By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
2012 is the centenary for two seminal figures in American music: folksinger Woody Guthrie and composer John Cage, both born in 1912.
They had a few things in common, believe it or not. Both were bold pioneers of their respective genres. Both dabbled in Eastern mysticism (well, Guthrie dabbled, Cage dove in). Both fell in love with dancers the second time around (Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt from the Martha Stewart company, Cage partnered with Merce Cunningham).
They probably never met, but Guthrie is on record as being deeply affected by some of Cage's groundbreaking, boundary-busting classical music. On July 10, 1947 — the day his wife, Marjorie, gave birth to his son Arlo — Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America. He'd been listening to Maro Ajemian's recording of the "prepared piano" solos (in which piano strings are augmented with screws, cards and more) from Cage's "Amores," and Guthrie declared that "this sort of piano music was really a keen fresh breeze ... a welcome thing in the way of a healthy change from the old ways."
Guthrie and Cage strived (and sometimes starved) in the service of that goal — to freshen the stale ways of each particular niche in which they found themselves.
As a result, the other and primary commonality between Guthrie and Cage is their different but deep, deep influences on modern pop and rock music. Guthrie's influence is better cataloged and freely bantered about — anyone who's heard, say, Springsteen open his mouth during the last eight months can attest to that — but Cage's imprint is, well, cagier.
Like Guthrie, Cage's legacy is often appreciated more for his ideals than his actual compositions.
"His theory, which was the strongest, utilitarian, American theory of music, was addressing the purity and the [at the time] European expectation of purity in music. He said there is none," John Cale says.
Before joining deeply influential rock band the Velvet Underground in the late '60s, Cale was a classically trained viola player who conducted the debut of Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra."
"He said if you go to a concert intending to concentrate cleanly on what you hear, you can focus all you want but you're going to hear traffic, people coughing, rustling. So forget about purity," Cale tells the Sun-Times. "What he was really talking about is sound design, such as in theater or filmmaking. You can't ever hear the music just purely; you're going to hear it in context. That's where he brought the concert hall out into the street."
That basic idea found its ultimate expression in Cage's "4'33"." Titled for its duration, the 1952 piece calls for any kind and any number of musicians to sit quietly, not playing anything, for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds.
The idea is that the inevitable sounds of the performance space — a humming air system, a footfall, a sneeze or two, the general cacophony of an allegedly silent room — create the "music." As Cage described of the piece's controversial 1952 premiere, "You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."
Cage was quite serious about that piece — as well as his "prepared piano" compositions, his looped experiments with audio equipment, even when he'd drink a carton of milk on stage with a microphone at his throat.
But his daring and his derring-do often came with a wink.
"John was a really mischievous guy. I liked his sense of humor," Cale says. "It was such a relief for me. I was clinging to the Dadaists and Fluxus, and they were fun, but then the [German composer Karl] Stockhausen school was so intense and serious. ... I read John's Zen koans and his work with silence, and it was a relief. I liked the playful nature of his ideas. I mean, '4'33"?' — you know, they broadcast it on BBC [in 2004]." He chuckles. "One of the guys told me, 'At the Beeb, they don't allow silence on the broadcast waves. They have a system that if something goes off and there's dead air, it automatically puts in an old political speech or music. So when they did '4'33",' they had to shut that system off."
"4'33"" has even been recorded, including versions by Andrew W.K. and Frank Zappa, and appears on online in numerous versions, including a "dubstep remix."
Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren's favorite version is a version by a self-professed death metal drummer, filmed and posted on YouTube. He sits behind a drum kits for only slightly more than a minute, later explaining that he played "a little faster than the original tempo."
"A lot of the myth about Cage is that he gave you permission to do anything, and that's absolutely not true," Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren says. "He gave permission to go beyond one's presuppositions, habits of mind, rote ways of doing things. He taught people to listen in certain ways, to get rid of one's ego. It's hard to pin down. It's not like you can say this was the first pop musician to put on a costume and prance around doing glam rock. There's no real linear explanation of his influence."
Warren hopes to illuminate that slippery pedigree by opening up the MCA's library for "MCA DNA: John Cage," an exhibit opening Sept. 1 that seeks to show the interdisciplinary nature of Cage's music and its impact. Listening stations will present his music, but visitors also will be able to see, and in some cases handle, Cage scores and other work.
"People have asked, 'Why are you showing Cage materials, like scores, as art?'?" Warren said. "The answer is that he considered them works of art, and he made works of art himself — prints, drawings, some scores are based on a painting he'd done. You absolutely cannot pigeonhole him, even into one art form."
The MCA exhibit spotlights Cage's recurring relationship with Chicago and the museum itself. Cage lived in Chicago briefly (1941-42) and returned throughout the years for performances and festivals.
