Friday, May 15, 2020


Liner notes for This is How It Ends

LINER NOTES for Peter Himmelman single, “This is How It Ends”

We asked renowned rock journalist Wayne Robins to contribute his unique take on “This Is How It Ends”in the form of old-school liner notes. Here’s what Wayne had to say.

Ah, you thought there’d be something more / A great upheaval or a world war

This is how it starts: A little drum roll signaling a march, a fitful fist-squeeze of an organ, some purposeful piano notes that you can’t quite hear yet, but which you will soon hear as the core of the song. It’s as if Oscar Peterson rose again, dead since 2007. Tim Riley recently introduced me to an album which O.P. plays both piano and organ on a scintillating session with Roy Eldridge from 1974, and it’s been heavy on my playlist when I need to remember how much fun musicians used to have before the Coronavirus, Covid-19, the Invisible Killer, drew its invisible curtain down on most of life as we had known it.

The other night in one of his Thursday night Facebook concerts, “Songs and Stories from West 89th,” Peter Himmelman had a few choice words about the current situation. Peter moved last year from longtime home Santa Monica, where visitors always had to be cautious not to step on the turtle that freely wandered the yard. An unleashed turtle. Really, Peter! Doesn’t Santa Monica have ordinances about that? The whole family is now on New York’s Upper West Side — a neighborhood so Jewish that even gentiles go to shul on the High Holidays, a neighborhood for both observant Jews and Jews who just observe each other. In the video concert, Peter said, “It’s just like the apocalypse. It feels foreboding as hell to just walk outside.” But there is one distinction between the “situation” and true apocalypse: We are still able to find raspberries, delicious succulent raspberries, that he had eaten that afternoon. “It’s important to pick out good things,” he said.

But it’s hard, especially for a musician responding to circumstances. All of the solo concerts from home, the benefit concerts, the self-supporting concerts with virtual tip jars: They’re so full of uplift and hope, or at least, temporary visual and audio companionship to get us through these suffering days and sleepless nights. I’m pretty sure if Peter was writing new songs now, he’d be writing about the blessings of raspberries, stuffed under the slight give of the facemask. Wearing a yarmulke, or the fedora worn by many of his Orthodox faith and, facemask, you could feel almost safe: show the faith, wear the mask, accept the grace.

But Peter Himmelman, who has spent the last 40 years writing and performing songs that even at their darkest saw the light at the beginning of the tunnel, emerged prepared with a different kind of song, written and recorded in 2019 or early 2020, when we had to cancel a lunch meeting because one of us had a cold, just a bad cold, before it was reasonable to suspect that it could be something terribly worse. At midnight of December 31, 2019, many of us raised our glasses and said, “good riddance to all that! This year 2020 can’t possibly be as bad.” We did not get that quite right. We had no idea, no clue. But Peter must have sensed something, tuning into the zeitgeist as naturally as he dons his tefillin to pray each morning.

“This Is How It Ends” is a beautiful and terrifying song. He has written many lamentations, but few jeremiads, warnings of the Prophet Jeremiah that anticipated destruction of the Temple in concordance with the ebbing faith and increasing sin of his people. That has not been Peter’s message. Even the darkest Peter Himmelman song might come down like a plague of hail, but inside the hailstones are flames, according to our understanding of the 10 plagues that G-d through Moses brought upon Egypt. Peter is drawn to the light.

So we have to search for the light in “This Is How It Ends,” which when it was written was simply a vision of what was already a pretty dire time. The year 2019 was for many a pretty difficult year, what with California wildfires, Australia with fire out of control, assassinations of Jews at prayer in the United States, climate change and income inequality marching us towards a future that made us worry about the world of our children. But the calendar has speeded up, and the darkness is descending on us and friends, our children and grandchildren, our parents and grandparents.

“This Is How It Ends” is not a happy hallucination, like R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s not Skeeter Davis singing “Don’t they know, it’s the end of the world,” a little dramatic perhaps: “It ended when I lost your love.” It’s definitely not “The End,” the Doors’ monolithic façade built as a stoned monument to the end of the 1960s and the continuation of the war in Vietnam, which lasted about 16 years and took more than 58,000 American lives. A staggering body count! Coronavirus passed that in three months: we’re at 62,000 in the United States and counting.

