Review: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Triumphant Return – ‘Raising The Roof’ – Beautiful Alchemy

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I think I mentioned when I posted about Dave Gahan & the Soulsavers new LP Imposters, that there was a lot of great new music that came out last weekend. Springsteen released an explosive live LP recorded at the No Nukes concert in 1979. And, believe it or not, Sting released a new LP that caught my ear. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write again. Despite my maniacal focus on Gahan’s new LP, there was another album that caught my ear immediately. The long awaited new collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raise The Roof. I can’t believe it’s been 14 years since their first album, the monumental Raising Sand.

I can still remember Raising Sand’s release like it was yesterday. Bob Dylan was right, time really is a jet plane. I was really into Robert Plant at the time. Truth be told I always have been and likely always will be into Robert’s music. He had emerged from his collaboration with Jimmy Page (Page Plant) which had yielded a couple of LPs (one of them live) and two tours both of which I was lucky enough to see. The second tour by Page Plant was like being transported back to 1974, but I digress. The first LP he did post Page Plant was 2002’s Dreamland. It was an atmospheric album of blues and classic rock covers. I loved that album. When I saw Plant on that tour I was so enamored that I bought a concert t-shirt with the album cover on it… and it was mustard yellow. I told myself it was gold… it wasn’t gold. I wore that thing for years until the Rock Chick finally nodded, “no.” I remember reading about Dreamland and Plant saying something about breaking in his new backing band by culling through his record collection for great songs for them to play. He must have a pretty cool collection. I can only hope it’s all on vinyl.

While I dug Dreamland, as I usually like albums consisting of all cover songs, I did hope that Plant would return to his solo career full-fledged so to speak, with an album of originals. My patience and hope was rewarded when Plant returned in 2005 with The Mighty Rearranger. What a knock-out that album was. I think Rearranger ranks amongst his best solo stuff. Around late 2006 or early 2007 I remember a brief interview of Plant in Rolling Stone. They asked what was next for him and he said he’d written down a bunch of song titles and given them to the band to come up with music for each one. He’d fill in the lyrics later. He did mention something about being on the way to do a benefit concert for a long passed blues guy (whose name escapes me) put together by T. Bone Burnett. Somewhere along the line, Burnett suggested for the benefit that Plant do a duet with Alison Krauss of an old Lead Belly song. So entranced by their combined vocals, they decided to record an album of duets with T Bone producing.

Having read the press stuff leading up to Raising Sand I was keeping an eye out for the release date. At the time I remember thinking, I’ll probably dig the Plant led songs. I didn’t know much about Krauss but I thought I could “suffer” through songs that featured her. The day it came out, I stopped on my way to work and picked up the CD. I wasn’t buying a ton of vinyl in the early 2000s, alas. When I got home I went immediately to our basement…which is where the stereo was and started playing Raising Sand. Within moments the Rock Chick was in the basement asking me what the great music was. When the album was over, we were both blown away. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “Wow that was kick ass.” Little did we know it was going to be a world wide sensation. While on the surface it seemed like an odd pairing. Krauss, to my great surprise, is an amazing singer with her roots in bluegrass. Plant is an amazing singer with his roots in well, rootsy music like bluegrass, the blues and folk. Their harmonizing is something akin to sorcery. It’s magic alchemy. T. Bone is the only producer who can help these two produce such an atmospheric, swampy mix of music which is the perfect backdrop for the harmonies. I was lucky enough to see Plant/Krauss in concert on the tour in support of Raising Sand and it was superb. The harmonizing was just as spot on live.

I assumed there would be a follow up and in 2009 it was rumored they were working on one but nothing materialized. I think they did record some stuff but Plant “didn’t hear the magic.” Plant, in my opinion, is one man who doesn’t like expectations and pressure. I think that’s why he’s never reunited with Led Zeppelin for anything more than one-offs. Although Bonham was a close childhood friend of his and that loss can’t be overcome. Plant formed Band of Joy and put out an album by the same name that was similar in spirit. He had Patti Griffin on harmony vocals… but it just wasn’t the same. As Joe Strummer said, and I’m fond of repeating, never underestimate the chemistry of the same people in a room.

A few months ago, now with all of us 14 years down the road, I heard Plant Krauss (along with T. Bone) were finally set to put out a follow up LP, Raise The Roof. With its similar title to the first record, I thought maybe this would merely be Raising Sand 2.0. There are certainly similarities obviously but this is not the 2.0 I thought it might be. They’ve picked some really obscure tracks – at least to me – for the new album. They must have dug back into Plant’s record collection again. They go from 60s era folk stuff to country and blues stuff that was recorded 90 years ago. Some of the artists they cover here I’ve never heard of. There is one original on the album, penned by Plant and T. Bone, “High And Lonesome.” One thing that draws me to a cover song is enjoying the new version but being reminded of the original. So many of these tracks are unknown to me, it almost feels like these are originals.

The sound of this record, to me, differs from Raising Sand as well. There was a swampy murk to their first record that I don’t hear as much of here. They lean on more traditional country rock/folk structures here. Its not a bad change, but feels different, like an expansion from the first record. On the Raising Sand there were a lot of tracks where they both sang and harmonized for the whole tune, co-lead vocalists if you will, but on Raise the Roof on many of the tracks Plant or Krauss takes a more lead vocal and the harmonizing is on the choruses. Subtle differences between albums and I don’t think the slightly altered approach hurts this new record at all. In fact, this is a great album and a great sounding one as well. It is certainly one of our albums of the year, if not the album of the year. It’s amazing how many “all covers” LPs came out this year (Gahan, Chrissie Hynde, and the Black Keys to name a few).

