Retrofit Guide:The Replacements and the "Hootenanny" of doom

replacements “The first thing we do when we finally show up/Is get shit-faced drunk and try to sober up…” They were the American Clash. The Rolling Stones of the 1980’s. Somewhere between the greatest American punk band ever and the greatest rock band in the post-everything era. And virtually every sweet, angry, blistering, tender, wonderful note the Replacements played burst from the same impulse that made damn sure they would never amount to anything. “Can you stand me on my feet?” Even in 1983, before they had a chance to start hating themselves for even beginning to seem successful, the Replacements — original line-up: songwriter/singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, lead guitar Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars, all from Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota  — stage-dove eagerly onto their own lovingly built petard. They were drunks, screw-ups, addicts, sketchy musicians who got even worse when they were drunk (often) or traded instruments, which they loved to do nearly as much as they loved to get drunk, even (especially?)  when the tape was rolling. Like the Clash, their UK counterparts who truly believed in their political and moral vision, the Replacements believed fiercely in their own incompetence. “The label wants a hit/And we don’t give a shit….”

Right now I’m listening to “Hootenanny,” the 1983 album that pre-dates, by months, the group’s 1984 breakthrough, “Let It Be.” And while the latter album is cetainly closer to the ass-kicking hooks, sardonic sense of humor and when-you-least-expect-it flashes of sensitivity/vulnerability, the earlier album has a rawness that feels closer to the group’s arhythmic heart.   Consider that the title track, “Hootenanny,” is both hilarious in concept — beneath the retro-50s title (and album artwork) resides what has to be the furthest thing from the  sugary neo-folk that popularized the ‘hoot’ idea in the late-50s — and purposefully distrastrous in execution. Once again, the band has traded instruments — I think Westerberg plays drums, bass-player T. Stinson takes up a guitar and drummer Mars is on bass, and Christ only knows how sober they all weren’t at the time — so the two-or-three chord blues-grunge progression carries no strict meter, chords or melody. Westerberg brays “It’s a Hootenanny!” over and over again, and barks/slurs whatever else he has in his mind, which turns out to be not much. “Run It,” comes next, a high-speed, fuzz-guitar ode to the joys of defying traffic signals. Minimal words, minimal chords, mostly noise, attitude and a deceptively clear understanding of how street lights (and traffic laws) read as metaphors for social structure. Which is precisely the sort of thumb-suckery hat requires them to rip doughnuts into professorial front yards: “Ain’t no truth-run it!/Ain’t no good-run it!” A hair over a minute later the car ejects us at “Color Me Impressed,” and the threshold of the Replacements’ (and particularly Westerberg’s) real headwaters: the rowdy, beer-and-coke soaked party where everyone looks so maddeningly hip and cheery. “Everybody’s dressin’ funny,” Westerberg snarls to a double-speed and yet catchy descending guitar riff. “Color me impressed.” As if the ‘Mats were up to anything smarter. Instead, they’re (apparently) snorting cocaine (how else to interpret, ‘Put the party on the mirror/Oh shit, pass the bill to Chris’)? Even more intriguing is the double-meaning (and PW’s ouevre is crammed with double meanings) hiding within the bridge lyric, a simple, “Can you stand me on my feet?”  which means one, or perhaps both, of two things: the singer either needs help standing up, or wonders if anyone even would want him around if he weren’t so amusingly wasted. The next three songs explore decadence and self-destruction. “Willpower” marches grimly over a horror-show bassline, a backdrop of echoing, self-recrimination voices (“I don’t wanna…stop it, stop it, stop it. . . I don’t wanna”) undermining an attempt at self-discipline.  “Take Me Down to the Hospital” paints a jaunty what-if portrait of what could happen if you fail to re-gain some semblance of sobriety. A snarling lead guitar cuts like barbed wire through a two-chord vamp that detonates, pulls back then erupts again, with Westerberg’s threats and admissions (I‘ve already used eight of my lives!” ) climaxing in a wail – Take me down! – echoed by his bandmates – Hospital! A split second later comes the final word in the trilogy, the bizarre plagiarism-fest that cobbles together the opening chords of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to a kind of madman’s spin through “The Twist,” to a beautifully shambolic, guitar-led rip off of “Oh, Darling!” that is actually addressed to (and titled) “Mr. Whirly,” who presents as a kind of pink elephant character, the personification of the feeling you get right before the bed starts to rotate. The suite ultimately collapses under its own sloshy weight, with Westerberg ending things with a phony count-on: “One, two, three, and you are….I said, you’re the— The listener fills in the blanks himself: Out! Then: A loser! Then another taste of PW’s version of romanticism: “Within Your Reach,” its impassioned lyric playing out over a synth-dominated two-chord tune, all juxtaposing images of a world gone insane (sun keeps rising in the west) to the singer’s unexpected feelings of passion and need. He’s so happy, in fact, he can “die within your reach.” Apres fulfillment comes only…..destruction. A scary thought, eh? “Buck Hill” is an instrumental — the first in a series of truly memorable guitar-based, only barely worded tunes, e.g., “Seen Your Video”) followed instantly by its obverse, a wordy, often hilarious speed-rap, “Lovelines,” its giggle-laced lyrics drawn directly from the lovelorn personal ads tucked on the last page of  a 1982 issue of the Twin Cities Reader (or was it the Sweet Potato? One of the TC’s alt-weeklies, anyway). And what the hell is going on here? Is PW truly ridiculing the romantically-bereft? Or putting the boot into the cynical sex-biz types who capitalize on the unrequited desires of others? A little of both, I guess.

