Bits from the Hmong, or What I’ve Been up to Lately

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.00.11 AMThis blog has been a desert wasteland for a while, but for a good reason: I’ve been busy with paying gigs.

The latest one I really like. It’s a feature exploring the real world origins of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise for Van Winkle’s. It’s long but real good (if I might say so myself). Spoiler Alert: I accuse Wes Craven of a coke-fueled newspaper misunderstanding.

Also, my headline is an imperfect pun. The story is about an ethnicity called the Hmong. The h is silent.

Click the graphic for the story.

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Rolling Stones Members, Ranked

Rolling-Stones

10. Their Current Bass Player 

I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sure he nails the groove on “Satisfaction.” He looks like a cool guy and I’m delighted that a working musician has a steady gig. But he joined the band two decades after their glory years. He’s never going to be of consequence. I googled “Rolling Stones bass player.” His name never came up (no joke).

9. Ron Wood

Ron Wood’s most valuable professional asset is his ability to get along with Keith Richards. His second is his hair. His guitar playing is pretty low on the list. It’s just sloppy enough to be noticeable and just competent enough to be boring.

8. Brian Jones 

A good-looking asshole with minimal talent who played blues covers with all the authenticity of a teenage Englishman. He was one of the co-founders of the band and was almost immediately eclipsed by Mick and Keith. It’s a harsh judgment on his abilities that the Stones’ evolutionary leap occurred when he started to be too drugged out to contribute and they became truly great when he died.

7. Bobby Keys 

Maybe he wasn’t an official member of the band, but check out the sax solos from “Brown Sugar” through to “Emotional Rescue” and tell me that matters. That dude was critical. Rest in Peace, sax man.

6. Ian Stewart

Stewart co-founded of the band before getting fired for not being good looking enough. He stayed on as a roadie and occasional piano player. His friends and loved ones probably constantly tried to talk him out of it through the 60s and 70s and then he was most likely a well compensated salaried employee by the ‘80s and everyone was chill with it.

5. Charlie Watts

I’ve read a shameful number of books about the Stones and writers often call Watts the secret weapon or the soul of the group. He’s a good groove creator; he always plays so far behind the beat his drum rolls seem like attempts to catch up with the rest of the band. But he seems like a sour little man who thinks the Stones music to be beneath him. Now that they suck so much, you’d think he’d follow his heartfelt contempt and just quit, but mansions don’t pay for themselves I guess.

4. Bill Wyman

Ostensibly the band’s bass player, Wyman sat out many of the Stones’ most memorable basslines, including “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Streetfighting Man,” “Tumlin’ Dice” and “Jumping Jack Flash. He was also an unrepentant sleaze who married a girl in her early teens when he was a superannuated rock vampire. But to his credit, he quit. He decided he had enough money and got off the train. Bravo for that, motherfucker.

3. Keith Richards

I used to love Keith Richards. He used to be my favorite guitar player. I loved his feel and his grit. But now he just seems like the laziest, most close-minded professional musician in history. He’s been playing variations on the same riff since 1969 while resisting every musical trend that’s cropped up since 1964 (except for reggae, which he can’t play for shit). A lot of his bet guitar ideas were somebody else’s ideas. Mick Jagger wrote “Brown Sugar,” “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile.” Bill Wyman claims he wrote “Jumping Jack Flash.” And Mick Taylor left the band for his contributions getting overlooked.

2. Mick Taylor

The most tragically ignored, truly great guitar player in rock. Even on their live recordings, Taylor never plays a bad note. Soaring melodies seem to tumble out of his guitar effortlessly. The jam at the end of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was the second take of the song and that whole section was unrehearsed. He rarely plays a note more than he has to. Unlike most hotshot guitar players, he concentrates on tunefulness and atmosphere. The band became 60 percent worse when he left.

1. Mick Jagger

The only times the Stones haven’t been completely terrible since 1972 are the times when Mick Jagger took the reins. “Some Girls,” their last gasp of greatness, was entirely him. Left to Keith Richard’s devices, the band would have rehashed the same Open G tuning riffs he’s been stuck on for decades. Jagger’s stage movements are hilarious, bizarre and distinctly his own. His voice still sounds exactly like it did in the 60s. He evidently handles a lot of the Stones’ business dealings personally, making him like the CEO of rock’s biggest corporations. And he’s had to deal with that asshole Keith Richards for 50 years.

