BOBBY FULLER DIED FOR YOUR SINS

CHUCK PROPHET & THE MISSION EXPRESS’ POST-WAR CINEMATIC JOURNEY INTO THE SETTING SUN OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY

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I. December 31, 2016

Chuck and Stephie. Starry Plough 12/31/13

In a good year for rock and roll, I’ll catch Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express at least twice, once on the big stage in San Francisco, and once on the small stage of an Irish pub on the Berkeley-Oakland border called the Starry Plough. The Plough gig is special because for one thing, it’s a New Years show. For another, the Plough is my local, so I can walk it. And for another, it’s probably the most intimate room the Mission Express will play all year; it feels like seeing your favorite Liverpool artists at the Cavern Club circa 1962.

Onstage, Prophet is surrounded by his seasoned, longtime band, the Mission Express. Behind the scenes, from the confines of their ungentrified South of Market workspace, he collaborates with one of the West Coast’s premiere working poets and San Francisco eminence gris, Kurt Lipschutz, to create the songs that have populated the last several Mission Express albums.

The Mission Express’ dueling six-string section of Prophet and James DePrato seems to get a little tighter each time I see them. Unless you zoom in on the fretboards, you can’t really tell who’s playing what anymore, or where the tradeoff occurred, such is the seamlessness. DePrato has been the band’s lead guitarist for as long as I’ve been attending the shows. And as his battle-scarred Squier Telecaster attests, Prophet’s a road-hardened guitarrista himself, spending the better part of a decade playing lead in Green On Red before going solo some 12 albums ago.

Keyboardist Stephie Finch is always a crowd favorite, and at the NYE show she played some front-of-the-mix keyboard licks that seemed, to this writer’s ears anyway, to celebrate the Stranger Things era resurgence of analogue synth as lead instrument as opposed to background.

If I had to sum up the difference between the Mission Express of 2017 and the first time I saw them play (five years previously) in five words, it would be: they jam more econo now.

DePrato and Prophet, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017.

After the New Year’s show, instead of hunkering down in San Francisco and waiting out the dark rainy days of January in temperate California, the Mission Express loaded out onto a jet plane and headed straight into the brunt of blizzard season, taking on an extensive January-April tour that hit the Northeast US and Northern Europe before winding back to San Francisco just in time to decorate the Easter eggs and find the afikoman.

During that tour, the band’s newest album, and Prophet’s fifth on the Yep Roc label, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, came out to positive critical reviews.

Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” is also the name of the first track on the disc, and it kicks off the album with a four-on-the-floor drum intro reminiscent of the title track of another Mission Express album for the ages, 2012’s Temple Beautiful.

That title track was raucous, deconstructive, and commemorative of a punk rock scene that spawned at the dawn of the ‘80s in the post-apocalyptic rubble of San Francisco’s Summer of Love.

But this title track, “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins,” takes the four-on-the-floor in a very different direction, someplace more circumspect, melodic, and, yes, sentimental, resurrecting a world of simpler, gentler rock singles that still somehow manage to possess all the hooks, licks, and chord changes that would make those three-minute mid-Sixties pop anthems into the launching pads for the complex and psycho-active ‘60s Counterculture that would immediately follow.

Put another way: “Temple Beautiful” (the song) represents an eyes wide-open bite into the (already rotting) apple of rock n roll. “Bobby Fuller”(the song) celebrates an age of innocence when rock n roll was enough without the apple.

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II. Bobby Fuller (1942-1966)

The true-life story of Bobby Fuller personifies the end of rock and roll’s age of innocence as well as any apocryphal tale does. Fuller was born in 1942, and as a teenager in El Paso, first fell in love with rock music when it burst upon the scene in the form of Elvis Presley, and again a couple of years later in the form of a fellow West Texas boy six years Fuller’s senior, named Buddy Holly.

Making rock and roll was truly a DIY experience back then; there was no industry catering to would-be rockers as there soon would be. Furthermore, there was, and still is, no big city in the US as geographically remote as El Paso, which is closer to San Diego, CA than it is to Houston or Dallas, and is still a long way from San Diego. You can drive all day in any direction out of El Paso, and by midnight you still won’t reach the next city.

So, in order to make his music, Fuller had to build his own recording studio and pour the concrete himself. And he even had to draft his younger brother Randy to play bass.

As the musical calendar flipped from 1959 to the 1960s, in the void left by the death of Buddy Holly, the enlistment of Elvis Presley, the imprisonment of Chuck Berry, the blackballing of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the enrollment in bible college of Little Richard, Fuller honed his craft as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer in the splendid isolation of West Texas. In 1964 he emerged from his fortress of solitude and made his move to LA, bringing the Bobby Fuller Four (which included brother Randy on bass) with him.