A couple of quickies — “You Lose” and “Hayday” — come next, but the real climax, and the signpost to the rest of the ‘Mats’ career can be found in “Treatment Bound,” an acoustic sing-along type of campire tune which describes several disastrous dates on a tour through Wisconsin and Minnesota, the band continually machine-gunning itself in the foot (getting shit-faced drunk, then desperately trying to sober up) at shows where “so-called friends” only buy them more and more and more drinks. “We’re gettin’ no place, fast as we can!” Westerberg boasts/complains. “The label wants a hit/And we don’t give a shit!” He isn’t ashamed. In fact, he’s proud of himself, if only because he’s living down to the terrible self-image that goaded him to pick up a guitar and climb on a stage in search of acceptance. What sort of a loser would do that?  “Yesterday’s trash/too bored to thrash.” It’d be funnier if the song weren’t so tuneful. And if we didn’t know how the Replacements would come so close to having it all, only to spit it back out again, then collapse into themselves without saving American rock ‘n’ roll the way they really could have done. Westerberg seemed poised to do it on his own in the ’90s (see also: Spin’s “Paul Westerberg: The Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ cover)  And yet even a clean-and-sober (mostly) Westerberg solo career would spark, sputter, spark again and then fade to his current nether-existence as the creator of  muddy,  self-recorded basement tapes featuring his self-loathing self on all the (purposefully?) ill-played presentations of darkly conceived, underwritten tunes. All of which takes us right back to the closing seconds of the tune “Treatment Bound” and the “Hootenanny” album as a whole, just after “Treatment” stumbles to a halt, when Tommy Stinson turns to Westerberg to ask after a chord-progression-gone-wrong: “One of those chords at that one part, you just fucked it up!” Westerberg shrugs and responds simply: “Fucked ‘im up.” And he’s not angry, or even apologetic. Color him impressed.

Retrofit Guide: The Eagles’ "Hotel California"

In the worldview of the Eagles, the scope of femininity divides into roughly two categories: The women who give the Eagles cocaine and the women who will give anything – anything – to snort the Eagles’ cocaine. The former are demons (with the moon in their eyes; their lyin’ eyes, their terminal prettiness, their Tiffany twistedness, et. al) the latter just sort of sad and pathetic (they should be home but they’re not; they wonder how it ever got so crazy, they’re afraid it’s all just wasted time, their need to either own or stone the Eagles, with the single exception who is just a friend).

Which would feel a lot more like the warm smell of misogyny rising up through the air were it not for the contempt the Eagles have for other men, what with their brutal handsomeness, their thirst for the blood of certain heroic gunfighter/guitarists; their inaibility to buy the love of the lyin’ eyes woman, their mass production of ugly little homes in the once-sylvan hills surounding the Eagles’ luxe aeries, and on and on).