I’ll admit as (World I’ve already hinted at, I love Raise The Roof. It’s about all I’ve listened to since Friday. There isn’t a bad song here. The opening track, “Quattro (World Drifts In)” by an obscure Tex-Mex indie band from Arizona, Calexico, is a great opening track. It’s almost spectral with wonderful harmonies. It builds a real sense of drama and mystery. I may have to check out Calexico. On “The Price of Love” Krauss takes more of the lead vocal and it may be my favorite of her vocals on the LP. There’s a great little guitar solo on the song as well. It’s an Everly Brothers cover and could I say, is there a more perfect duo to cover on a duets LP than the Everly Brothers? Plant comes in vocally right under Krauss, it’s perfect, like Phil and Don. On “Go Your Own Way,” an Anne Briggs (the 60s English folk singer) cover, Plant takes more of lead vocal and it’s wonderful. Silky acoustic guitars and a mandolin as pillows for Plant’s seductive vocal. It may be Plant’s best vocal on an album of standout vocals.

Another stand out is “Searching For My Love” originally done by the Rhythm Aces, a great 50’s rock n rolls style tune, especially the chorus. They do a Lucinda Williams’ track “Can’t Let Go” which I reviewed earlier and it remains one of my absolute favorites here. “You Led Me Wrong” is an old country song by Ola Belle Reed that Plant turns into an almost bluesy thing and features a great violin. I think Krauss should play more violin whenever she can. I love what Krauss does with Alan Toussaint’s “Trouble With My Lover” with Plant on the mischievous harmony vocal. And she was made to sing Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go.” Great high and lonesome pedal steel guitar floating around her vocals…

I love a pair of tracks toward the end of the album where they stretch out their sound a little bit. The lone original, “High And Lonesome” has a rumbling rock n roll vibe. This track would have been right at home on Plant’s last solo LP Carry Fire. It sounds current and at the same time ancient. Plant uses some vocal effects on the chorus while guitars clang around behind him in what sounds like an attempt to expand their sound palate. The last track, “Somebody Was Watching Over Me,” which sounds like an original is a Maria Muldaur track written by Brenda Burns. Muldaur who I’m unfamiliar with was another 60s folky. They turn that song upside down. It sounds like an outtake from Principle of Moments. I love the line, “My bad times are better than my good times used to be…” I can relate… The song sounds like nothing Plant Krauss has done before. Again effects are used for background vocals. “Somebody was watching” gets repeated over and over like a mantra until it’s almost menacing over a fuzzy guitar riff. It certainly points to a direction they could have taken if they wanted to completely break with their original sound… An intriguing detour indeed.

If you were like me and you fell in love with Raising Sand, be ready to have that same feeling all over again. With the success of that album I never thought Plant would agree to do another album with Alison Krauss due to increased expectations around any kind of follow up. I think I can say after hearing this album, he had nothing to worry about. Their beautiful alchemy remains solidly in tact. This is simply put, a great album.

Cheers and Happy (and safe) Thanksgiving this week to all of you in the U.S. especially if you’re traveling. This post came quickly on the heels of my last one but I’ll be celebrating with family, turkey and bourbon this week. I’m reminded that George Carlin once wondered why no one ever had sex on Thanksgiving… he thought maybe it was because all the coats are on the bed. Well, no B&V post gets written during Thanksgiving because… all of the coats are on the bed and the house is full of relatives…gads.

Review: Dave Gahan & Soulsavers, ‘Imposters’ – An Intimate Albeit Mellow Album of All Cover Songs

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There was a virtual smorgasbord of music released yesterday, November 19th, 2021. Enough music to keep your intrepid blogger and bourbon enthusiast busy through Christmas. I may need to buy my own barrel of whiskey to get through the holidays… but that has more to do with relatives than music… While there is plenty to be happy about from yesterday I was set on a course to explore Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan and his partners the Soulsavers’ new album Imposter. I haven’t seen this record get a ton of attention, so enter B&V. There will be plenty of time for me to “catch up” and write about those other new LPs.

As long time readers know, it was the Rock Chick who turned me onto Depeche Mode. I have to admit, before meeting her I only knew the song “Personal Jesus” and I’m embarrassed to admit that I only knew that from the black and white video. When that song came out in 1989 I was in exile in Arkansas and only got new music from gads, MTV. That’s probably the only reason I’d heard the song. Depeche Mode’s dark synth rock wasn’t getting a ton of airplay in Northwest Arkansas. You were more likely to hear Micheal Jackson or Madonna on one hand and Foghat or Bad Company on the other. Not that there was anything wrong with Foghat or Bad Co. It was pop or classic rock in Fayetteville, Arkansas with nothing new and current on the rock n roll radio station. Had I stayed there I’d have certainly missed the whole Grunge thing.

When I met the Rock Chick she’d just gotten out of a relationship with a guy who was musically barren. He didn’t go to concerts or own any CDs. When I met someone in the old days I didn’t judge them by what they did or what they stood for, I judged them on their music collection. The first thing I did when a woman invited me to her place was look at her CD rack. When I came along it was like the Rock Chick had this musical awakening. Don’t get me wrong, she was already the Rock Chick, I just sort of helped her re-engage. It was on one of our first dates that I realized I could take her to the record store and we could browse and buy in the same way my old friend Drew and I used to do in college. A record store, with a chick? Oh, yes, sign me up. That first trip to the music store the Rock Chick bought a stack of CDs. She was collecting them in her arms like she’d just escaped from a gulag. They should have charged her by the pound vs the disc. We rocked out on that music purchased over the course of a few hours for years and years.