This is not a love song. This is not a drill.

This is the sound of unearthly silence / After a year of blood and violence

The news is full of supply chains breaking down: The cost of oil below zero dollars a gallon, because there’s no place to sell it and it costs more to store it and ship it. Meat distributors becoming hotspots of the pandemic, and farmers unable to get their crops to market.

This is the smell of summer rain / Beyond the fields of rotting grain

How did he know that? How did Peter see “the bubble’s popped, we dove first, we belly-flopped/Inhaling whatever providence sends,” when the stock market was at an all-time high, unemployment was at an all-time low. Many of us are having the peculiar experience of losing track of time because we have so few appointments: Everything’s canceled, so many working from home; or napping during the day and staying up the night, not knowing Wednesday from Thursday, Sunday from Monday. The first chorus begins:

The clocks have frozen on a night so cold / The sun has dropped the jokes growing old

“This Is How It Ends” is not a sad song. Well, it is a sad song, obviously. (Insert John Oliver voice there.) Peter has done a bunch of sad songs, I’m sure, but off the top of my head, they don’t register as “sad.” They occur to me as true songs. There is something always reassuring about the timbre of his voice, a truthfulness, and a musical beauty that won’t let go.

The tempo moves briskly. A spiritual cavalry riding to the rescue? That’s a stretch, but Peter is not the unkempt gentleman in Hyde Park corner, or the clean-cut preacher in Times Square shouting, “we’re doomed.” His faith is too strong. The hook is a series of piano notes that repeat throughout the song. A short, quick ostinato figure in C major, as Peter describes it, or a “doot-doot-oot,” as I describe it. It counterpoints the lyrics with a toot, or a doot, of delight. The song is musically the sturdiest of all of Himmelsongs of the last 40 years, which is really saying something: It pops, it rocks, it swings, and you can’t get it out of your head if you hear it once. I play it once, and I hear it all day, “inhaling whatever providence sends.” This is how it ends.
—Wayne Robins, May 1, 2020

(c) Wayne Robins, 2020. Lyrics (c) Peter Himmelman, 2020.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Bob Dylan Sings From the Bob Dylan Songbook