The Eagles, in short, are handsome, harmonizing, lushly melodic buzz-kills. Suntanned fingers wagging in your face; golden heads shaking; aryan chins turned up as they stalk off to the bathroom to blow their noses.Or nose their blow. Or something.

Odious. Except for the fact that a lot of those bitter, pissy songs also turn out to be so well-constructed, and so well-performed (in the recordings anyway) that it requires vast stores of intellectual discinpline to dislike them. And when it comes to  “Hotel California,” the 1976 apotheosis of their creative careers, I can only say one thing: It’s a great record. Each song a gem in its own particular way, the playing and singing all but flawless, one of those concept albums whose central idea (upscale SoCal showbiz society turns out to be one fucking decadent place) flows from its individual parts, and not the other way round (as per, say, “Desperado”)

Just a smidge of context: “HC” featured three out of four founding Eagles from their earliest country-rock days, (Henley, Frey and bassist Randy Meisner. Guitarist/pedal steelist, mandoliner, etc., Bernie Leadon had already departed), lead guitarist Don Felder (in place since “On the Border” in 1974) and the unlikely, yet catalytic debut of the already-famous midwest rocker Joe Walsh as uber-lead guitarist. As musical mergers go, adding the slide guitar-wielding goofball among the sleek SoCal hipster cowboys was not just successful but actually catalytic. More than just a truly distinctive guitar player, Walsh (with his hangdog face and joker’s timing) also added an element of soulfulness into the band. A parodist rather than a scold; a wiseass with a heart of gold. And on “Hotel California” all of that served as a kind of tonic, taking the edge off of the Henley/Frey nastiness, while also goading them to rock a little harder maybe even reveal a little of themselves in the process.

Whatever, it worked magnificently. “Hotel California” was a smash, and a pleasure to listen to, more or less nonstop, on the radio for months, years, decades.

“Hotel California”: Cinematic in scope; epic in length; the “Citizen Kane” of decadence songs, “HC” kicks off the album with a puzzling, even maddening puzzle. What the hell is colitas? The image jumps out from the lyric’s third line (“warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…”), clearly a central part of the narrator’s experience of the elegant, awful world he (and we) are about to experience. So you wonder: Are we really talking about the same wild species of buckwheat known variously as James’ buckwheat and Antelope Sage? Not quite. “During the writing of the song ‘Hotel California’ by Messrs, Henley, and Frey, the word `colitas’ was translated for them by their Mexican-American road manager as ‘little buds’,” Eagles manager Irving Azoff wrote to whomever composed the Wikipedia entry for ‘colitas.’ “You have obviously already done the necessary extrapolation. Thank you for your inquiry.”

So that’s interesting. But what really sticks on this song (which I’ve only just become able to listen to for fun, after the dire effects of 35 years of radio-enforced repetition began to ebb) is how the gentle Mexican-flavored opening chords slide so naturally into a kind of m.o.r. rock groove (“House of the Rising Sun” played sideways, by white people who had no interest in the old world sleaze of New Orleans) and then into that climactic hard rock guitar duel that ends the tune. In between the lyrics are simultaneously straightforward and metaphorical, traveling from the cool wind of the highway to the Dante-esque boogie on the patio and then to the sinister guy at the front desk who explains the crucial distinction between checking out and actually leaving. I could live without the part about dancing to remember or dancing to forget, and I still stumble over the “we are programmed to receive” set up to the ass-kicking kicker (which one of my fellow Boy Scouts, upon hearing the song for the first time on a car radio, decreed as being “really heavy.”) But who cares once you cross the threshold into some serious ax-wielding?