While she bought a bunch of CDs that ended up helping me reconnect with bands I’d drifted away from – Motley Crue, AC/DC, and Green Day just to name a few – one of the main purchases she made that day was Depeche Mode’s double-disc retrospective greatest hits The Singles 86-98. I had no history with that band. I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s the “Personal Jesus” guy.” I was, as usual, curious about their music but she rarely played that CD. She used to insist you had to be in the “right mood” for Depeche. I assumed that like olives, they were an acquired taste. I tried to put them on during her ritualistic “Saturday House Cleaning” – the Rock Chick is nothing if not organized – and she came sprinting down the stairs to make me change the music.

Eventually, and I might have been alone at the time, I started listening to those two discs and I was blown away. What a great band and I had been utterly unaware of them. Eventually I picked up their best known record Violator. At that point I was hooked. One of the main things that drew me in, besides the songwriting by (mostly) Martin Gore was the towering voice of Dave Gahan. Hypnotic and seductive it was that voice that made me a Depeche fan. Over the years I’d notice their albums started to appear at the house. Over the years the Rock Chick brought home Playing The Angel, Sounds Of the Universe and finally Delta Machine which I really connected with. Delta Machine was the first overt connection I heard in their music to the blues. And, as is well documented in these pages, everything I like leads me to the blues eventually.

It was in 2015 that I first heard a Dave Gahan solo song. I had no idea Gahan had a solo career. My ignorance was not blissful. Anyway, I heard this song “Shine” and I really dug it. There was a gospel vibe on the thing. I found out it was from an album named Angels And Ghosts, that Dave recorded with collaborators the Soulsavers, multi-instrumentalists Ian Glover and Rich Machin. At the time they’d already done an LP together but it was more Gahan grafting his vocals over their already written tracks. Angels And Ghosts was a real triumph and a true collaboration between Gahan and the Soulsavers. I went back and listened to the whole thing this week and thought, I need to listen to this album a lot more than I do. “My Sun” is a classic track.

While it stands out on its own right, I will fully admit that Gahan solo LP made me even more excited for that next Depeche album. In 2017 they put out what can only be described as a late-career masterpiece, Spirit. That album is an absolute classic. Musically and lyrically it was a tour de force. I was lucky enough to see them twice on that tour in both Denver and then in Tulsa. Although admittedly, the Tulsa show was like going to a Goth rave at an LGBTQ bar in the basement of a church. It almost felt subversive to be there… It was over the course of those two concerts that I realized that Dave Gahan was simply one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock n’ roll. The guy doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He was like a hipster preying mantis grooving all over the stage.

It was a few weeks ago that I heard that Dave had teamed up with the Soulsavers again for an album of all covers, Imposter. I’m on record as a fan of “cover albums.” Many bands do covers songs but it’s rare that bands will do an entire LP of covers. Although admittedly, there has been a ton of cover LPs this year: The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, and Plant/Krauss to name a few. I read on line that Gahan was describing this as an intimate record where he tells his story using other people’s songs. Cover albums are like getting a two-fer… you get the artist whose singing them but there is a connection in the music to the original artist. I will admit, a covers LP is only as strong as the material chosen.

As has happened several times this year, I will admit up front that I like the last album from Gahan & the Soulsavers more than I do this one. At first listen this album is a bit monochromatic and could be considered slightly somnambulant. It doesn’t have the variety of sounds nor the upbeat moments that drove Angels and Ghosts. At first listen this is a really mellow record. Although the more I listened to it and the more time I spent with this week it did reveal its charms. Its a good record for that late night, sitting up with a tumbler of bourbon while doing some heavy contemplation. And let’s admit it right up front – Dave Gahan could sing the phone book and pull it off.

As with any album of covers songs I’m drawn to the material I’m familiar with. I had no knowledge of the first single, “Metal Heart” but its the most rocking moment you’ll find here and I really liked it. It’s a track by Cat Power who I’ve merely heard of, not heard. But as I explored the track list I did see some familiar tracks. My favorite, as would be expected is the Dylan cover, “Not Dark Yet.” There’s been a lot of great Dylan covers this album, from the aforementioned Chrissie Hynde album to David Bowie. I was familiar with the song “The Dark End of the Street” written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn from the version Gregg Allman did on Searching For Simplicity. I have to admit Gahan does it just as well as Gregg and that is high praise indeed. “A Man Needs A Maid” the Neil Young orchestral epic was a nice surprise. I really like this version. For reasons unclear Gahan chose to do the old Nat King Cole chestnut “Smile.” I despise that song no matter whose at the mic. The album ends on the Elvis track “Always On My Mind” and I admit, I liked it.

I really liked the track “Strange Religion” and somehow guessed it was a Mark Lanegan track. The Soulsavers have worked with him in the past and I just knew immediately that lyrically it had to be him. “Lilac Wine” was a miss for me… as any Eartha Kitt song would be. “I Held My Baby Last Night” an Elmore James blues tune is another great moment here. I like the opening salvo of guitar on that one and Gahan goes into a deep bluesy growl. “Shut Me Down” is another gauzy track that makes my mind drift a bit. It was nice to see a Gene Clark track here, “Where My Love Lies Asleep,” but again following “Shut Me Down” it makes for a pretty mellow back to back listen. PJ Harvey’s “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” sparks a bit of excitement toward the end of the album.