Bob Dylan Sings From the Bob Dylan Songbook
by Wayne Robins

“I was always a singer and nothing more than that,” Bob Dylan’s character Jack Fate says at the end of “Masked and Anonymous,” the 2003 film curiosity. Some saw that as a typical Dylan misdirection, a purposeful distraction aimed at those obsessed with finding the meaning of his songs.
But after watching Dylan, age 78, concentrate on singing his way through many levels of his catalog on Sunday, 24 November, the second night of a 10 show run at New York’s Beacon Theater, the takeaway is that singing was never more important to him, and that he never sang better.
The recent five CD excursion (“Triplicate” and two others) into Sinatra World suddenly made sense. The folk roots revisited albums “Good As I Been to You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (1993) helped Dylan reboot his writing with “Time Out of Mind” (1997), his best new material since the 1970s; the five discs of Tin Pan Alley tunes retaught him how to properly control his voice. As Tim Riley wrote in the L.A. Review of Books, Dylan steps back and “allows the mood to gather around him, and gently massages these songs into a purr.” Dylan does that with his own material now. Those who struggled with Dylan’s singing in some of the more forgettable concerts from the early-2010s can relax, because Dylan has relaxed. I suspect he turned to those songs from the not-weird-at-all old America to learn how the great performers of those tunes— Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee—survived, even thrived, when time threw harsh resonances challenging their once easy mastery.
There were no Tin Pan Alley songs at the Beacon. Neither was it a “best-of” or “greatest hits.”
Up close, from the fifth row of the theater (now I know how much it costs to avoid going through seeing a concert from the back row twice: $195 a ticket), you got to watch Dylan’s little twists of faith, his small grins, but mostly, you noticed his concentration on delivering every familiar phrase, no matter how unfamiliar melody the melody. That’s the way he’s been doing it since the early 1980s, when at a concert at the Stony Brook University gymnasium people well-familiar with his catalog would gather in circles, confer and try to reach out through the unsteady acoustics and unfamiliar sounds to share slices of guessed-at lyrics, and patch together the names of songs that bore little resemblance to the Dylan tunes they had known for decades. It’s been that way almost ever since, with the exception of the occasional stadium tour (with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dylan & Grateful Dead), when Bob sounded bored anyway.
At the Beacon, Dylan neither addressed the audience, nor introduced the songs, though he did introduce the band. New drummer Matt Chamberlain has adapted seamlessly, Charlie Sexton remains the front man among the multiple guitar heavy group, and Donnie Herron (violin, fiddle, steel guitar) was a kind of one man orchestra. Herron’s sensitivity elevated the elegiac “Lenny Bruce,” the little heard requiem for a martyr whose mind out of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s seeded Dylan’s own personal Manhattan Project. And those strings drove home the Doug Sahm-style waltz of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
Stitching the selection of tunes from mostly the middle of his deck, the songs each began after a short burst of tuning and feedback. Then, maybe 10, 20, 30 seconds later, the audience would applaud, recognizing the song being performed.
The encores, to be sure, were familiar: “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which for a fraction of a second made me self-conscious holding my my notebook and ink-based pencil in my hand, but I saw no one naked, and did not need to ask “who is that man.” Dylan appeared to especially enjoy the moment, appearing to take over on lead guitar against Sexton’s rhythm. After a weird and wonderful “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” the houselights took over.
Earlier, there was an “It Ain’t Me Babe” that the Turtles might not recognize, and “Girl of the North Country” that might make Johnny Cash think twice before realizing it was alright.
The much loved reference to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, somehow rendered as comedy, whizzed right by my ears at the beginning of “Highway 61 Revisited,” with Dylan at Jerry Lee Lewis warp speed at the piano. Dylan sometimes sat at the piano (showing only the crown of his hair over the top, from our angle), and sometimes stood. “Thunder On the Mountain” was also full-on rock-rootsy, with the narrator “thinkin’ about Alicia Keys” and Bob banging the piano like Little Richard spotting Uncle John with bald headed Sally.
If there was a defining moment, it was “Pay in Blood,” with Dylan clutching the microphone and delivering each syllable with the conviction of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” I’d never thought of “Pay in Blood” as definitive, or even illustrious: It was more middle of the deck stuff, like the Chicago blues appropriation of “Early Roman Kings,” which was, by the way, blistering Sunday night. (Those songs were two of three from 2013’s “Tempest”; only “Time Out of Mind” had more, four.) But “Pay in Blood” was sung with more alertness, enthusiasm and sincerity than almost anything else in the set. Dylan’s body language was rarely this aggressive: Not quite Elvis karate moves, but similarly emphatic hand gestures.  
The song begins: “Well I’m grinding my life away steady and sure/Nothing more wretched than what I must endure,” before getting really dark. (By the way, “Not Dark Yet”? Magnificent.) But the refrain is: “I pay in blood, but not my own.” What does it mean? It means there will never be a 78-year-old man who will ever rock harder than Bob Dylan did whenever he wanted, or croon the slower tunes with more finesse. How does it feel? Couldn’t tell you. There were three songs from “Highway 61 Revisited,” which was generous for the curious. “Like a Rolling Stone” was not one of them, and I’m glad for that. You want nostalgia, you’ve got the record. At this show, you got to watch Bob Dylan think about singing as he sang. All his wrinkles seem new. 
(c) Wayne Robins 2019

Friday, May 23, 2014

 Wayne's Words is undergoing renovation. Please enjoy the archives while we work out a new design and concept.

