Friday, October 14, 2005

Why the J. Geils Band Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The nomination of the J. Geils Band to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was met by some folks with a scratch of the head. What was it about this Boston-based band, who scored a few FM radio hits in the 1970s but aside from the early-1980s smashes "Centerfold" and "Freeze-Frame" never got the attention they deserved, that places them in the pantheon of great American rock and roll bands? Here's a few comments from a discussion that transpired on the email list that inspired this blog:

Steve Messick writes:
It was partly Peter Wolf's singing, but also the material. They wrote and picked really good-to-great songs.

To me, though, there's a couple of myths surrounding the Geils band. The general one is that the first couple/few albums are good, the ones in the middle are bad, and then they were good again. True, the first two, maybe three, studio albums are wonderful. True, the stuff in the middle isn't as good as those first three, but they're still really good. The real thing wrong with those albums is that they don't exhibit any growth...the playing is still top notch, and the energy is there. The songs mostly aren't as memorable. The last four studio albums, though, have growth in spades. Monkey Island, to me, is an overlooked classic, the way a Nick Drake album is to some yahoo over at Spin. (Magic Dick shows his chops on that one.) Sanctuary was a step back in one sense (not as sprawling, less variety in the keyboard textures), but the songwriting is more focused and streamlined, with a higher sense of craft (not that they didn't have this before, but it's really consistent here). Love Stinks and Freeze Frame continue those directions, becoming more accessible and more exploratory at the same time.

The second myth, if you've ever been around blues purists, is an extension of the first: everything after Bloodshot sucks. Okay, maybe that's not quite it. Really, it's that Love Stinks and Freeze Frame suck (the other stuff is sort of assumed, since most of those guys stopped listening after Bloodshot, or, more likely, the live album that preceded it).

This is silly, and says more about the listener than about the band. When I was on an Internet mailing list for harmonica players, one guy actually wrote back to me "'Whammer Jammer’ good, 'Centerfold' bad." Or maybe he wrote "...'nah nah, nah nah nah nah' bad" (which is sorta funny). Either way, they didn't like the change, because the band wasn’t bluesy anymore, it was pop. But to me, the pop sensibility was there from the get-go. Short songs, with hooks, like the blues guys they listened to. On the flip side, I don't think the blues/R&B roots ever left what they did, not even counting their in-concert version of "Land of 1,000 Dances."

And that gets to the thing I love about the J. Geils Band, aside from the music itself. The sense of yin and yang. Great studio band, killer live act. Tight band, crazed frontman. I really can't think of anything about the band that doesn’t make me think of something in tandem with it.

The rhythm section...Stephen Jo Bladd and Danny Klein are so tight and right, I can't think of one without the other (but I can think of Charlie Watts without Bill Wyman). Tight and loose at the same time. Versatile--blues shuffles, soul grooves, reggae riddims, country, arena rock--they played each like it was the only thing they knew how to do. Never overplaying. I'm not sure that any rock band of the 70s had a better rhythm section.

The soloists...almost a misnomer, since even on the live albums (where they do stretch out a bit), J. Geils, Magic Dick, and Seth Justman all play concisely. The song, or rather, the presentation of the song, is the thing. And these guys are all phenomenal on their instruments, so they could've been forgiven some showing off. And again, versatility.

Songwriting...Wolf and Justman worked really well together. "Teresa", "Angel in Blue," "River Blindness," "Musta Got Lost," "Give It Up." On top of that, their choice of cover material was top-notch.

The frontman...Wolf was one of the best fronters in all of rock & roll. His sense of history rivals anyone's, and he brought the whole ball of wax to the stage. Manic energy, great singing, James Brown, Mick Jagger, and Van Morrison all rolled into one, and an influence on anybody from Springsteen to Steven Tyler. But he wasn't just showboating, and he couldn't have done it without the band that surrounded him. He knew that. And like everyone else in the band, he did what was needed, but nothing excessive.

Dave Marsh writes:

This is a first-rate analysis. But the key is also that the sum of the parts was often beside the point, because the parts themselves were so grand. Imagine a jam band with a sense of humor, an authentic rhythm section with the ability to shuffle and swing both, a couple guys with the chops (Pete and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd) to sing doowop, one of the great harp men, fantastic guitarist, musical genius keyboardist and arranger (Seth Justman who musta been about 15 when he joined them), and on top of that, a frontman who really could dance and sing (the real Mick Jagger by my lights; meaning, I think of him the way others think of Mick, except I don't need all the excuses)...

They were the only great American rock band that lasted.

I think the thing Steve is talking about with the balance and the conciseness--to me, the model for it all was the Stones, sure, but even more than that the great Muddy Waters Band with Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter.

The BEST live show. HUGE parts of Springsteen’s act are excavated from studying Peter; as much as from Sam Moore, no lie.