Once in Los Angeles, Fuller’s talents were plain for all to see, but his 1950s Texas-ness represented a curious anachronism at a time when the British Invasion had just gotten through completely reconstructing the faces of popular music, and Byrds-y folk rock was the gathering storm about to break over the horizon of LA.

In the midst of all this latent, hirsute psychedelia, Fuller was still a clean-cut West Texas boy following in the musical footsteps of Buddy Holly. Fittingly enough, the first thing Fuller did when he got to LA (after striking out with all the major labels) was sign a record contract with producer Bob Keane, the man who discovered and made Ritchie Valens famous before his 18th birthday.

Fish out of water or not, Fuller’s presence was quickly noticed in Southern California. Thanks largely to Keane’s flair for gimmicky promotion, the Bobby Fuller Four’s music began showing up in record stores and on radio stations, and there was even a brief band appearance on one of the iconic beach-sploitation films of the mid-Sixties, 1966’s The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, featuring Boris Karloff as the ghost.

That film, and that film genre, represented the very last gasp of the innocent 1950s era’s incursion into 1960s youth culture. The following summer’s youthsploitation films would have titles like The Trip, with stars like Peter Fonda. And youth culture would never look back.

The Bobby Fuller Four had a busy couple of years in LA, putting out albums and singles, and trying to keep the band together amid various name changes, personnel changes, and the general chaos of life as Sixties musicians. The Four’s original drummer couldn’t make the move out west with the rest of the band due to family commitments. And the replacement drummer quit after the first tour. So, they got a stand-in while the band arranged for their original drummer to come out from Texas and rejoin the quartet, which he did. At last, the unit was whole.

But despite the breakout success of “I Fought the Law,” there was tension in the ranks. Apparently Keane’s management style–putting the band in costumes, having them perform stunts, adding novelty sound effects to the songs, and grooming Bobby Fuller as a 50s matinee idol in the style of Ritchie Valens at the expense of the rest of the band, did not sit well with any of these West Texans, who saw themselves as serious musicians, and not some producer’s hired hands.

On July 18, 1966, a band meeting was hastily called. The drummer had decided he wanted to go back to his family in Texas after all, and the lead guitarist had just received his draft notice and was hoping to sell his car to Bobby Fuller before getting shipped out. Bobby had a thing for cars.

 

But Bobby never did show up for that meeting. Later that day, he was found dead in an Oldsmobile parked outside his Hollywood apartment under a mess of unusual circumstances that to this day have yet to be adequately explained.

The car belonged Bobby and Randy Fuller’s mother, Lorraine, who was in town visiting her boys. It was Lorraine Fuller who discovered Bobby’s lifeless body in the front seat, slumped over a half full can of gas, his skin already badly discolored from the gas fumes in the LA heat, with Bobby having died from apparent asphyxiation.

This story had it all, a dead rock star, a Hollywood address, a classic car, and perhaps a femme fatale and hints of the underworld in the mix.

And just like that, the story was over.

Fuller had seemed poised to carry the aborted legacy of Buddy Holly forward, to somehow present West Texas swing guitar rock as a counterpoint to the British Invasion Sixties. And ultimately, he did carry on the legacy of Buddy Holly, dying at the obscenely young age of 23, leaving everyone staring into the gaping hole he left, wondering what could have been.

Randy Fuller, the brother who had been with Bobby from the beginning, had to drive that very Oldsmobile back to the family home in El Paso, alone. And with that, the brief, wondrous story of Bobby Fuller came to an unceremonious end, and the door was slammed shut yet again on a certain kind of clean-cut American innocence. 

Bobby, Randy, and Lorraine Fuller. From a home movie, early 1950s.

Half a century later, from their South of Market workhole, Chuck Prophet and Kurt Lipschutz reach back into their, and our, collective memories to resurrect those wonder years, when all the magic of rock and roll could still come out of a Fender Twin with no effects, a world that died once with Buddy Holly and once again with Bobby Fuller–whose comet-like run across the nightclub sky must have felt like the momentary return to Camelot that Bobby Kennedy’s abbreviated 1968 run for the White House represented five years after the void left by the sudden death of his older brother John.

In both cases, it was a version of the 1960s that just wasn’t meant to be, and one that continues to haunt us to this day with all the what-ifs. (You can read more thoughts on Bobby Fuller here.)