Warren says one of the museum's most requested images for reproduction is the city map Cage used to compose "A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity" (1978), a sound collage based on recordings made at 427 Chicago locations, determined by Cage's favorite composing method: chance. (Hear it here.)
Another return to Illinois included Cage's 1969 premiere of "HPSCHD" in an Urbana arena. The composition called for seven harpsichords, 52 tape machines, 59 amplifiers, 59 speakers, 64 slide projectors (using 6,400 slides), eight film projectors (showing 40 films), one 340-foot circular screen and 11 rectangular screens. A New York Times review reported, "Some of those present were supine, their eyes closed, grooving on the multiple stereophony."
Thread that image through your memory of various multimedia art, rock and art-rock performances you've seen. Then the visuals of the Talking Heads and MTV, the sound experiments of Brian Eno and the Flaming Lips, the anything-goes-and-should spirit of concerts by Frank Zappa and Sonic Youth — it all has clear roots.
"MCA DNA: John Cage" runs Sept. 1-March 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. (312-280-2660; mcachicago.org).
John Cale performs separately as part of the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 21 at the Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago (brilliantcornersofpopularamusements.com).
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The title of the first song on World Party's newest batch of recordings — "Arkeology," a five-disc, closet-cleaning retrospective, just left of a traditional box set — is a massive understatement for the project's central figure, singer-songwriter Karl Wallinger.
"Waiting Such a Long Long Time" finds Wallinger singing, in his world-weary voice over a party-pop guitar jangle, "I don't even know what I want anymore."
Which isn't really true. Not anymore.
"What I've been through, it's made me feel that all the stuff we worry about is not worth worrying about," Wallinger told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's very true. In my case, it's made me fatter. I had to be stronger to carry it all."
What he's been through is a virtual decade-plus absence from music following a brain aneurysm in 2000.
Following a brief stint with the Waterboys, contributing as keyboardist to the albums "A Pagan Place" (1984) and the phenomenal "This Is the Sea" (1985), Wallinger formed World Party — essentially a solo project but frequently featuring guitarist Dave Catlin-Birch, drummer Chris Sharrock and, early on, multi-instrumentalist Guy Chambers — then quickly charted a hit with the song "Ship of Fools" and enjoyed wide acclaim for an album of prescient environmental themes, "Goodbye Jumbo" (1990).
"Bang!" (1993), a superb album seamlessly blending genres from soul to rock to (briefly) opera, charted in Wallinger's native UK. But by the fifth World Party LP, "Dumbing Up" in 2000, many had stopped paying attention. Wallinger was already gone before he was really gone.
In February 2001, Wallinger was cycling with his son, Louis, when things went wrong.
"I just had a headache and said, 'I'm going to go to bed.' I came out half an hour later and said, 'I've got this headache — phone an ambulance,'" he recalled. "I woke up a day or two and two hospitals later. ... I came to feeling I'd just gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali and thinking, 'This is a bit strange.' I seemed fine, but it was a test weeks later when I looked into this periscope thing that we found my vision was wrong."
Wallinger, now 54, has no right-side vision in either eye.
As you might imagine, this poses two separate problems.
"I'm a menace when Christmas shopping. I do a lot of collisions and have to say I'm sorry a lot," he said.
More to the professional point: "Playing instruments is a bit weird now. I used to look at my right hand as I played piano. That's how I learned. Now I can't see my right hand. Same with the guitar — I'm right-handed, but I play upside down like Bob Geldof or Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, I've gotten the hang of both again."
Two months out of the hospital, Wallinger tried his first gig, a benefit show — just to see where his abilities stood. Also on the bill: Edwyn Collins, a contemporary of Wallinger's from the '80s band Orange Juice and his own subsequent solo career ("A Girl Like You") who'd suffered a double aneurysm in 2005. ("We're so competitive. He just had to have the bigger one," Wallinger quipped.)
His skills were largely intact, he found, but the recovery would be long and steep. Fortunately, Wallinger received an unexpected financial windfall.
The aforementioned Guy Chambers heard one of Wallinger's songs, "She's the One," and took it to his new songwriting partner, pop singer Robbie Williams. The 1997 piano ballad, which Wallinger said was knocked out "in 10 minutes and recorded in about half an hour," became a big hit for Williams.
"So we didn't have to sell the kids to chemical experiments or anything," Wallinger said. "I think I'm a bit of a lucky person."
Using his down time constructively, Wallinger began going back through old recordings. He wound up compiling an iTunes playlist with a runtime of 79 days — B-sides, rarities, Beatles covers, interviews and a lot of tour tapes. He whittled it down to five and a half days, and his manager edited that to four CDs, which would become the bulk of "Arkeology." Some extra DAT tapes and one new project, a sweet ballad called "Everybody's Falling in Love," comprised the set's fifth and lead-off disc.