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Saturday, May 04, 2013


Facebook Friends: Drop the Rock

Dear Facebook Friends: Drop the Rock
by Wayne Robins

Last week in the class I teach at St. John's University called The Journalist as Critic, the discussion turned to social media, whether on blogs, Twitter or Facebook. My message to the students was to choose their words and express their opinions as carefully as if they were writing for the New York Times.
The reason for choosing this discussion is my recent chagrin at the declining level of civility, courtesy, and discipline among my own cohort of Facebook "friends." Most of them are journalists, music critics, public relations folks or entertainment and publishing industry professionals, the kind of people one collects over the course of a lifetime. Few of them are close friends. In fact, my "real life" relationships tend to be exclusive of Facebook. But it is one of the sweeter qualities of Facebook that one can resume or continue acquaintance with people who have passed through our lives in a favorable or collegial way.
But a few recent postings and threads have been irritating and at times offensive to read. They all begin with someone I know and respect writing bilious, sometimes obscene screeds about musical artists who have established themselves with permanence over the last few years. The artists are Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Paul Simon, Patti Smith, and the band Rush. The posters are musicians and writers who I have had some exposure to over the years, whom I like and in most ways respect. Their postings lead me to question that respect.
The CCR posting was especially bewildering, since it seemed based on nothing but long suppressed fury. It was a simple statement of "fact," according to the Facebook post, that CCR was... a sequential series of violent vulgarity and excretory excess, in that writer's opinion.
I like Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty. Many people who enjoy rock music also like CCR, to a greater or lesser degree. What I found so peculiar about the posting was the intensity of the hateful language, the degree of disturbance expressed by a person with whom I am familiar.
So I wrote the person a private message and asked if everything in his life was going OK, maybe he needed someone to talk to, or to vent with. He replied everything was fine...his marriage was on the rocks, but really, everything was same old, same old. He just really didn't like the music, and repeated some of the abusive verbiage. He appreciated my friendly concern.
Then he sent me a message reassuring me that this over-the-top cursing and citations related to the bowel movements of canines was really an "act," the words of a character he created, using his real name, on Facebook. That really rattled me: If you are going to create a persona to share with (his) thousands of Facebook friends, why make that persona a raving asshole? I decided to block updates from him, but accidentally deleted him as a friend. My bad.
There was a similar attack from the same source on Paul Simon. Apparently, this person had once had an interaction with Paul Simon, thought the anecdote portraying Simon in a negative light was amusing, and in some way purposeful. Fair enough, I guess. Most people like to hear real life celebrity stories. What was troublesome was the dozens of subsequent thread comments piling on Simon, decades old anecdotes, rumors and tales assaulting Simon's honor, dignity, ethics, morals and humanity. Some members of this virtual mob had the idiotic insolence to suggest Simon's "real" behavior was the result of his being short.
I have met Paul Simon numerous times. He is not Mr. Warmth. But he has always been a cooperative interview subject. It is true that having done a series of interviews with him over the span of a few short years during the late 1980s/early 1990s for New York Newsday, that Simon did not seem to remember me from the last get together. I took no offense. I have come to understand that in addition to talent and luck, the way one reaches the pinnacle of pop music, or any profession, is a single-minded focus that sometimes strikes others as excessively self-absorbed. I doubt if Paul Simon has spent five minutes of the last 60 years thinking, "you know, if I wasn't so short, I might have really accomplished something in my life." Yeah, that's what's been holding him back.
There was also the person who posted a photo of Patti Smith with a broad smile and happily wrinkled nose, shaking hands of recently elected Pope Francis during a public meeting in St. Peter's Square. The haters were ready. There were those who thought it a contradiction that the woman who nearly 40 years ago sang, "Jesus died for someone's sins but not mine," that it was a kind of betrayal of punk rock orthodoxy. Or that Smith was somehow giving aid and comfort to an institution enmeshed for decades in a heinous sexual abuse scandal. Few seemed to imagine the profound affinity one who pursues a spiritual path, such as Smith, must feel when meeting one further along on that path. I think of a talk given by the spiritual seeker Sandy Beach of Tampa upon simply seeing the Dalai Lama. In essence, Sandy said, you don't need to be Buddhist to discern that there is something very special, some powerful, benign spiritual vibes—that makes the Dalai Lama an exceptional human being.
Besides, Patti Smith's spiritual beliefs are none of your, or my, business.
Finally, there is the old and tired "Rush sucks" card, played by an old friend when he posted on Facebook his impressions of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame initiation ceremony he attended in Los Angeles. He began his short appraisal with the phrase, and then ended the posting with the words, "did I mention that Rush sucks?" Cute if you're a six year old; pushing 60, not so cute.
"Rush sucks" was the concise opinion of many of my colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. It was an opinion I shared until I realized I had never listened to enough Rush to form an independent opinion. Being fortunate enough to be required to cover a wide range of music for Newsday for 20 years, I had numerous opportunities to review Rush concerts over the years. The first one I hated, but I realized I wasn't familiar enough with the music to even distinguish the songs in the hockey arena in which they played, except for "Tom Sawyer." So the next time they were coming to town, I took a few days to listen to their catalog, get to know the songs, tried to understand why millions of people liked their concerts and albums, and why so many critics disliked them. It's not that they're bad musicians; they are excellent musicians. Geddy Lee's high-pitched vocals are an acquired taste that most critics don't acquire. They'll never be my favorite band; I didn't rush to my Rush albums when I bought an excellent new turntable a few months ago.
But some people like Rush, some people don't. For someone who has been a reputable critic, writer, and historian to spout "Rush sucks" nonsense seemed cheap and undignified; it was exposing a degree of snobbery and condescension that was unpalatable in 1988, and is just sort of sad 25 years later. It's like the Republicans who in 2013 are staking everything on repealing Roe v. Wade. Forget about it; it's settled law. Let's move on to discuss, with civility and humility, the problems that daunt us today.
So many of us enter the glass house that is Facebook, fists clenched and a rock in each hand. My suggestion: it is probably time to drop the rock.
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Saturday, March 30, 2013