The listening experience for me, was bit of a start/stop experience. There’d be a track I’d really like and then a track that sort of sent my mind a’wandering. The thing that really holds it together is, as you’d expect, Gahan’s voice. This album really makes me want a Depeche album. I want to hear Dave singing Martin Gore tracks, not Nat King Cole. That said, I can’t completely dismiss this record. While I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody but true fans (like myself) there are enough high points that I think everyone should give it a spin or two, especially after the sun goes down.

Cheers! And Happy Thanksgiving folks.

New Song: Scorpions Release “Peacekeeper”- First “Rawking” New Song From The Upcoming LP ‘Rock Believer’

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I don’t know what it is about the Scorpions but I keep losing track of them. I always know they’re out there rocking, or perhaps better said “RAWKING,” but for some reason I never know about it when they release new music. Thankfully I saw on Twitter a little while ago that they’d released a new single entitled “Peacemaker” and intend to release a new album in the spring, Rock Believer. I think the world is a better place when there is new Scorpions’ music out there to turn up to 11.

My history with the Scorpions is almost like a hide and seek game. They’re there, right in front of me on stage or on my turntable and then suddenly I’d lose track of them. I’ve probably mentioned this somewhere but the Scorpions were a part of my first ever concert. A friend of mine had tickets to see Nugent and couldn’t go. This was when Nugent was a guitar-wielding, rock n roll wild man, not his current incarnation as a gun-wielding moron. Nugent was still cool in the late 70s/early 80s. My friend sold me his ticket to “the Nuge” for something like $10. It was a crazy night at Kemper Arena. The opening act came out and they were all kids my age. It was Def Leppard on their first tour in support of On Through The Night. They played “Wasted” and “Rock Brigade.” And yes, we were a wasted rock brigade up in the cheap seats where I was sitting. I remember thinking that I needed to keep an eye on those nutty kids.

It was after Def Leppard… the drummer had a Union Jack diaper on, that lo and behold the Scorpions rushed the stage. I’d never seen a band with that much energy but admittedly, this was my first concert. The only song I recognized, well the only song of theirs I knew was “The Zoo.” I was completely unaware that they’d been around for almost a decade at that point in 1980. I had never heard or even heard of those Micheal Schenker led early records like Virgin Killer, In Trance or gads Taken By Force. I thought they were a brand new band and Animal Magnetism, their then-current LP, was their debut album. I’m embarrassed I hadn’t even heard the classic album Love Drive at that point. Although I have this funny memory of hearing Klaus Meine on an interview show and they asked him about the meaning of the title of Love Drive and in that heavy German accent that makes him sound like a villain in a World War II movie he said, “It’s both about making love while driving in the car but also it’s about that urge we all feel for “love.”” Oh Klaus, that ain’t love you’re talking about…

While I was impressed with the Scorpions enough to go out and buy Animal Magnetism, I wasn’t moved to do any deeper inspection and figure out the back catalog. Let’s face it, on that crazy night in 1980 at Kemper Arena, I was there to see “Ted the Sledge.” It’s hard to believe that within two years the Motor City Madman would have faded so quickly and the Scorpions would explode with the landmark heavy metal LP Blackout. We used to stand on our desk chairs and air guitar to “Dynamite” all night long. I taped my roommate’s copy of that album and played it in my car almost constantly. I remember I still had that cassette in my “cassette briefcase” in my backseat when I was sent into exile in Arkansas… When 1984’s LP Love At First Sting came out, I bought it on the day it was released and pleased that I have the original album cover on that vinyl treasure. Walmart made them change the cover. Prudes.

After college, I again lost track of the Scorpions. Somewhere along the line I picked up Crazy World but that was it for me and the Scorpions for years. I did see them again in concert, this time as headliners, out at the local “shed,” Sandstone Amphitheater. They were even better that time but despite the fact that 15 years had passed, their energy level on stage was exactly the same – full tilt. Other than that show I wasn’t listening to much of the Scorpions. And then… I met the Rock Chick. On one of our first dates we went to the CD store. She bought a stack of CDs that day… and one of them was the two-disc, greatest hits compilation Deadly Sting: The Mercury Years. We poured some red wine and cranked those 2 CDs up loud! It was a revelation. I quietly admonished myself for losing track of those guys. They’ve got so much great music out there. I realize they changed their sound to a more radio-friendly, heavy rock sound vs the hard edged metal of their early years but still they’ve remained really consistent in terms of sound over the years. They haven’t really chased fads as far as I can tell. They’re kind of like AC/DC, they know what they do well so they keep doing it. And the thing they do well is to RAWK.