"Like 'Words,' that track's a great one," Wallinger said. "We did it, put it in a box and forgot about it. Great fun, that one. It was good going back and kind of recapping the 25 years, a good thing for me to do at this point in time. I've got stuff that I've done during the last 10 years I'm still going through, but really I'd like to get in and record new stuff. I'd like to get a new 12-song record out next year."
"Arkeology" — 70 tracks, and a bargain at less than $40 — immediately sold out a limited run and is now on its third pressing.
After this string of acoustic dates in America — a half dozen shows featuring violinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull — Wallinger returns home for his first full-fledged British concert in 15 years.
Everything you need to know about how his career has shaken out geographically is in this sentence: He plays the Cubby Bear sports pub in Chicago, but in November he headlines the Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I'm burning the candle at both ends," Wallinger said, "but I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm up for this. I'm told a few fans might be, too. So we'll give it a go."
• 8 p.m. Aug. 30
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Sold out
• (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's been a banner year for power pop revivals. We've gotten new discs from Winston-Salem, N.C.'s the dB's (first with the original lineup in 30 years), Hawthorne, Calif.'s Redd Kross (first new material in 15 years) and now Zion, Ill.'s acclaimed Shoes — back with "Ignition," out now [★★★1/2], the first new album since 1994.
"When you go over the years and what we've been through, the delay makes sense. It just looks bad on paper," says founding Shoes member John Murphy with a chuckle. "I just saw No Doubt's together again. They haven't had a record in eight or 10 years. We just get used to the fact that these super-successful bands take forever to deliver a follow-up."
Shoes or any power pop band, really, could never be described as "super-successful." But while the core trio — singer-guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe, plus brother John Murphy on bass — has never had a mass following, they always seem to be followed.
When home-recording equipment was more available and affordable in the mid-'70s, Shoes were already there — recording three albums in their living room (the limited-release "Un Dans Versailles," 1975, the shelved "Bazooka," 1976, and the official debut, "Black Vinyl Shoes," later in 1976, which was hailed as "one of the finest home-brewed releases ever" by Trouser Press rock critic Ira Robbins).
When major record labels were flush and throwing money at bands, Shoes were there — getting picked up by Elektra for three albums (starting with "Present Tense" in 1979).
When the money ran dry and bands were being cut loose, many starting their own independent labels — Shoes were there, releasing compilations, live and new albums on their own Black Vinyl label through the '90s.
"Shoes were, quite simply, everywhere in the music industry from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s," says Mary Donnelly, a New York professor and blogger (powerpop.blogspot.com), who's about to publish Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes this fall. "They saw all the trends — the decadence and wild parties, money-is-no-object production and promotion, the crash of the industry in the early '80s, MTV (and the skepticism it engendered), the rise of college rock and indie and alternative, the problems wrought by independent distribution and the rise of digital recording. They were everywhere."
Murphy, ever humble and down-home, chuckles again.
"We've been kind of Forrest Gump-ing through time," he says.
Given how they pop up on the crest of each industry trend, you'd be forgiven for expecting their sound to have changed proportionally as well. Now in their late 50s, Shoes, however, have remained astonishingly consistent in their production of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop. The quality songwriting and, to some extent, the production of "Ignition" could fall anywhere within the band's nearly four-decade career.
"It's about how you absorb these things and how you turn them back out," Murphy says, trying to explain the band's through-line. "If you were to write the same song every year of your life, it would somehow be different each year. You'd attack it differently. It would come out of you differently. But it's still you writing the song."
"They tend to downplay their talents, but they're remarkable, instinctive writers," Donnelly says. "They can't even really explain what they do in a language that makes sense to anyone but themselves. And that hard work and authenticity shines through in everything they do."
Explaining the 18-year gap in new music, Murphy ticks off a litany of business woes that kept the band stymied. The shuttering of their recording studio, Short Order Recorder — a downtown Zion storefront where other revered power poppers, such as Material Issue and fellow Zion natives Local H, cut crucial records — was a "traumatic event," Murphy says. Selling the building took years.
The savior of Shoes, though, would be yet another home studio.
"We were at Gary's house one Sunday night, and we'd been there all night — it's midnight and we're getting ready to leave — and Gary says, 'Come here, I want to show you something,' " Murphy says. "Here it was. He surprised us. He'd moved in 2010 and started building this studio in his basement, buying gear along the way, stockpiling mikes and getting good deals.
"And Jeff happened to have a little song."
The song was "Out of Round," a few melancholy chords Jeff Murphy had cooked up, for which the other two dove into Klebe's basement to add a curious piano riff and some swirling sounds. It's an unusual track in the Shoes canon.
"We got into a groove. We kept going and going," Murphy says.
