Ear Mind:
The Best of 2007

Mostly, it’s some monumentally kick ass CD reissue that gets my vote for annual “Best of” top honors.  In 2006, it was grizzly metal vets Blue Cheer delivering the goods at a local watering hole. However, this year has had its banner crop of good, even essential …don’t yawn… books.  I haven’t even gotten around to the Iggy/’Open Up and Bleed’ bio or the recently-pub’d Bomp anthology.  But it’s January, so I’ll now weigh in with these ’07 faves.

Best Read of 2007: 

‘Eye Mind - The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound’, by Paul Drummond (Process Books)
The unwieldy title actually befits a tale of this scope, uncovering all aspects of a history so rooted for decades in mystery and until now, misinformation.  I would have thought the hallucinogenic excess of the ‘60s Grateful Dead was not to be topped.  But these Elevators, they put the Bay Area hippy community to shame with a totally fearless, brain-sizzling regimen of psychedelics.  As years of self-dosage get tallied in the final chapter of this book, key players Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson have exceeded 300 acid trips apiece in the sixties era alone.   That makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

Roky, of course, is the possessor of one of the most unique howls in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.  And with the Elevators, he was a powerful, charismatic frontman.  With the exception of Texas authorities, it seems everybody loved Roky.  Unfortunately, he mindlessly allowed everybody and anybody to get him high, too.  While author Drummond adequately covers Erickson’s resulting decline (three years in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, followed by decades of steady mental deterioration), thankfully the bulk of this book focuses instead on the previously-inadequately documented Elevators years. 

Other than the State of Texas, the role of villain falls on Tommy Hall; the band’s lyricist and number one acid head.  Be it unlikely that Drummond set out to portray him in this light (after all, Hall’s contribution to the Elevators music was critical, as any fan will agree), first-hand accounts of the band’s messianic, drug/jug wielding elder paints one hell of an unfavorable picture.  Of countless troubling scenes, the most disturbing of all (unsubstantiated) has Hall slipping acid to children through a San Francisco school fence.

From a page-turning standpoint, Tommy Hall’s highly evolved concept of the band proved the one liability undermining my enjoyment of this book.   Not surprisingly, the author affords it more serious consideration as detailed in the following excerpt (explaining the Elevators’ 2nd LP, ‘Easter Everywhere’):  “Where the previous album’s content [the realization and acceptance of the path to enlightenment] had been carefully explained in the rhetoric of general semantics, this album wasn’t as easy to penetrate.” 

Say man, I love both of those Elevators albums but intellectually, I’ll fess up to being more of a Seeds 1st LP guy.  Instead, I quickly had to develop a system for skipping over the material delving into all of Hall’s overly-enlightened gobbledygook.  This kept the book moving and me from nodding off.

Guitarist Stacy Sutherland is doomed from the opening pages with his recurring premonition of an early, violent demise (culminating in his ’78 alcohol-related death, presented here with suicidal overtones).  His mother provides plenty of insight into his demons.  After a life distinguished by dozens of arrests, she reflects that for all his drug problems, she liked him less when he was drunk. 

Vilified for years by the band’s followers, misunderstood producer Lelan Rogers is recast as one of the Elevators’ biggest boosters.  This book gives a detailed accounting of how Rogers’ bosses at International Artists Records deserve the criticism usually lobbed in his direction.  And that’s more due to their ineptitude in running a record label than the perceived rip-offs based on the Elevators one (minor) hit. 

Of the key story lines (Stacy/Tommy/Roky), only the latter provides anything resembling a happy ending.   As seen in the Roky-docu ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’, in recent years he bounced back from a schizophrenic-like existence thanks to brother Sumner Erickson’s aid and more importantly, much-needed medication and overdue health care (including a new set of teeth; the bill footed by Henry Rollins). 

Thanks to Mike Stax of Ugly Things magazine for alerting me to this book.  The new issue of his great rag, with an MC5 cover story, is expected this month.  

Runner-up (tie), Best Read of 2007:

‘Riot on Sunset Strip – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood’, by Domenic Priore (Jawbone Press);
‘Love is the Song We Sing’ (Rhino Records CD boxset)
As these two deluxe packages  - one a stylish, glossy paperback, the other an even more elaborate hardbound book masquerading as a CD box set – the ‘60s Los Angeles  and San Francisco music scenes shared a rival coexistence.  This is particularly apparent in the generally resentful tone of the LA retro overview, ‘Riot on Sunset Strip.’