I actually picked up their 2010 album Sting In The Tail and it was a fantastic hard rock, Scorpions’ album. It sounded like not a day had passed since their heyday. It’s one of those LPs that B&V was founded to talk about. When I heard they had a new song out, I rushed to Spotify. It was then that I realized that, true to form, I had lost track of them again and missed that they had released an album in 2015, Return To Forever. That’ll be another LP I’ll have to put in the stack as I prep my review of the upcoming album this spring, Rock Believer. The fact that I didn’t know about that record tells me that the Scorpions need to fire their PR person. Either that or they’re purposely eluding me…

From the opening riff of “Peacemaker” I knew I was listening to a classic Scorpions hard rock track. Rudolf Schenker and Mathias Jabs guitars weave together for a heavy yet nimble riff to open this thing. When Klaus Meine’s vocals kick in it’s race to the finish line time. The guitars and drums start rolling faster. And by the way, I think the coolest name in rock may be Mathias Jabs. He’s like 7 feet tall too…or at least that’s what it looked like from the cheap seats. The Scorps can play a heavy riff and then jump to intensely melodic guitar faster than anyone this side of Metallica. Rudolf breaks off a tasty guitar solo in the middle. Pinch me, am I dreaming, is it 1985? I’m really impressed with the lyrics to “Peacemaker.” This isn’t their first stab at a socio-political statement in their lyrics. I can still remember the track “Crossfire” from Love At First Sting that also took up the cry for peace. I was impressed that in between calls to blackout or to be bad boys running wild they had the presence of mind to speak about peace. I think this opening lyric says it all:

“We could turn another page
Keep the lions in the cage
The battlefield is bleeding red
Land of glory, monster dead
Into a world without frontiers
With no hate, regret or fears
We’ll burn to ashes in a flash
If we don’t change, we’re gonna crash”

Here’s a link to “Peacekeeper”:

The only bad news here is we’re going to have to wait until February 2022 for Rock Believer. If Sting In The Tail and “Peacemaker” are any indications, this may be another great, late-period Scorpions LP. I know I’ll be looking out for it since it’s clear after all these years… the Scorps are purposely eluding my attention.

Cheers!

Review: Apple TV’s ‘The Velvet Underground – A Todd Haynes Documentary’ – An Enjoyable, Stylized Look At The Iconic Band

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It was just one of those exhausting weeks. After another arduous day I needed a distraction. Much to the Rock Chick’s consternation, I filled a tumbler with bourbon, flopped down on the couch and pulled up Apple TV. As I’d been threatening to do for a few weeks now, I pulled up the new documentary by Todd Haynes about the Velvet Underground. The Rock Chick was on her feet and across the floor to the stairs faster than an Olympic sprinter. I hadn’t seen her clear a room that quickly since the days I was really into watching Kojak reruns. Say what you want but there hasn’t been a decent cop show on TV since they cancelled Kojak. I had hoped the Rock Chick would hang around and watch the documentary with me but I can fully understand her reaction. I think a lot of people have the urge to flee when they hear the Velvet Underground is coming up.

I know in the early days of my rock n roll obsession I was afraid of the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground was Lou Reed, vocals/guitar; John Cale bass/keyboards; Moe Tucker, drums; and Sterling Morrison, lead guitar. When I was in college I used to love to get those Rolling Stone magazines counting down the top 500 LPs. The Velvet Underground’s iconic first LP, produced by Andy Warhol no less and featuring German-born singer Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico was not only always on the list but it was usually near the top. I had always been under the same mistaken impression I had about punk rock back then, that it was all just avant-garde noise. There were a few bands I was “afraid” of in those days. I figured if you put the Velvets on the stereo the needle would break, your ears would bleed, neighborhood dogs would howl, you might grow hair on your palms, all sorts of bad things would result. I’m still not sure how I garnered that impression from merely reading about the Velvet Underground. I’d never heard any of their music. It wasn’t played on the radio. No one I knew owned any of their LPs. It was Brian Eno who famously said, “The Velvet Underground’s first LP only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” That might actually be true. So many musicians cite the VU as an influence from David Bowie to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (who was pals with the band and is featured in the film).

In the mid-80s I started getting into Lou Reed. You typically get into a band in a few different ways. Either a friend turns you on to an iconic older recording or you would hear something on the radio that was then current and it would catch your ear. I know it’s a risk to my credibility when I tell you my first Lou Reed LP was the then-current album, New Sensations. That album might be the most accessible album Reed ever put out. Even then I was just dabbling in Lou’s catalog. I picked up Transformer, the David Bowie produced LP that is probably Reed’s best known work. That’s the album with “Walk On The Wild Side” on it. Right out of college when I went into my exile in Arkansas I heard “Dirty Boulevard” on MTV… there was really no radio in Ft. Smith. I loved that dark track. “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs,” is a quote I still use today when referring to my job. I immediately went to the record store and purchased New York which had just come out and I loved that record. I was spending so much time in my car in those days I bought it on cassette which I now regret. I wore that thing out driving from Ft. Smith to Shreveport or Dallas or back to KC… anywhere but Arkansas. That led me to dive deeper into Reed’s catalog. Although admittedly, I still shied away from the Velvet Underground.

It wasn’t until the late 90s that I decided to stick my toe in the Velvet Underground pond. I had dug out that Rolling Stone magazine from the 80s with the top 500 albums ranked and had decided I was going to buy all of them. Crazy, yes I know. It was a great time of musical expansion for me. My friends had all settled down and were having children. I was just hanging out listening to music… which if I think about it is what I’m still doing. Thank God I married the Rock Chick. Anyway, as part of my push to buy all 500 of these records, I went out and bought the Velvet’s debut LP with Nico and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t all just noise. Yes, John Cale brought a kind of drone thing to the band but Lou Reed was a fabulous songwriter. Nico’s vocals were interesting on the few tracks she sang. The thing that grabbed me about them was the lyrics. Their debut came out in 1967, “the Summer of Love.” While everyone was in tie-dye and bright colors singing about love being all you need, the Velvets were wearing black and singing about heroin and S&M. They were nihilistic and dark. What’s not to love there. They were a real counterpoint to the hippy thing.