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Robert Durst isn’t Just a Bizarre Killer. He’s the Perfect Class War Bad Guy.

17DURSTWEB-tmagArticle

Class warriors need to hurry up and exploit the queasy charisma of allegedly murderous millionaire Robert Durst.

Weeks after the bombshell ending of The Jinx, Durst is still in the news thanks to his odd behavior and knack for getting implicated in the disappearances of women. But police aren’t going to connect him to cold cases forever. It’s important to act fast and make Durst the icon of unfairly apportioned wealth.

Durst is the best villain the left wing has been served since Mitt Romney. And while old Mitt was merely an out of touch billionaire, Bob Durst is an out of touch billionaire psychopath. Lefties get energized when facing a bad guy. Durst personifies the monstrous potential of resource inequality; he’s the perfect class war bad guy. Yet that’s somehow gone strangely unnoticed and unexploited.

As the story of a man who has enough money to literally get away with murder, the Jinx is an unintentional indictment of the one percent. All of the purportedly admirable traits and habits of the rich are absent. Durst didn’t work hard or invest wisely or benefit anyone but himself with his money. His life is a riches to riches tale, lacking rags, bootstrap pulling or triumphing over adversity other than suspicion of murder.

A third generation member of a Manhattan real estate baron family, Durst didn’t use his effortlessly acquired riches to create jobs. Durst stopped showing up for work and instead collected a $2 million salary while living on the road until he swapped that annual payout for a $65 million settlement.

Durst is not a wealthy man who just so happens to be homicidal. The money and the madness are inextricably linked. The money lets him kill an irksome neighbor and walk after a $1.8 million legal defense. To paraphrase Chris Rock, if Durst drove a bus, he’d be Bob, the murderer bus driver who’s been in jail since his wife disappeared.

McCormack, his first wife, came from a family far closer to the bus driver side of the money spectrum. And he almost certainly killed her. It’s both a tragedy and rich metaphor for the antagonism between the striving middle class and the elite rich.

Born into a sprawling Irish Catholic family from Long Island, McCormack was studying to become a pediatrician. In The Jinx, her brother is interviewed on the job wearing his work uniform a Home Depot apron. It seems a fair assumption that Kathie was the most upwardly mobile member of the family. In the wake of her death, grief and wealth were split between the haves and have-nots, with all of the grief on one side and all the money on the other. The McCormack family was devastated and the Dursts broke ties, kept quiet and held onto their money. It’s a grotesque parallel to the Wall Street CEO keeping his bonus despite wiping out the equity of his middle class clients.

Keeping the family’s secrets and fearing becoming one of Bob’s victims surely takes an emotional toll on the Durst clan. But otherwise, the Durst family hasn’t suffered much. Bob Durst has been a tabloid fixture since his 2001 arrest for the killing of Morris Black. But the decade of bad publicity didn’t stop the Dursts from becoming managers of the Freedom Tower, the decade’s highest profile Manhattan development.

Despite his estrangement from his family, Bob Durst still made a (metaphorical) killing in the family business.While the Freedom Tower was built, Bob Durst and his second wife quietly collected $12 million speculating on the Brooklyn housing market through a practice called “predatory equity.” Their company, BCB Property Management, coerced rent controlled apartment tenants to leave their homes in exchange for low-ball offers. The ones that refused reportedly faced utilities shutoffs and deteriorating conditions.

With the old tenants out, BCB would reportedly modify the vacant apartments, exploiting a legal loophole and allowing the rent to jump to three or four times the regulated rate.

The practice helped transform places former working class Brooklyn enclaves Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens into elite neighborhoods.

Clearly, concentrating wealth with Bob Durst has had a corrosive effect. Instead of investing his money in to a constructive end, he uses it to drain money from the lower class. That trickle up effect would be cause for concern even if it hadn’t created and enabled a monster.

So tales of Durst’s odd behavior are likely to crop up for weeks because the media won’t let us forget Durst is a bizarre monster. It’s important to remember that he’s a rich one, too.