I remember the first day that Geils came to town. I conked my hair like J.'s, and it took three weeks to wash out.(What did I know? There wasn't all this honky hair gel then, and anyhow I lived in a basically black neighborhood, at least as to hair products). And they came to the Creem house and we were all blown away, instant friends, instant party, then we walked three blocks and went to Fortune Records and that was like the beginning of a cult. And then...and then they played that night, and it was like maybe 500 people in a theater (Eastown Ballroom) for maybe 2000 or 2500. Everybody was in the back of the dance floor, which had a severe rake down to the stage, 'cause it had been a movie house. Everybody hung back. I would say we hung back for like, probably, a whole chorus and then everybody was down front and swinging and rocking and bopping. White folk REALLY danced that night, even me. It was hard to do, too, 'cause you could barely breathe, it was all so perfect. I can't remember the set list but I can't remember the set lists of any of the ten greatest shows I’ve ever seen, because they all seem to happen in an INSTANT, like in the blink of a finger in your eye or something.

So whatever you can hear on the records, multiply by many dozens and then, if you're in Detroit, some exponent of that. High exponent, too.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Bait and Switch

By Danny Alexander

On my drive this weekend, I listened to both Kanye West albums over and over again (really clearly two chapters of the same book), which were perfect counterpoints to the toxins Barbara Ehrenreich explores in her brilliant Bait and Switch.

I've told Daniel Wolff that his 4th of July, Asbury Park tells the story of my hometown, but Ehrenreich gets at that particular quality of my hometown that was distinguished by the fact that it was, essentially, white collar and corporate. I was just writing elsewhere how I used to stand outside of the Phillips Petroleum headquarters as a kid and sell newspapers to the employees as they headed for the tunnel that led to their cars.

From 4:30 to 5:00, certain people would leave early every day, and the general mass of people leaving were blue collar people who worked in maintenance and on the headquarters’ docks, etc. They were not a happy bunch, but they tended to walk in groups, swinging lunch pails and cutting up. They had some life to them. By 5:15, when the white-collar folks started drifting out of the buildings, the sense of camaraderie was all but gone. Gray people in gray clothes who smelled of coffee and cigarette smoke funneled into the tunnel for the next 45 minutes. My father, being a borderline workaholic, spent much of his time battling the same kind of soul death and frustration I saw in these faces. Since I lived alone with him, and I was at an age where he could, I guess, he talked to me a lot about his lack of fulfillment in his work, and I knew that I never wanted to work in that environment even without seeing that vague helplessness reflected in so many others. (Ironically, I do work in that sort of an environment in many, many ways--combined with school, which also seemed to be out to kill my soul and the souls of my teachers all through those same years.)

Anyway, Ehrenreich's journey into the white collar world-- particularly the "transition industry" of desperately underemployed people selling career planning advice to other desperately underemployed and unemployed people--captures more of what I grew up around than I can easily quantify. It speaks directly to my dad's story in particular.

He worked his way from engineering into an area where he could find more satisfaction--systems management. He liked working with people, and he brought a lot of problem solving techniques and collaborative methods with him from a social movement he was involved in, and he constantly worked to reform the organization to be a more human, responsive environment. He believed in ideas like "Quality" and "The Learning Organization" and so forth with the most uncynical eye imaginable. He had to. It was the way he was finding meaning in his job. And he was good at it. I used to hang around his office quite a bit, and his people genuinely had a great deal of affection for him.

But the company where he taught teamwork for over a decade (he was there about 30 years overall), had no problem cutting him or anyone else from the team in the 80s. Like thousands of other Bartians (what we call people from Bartlesville, Oklahoma) in that decade, he grabbed early retirement to avoid losing his job and his benefits down the line. He was going to go into consulting. It would be hard at first, but he'd find his niche. He had a great record, he was passionate, and people liked him.

You know what happened--not that. He tried going back to school and learned that management professors thought all of his experience was anecdotal irrelevancy, and he wasn't good at kissing prof ass, and though he finished the course work, he lost interest in the dissertation. Occasionally, he gets some short term job, but he's never been able to make a living at what he did again.

Ehrenreich captures the way the very ideas my father promoted have been twisted. He spent his life selling the way a humane, rational system should work and found those ideas used against him as the system's fundamental drives took over. Unable to actually land a job above commission sales, after spending $6000 on workshops and career coaching, Ehrenreich never gets into the white collar workplace, but she gets to know the gray, confused and/or falsely chipper people who have been cast aside (many of whom run the transition industry workshops to "help" others find their way in the marketplace).

Bait and Switch needs to be read for a wealth of worthwhile particulars, but the overall picture is one of a system taking care of itself by selling its victims a million reasons to blame themselves and keeping them from ever even considering the option of organizing as a class. These are the twin betrayals my father and so many other workers face. All of their lives, they stood up for the Democratic Party in a hostile environment. In my father’s case, he also spent the better part of his life trying to bring his compassionate, humanistic ideals into the workplace. Believing that people could organize around such ideas rather than class interests, these workers found both turn against them, and they can’t let go of the dream they spent their lives trying to fashion out of their surroundings.

Ehrenreich's book provides countless insights into the vagaries of the white collar worker's inoculation against his or her interests but also the enormous untapped potential of organizing these workers with all of those lower income workers who have already been cast out of the system. 4th of July, Asbury Park, Luis Rodriguez’s new novel Music of the Mill and Ehrenreich’s book all hold important keys to this transformation.