Listening to Paul Williams

by Wayne Robins
Last Sunday, March 24, there was a tribute to Paul Williams at the Boo-Hooray Gallery on Canal Street in Manhattan. The three hour event was a hello-goodbye to Williams, long-suffering from the brain damage incurred in a bicycle accident in 1995. His time on this planet appeared to be ebbing, and he died Thursday, March 28.
People kept shifting from past to present in speaking about Paul, but I didn't detect any discomfort about this. The event was organized by Paul's wife, the singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, whose courage in the face of the imponderable inevitable kept our anxieties at bay. Editions of Paul's multitude of writing—pamphlets, books he wrote and edited, and of course, Crawdaddy! the magazine he founded in 1966 that created a new form of narrative journalism, now known as rock criticism, filled display cases and lined the walls.
The guitarist Lenny Kaye, a distinguished rock critic even before he became a co-founding member of the Patti Smith Group, performed two songs with Berryhill, both reflective of Paul's passions. "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" was from "Pet Sounds," the album that placed the Beach Boys at a pinnacle of critical acclaim, and Williams was one of its most outspoken advocates. (I suspected Paul had less use for the Beatles than many of us, confirmed subsequently when he acknowledged as much in some later writings.) Paul and Cindy Lee's 11 year old son Alexander sang lovely harmonies. The other song was "Like a Rolling Stone," which needs no introduction, except to say that the question it asks—"How does it feel?"—was the essence of Williams' esthetic. The big question that must be answered by any song, Williams believed, was not does it mean, but how does it feel?
Michael Lydon, another of the earliest rock scribes turned musician, sang one of his uptempo, humane and corny affirmations of fun and friendship. Ellen Sander, another first generation rock critic, performed a poem she had written for Paul, full of pain and passion. I was honored to be asked to read some of Paul's writing, so I read selections from some essential Crawdaddy articles that were collected in what was probably his first book, "Outlaw Blues." In the title essay, Paul makes the essential connection that some members of the rock cognescenti were less quick to make: That "Beach Boys Party," from 1965, deserved to be loved on its own merits, because it was so much fun.
It's not too much of a stretch to say that Paul Williams invented rock criticism. Yes, there were others in the U.S., including Mike Jahn at the New York Times and Al Aronowitz at the the New York Post, Lillian Roxon as the New York correspondent for various Australian newspapers, and Gloria Stavers at 16 magazine who covered the emerging rock culture in the 1960s. But it was the critical vocabulary Wiliams developed, his highly intelligent but instinctive approach to music and the intellectually rigorous, emotionally transparent, spontaneous style of writing that influenced so many of us.
Then a 17-year-old student at Swarthmore College, Paul started publishing a mimeographed magazine called Crawdaddy! in early 1966. Later that year, when he could afford staples, the magazine, in black and white with few graphics, grew quickly in circulation.
 It could be bought on the newsstand at Gem Spa on Second Avenue, next to St. Marks Books when that august institution was still on St. Mark's Place and a hub of the late beatnik era's intellectual activity. The Fillmore East would soon open a block away.
Based in New York, Paul was positioned to catch the winds of change as they came. The Doors, Byrds and Love in L.A.; Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company in the Bay Area. New York had the Velvet Underground, the Blues Project, and Bob Dylan. At the same time, the British bands—Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who—astonished skeptics by having staying power beyond the 45 rpm singles. Everybody was making albums that were artistic statements, and Paul Williams realized that some explanation was required.