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New Song: Universal Donor

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Another Zeppelin Theft? (Save You a Click: No

Today I found out the genesis of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Led Zeppelin. You know, the song on ZOSO where they stop pretending to be vikings with wizard powers and kick out some retro jams. On a break from recording the ancient Norwegian longboat anthem “Four Sticks,” John Bonham played the intro for the ’50s Little Richard howler “Keep a Knockin” as a goof. Evidently unaware a drum goof was afoot, JImmy Page joined in with a quick and dirty Link Wray-style riff and boom, “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

With that in mind, comparing the two drum intros is pretty hilarious. Good goof, Bonzo! (RIP)

Previous explorations of instances of alleged Led Zep thievery follow:

No, Led Zeppelin Didn’t Really Steal “Stairway.” But They Stole Everything Else

Oh, Wait. Maybe Jimmy Page did Steal “Stairway” After All

John Lennon vs. Jimmy Page: Battle of the Master Riff-Thieves

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The Misfits Restoration Project

The misfitsIn my head, “20 Eyes” is one of the loudest sounds in the universe. On audio devices in the real world, it’s only about half the volume of even the quietest folk song.

I’ve listened to the Misfits on CD, MP3 and streaming. The sound quality is always muffled. It’s frustrating. In theory, you should be able to go follow up any fast heavy song with “Where Eagles Dare.” But you can’t because in comparison with almost any other punk or hard rock songs, it’s going to be a delicate rain drop of sound.

I understand that the Misfits recorded their classic albums over 30 years ago during rushed sessions in discount studios. I know that they were largely unknown while they were together and that their post break up popularity is mostly due to Metallica covers. But other equally old and obscure bands have much better sounding music. As a random example, Rose Tattoo’s debut album has Dark Side of the Moon-level fidelity compared to the Misfits.

And while Rose Tattoo is a good, dirty Australian boogie metal group, the Misfits are fucking American treasures. They deserve better.

Somehow the Misfits didn’t benefit from the ‘90s re-mastering mania when record labels polished up their back catalogs for CD. Supposedly the songs were re-mastered they were collected for a box set in the ‘90s (shaped like a coffin!) but you would never guess that from hearing them.

But they still sound like they were dredged up from the Titanic, probably because they were remixed by Glenn Danzig and Tom Begrowicz. Begrowicz is evidently a huge Misfits fan and has archived and curated demos, photographs and band history for decades. He sounds like a total chiller but not exactly the professional sound-scaper a project of this importance requires.

I am not a recording engineer but judging from information on Misfitscentral, sessions it sounds like the band used professional equipment.

The Misfits recorded “live in the studio” directly onto two-inch multi-track tapes, usually with 8 or 16 tracks. A multi-track tape plays and records in only one direction and has a certain number of tracks or channels onto which music is recorded. For instance, a song on an 8-track tape might have three tracks devoted to guitars, one for bass, one for vocals, one for drums, and two for background vocals. Multi-track tapes include almost everything recorded during the session, from the band talking to alternate takes of the songs.

Sounds like there should be enough there to work with. Unless there isn’t? Anybody know better and want to set me straight?

Do I need to do a kickstarter for this or something? I feel like I shouldn’t. Can’t alleged Misfits superfan Rick Rubin give an intern $50 to turn some knobs?

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Harris Wittels, RIP

I don’t steal a lot of jokes. But I repurposed at least two from Harris Wittels. One was the idea that a man could be named Carl S’Juniors. I forget the other one. Anyway, in light of his death, I decided to make a highlight reel.

I think I first noticed him on the Farts and Procreation Comedy Bang Bang episodes. He has a hypnotic dry chemistry with Adam Scott and creates a low frequency mash-up of deadpan, willful stupidity and cleverness. I’ve listened to this dozens of times.

The second one is almost as good.

His regular bit on CBB “Foam Corner” was as hit or miss as a routine predicated on bad jokes could be. The one where he makes Annie Clark from St. Vincent gasp twice with the lameness of his forced punnery is wonderful. Nick Kroll and Zach Galifianakis providing professional bitching out is wonderful, too.

He popped up in Parks & Recreation as one of the animal control guys, twice gracing network television with the phrase “down to clown.” There’s a great but tragically unembedable compilation here.

But his nimble comic mind was shackled by an incredibly shitty taste in music. He spent eight hours trying to convince CBB host Scott Aukerman and the general listening public that the music of the wretched jam band Phish had merit. I think this project is the one that I like the best. It made me feel like he was a friend.