“New Kid in Town”: Success-driven self-pity comes frightfully easy to the Eagles, (by which we really mean Henley and Frey), but this laid-back peek into the life of yesterday’s overnight sensation – addressed to tomorrow’s – is both clear-eyed and uncharacteristically sympathetic. “Great expections, everybody’s watchin’ you…even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.” Think it’s possible that the extent of their empathy relates directly to how autobiographical the song is? Hmmm. But on the other hand, “NKiT” is a shining example of how the Eagles’ increasingly meticulous recording technique (every single note in place, no sonic seams, no rough edges, nothing left to chance) could actually service a song as well-written as this. Consider the interplay between Frey’s electric piano and Felder’s guitar; the way they work together to comment upon and shore up the central melody, the way the background chorus folds together with the organ (deeper in the mix) to breathe another layer of humanity into the song. The real pivot in the song comes in a bridge that captures the conflict between idol worship and romantic love, and how easily they can be confused. “There are so many things you should have told her/But night after night you’re willing to hold her, just hold her/Tears on your shoulder.” At which point the emotional distance implied by the tune’s glossy brilliance cracks open, briefly, to reveal the passionate heart at its core.

“Life in the Fast Lane”: Only just returned to the iTunes folder (another victim of radio overdose) this Walsh-Henley-Frey rocker rides Walsh’s opening riff and subsequent slide guitar commentary into a high speed story of a coked-up glamour couple bound for disaster. Frey came up with the title (which became a near-instant catchphrase to describe high-market, high-performance, high-livers everywhere. Clever turns of phrase sweeten Henley’s typical bile, but the real hook here is all about Walsh’s ass-kicking work on the guitar. That phase effect that comes in near the end hasn’t aged well, and the Need For Perfection saps the song’s chaotic heart (it really wants to be a California ’70s update to “Helter Skelter”). But still. That riff.

“Wasted Time”: Henley goes all out on a ballad, addressed, it seems, to yet another sad-to-pathetic woman who finds herself sans boyfriend, money, passion, a reason for being. Set to a stately, if remarkably simple set of chord changes, the song evokes the collapse of a night, and the raw void of the dawn. “So you’re back out on the street,” Henley croons.  “You don’t care much for a stranger’s touch, but you can’t hold your man…” All of which dredges up at least an inference of prostutition, which edges toward a kind of casual hostility that usually simmers not too far beneath Henley’s songs. But factor in the warmth in his voice (which is, I should point out, one of the richest and most distinctive in popular music) and I begin to wonder if he is, to some extent, singing to himself. He all but answers that question when he goes on to admit that he himself has fallen short of expectations, due to the hours spent “wonderin’ what I left behind.” So if she’s a whore, he is, too. If she isn’t him, they are still the same sort of relentless strivers, pushing relentlessly for something that never seems as satisfying as they imagined it would.

“Victim of Love”: Check out your old vinyl copy and you’ll find, scratched into the play-out groove of Side 2, the cryptic note that “VOL is 5 piece live,” a boast from producer Bill Szymczyk that this tune is in fact a live-in-the-studio recording, with all five Eagles playing and singing with no trickery, overdubs, etc. Which may be true, particularly when you note how wack the drumming is. Henley, for all his strengths, is (by his own admission, I believe) is sketchy-at-best in the percussion department. No wonder he’s so eager to point his bony fingers at everyone else’s shortcomings, e.g. this tune’s title character, scolded as per the standards of pre-suffrage society, for partying when she should be home knitting or waiting for gentlemen callers, or some such. “This ain’t no time to be cool,” Henley snaps. “Talk is for losers and fools.” Backatcha, mister, but thankfully the snarling minor-chord stomp the rest of the band creates overwhelms the lyrics. Felder and (especially) Walsh make like gun-slingers, the tracers snap and coil overhead. They could be this unhinged all the time, if they felt like it. But they usually didn’t.

