him perform on PBS or something? And to this day I don’t feel like I’ve ever knowingly heard him sing more than about four notes total. But his image was pretty inescapable at that point, this adorably mop-topped young crooner of light opera and love songs.

I’m not sure why, exactly, other than everything I just wrote about him, but something about Josh Groban struck me as hilarious. I had no beef with him or his fans; I didn’t find him ridiculous to the degree that it became derisive or mocking. Something about him just irrationally tickled my funny bone. His earnestness? His complete lack of being controversial in any way? All that wholesomeness just struck me as adorable. I was endlessly charmed by the idea of him, despite feeling wholly divorced from any access to his appeal in a more direct or visceral way.

So, aided and abetted by a vastly more functional search engine connected to the internet, I Googled up an enormous, very moony photo of Josh Groban and set it as the desktop image on the computer I used two days a week in the department I was temping in.

It made me laugh every time the computer went to sleep and I had to jiggle the mouse to get the black screen to roar back to life.

“She must really like Josh Groban,” someone from another department observed to one of my coworkers who sat near my desk.

“I think it’s ironic,” he assured her.

The thing that I adore most about this memory in retrospect is how much the joke was played for an audience of one, for myself, for my own amusement. To anyone who didn’t know me, there would have been no reason to assume that this sweet, small-town Indiana girl wasn’t a Josh Groban fan. I very conceivably could have, even should have been. I was exactly the kind of person who should have unironically had a photo of Josh Groban as the desktop image on her computer.

But maybe exploring that line between public expectation and private reality, that strange, taut place where they snuggled up against each other, was a process too delicious to resist. The allure of going to that place, diving into that confusion that contained its own clarity, was apparently so irresistible that I was actively willing to court being misunderstood. Normally, I would have avoided that possibility at all costs, especially in a context like that where I would have been concerned about portraying myself as “cool.” But following the joke has always been the most reliable way of finding my way back to wholeness, and giving myself the freedom and grace of that journey unequivocally felt like going home.

***

Queen of Peaches will be going on summer break! Be good to yourselves, and each other, while I take a bit of time to rest and realign with my own creative vision. See you in the fall!

 

“Not Artifacts but Traces”: Dreamlife on the Road

Road trips are inherently circular, right? You go in one direction, and then, unless you’re moving somewhere permanently, you have to turn around and come back again. There’s the promise of the return even in the first seeds of the journey.

I’ve written before about how much I love driving, how much I love being out on the road on an adventure. So I hesitated before I started writing this, thinking, no one wants to hear me muse about road trips again. Unless something catastrophic or otherwise significant happens along the way, one road trip is pretty much exactly like another. Hearing about someone else’s road trip is like hearing about someone else’s dream. Boring, nonsensical, too personal to be relevant to anybody else, right?

But actually, hearing about someone else’s dreams is one of my favorite things in life! The previous night’s dreams are inevitably one of the first things that Brian and I discuss every morning! Our relationship is my dream diary, and our dream spaces even sometimes overlap in funny ways (like the night that he was dreaming about watching old Replacements videos on TV while I was dreaming about hearing a song on the radio and incorrectly guessing who wrote it before being informed, “actually, Paul Westerberg wrote it”).

So, yes, one road trip might be effectively exactly like another, and, may I suggest, that’s what makes them awesome? There’s the predictability of snacks, boredom, naps, rest stops, weather, traffic, maps, gas, companionable silence, beloved albums played on the stereo in their entirety…one road trip bleeds into another, memories are overlaid on top of present-moment experiences, plans for future road trips are made before the current one has ended…and these echoes even start to emerge in real time, recurring over several hours, or even days.

Like this flatbed truck carrying these strange metal cylinders.

On our recent drive from Chicago to Hanover, New Hampshire, we played leap-frog with it a handful of times as we barreled through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, wondering aloud every time we saw it just what those things could possibly be. We stopped for the night at a hotel about an hour outside Scranton, and when we got back on the road early the next morning, we, unbelievably, passed the truck one more time. The circular logic of our shared dreamscape strikes again.

And it wasn’t just the flat-bed truck carrying precious (if obscure) cargo, either. We were driving, instead of flying, specifically so that we could bring the guitars and amps and pedals we used to create Music for Qodèxx to the 2018 Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College. We would be both playing the music and giving a short presentation about our collaboration with Gene Kannenberg Jr, the author of Qodèxx, the abstract graphic novella. We’ve “toured” to play music before, but with minimal gear that was easy enough to take on a plane, never the kind of production with such specific technical requirements that it necessitated several days on the road just to ferry the instruments to the venue. But the sound of Qodèxx just wouldn’t be the same in any kind of stripped down configuration, so we gleefully loaded everything into our car, and then loaded it in and out of our hotels along the way, ever-diligent against theft and fluctuating temperatures.

We were diligent against boredom, too. Aware that the idea of playing a 20-minute mini-rock opera in the context of an academic conference was in itself completely ridiculous, we knew this wasn’t a time to back down from the very premise on which our presence there was predicated. If we were going to do this thing, we were going to do this thing.

Avant-garde performance artist and filmmaker Jack Smith has long been one of Brian’s heroes, and we’d looked to his writing, performances, and life as inspiration for what we’ve been calling the “Qodèxx Happening.” One of Smith’s recurring images in his photography and live performances throughout the mid to late ‘70s was Yolanda la Pinguina/Inez the Penguin, and we, with abundant affection, couldn’t resist creating and bringing along our own stuffed tribute.

As J. Hoberman notes in the museum catalog Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970-1980, the site-specific performance artworks that figures like Adrian Piper, Laurie Anderson, and Jack Smith created in New York during this era “left not artifacts but traces. The work exists as fragile recordings, random documents, impressionistic descriptions, art-world legends, and spectator memories; and, in some cases, not even those.” Not artifacts but traces—this is dreamlife in a nutshell. Pulling even a scrap, a reconstructed scrap at that, from the river of time back into being was a way for us to not just pay tribute to beloved artists who have gone before us but to circle back around to a destination that we’d remembered, even if we’d never visited it before.