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“Catfish Blues,” By Robert Petway: My Favorite Blues Song

I just spent 10 minutes trying to track down this song. It was on a blues compilation I lost years ago. I was looking for a song about death or the moon, a delta blues song on an acoustic guitar. I’m writing this post so that I don’t forget it again.

It’s spare and haunting. The guitar sounds like it only has four string on it. The rhythm is hypnotic, lurching and powerful. It’s just a voice and a guitar but it builds in intensity despite the minimal instrumentation.

The second verse is the source of Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues.” It’s weird that Muddy took that part; it’s the dumbest part of the song. The third verse, where the guy drops to his knees for prayer and doesn’t have a word to say, that’s part to steal. That and the more ambiguous but just as sinister “Take a stroll out West” of the first verse takes the wind right out of your throat.

Robert Petway recorded the song in 1941, later than I expected from its skeletal nature. The far more sophisticated compositions of Robert Johnson had been on wax for five years by then. Petway is a mysterious figure, even for early 20th century bluesman. He only recorded about a dozen songs, with “Catfish Blues” being the most famous. His songs show off more intricate guitar playing, but none, sadly, have the raw, cold force of “Catfish Blues.”

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Writing in the Present, Tensely

Two of my favorite writers published great pieces about their difficulties being great writers in a time not conducive to great writing

Jim Knipfel should not be on Facebook. He should be in a nearly empty bar, with afternoon sunlight streaming onto his back and a pint in front of him. He is made for neither modern media or being social. And yet, he popped up on my Facebook feed last week.

He tells the story better than I can. The upshot is he’s going to remind everybody following him when he has a new Slackjaw column up on Electron Press and I’m going to repost that every week. No likes so far, though. Fucking philistines.

Mark Ames, formerly of the late and lamented eXile and currently of the mostly OK Pando Daily (they focus on tech news, which isn’t something I’m all that interested in), posted a screed about how social media and the internet hive mind’s outrage engine is choking out satire. Overall, it’s a remarkably smart argument that comes from a weird direction and presses on a painful truth, all of which is expected from Ames’ writing. But his sadness at trading in his snarling satire for straight journalism stuck with me.

None of this is very funny—having to set the record straight on satire—not funny now, anyway. Might be funny in a few years or decades, if we live that long. But not now. Then again, I’m not very funny these days either, not since getting tossed out of Russia. 21st Century America, it turns out, ranks as one of the most un-funny paradigms to be stuck in since the Bronze Age.

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Should Tom Petty Have Backed Down?

My buddy Paul asked me if I thought that Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” rips off “Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” A recent court action ruled that it did; the song now credits Petty and his producer, former ELO front man Jeff Lynn, as co-writers.

They’re both terrible songs, so it’s pretty funny anybody’s fighting over ownership. SWM is a whiny little bleat that illustrates how wrong British people can get soul music. WBD is such smug dad rock that Johnny Cash couldn’t even save it with a cover.

The “SWM” vocal hook seems to rip off about six sequential notes from “WBD’”s chorus. As this purportedly damning video demonstrates, while the songs are in different keys and tempos, the songs partially lines up after some quick digital editing.

I don’t think that’s enough for it to be considered a total rip off. The tempos are different, the instrumentation’s different and the key is different. The vocal is different enough to make it its own song. Unfortunately, “WSM” is so minimal that once you hear “WBD” in it, it never goes away. The same three piano chords rumble in the background throughout the song. The vocal melody flitters around it for the verses and then lines up with it for the chorus and the contrast makes it an effective song.

A couple of journalists have noted that Petty has shrugged off other alleged instances of plagiarism so it’s puzzling that he called up his lawyer for this one.

But I have a theory.

Even though Petty’s a chill weed-smoking stay-at-home Willbury now, back when he was a hungry swamp rat trying to break out of North Florida, he was notoriously litigious. In a series of protracted legal battles, he fought record companies about artists’ rights and record prices.

I don’t know what record label Sam Smith is signed to. I don’t know who the executives of that label are. But my guess is that maybe Petty had one last score to settle.

UPDATE: Evidently I am wrong. According to Petty, his legal team merely contacted Smith’s team and never threatened a lawsuit. All right, whatever. Who cares, really.

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