“Pretty Maids All in a Row“: No one ever talks about this song, and you’ll never, ever hear it on classic hits radio. But Walsh’s wistful tribute to youth, naivete and cultural myth is actually the key to “HC”‘s soul. Which is as unexpected as the fact that Walsh’s best song ever (in my book) is a piano ballad, with only the briefest (yet entirely delicious) guitar break. It fades in slowly, a pensive pattern of suspended chords played alongside a kind of dreamy synth-string line. The tune establishes itself after a few bars, at which point Walsh’s vocal seems to call from across the street: “Hi there, how are ya? It’s been a long time/Seems like we’ve come a long way…” But Walsh, unlike his new bandmates, is less concerned with the trappings of fame and wealth that make him different from everyone else, than with the internal riddles that everyone shares: “Why do we give up our hearts to the past?/And why must we grow up so fast?” When he does finally address the “wishing-well fools with your fortunes,” it’s not with scorn or contempt, but with “love from a friend/It’s nice to hear from you again.” Together they peer back toward the simple pleasures of childhood whimsy – storybooks, ribbons, bows and pretty maids all in a row. The essence of sweet, untainted youth. A chorus of lovely harmonies carry the song into the sunset, but the poignance hangs in the air.

“Try And Love Again”: Co-founder Randy Meisner was already on the way out, but this solo composition takes the group back to its country-rock basics with this harmony-rich, guitar-led tune. It’s a catchy song, and a spirited performance, and also an object lesson on what the group would lose when Meisner packed up his bass and stomped out a few months later: A high-harmony singer whose voice had a sharp edge and, more importantly, a distinct character all its own. Recall Meisner’s spine-tingling lead on the earlier smash “Take It to the Limit,” double down with a listen to this song, and you tell me if the honey-sweet, yet un-exciting singing of replacement Timothy B Schmit (who I’m sure is a terribly, terribly nice guy) even comes close.

“The Last Resort”: And it all leads to this: a seven minute-plus tale of immigration, manifest destiny, the American dream and real estate, straight from the moralistic heart of Don Henley. The environmental message at the song’s heart foreshadowed the array of causes and message songs to come. And “The Last Resort” is a kind of one-stop-shop of a rock ‘n’ roll manifesto, taking on environmental destruction, the mistreatment of the red man, consumerism, religious hypocrisy and ill-designed subdivisions with nothing but three chords, an attitude and a thorough recollection of western civ 101. All that, plus a real sense of moral purpose, a nice ear for lean, yet evocative verse, and no perceivable comphrension that the singer’s own high-flying lifestyle (start with the mansion on the hill, tote up the private jets, the unrelenting profiteering the Eagles helped introduce into rock ‘n’ roll, and on and on) maybe fluttered in the face of the narrator’s own dudgeon. What remains (then and now) are mostly questions, paradoxes and stone cold contradictions. “You call someplace paradise/Kiss it goodbye…”

Also on the endangered list: The creative purpose of the Eagles themselves, who would spend years working on their follow-up, “The Long Run,” even cleaner, tighter and almost entirely void of life and spirit. A bile-filled break-up came next, then 14 years of solo work during which Henley shone with more than a small handful of dynamite singles, most of which were, surprise, full of bile and finger-pointing, but still. “The Boys of Summer” was and remains unto itself in terms of sound and feel, and “The End of the Innocence” was just as good. Neverthless, the Eagles regrouped in ’94 for some MTV reunion, then came years of high-dollar touring, another vaccuum-packed album (available at first only to customers of Wal-Mart, for fuck’s sake, and I wonder what the narrator of “The Last Resort” would have to say about that?????

Retrofit Guide: Jackson Browne Week Part III: "Late For the Sky"

“Late for the Sky” (1974) An unapologetic triumph, and the increased prominence of Lindley in the mix is the least of it. The music works perfectly — a crisper, yet still understated production; great playing all around — but these tunes would work just as well if they were performed solo, “Nebraska”-style, a lone voice and instrument captured on a simple reel-to-reel.

Here the man’s eyes are wide open, his pen tracing the most complex puzzles of life and living. The good ol’ emotional/intellectual dialect; the twirl between thinking and feeling, the urge for escape and the impulse toward social responsibilty.

Start with the title track, a simply-wrought piano ballad, paired with Lindley’s sizzling slide guitar and a series of verses describing romantic delusions of all sorts. No finger-pointing, no self-recriminations, no self-adoration. Merely a portrait of the mismatched: “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me,” he sings. “Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” The next song, “Fountain of Sorrow” steps up the rhythm (despite the forlorn-sounding title) finding some comfort in even the most misbegotten connections: “You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right/But you go on smiling, so clear and so bright. . .