The day I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico I had listened to it once when a buddy of mine called to go out and get a beer. He and I went bar hopping. This guy was really into smoking pot, something I’ve never enjoyed. He had some hashish. He kept telling me I’d enjoy it as “it’s a different kind of high.” That is always the pitch with the pot guys. I don’t like it, it makes me anxious and I haven’t done it in years. But there’s always a pot guy telling me to try edibles or hash or something because it’s a different high. On the night in question, I must have been drunk, because I believed my friend’s claims about the magic hash. I vaguely remember taking a hit just as we pulled up in front of this bar, O’Dowds. It was a block from my apartment. I stepped out of the car and felt “the fear” wash over me with the hash, smiled at my friend and promptly walked home without him, leaving him standing on the curb. There is no such thing as a different high… it’s all one anxious, paranoid, miserable experience for me. But hey, I don’t judge, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

I got home and to calm myself, I decided to put on my new LP purchase, the Velvet Underground. I was thinking, yes, music, that’s the ticket… that’ll bring me back to reality. I’ll drink some water and lay down. I put the album on and was wandering around my apartment in the dark. Suddenly I hear Lou Reed in the darkness, he’s waiting for the man… his voice terrified me. Rather than take the album off I just sort of, hid under the bed until it was over. In retrospect, maybe I should have put on some Hendrix. While the VU terrified me that night, I can assure you, I haven’t been afraid of their music since. I quickly bought the rest of their catalog. Their second album, White Light/White Heat is actually the avant-garde noise I had feared but I understood them and it didn’t scare me anymore. Their third LP, The Velvet Underground which features the great songs “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” is probably the most pop-oriented thing they’ve ever done. If you’re a novice fan that might be the place to start. That’s the album where John Cale, who was the most aggressively experimental quit and Doug Yule joined. Yule could sing but he was also a more traditional bass player. Their final LP, Loaded is also a masterwork, despite Reed quitting during the process. Don’t be afraid!

I was hoping for some in-depth look at the Velvet Underground. There’s a lot of mythology around the band. Todd Haynes documentary is a very stylized look at the band. He does go in depth into the background of the band but it does get a little lost in the split-screen, chaotic manner it’s presented. He starts by profiling Lou Reed and then John Cale. He has a number of friends and family of the band (Sterling and Lou are gone) who talk about their experience with the band. It was great to see Moe Tucker interviewed. John Cale is prominently featured, as he should be. Jackson Browne pops up, and while he’s the last guy you’d associate with the VUs, he was friends with Nico and possibly her lover. That Jackson… he got around. It’s a thorough look at the VU but Haynes way of presenting it in this faux Warholian way gets in the way of the story for me. The film starts with, yes, a split screen and on one side is a close up of Lou Reed’s young face… that was all it took to send the Rock Chick running from the room.

I was also a little disappointed there wasn’t more, well, music in this thing. You’d get snippets of songs but nothing substantive. There seems to always be music playing but its not in the forefront as much as I’d have liked. I would have liked Haynes to let us see the Velvets on stage a bit more. Let us hear them playing live. Again, there are snippets of that in the film but it jumps around quite a bit. I do like the retelling of the story of when Reed fired Warhol as the band’s manager. Warhol had discovered them and put them in his multi-media Plastic Explosion Inevitable show. They’d play and he’d project a film onto the band. He produced their first album and pushed Nico into the band. The first LP was a commercial dud and Reed got pissy and fired Andy without consulting the band. Warhol was so angry, and he apparently rarely got angry, he called Lou “a rat.” It was the worst thing he could think of.

The documentary goes on to chronicle Cale’s departure and Yule’s entry into the band. Eventually the lack of commercial success killed the VU. Reed left, everybody else quit but Yule. The moment Reed left, for me, is the end of the Velvet Underground. I get why Cale quit. He wanted to push the band further into it’s experimental sound and Reed wanted the band to be more accessible and well, sell a few more albums. Those conflicting views on the direction of the band caused that split. Those two did reunite for a tribute LP to their mentor Andy Warhol upon his passing, Songs For Drella which I also highly recommend.

I enjoyed this documentary but it’s really only for fans. Clearly I’m ambivalent about this doc. I liked it but I don’t feel strongly enough to recommend it to everybody. This is a great place to perhaps start your journey into the VUs. It’s a very stylistic, pretty movie to watch. I’m not sure this will turn anybody onto their music though. If you’re interested and you want to watch this doc, I will warn you… beware of family members sprinting from the room. It’s too bad… this is a band that deserves a wider audience. I know their fame has grown over the years but this is a truly under appreciated band.

B&V Playlist: Songs About Sleeping, A “Celebration” Of Insomnia… For My Fellow Insomniacs – If We Can’t Sleep, Let’s Rock

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“To sleep, perchance to dream…” – Hamlet

I was on the road for work this week. That used to be a weekly experience in my chosen profession as a traveling salesman, but now it just feels weird. Everywhere you go there are different rules and protocols around masks and safety which leaves me feeling out of step with the locals. There are certainly more lax attitudes toward masks the farther below the Mason-Dixon line you travel. With all the work travel I’ve done in my career – and it’s a lot… I feel like I’ve spent half my adult life waiting around in airports trying to catch an earlier flight – you’d think I’d be used to staying in hotels. But as I was painfully reminded this week in Louisville (bourbon capitol of the world), I can’t sleep in hotel rooms. I don’t know if it’s the strange bed and surroundings that throw me off or if maybe flying does something to my inner ear that makes sleeping impossible on the road. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I can’t sleep when I travel, Lord knows I don’t sleep much better when I’m home.