The explanation was not to the earthlings and adults who were running the country and its illegal war in Vietnam, to mention Cambodia and Laos. For with the advent of the album as art, Paul sussed out a community, or a potential community. He grasped that this new rock music, electric music for the mind and body, as Country Joe's debut album was called, codified the values, principles and entertainment values that would unite the tribe.
I was still in high school when I found Crawdaddy in the fall of 1966. The phrase "hippie" had not been coined or placed in widespread use. Rolling Stone didn't exist. I doubt that Williams had any ambitions beyond what he and the writers he published —who ranged from the studious Jon Landau to the brash R. Meltzer, set out to do: explain what was happening to rock and roll, to US, the tribe coalescing around the Stones "Between the Buttons," "Kinda Kinks," "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off," the Doors first album, Love's first album with "My Little Red Book," Bob Dylan "Blonde on Blonde." There were clues in this music, and the drugs we took, the streets we marched, the love we made—that had something to do with putting our collective energy into getting busy being born lest we find ourselves being busy dying. We were on a journey for which no roadmap existed. Paul Williams was our mapmaker.
The idea of Crawdaddy! was a bit of a cross between the serious magazines that covered the early 1960s folk-scene in Boston-Cambridge (Sing Out!, Broadside) and the sci-fi fanzines Williams started reading—and publishing—in his early teens. Sci-fi and rock were the foundations of Williams' creative life. He was ever the connoisseur/player in this scene: the driving force and co-editor of the multivolume collection of short stories by Theodore Sturgeon; executor of the Philip K. Dick estate; and admirer of, and admired back, by Kurt Vonnegut.
But his thoughts about what rock meant, how to listen to it, how to write about the experience of listening to it, will always remain his lasting monument. A rock song could contain a universe of ideas, or feelings, or thoughts, or sensory elements. He didn't break down and analyze lyrics. He sought the meaning behind the lyrics, the intentional or accidental chemical reaction between words, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, vocals. He describes some of it in an essay about R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People" in Back to the Miracle Factory, a collection of essays dealing with 90s rock.
 "This is important information about how we hear songs, particularly rock songs," he wrote. "Strong impressions left by snatches of phrase, rather than by the narrative as a whole." R.E.M., with its oft-inscrutable lyrics, its multitude of moods created in layers by four strong musicians, was an ideal laboratory for Dr. Williams' experiments. (No wonder "Fables of the Reconstruction" was his favorite R.E.M. album. Mine too.)
In the introduction, Williams writes, that the book is "about music from the point of view of the listener. It is a series of critical essays by a writer who has spent his life attempting to close the gap between people who listen to and observe art professionally...and those who listen solely because they want to, because they want to get something from the experience." His purpose, Williams writes, is to get at what that something is.
Paul Williams was rock criticism's most important figure because as a writer, he was rock's most important listener. That is also why, nearly 50 years after Crawdaddy was born, some of us still get something from listening to music and telling others our answers to the question: How does it feel?
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