“Farther On” and “The Late Show” project the lost little boy talk into the macro level, where the disconnects and hurts extend beyond cultural and social lines, into a kind of universal society of sad, lost lovers. “Nobody ever talks about their feelings anyway/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise.” And while anyone’s talk of ‘feelings’ might make me cringe, the words give way to Lindley’s wildly articulate slide guitar, and then a real Hollywood ending with pasts left at the corner, car doors slamming and motors revving: Let’s just say it’s an early model Chevrolet, he sings, Let’s just say it’s a warm and windy day. . . And off they go into the sunlight, born to be mellow.

An actual rocker, “The Road and the Sky” socks the album’s flip side into action, clearing the way for the musical elegy, “For a Dancer,” written for yet another lost friend. Which would seem to invite sentiment and tears, except for that this time the view stays on the survivors, all these healthy, happy young hippies, trying to come to terms with what even happens when people die. Do you weep for the loss, or celebrate what could be a spiritual ascendance? Not even the thinking man’s Lothario knows, and it’s this overarching confusion that gives the song its own transcendence: “Perhaps a better world is drawing near/Just as easily it could all disappear/along with whatever meaning you might have found.” Nothing pat about that; no easy answers to unspool nor cheap melancholy in which to wallow — just the simple comfort of music, a “joyful sound” to fill the darkness.

The climactic piece, “Before the Deluge” follows the “Everyman” model by flirting with religious imagery, this time an apocalyptic vision meant to illustrate a real-world environmental catastrophe. In its moment this paean to communal interdependence seemed like a kind of closure to the romantic/social disconnections described on the first side of the album. Let the music keep our spirits high! Let the buildings keep our children dry! Ah, but given three-plus decades of distance the political text sounds perfectly clear, pointing to the theme that would dominate the next, far less satisfying decade in the artist’s career. But for now, let creation reveal its secrets by and by!

Now at the height of his creative powers, Jackson Browne’s commercial arc would continue on its vertiginous path. Unfortunately, his next work would come in the wake of a personal disaster more shattering than any deluge he could imagine.

Retrofit Special: Jackson Browne Through the Years – "Jackson Browne"

Sad, sweet, smart, sulky, sexy, and full of spelt.

To start this week-long exami-blog on the charms and failures of California’s uber-singer/songwriter of the 1970’s, if not beyond, we’ll do the appropriate thing and start with a confession: It was the fall of 1978, another damp night in Seattle, and I was sulking in the corner of high school party. Kids dancing, kids laughing, kids flirting and having so much fun that none of it made sense to me. So I grabbed my coat, slunk out the door and made for the safety of home, and  “Late for the Sky.”

“How long have I been sleeping?/How long have I been drifting alone through the night?”

I was 15 years old, and every word of this, every cry of the slide guitar, every simple, stately chord on the piano, rang with truth and beauty.

“How long have I been dreaming I could make it right/If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might to be the one you need?”

Could loneliness ever sound more thoughtful? Could melancholy ever sound more romantic?

With the headphones clamped to my ears those elegantly composed confessionals of Jackson Browne (so handsome, dark-eyed and shy on the back of the album cover) filling my head I had access to a whole new world, peopled by the moody, the sensitive, the smart. And sexy chicks, too. Sigh. I wanted to go to there. I still do.

This is crazy talk, I know. But I’ve been listening to all those old Jackson Browne albums again, and wondering again if my affection for them — my love, really — is a matter of nostalgia, aesthetic wrongheadedness or. . .just maybe . . . because they actually deserve it on their own terms.

We’ll work chronologically, starting with “Jackson Browne,” the auteur’s debut album. So dig into your old vinyl collection. Blow the dust off your turntable and consult the optometrist (Doctor, my eyes….)

“Jackson Browne” (a/k/a “Saturate Before Using,” 1972): Check out that funky cover art, in which the cover resembles nothing more (or less) than a burlap sack full of what I’ve always imagined as some hippie-era whole grain. Kashi? Spelt? Definitely something you’d eat with a wooden spoon while sitting on a hillside, watching the sun fall into the ocean. Spin the record and the songs sound exactly the same way: melodic but musically spare, melancholy and yet full of possibility.