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III. Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins (2017, Yep Roc Records)

 

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express’ latest release is a deeply reflective album spiked with raucous three-minute character sketches in shades of barroom blue and heartbleed red. Let’s go through these thirteen songs one at a time and find out where they take us, starting with the title track itself:

BFDFYS

The tone, the chord changes, the individual notes themselves of Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins fill the room like the ceremonious opening of a long dormant music box from a freshly dug up time capsule. Much to our delight, the music box still works after all these decades, instantly erasing the time between then and now, each stanza serving as an elaborate call-and-response of unrequited longing for the bygone years of record players, tailfins, and double features at the drive-in.

The second verse for instance:

“I hear the record crackle, the needle skips and jumps/

Bobby Fuller died for your sins.

And I ain’t never seen a movie that moved me half as much/

Bobby Fuller died for your sins…

Followed by a wistful chorus–with words drawn out twice as long as the verse, making the delivery twice as plaintive:

I could be-e anywhe-ere

When I he-ar that sound

Take me ba-ack, pretty baby…

The guitars and keyboards mimic the same call and response of the vocal melody, shaping this pop tune into a pop anthem.

The final verse arrives in just a whisper:

Together we stand. Divided we fall/

Bobby Fuller died for your sins

And I wish my little sister could be here now/

Bobby Fuller died for your sins…

Bobby Fuller, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, this spectral sister figure. The innocence and the innocents that we are forced to leave behind, forever entombed in the youthful amber of their wonder years as time marches on, bringing the rest of us with it.

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Your Skin

Photo: Tobias Negele

This album is road music, a journey that zips from the profound to the profane in the blink of a lane change. One minute you’re adjusting the rear view mirror and catching extended glimpses of a vanished past; the next you’re pulling down the sun visor and reliving a different set of memories each time you catch a whiff of your own fingers.

“Your Skin” is an intimate, sweaty encounter inside a dark bar, or maybe a reptile cage.

Tonally, this is two songs in one, plus a magic carpet ride through the middle-16.

On the surface, it’s a standard blues-rock vamp found in jukeboxes everywhere that weekends and happy hours are taken seriously. But below the surface tension, underneath the Skin, the roiling lava of subversive mid-60s psychedelia keeps breaking through in the little tap-tap-taps of the pick scrapes, and the incidental contact noises that get amplified into subliminal code whenever the spring reverb knobs on Fender Twins are turned up to eleven, as they are here.

The fuzz on the bass and rhythm guitar comes dangerously close to oversaturation at all times, and the persistence of the innocuous sounding, echo-drenched clave in the back of the mix is actually the relentless sound of the tectonic chisel generating the reverberations that over geologic time will cause California to fall into the sea and continents to disappear.

And then there is that middle-16 guitar-solo that surfaces about two minutes in, poking through the bars of the song like the periscopic eye of a woken swamp gator, meandering from “I’m Only Sleeping” to “Monterey” to “Just Dropped In – To See What Condition My Condition Was In” before slipping noiselessly back down below the waterline and returning control of the song to the barroom bluesmen and women.

But once woke, that gator eye is never far from the surface.

Verse one kicks off:

Moon on the water/Home of the King

I’ll meet you in the shade of the eucalyptus tree

That’s a nice shout out to the eucalyptus. Usually, when the first line of an Americana song is “moon on the water,” the follow-up line is going to mention a weeping willow or a mighty oak, or a stately elm or a whispering pine, but in this song, we’ve got the stolid eucalyptus tree, a good indicator that this arboreal transplant, this carpetbagger tree, introduced into California from Australia after the Gold Rush, is making its way into the Americana canon at last, and by extension, bringing all of the Postwar Southwest with it. The iconic eucalyptus with its dry wood and oily bark might be what dooms the Southwest to a future of endless wildfires, but that’s a subject for a different album review.  

Verse two:

Like a spoon of honey/dripping down my throat

Makes me wonder what you’re hiding in that coat.

Again, “like a spoon of honey” is a perfectly acceptable way to start off a verse in a family-friendly American Standards songbook, but the payoff phrase, “dripping down my throat,” suggests a somewhat less wholesome encounter.

This is road music, a great American journey between the profane and the profound, with a drummer beating his sticks against the backseat vinyl, and a Beat poet riding shotgun with a typewriter in his lap.

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Open Up Your Heart

After the big, boomy sounds of Your Skin, you can hear pins drop in the intro harmonics of Open Up Your Heart. So you’re already leaning in pretty hard when the first lyric arrives:

Some people talk behind your back/

Others keep it hid.”