That observation aside, Domenic Priore lays out a highly convincing argument for his city.  Los Angeles, particularly the Hollywood/Sunset Strip teen scene epicenter that predominates ‘Riot’s 288 photo-packed pages, gets my vote for the even more happenin’ scene.  Cool venues, eye-catching architecture, unmatched after-school rock ‘n’ roll TV programming, my all-time favorite bands (Byrds, Love, Seeds, Springfield, etc.) and the largest concentration of really attractive blondes in hip-huggers in recorded history.

On the other hand, ‘Love is the Song We Sing’, the San Francisco CD box/book, generally avoids the LA/SF comparisons.  Compiler Alec Palao and contributer Gene Sculatti even go so far as to acknowledge the age old San Francisco elitism leveled at both their scene’s pre-psychedelic garage history and “their less decorous neighbor 400 miles to the south”, as Sculatti describes LA.  (According to the Elevators book, the Texas acid heroes received a luke warm welcome in San Francisco, as well.)

The contents of ‘Love is the Song We Sing’ raise the bar to a new level, providing a clear indication of the type of packaging expected in these pricey alternatives to digital downloads.  The gallery of full-page portraits is a particularly inspired touch.  If Priore is guilty of going on a one-man Bay Area Offensive, Palao’s agenda is to rewrite SF history with lowly garage bands like the Count Five and Syndicate of Sound given the same consideration as the Fillmore A-list. 

Disc Two of this 4-CD set supports this view convincingly with masterful non-hippy sounds from the New Breed (“Want Ad Reader”; incidentally, the best recorded 45 of all-time), the Otherside (finally on CD proper), Public Nuisance, Country Weather and Savage Resurrection.  Oddly, one of the absolute worst tracks in this collection – “I’m a Good Woman” by the Generation;  grating plastic r&b – is sandwiched between the purely garage New Breed and Chocolate Watchband.    

For those looking for a fight, North-South (CA) battle lines are being drawn again.  Alternatively, my advice for you out of towners is to dig both of these essential scenes, starting with these great reads (and sounds).

Also worth mentioning…

‘Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine’, by Robert Matheu and Brian J. Bowe (Collins)
Now here’s an idea that is long past due:  a full-color coffee table retrospective of “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.”  It includes a sampling of classic material, from Lester Bangs on the Count Five and Stooges, Dave Marsh on the MC5, Nick Tosches on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Ben Edmonds on the New York Dolls; also iconic early Creem covers, photos, loads of humor, etc.  

Oh yeah, and there’s an additional 100 pages of superfluous crap (Knack, Mellencamp, Duran Duran, Stray Cats, ugly Creem covers) from the magazine’s long decline in the ‘80s.  For my money, the best part of the mag was always the record reviews which are almost entirely absent here.  Instead, we are treated to 20 or so dumbass “Creem Profiles.”

Good bargain for inquisitive kids who can’t afford the originals.  As for me, when I need a jolt of classic Creem, I’ll reach for the old issues first.

VAN HALEN-‘A Visual History: 1978-1984’ (Chronicle Books)
The best live band I ever saw, hands down no contest, was Van Halen.  Spring of ’79 and they had the warm-up slot at a big outdoor show (Carter Stadium, Raleigh, USA).  They completely wiped the stage with the better-known …for the moment… acts.  To this day, I swear that David Lee Roth did a flying mid-air split OVER the drummer!  Ok, it probably didn’t quite go down like that but for sure it was the most adrenalized performance witnessed in my lifetime.  

Some of the absolute best photography in magazines like Creem was shot by Neil Zlozower.  In ’78, he went to work documenting Van Halen; an over the top party that didn’t let up for six years.  Indelible album sleeve photos and now this book are the result. 

Already, I was on a (Roth era …is there any other?) Van Halen mini-bender when this book arrived.  Therefore, any concern over its visual extravagance – serving in part as a gallery of dubious/obnoxious fashion statements - is outweighed by my current appreciation.  Other than the appropriately hi-energy photography, the book includes a running tribute from other musicians; from legends like Jimmy Page, Lemmy and Alice Cooper to a bunch of ‘80s hair band and modern rock geeks.  Consider my little story just one more geeky testimonial.  

Top Ten Reissues of the Year

RAMONES-It’s Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino, US DVD)
If only for the Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert early TV footage, this would qualify for my top ten.  On top of that, the blitzkrieging New Year’s Eve ’77/’It’s Alive’ live LP main event now ranks as one of the great concert films of all-time. 