I’ve always had a precarious relationship with sleep. I’ve had trouble turning my mind off and getting to sleep since I was a kid. Any more I can get myself to sleep but if I awake in the night, and I often do, I really struggle to get back to blissful sleep. They say you should get up and go read a book or something if you’re awake more than thirty minutes but in this tiny rental that I call the van down by the river where we live, I can’t make a move without waking the Rock Chick. That only compounds the problem: I’m up which is a drag but if I wake her, now I’m dealing with an angry, awakened spouse. As much as I hated it when she used to wake me up at 5:30am when she’d get up for work – she was raised on a farm… country people just get up early – her anger is doubled when I get out of bed at 3am and “walk the perimeter” as she describes my midnight wanderings. It doesn’t help that the cat sees me get up and thinks it’s time to eat and goes off like a tornado siren. It’s like he’s thinking, “Hey, we’re all up lets eat!” I had to negotiate with her early in our marriage to let me sleep until 9 on Saturdays and Sundays… they were my “sleep catch up days.”

My parents are partially to blame for my idiosyncrasies around sleeping. We moved when I was in fifth grade. I hated the elementary school I was attending but transferring to a new school seemed like an infinitely worse option. Let’s just say I was adverse to change. We changed my stepdaughter’s school a number of times when she was growing up and she adapted wonderfully with nary a complaint. What we didn’t realize was that we were just expanding her “criminal” network. She knew all the party kids in every school in town. It’s amazing what an upstanding citizen she’s become now… but I’m off track. When my parents moved us I reacted with the angry melodrama of a teenage girl… and I was an eleven year old boy. All of my bitching must have gotten to my parents because my bedroom was the last one to get any furniture. I had a bed and all my clothes were in boxes. In a fit of over-the-top complaining, I accidentally tore the rolling blinds off the window. I bent the metal clasp that held the damn thing and we couldn’t fix it. The window faced east. When the sun came up in the morning it felt like it was rising in my bedroom. After two days of being awakened at sunrise, I went to the linen closet and got a spare feather pillow that night and wrappedit tightly around my head. That provided darkness and silence. It was my “head fort.” Sadly, I got used to it and have had to sleep with a pillow on my head ever since. Try to explain that when you’re an adult and… entertaining… a young lady friend. “Yeah, I’m a freak, I sleep with a pillow on my head.” I also folded my hands on my chest Lilly Munster style which only sparked rumors that I might be a vampire.

When I reached college the people I lived with enjoyed messing with the kid with the pillow on his head. I didn’t sleep at night so I’d often sneak off and nap. My roommates would vie with each other on who got to wake me up. If I was in a really deep sleep and you shook me awake or called my name it would typically result in my screaming and throwing the pillow. It’s like I was terrified about waking up. I once famously exclaimed, while being awakened, “Sleep is hell.” With all of these people hazing me when I was asleep, it’s a wonder that I was able to nod off at all. Drinking didn’t even help. It would help you get to sleep but once your body burns off the alcohol the sugar wakes you up and I mean WAKES you up. There’s nothing like being slightly hungover and wired at 3am sitting on the edge of the bed and re-litigating every bad decision you’ve ever made. I guess I would amend my statement from college to “Waking up is hell.”

Today it’s not much easier to sleep. Uncertainties in the political landscape, the pandemic still hanging on, the Chiefs playing like shit and work being more stressful than ever all combine to keep me awake for days. I literally can’t let my mind wander too far in any direction or I’m up pacing the floor until the cat emits his visceral “meow” and then the Rock Chick is yelling, “What the fuck are you doing,” and I’ve got a full scale insomniac disaster on my hands. People, the struggles are real. I can’t help but remember when I was a kid and it was bed time how I’d stall and stall. My parents would have to battle with me to go to bed. I’d beg to watch the news so I could see the sports… then it was Carson’s monologue… Finally my parents just put an old black-and-white portable TV in my room and hoped I’d eventually fall asleep. Anything to get me out of the living room and upstairs. Now, I can’t wait to lay down. From there I just have to hope my mind cooperates and I can drift off. I often do the B&V version of counting sheep – I name my albums, alphabetically by artist… I start with AC/DC’s Back In Black and if I make it all the way to Cream I know I’m probably not gonna go to sleep.

I was laying awake in a Louisville Hilton this week worrying about something or other and so I got up and fished out my iTouch from the computer bag. I was shuffling through some music. I started with some recent stuff, Mellencamp’s new song “Wasted Days,” and Bowie’s covers songs (“Trying To Get To Heaven”) but then started randomly selecting stuff. I heard the Beatles “I’m Only Sleeping,” and then “I’m So Tired.” I realized I might be onto something. If I can’t sleep I might as well rock and roll. I started stringing tracks together on the theme of sleep and waking up and pretty soon I had 50 songs. I realize that sleep can often be a metaphor for death so I ended up excluding the great blues rock track “Sleeping In the Ground” from Blind Faith. If there are any other great tunes on this subject, put them in the “comments” section and I’ll add them to the Spotify playlist. Here are my picks:

  1. The Beatles, “I’m Only Sleeping” – The track that gave me the idea… I’ve been listening to a lot of Beatles lately
  2. Billy Joel, “Sleeping With The Television On” – I personally can’t sleep with any light or noise in the room so no TV for me. It’s hard to watch TV with a pillow on your head. From his great punk-influenced record Glass Houses.
  3. Audioslave, “Wide Awake” – Great rock song, “I found you guilty of the crime of sleeping when you should have been wide awake.” Rest assured Audioslave… I’m always wide awake.
  4. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, “Sleeping Around the Corner” – From their great self-titled LP, there’s also a Lindsey solo version out there.
  5. Smashing Pumpkins, “In The Arms of Sleep” – Deep cut from their magnum opus Melon Collie & The Infinite Sadness.
  6. R.E.M., “Daysleeper” – Oh how I miss napping. The Rock Chick frowns on the practice… marriage is a compromise. Y’know, Elvis was a “daysleeper.”
  7. The Beatles, “I’m So Tired” – Indeed I am…
  8. The Cure, “Lullaby” – A song about a man being eaten by a spider. Don’t even get me started on my dreams…
  9. The Rolling Stones, “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” – I don’t think the person this is addressed to is doing much sleeping but I do think they’re having more fun than I am.
  10. Starcrawler, “Born Asleep” – Great song from a great new-ish band.
  11. U2, “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” – People were mad about Songs of Innocence but there’s some good stuff on it.
  12. Jack White, “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” – I love Jack White. Check out his new tune “Taking Me Back.”
  13. Smithereens, “Behind The Wall of Sleep” – I’ve only recently discovered the Smithereens. What a great rock band.
  14. Graham Nash, “Sleep Song” – From his first solo album.
  15. The Cult, “Wake Up Time For Freedom” – A very relevant call to arms in today’s troubled, divided times.
  16. Eddie Money, “We Should Be Sleeping” – A barrel-house rocker. I love the Money Man.
  17. The Pretenders, “I Go To Sleep” – From their great 2nd LP.
  18. Cream, “Sleepy, Sleepy Time” – So many rock bands have explored this topic.
  19. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, “I’m Tired Joey Boy” – A live cover of a Van Morrison song. I just like this version better.
  20. Pearl Jam, “Sleeping By Myself” – Also done solo by Vedder on a ukulele.
  21. Metallica, “Until It Sleeps” – My all time favorite Metallica song. I can’t explain it… this track gets me pumped up which perhaps means I shouldn’t be listening to it while trying to sleep.
  22. Norah Jones, “Wake Me Up” – That voice… I’d pay to have her come sit by my bed and sing me to sleep. Only B&V would put Norah Jones and Metallica on the same playlist. Open your minds, folks.
  23. Robert Plant, “Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night” – I love this bizarre deep track.
  24. Beastie Boys, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” – Iconic rap rock.
  25. John Mellencamp, “Warmer Place To Sleep” – I’ve always loved this funky rocker.
  26. The Modern Lovers, “I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms” – I love these weird bastards.
  27. Fiona Apple, “Sleep To Dream” – I’ve been a fan of hers since the beginning. This track is from her debut.
  28. Jack White, “Weep Themselves To Sleep” – I can’t wait for his next solo album.
  29. Warren Zevon, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” – There’s so much essential Zevon out there.
  30. The Kinks, “Sleepwalker” – I feel like the Kinks don’t get enough attention on B&V. I need to work on that.
  31. Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes, “Woke Up This Morning” – Page & the Crowes doing a live cover of an old blues track.
  32. Nirvana, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – I think Cobain was secretly a blues fan.
  33. Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Wake Up and Live” – Wise advice from Bob.
  34. Leonard Cohen, “Lullaby” – I love late period Cohen. The voice is gravelly but his last few records are the type that B&V was founded to extol.
  35. Peter Wolf, “Sleepless” – Title track from his best solo LP.
  36. John Lennon, “How Do You Sleep?” – His angry song aimed at McCartney. This is just such a hateful track. But if I were to answer John, it’d be, “not very well.”
  37. Paul Simon, “Insomniac’s Lullaby” – This could have been the title of this playlist.
  38. Jackson Browne, “Sleeps Dark And Silent Gate” – This one is clearly a metaphor for death… in this case I believe written for his late wife after she committed suicide. It’s too pretty a song to exclude.
  39. Tom Petty, “Wake Up Time” – From his masterpiece Wildflowers.
  40. Billy Idol, “Endless Sleep” – Another great deep track.
  41. R.E.M., “I Don’t Sleep I Dream” – I don’t do either, really.
  42. The Romantics, “Talking In Your Sleep” – I sometimes wake up screaming… No talking, literally screaming. Sleep is hell.
  43. Billy Joel, “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” – A lovely track written for his daughter.
  44. The Wallflowers, “Sleepwalker” – I always thought Jakob Dylan’s group was a solid rock band.
  45. David Bowie, “Let Me Sleep Beside You” – From the aborted Toy album which will finally see release this year.
  46. Ozzy Osbourne, “So Tired” – Produced by Jeff Lynne of ELO fame. Truly strange bedfellows.
  47. Eddie Vedder, “Sleepless Nights” – From the aforementioned ukulele based solo album.
  48. Tom Waits, “Midnight Lullaby” – From his brilliant debut album.
  49. Queen, “Sleeping On The Sidewalk” – This reminds me of a funny story about my brother in college, but those records are sealed.
  50. The Rolling Stones, “Sleep Tonight” – A perfect place to end this list… A Keith song and a ballad no less.

There ya go folks! Again, if I missed any, put them in the comments section and I’ll add them to the Spotify playlist. I like to think of these playlists as “ours” vs “mine.” If you’re an insomniac like me, here’s hoping that you’ll fall asleep soon. If not, hopefully these tracks will entertain you while the rest of the world is sleeping.

Cheers!