The most powerful statements are the ones that sneak up from behind and take your knees out from under you. And by the time you register the pithiness of this opening remark, the song’s work is already done. This line is so consummate, it’s repeated at the end.

The love struck singer may be on a fool’s journey, but it is an enchanted journey nonetheless, where “the trees…bend like skeletons” to mark his path. Whether or not they’re eucalyptus trees is for the listener to decide.

A maudlin sense of loss is present throughout this album, even on its most visceral tracks. And the opposite is true as well. In this sad, sweet song, the blood and guts are right up there in the title. Singing about the heart may be universal shorthand for interpersonal emotionality, but “open up your heart for me” is also a graphic statement that could describe anything from the Aztec trepanning ritual to the modern day, life-extending surgery technique of the same name.

 

Coming Out In Code

The tremolo drenched vampiness of “Your Skin” returns for the next two tracks, Coming Out in Code and Killing Machine.

Let’s talk about that first title for a Bay Area minute. Coming Out and Code were both stock phrases of ‘90s and even ‘80s counterculture, especially in San Francisco. This was a time before Will, Grace, Etheridge, and Ellen, when coming out was an act of individual defiance with real life consequences–like burning your draft card was.

It was also a time when computer jargon like “code” as a stand-alone noun was still familiar only to a small subset of cognoscenti, when coders were still considered part of the general antiestablishment, and when nobody could picture a future coming so soon where the digital divide would separate us all into elites and proles–and nowhere more sharply than in the formerly egalitarian city and county of San Francisco.

While this song could be about the artificial intelligence of 1s and 0s, the first lyric mentions the tattoo of a matador being the family crest. A matador. So we’re still firmly rooted in the blood, guts, and beating hearts aisle of the Prophet-Lipschutz supermercado.

The song starts out with the primal cry of a rooster’s crow and quickly merges onto an information superhighway where the perfect pictures that the mind paints get scrambled up in the brainpan and end up coming out as “code”….code like the stutter of a speed-tweaking street poet; code like the dialed up sound of an open fax line; code like the beautiful mind of an autistic savant.  

Most of these tracks seem to have a sister song in the AM Top 40 radio canon. For Coming Out in Code, that song is “Cherokee Nation.”

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Killing Machine

Killing Machine is another blues riff that starts deep in the guts of the amplifier and bleeds out through the fabric of the speakers to recreate the big sky Americana of No Country For Old Men.

And you know what that means…

This music is road music. Being on the road means venturing out into the great unknown, leaving your city behind like a vanishing shoreline until it disappears completely and you are at the total mercy of the elements, not least of which is the element of surprise.

The code of the road says that sooner or later you’re going to reach a Crossroads and a sudden chance encounter with a total stranger. You rely on these road strangers to help you change a flat, buy you a meal, take you closer to your destination, pass the time and fill the dark voids of silent highway with easy yet meaningful conversation.

But the fear of stranger danger must have been evolutionarily hard-baked into us for a reason. You know that somewhere out there is a killer on the road, his brain squirming like Javier Bardem with a captive bolt pistol. And you also know that if you dream it…he will come.

In America, where freedom also includes the Second Amendment, “Killing Machine” takes on a whole other meaning.

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Bad Year for Rock and Roll

 

In hindsight, describing 2016 as a bad year for rock and roll might be like calling 2001 a bad year for Ben Affleck movies. It works pretty good for the first three quarters of the calendar, until the events of one particular Tuesday in the autumn months shock the social equilibrium so greatly that the entire year becomes synonymous with that singular seismic event instead of what came before. In 2001, that Tuesday was 9/11. 

In 2016, that Tuesday was November 8 and the election of Donald Trump, a shocking turn of events that Chuck Prophet himself would mention when introducing the song from the stage at live shows during 2017 and beyond.

The truth is, we did spend 5/6 of 2016 in a prolonged state of mourning largely because of David Bowie and Prince, and even Glenn Frey, and for some of us, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson. It most definitely was a bad year for rock and roll.

But the real story is how these deaths managed to shock us at all.

For a couple of reasons, when David Bowie died, it was a legitimate jolt to the system:

Because among the pantheon of rock icons, he was the most ageless and potentially immortal of them all.

Because he was the Thin White Duke; the Grey Ghost, and more; something spectral and outside the normal bounds of mortality.  You could easily picture Bowie getting beauty sleep in an oxygen-infused vampire coffin, but never expiring in a hospital bed with tubes in his nose.