For all his youthful yearning and beanpole-in-torn-jeans vibe, JB was already something of an underground superstar: physically annointed by the Velvet Underground’s Nico (who bedded him when he was a teen and covered three of his songs), celebrated loudly by a height-of-his-influence David Crosby (who sings backup on most of the album) and on the ground floor of the Eagles/Rondstadt/CSN reign that would dominate the pop world throughout the ’70s, he arrived fully formed: a living, breathing personaification of the funky-chic-California confessional songwriter.

So spin the disc and feel how beautiful melancholy can sound.

The piano ballad “Jamaica Say You Will” kicks off the first side with memories of a bittersweet, teenaged love affair the singer enjoyed while residing in some kind of seaside orphanage (?) with a lovely named Jamaica, whose father sailed the rolling sea (her mom has GOT to be Brandy, what a fine girl, but apparently not much of a good wife after all). She’s waiting for captain dad to return, rendering herself emotionally absent even as Jackson regards her as a “comfort and a mercy through and through.” Eventually Captain dad returns and JB/we are left to ponder the sea alone, musing on the mysterious death/suicide of an old traveling companion (the somber, guitar ballad “Song for Adam”); mourn lost innocence (“Looking Into You”,) and eventually shake off  the bonds of mortal consciousness with the college boy gospel of “Rock Me On the Water,” a socio-cultural trespass thoroughly saved by Craig Doerge’s straight-up funky piano playing. From which point the words ‘Jackson Browne’ and “funky” would never, ever be uttered in the same sentence.

No matter, “Doctor My Eyes” delivers as the lead-off single (and a mid-sized hit, at that) from the troubador’s troubador: Bouncy, hummable and full of hard-won wisdom. Even at 23, the boy has come so far and seen so much he’s on the verge of some kind of collapse: his empathy is on overload. “I hear their cries,” he wails to the aforementioned health care professional, “Just say if it’s too late for me.”

Are you puzzling over how the cries of the unnamed “they” (I’m guessing some combination of the poor, the hungry, and etc) pales in comparison to the singer’s own angst? It’s easy to skip over that part. . . the melody and the congas and the nicely stripped-down lead guitar are what really carry this tune. . . but still. Remember it. It’s what we call dramatic foreshadowing.

“From Silver Lake,” “Something Fine,” on and on, “JB” is peopled richly with mysterious wanderers, poignant departures (He wanted just to be/On his way across the sea no man will measure/He won’t be back/The sun may find him sleeping in the dust of some ruin far away. . .) and the requisitely beautiful, yet sad ladies who will never truly calm their men’s wanderlust.

It sounds sillier in print than it does set to music. Or maybe it’s set to my own nostalgia for the period in my life when all this romantic yearning described my own melancholic fantasies of the beautiful sorrows that lay ahead.

Either way, “JB” is a kind of masterpiece: an unfiltered portrait of late adolescence/early adulthood, viewed through the eyes of a starry-eyed rogue with one peeper focused on the world and the other locked on the mirror. Or, as he puts it in his fragile, wonderfully melodic finale, “My Opening Farewell,” with its missing lovers, vanished children and departing friends: There’s a world, you know/You’ve got a ways to go/And I’ll soon be leaving, that’s just as well…

Pass the spelt, baby, I feel a new song coming on!

The Retrofit Guide: Steve Miller Band

Some people call me the space cowboy/some call me the gangster of love…

Too many years have gone by, too many enforced re-re-re-listenings of “Jet Airplane” and “Rock ‘n’ Me,” what we have come to learn about the Steve Miller Band has long since subsumed how we felt at first listen. But shake off the tarnish, drop .99 (or possible $1.29, it seems to go back and forth) download “The Joker” and marvel again over that impossibly simple chord progression, the down-to-the-bone instrumentation (drums/bass/acoustic guitar/slide guitar lead) and the bizarro world described by our greasy swain of a narrator. Who reveals himself as such in the next breath, in which he observes that….