While much of "Ignition" wound up square within the footsteps of traditional Shoes, "Out of Round" isn't the album's only left-turn track. In our conversation, I had to bring up "Hot Mess," one of two songs credited to all three writers — and one with a surprising, almost AC/DC groove.
"Did you like it?" Murphy asks, nervously. "I ask because we knew it would be a polarizing track, that some people wouldn't dig it. Gary laid those guitars out, and Jeff and I said, 'Mmmm, sounds Stones-y!' He said, 'We could change that,' and I said, 'No, I don't think we should. Let's go down that road.' The thought process as we were building it was: What would Mick and Keith do? Plus, I started coming up with lyrics to make them laugh. I'd come out of the room, and they'd say, 'Did you just say...?!' But we really wanted this to sound like real music, not just a parody or a joke, not sarcastic. We wanted this, like anything we've done, to stand as real music."
Therein lies the struggle of every power pop band in America — striking the difficult balance between being influenced and being a thinly veiled cover band, between being a new voice and an echo.
The influences of Shoes are as obvious as they are alliterative: Beatles, Badfinger, Byrds, Big Star, Raspberries. But a 1979 feature in Trouser Press magazine quoted John Murphy describing the band's genesis as "a reaction to the things we hated. All there was at the time was Bowie, T. Rex and the Deep Purple school."
"We're more glass half-full on that now. That was pretty glass half-empty back then," Murphy says today. "Gary [then in Champaign] and I would write letters back and forth, talking early '70s and how things were about to get worse, saying, 'Ah, what happened to the early Beatles,' and 'Now all these horn bands like Chicago are coming along.' As soon as we found our way, here came disco, which absolutely took over. Now we can look back and see disco as this quaint period of time — aw, the cute little 'shake your booty' lyrics — like looking at 1920s music. But it didn't seem like that then. It was a survival thing for those who liked rock."
Donnelly describes growing up in a household full of brothers constantly playing Beatles records. "And just as I was reaching my music-buying stage, 12 or so, there was Shoes — like and not like at the same time," she says. "They were my first band, my declaration of independence, my own soundtrack. Though I never had the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak they promised me in junior high school, there was always something about the hard-soft dichotomy, the shifting voices of the three principals that just spoke to me about how beauty and pain and power can travel together."
So here's Shoes in 2012, still shifting voices and songwriting duties — just like kindred, talent-stuffed spirits such as Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, the dB's, etc. — for another finely crafted, homemade, indie-rock record.
They're so behind the times, they're current.
Murphy drops things in conversation like "That YouTube is something else" and "I don't even have an iPod," but it's one of his songs on "Ignition" that updates the time-honored romantic lament to include "rambling emails and bitter tweets" ("I Thought You Knew").
"Power pop always fits," he says. "In today's world, it's more indie or alternative, whatever that word means, but it still has the same direction. It's just that now we're trying to do it more adult — I hate to use that word. Maturity, maybe. People say, 'Oh, you're a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl band.' But not really. It's about relationship songs. That's relevant to any age, any era."
In addition to the new album and the publication of Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, Chicago's lauded Numero Group label is releasing this fall four vinyl Shoes LPs in a series ("One in Versailles," "Black Vinyl Shoes," "Bazooka" and "Pre-Tense Demos: 1978-1979," the demos for the "Present Tense" album). Expect the full Shoes vinyl experience, including lyrics sheets, photos and (yes!) T-shirt iron-ons.
An expanded best-of collection is due this fall, too, but Murphy says no live shows are currently in the works.
Shoes and Zion a matched pair
If you've ever read anything about the band Shoes, it's almost always been "Zion, Ill.'s Shoes."
Given the mythical power of the Chicago exurb's name, it's been attached to the band as a descriptor far more often than is the case with the origins of most other musical acts.
"Zion just has this weird mystery to it," bassist-songwriter Jeff Murphy says. "If you ask people in Chicago, they'll say they know it's dry and that the street names are all biblical."
Mary Donnelly's book on the band, Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes, includes a mini-history of the town, founded between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1901 by John Alexander Dowie.
"Zion was founded as a religious haven where spitting and bacon and alcohol and doctors were all illegal," Donnelly says. "But it didn't go to well for Dowie, who had pretty extravagant tastes, and the misfortune to get ill — a real problem if you're a faith healer and say that illness is the sign of Satan.
"By the time Shoes were raised there, it was still kind of weirdly religious, but no longer quite so cult-like. Still, they were raised in a town where bikinis and lottery tickets and beer were all banned by law. It's no wonder they were never a bar band: There were no bars!"
For an aspiring pop band, the association wasn't welcome in the beginning.
"At first, we tried to shake it, like we'd stepped in dog s---," Murphy says. "We thought, 'Are they making fun of us [by citing it all the time]?' Then we gave into it. It's part of our story. It sounds funny, I suppose. Everybody's gotta be from somewhere."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.