BLACK OAK ARKANSAS-The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live (Rhino Handmade, US CD)
Left field release of the year and once again, it’s Rhino to the rescue.  What next from the label that can seemingly do anything… a ‘Nuggets’ multi-disc DVD set?  As for the BOA expanded ’72 set(s), it was already the entire focus of a column here at the Bar:  http://www.i94bar.com/louder/blackoak.html Nine months later, my opinion remains unchanged (as goofy as I realize that must seem).   

THE MOVE-1st album reissue (Salvo, UK CD)
In 2007, there was plenty hoopla over the reissue of Pink Floyd’s influential, if I might add overrated ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn.’   Of the Brit Class of ‘67/68 that received the mono/stereo CD treatment this year, I’ll cast my vote instead for this superbly packaged Move import.   Roy Wood, genius.

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE REISSUES (Epic/Legacy, US CD’s)
First of all, I didn’t even pick-up the most essential of these remasters:  The one perfect album these guys (and gals) ever ish’d was ‘Greatest Hits’; a purely uplifting recreation of the Sly & the Family Stone on the radio experience.  But the earlier albums – from the enjoyably uneven ‘A Whole New Thing’ to ’69 break-out ‘Stand’ – deliver a high count of both hits and buried treasures.

MOBY GRAPE-first album reissue (Sundazed, US CD)
Seminal ’67 LP finally gets its long overdue overhaul.  Then sadly disappears from the marketplace just as quickly, assumedly due to the old legal woes that have dogged the band since the bad old days. 

MANFRED MANN-Down The Road Apiece: Their EMI Recordings 1983-1966 (EMI, UK CD)
Three jazzers hook up with two blues fanatics to hop on the British beat boom bandwagon.  The unexpected result: one of the last great Brill Building pop acts of the ‘60s.  Key word is “pop” but the other influences are always lurking about.  Had the CD packaging not recalled 1989, this would have been listed higher.  

BEST OF JUSTICE RECORDS (Norton, US LP)
Motor City denizens, you can have your MC5 and Stooges.  Here in North Carolina, we finally have our own ‘60s punk history to revisit with this vanity album label round-up.  Truth be told, many of the most pounding teen tantrums collected here hail from border states like Virginia (plus in the highlights dept., non-neighboring ‘Bama loud-fi legends the Tempos). On top of an appropriately “just” LP selection, Norton scores extra points for squeezing-in the impossibly rare ‘n’ rockin’ “Topless a Go Go” single by the Rockets Combo.  The action-packed front sleeve explains the ‘66/67 (US) regional garage band phenomena as well as any written piece you’ll find.    

MOTT THE HOOPLE – Fairfield Halls, Live 1970 (Angel Air, UK CD)
This legendary early show is synonymous with MTH’s UK breakthrough as a live act.  But individual tracks – which have been trickling-out since ’71 – have never held much weight on their own.  Finally presented as the entire unhinged set, all now makes sense.  The centerpiece is “No Wheels to Ride”, in a sweeping arrangement with 1st LP-styled epic ending.  Angel Air has released a number of archival “live” Mott the Hoople releases in the past decade.  This is by far the best of ‘em.

THE DOORS-1st album reissue (Rhino, US CD)
Surprisingly, I’ve heard little buzz about these latest releases.  Maybe everyone is just worn-out with the constant repackaging of the same material.  But this time, engineer Bruce Botnick has actually remixed the original albums, offering up a new listening experience.  Their most solid album, their first, now includes an uncensored “Break on Through” plus very loud drums throughout.  I suspect Doors purists will hate this. 

Guilty Pleasure Award:  ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA REISSUES (Epic/Legacy, US CD)
Here’s a band I do NOT recall fondly from my ‘70s, other than a few of their more amazing singles.  But thanks to Legacy’s reissue campaign that began a few years back, I’ve belatedly boarded the fanwagon. The definitive albums are those cut in a German bunker in the mid-‘70s; namely ‘Face the Music’ and ‘A New World Record.’  After the bombastic ‘Eldorado’ (where the emphasis was clearly on the ‘O’ in the band’s logo), ‘Face the Music’ showcases a seriously toughened-up ELO.  Miraculously, ‘A New World Record’ is even more hit-laden.  Jeff Lynne was clearly on fire as a songwriter during this period.  As for an actual 2007 release, I was less taken with ‘Out of the Blue’; Lynne’s personal favorite.   

    

- Jeff Jarema
January 2008

           

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