Some people call me Maurrrrrrice/’Cause I speak of the pompudice of love.

Pompudice? That’s not even a word. I just checked.

What in the what? Who is this dude strutting through the speakers? What does he want? Is he even remotely serious about any of this? Or…wait, here it is in the chorus….

I’m a picker, I’m a grinner/I’m a lover, and I’m a sinner, playing my music in the sun/I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker/Sure don’t want to hurt no one…

So much funky attitude. So much left to the imagination. So few chords and adornment, so much wit and charm.

I just downloaded “The Joker,” along with a score of other SMB favorites, and I’ve been spinning on it ever since. Wondering how this guy got to be so successful while simultaneously being so odd and offbeat; wondering how such unlikely success either signalled, or perhaps caused, him to sprint rapidly to the mainstream, slamming out pop hit after pop hit through the mid and late ’70s, abandoning all his groovy street cred and becoming (I’m not even guessing here, given his notorious mastery of the entertainment biz) massively and quietly wealthy.

The cruel fact is that most of what makes Miller famous is actually the least of his work – the lazy days of riding the swift current of mainstream arena rock. But check back to his early years, right up through the smash “Fly Like an Eagle” album in ’76, and the news is much, much better. You could download a score of these suckers and be extremely happy about it. Especially if you’ve never heard early SMB, or paused to think that this guy might have actually had something serious going on there. He did.

Read more to find out what I got, and why:

First, go to the “Anthology,” a two-album collection of the SMB’s best pre-“Joker” works. No real chart hits here, though you’ll still here “Living in the USA” and “Space Cowboy” on klassic hitz radio. Download them both, hear them again in the company of Miller’s other great songs, and realize that what they imply about Miller’s charming weirdness – a certain late-hippie funkiness; an imagination teeming with odd characters and down-at-heels scenarios — come through full color on the likes of Kow Kow Calculator,” while “Goin’ to Mexico,” “Seasons” and “Going to the Country” are catchy fragments from the age of aquarius-and-them. End the tour with “My Dark Hour,” realizing that this is the tune Steve recorded with Paul McCartney just after a Beatles session exploded sometime in mid-“Abbey Road.” Paul was too freaked to go anywhere, or think, so he stuck around in the studio to shread Steve’s drum and shriek backing vocals so full of grit and outrage you nearly have to back away from the speakers. Whoa.

Next: The whole “Joker” album, from 1973. Really, the one must-have, not just for the brilliant title track, but also for the ultimate down-at-heels comic strip “Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash,” (a Clovers re-make expanded with absurd off-mic sound effects, utterings and such) the white boy funk of “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma” and a pair of remnants from the old Steve Miller Blues Band days, “Evil” and “Come On in my Kitchen.”

Move briskly to the “Fly Like An Eagle” album and click on the title track. Another great tune, though the lyrics edge toward wack (love the time slipping into the future; less crazy about the one-size-fits-all revolution and the dimwitted suggestions that hungry babies/homeless/shoeless who must be fed/housed/shoed), fortunately it’s the sound that matters: the creaminess of Miller’s voice; the wooshing organ contrasting to the wonderfully simple guitar lick. Talk about the whole equalling way more than the parts…

Most of this album lives up to the standard. “WIld Mountain Honey” is the single-that-shoulda-been; “The Window” expands on the overall mood of spaceliness, while a wonderfully sleazy cover of “Mercury Blues” proves the last of SMB’s great contributions to the wack-job-bluesman ouevre. I downoload “Dance, Dance, Dance,” though my affection is largely nostalgic; same deal with the doofy but catchy mega-hits, “Take the Money and Run” and “Rock ‘n’ Me,” both of which are most notable for the sheer tonnage of borrowed riffs, chord progressions, song titles, lyrical ideas, grade school rhymes, and on and on. But the boy can write hooks, and so you find yourself humming them all day long, like it or not. Sometimes I kind of like it, even when Billy Mack knows what the facts is, mostly because they rhyme so neatly with taxes, and then you’ve got Billy Joe in El Paso, getting into a hassle in some rich dude’s castle…and no one anywhere even thinks to call him Maurice.