The circumstances of that death were stage-managed with classic Bowie aplomb, the details dropping like a late Friday news dump just two days after the release of his final album, which itself was coincided to drop on Bowie’s 69th birthday as if all was well. So when you got up the next morning and heard the news, David Bowie Dead, it was more like turning on the radio and hearing that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor than being inundated with some tabloid-y weeklong cable TV death-watch and paparazzi funeral.

Bowie’s otherworldliness notwithstanding, the surprise in all this is that these deaths still have the capacity to shock us at all.

The fact that we register genuine astonishment when 69-year old rock stars die tells us that we ourselves might still be in the era of rock and roll innocence that Bobby Fuller represents. 

In the Sixties, the idea of a rock star even turning 30 seemed as unnatural as someone in Logan’s Run turning 30. Yet, these iconic ambassadors of the youth culture of half a century ago still remain preternaturally current somehow. The Summer of Love is over 50 years old, but it still feels like the beginning of an ongoing long weekend for many of us. Bob Dylan never stops touring. The Stones, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills, Nash, McCartney, Ringo, even reclusive Brian Wilson were still making the rounds in the 2010s, just as celebrated as ever, if not more.

You can miss a Dylan tour date in April and not be too bummed because you know he’ll be coming through again in October.

It seems so normal to us because this is the only world we’ve ever known, like being born and growing old entirely under the benevolent realm of some extremely long-lived monarch. If you’re from Britain, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, when has the face of Queen Elizabeth II never not been on your money?

Well, six-decade reigns for monarchs are one thing, but for pop culture icons it is an extremely unusual state of affairs.

Could the Sixties generation even think of the pop stars of the 1910s as their own living countercultural heroes? That hardly seems possible. The Boomers had already dismissed their own World War 2 parents as a generation of calcified fossils by 1965. How would they have felt about the contemporaneity of their parents’ parents’ generation, the Doughboys of World War I, during the era of Monterey and Woodstock?

Yet, the 1910s are no chronologically further from the 1960s as the 1960s are from us. And we seem to still be very much in the thrall of the 1960s.

What would it look like if the Sixties generation had remained a Silent Generation like the one before it and the one after it? If Eldridge Cleaver had never followed Wally Cleaver? If America’s youth had continued to live in thralldom to the Doughboys?

For the last 50 years, since instilling their own cultural revolution, the peers of Bobby Fuller who survived the Sixties have never not been in heavy rotation for long, ditto their cultural revolution. Their milestones are our milestones.

We still reference something monumental as “our Woodstock” and something ignominious as “Whatever-Gate.” It’s easy to be lulled into the idea that because it’s all we’ve ever known, it will always therefore be.

But when the other shoe drops, as it inevitably does, it lands like an anvil on the head of Wile E. Coyote.

Remember the profound state of mourning that overtook North Korea in 1994 when Little Rocket Man’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, died after five decades of being the only leader North Koreans had ever known?

That was their bad year for rock and roll. Ours may just be beginning.

Ashes to Ashes

When the innocence ends, it’s tempting to just give up, to hoist the white flag, stay in your pajamas and retreat into the glow of the television screen. They say that in actuality the effect of 911 on the American psyche was not a surge of people going outside to show the terrorists who really won, but a rush of people stocking up on comfort food and watching more appointment TV.  

Maybe that resignation is what this song is really about. 2016 was a bad year for rock and roll alright, and maybe a bad year for American politics too, but the context runs deeper than that. The sun may finally be setting on the Baby Boomer paradigm that all of us have grown up with. And now, for the first time since the Sixties, a generation that is large enough to displace the Boomers is finally coming of age. These are the Millennials, and it is safe to say that by the time they reach the peak of their power a couple of decades down the road, our world will have been transformed in ways we can scarcely imagine now, but which may very well be said to have begun in the bad year of 2016.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: Rock and roll. In case you haven’t noticed, there haven’t been much in the way of newly minted rock stars in the 21st Century, have there? Who was the last new legitimate rock star you can think of, Kurt Cobain? Jack White?…. Courtney Love? Jack Black?

Today there are pop stars, DJs, YouTube sensations and of course hip-hop stars that sell out stadiums, while rock and roll is becoming genre music, celebrated by a specialized, enthusiastic fan base, but not so much by the teenage masses anymore. It’s like jazz was when rock and roll was young. Discerning connoisseurs of the early Sixties understood that cool and bebop were much more sophisticated than the clackity-clack of guitars and amplifiers. But that knowledge hardly made them the trendsetters of the Sixties and beyond, did it?

Then there’s politics. Whatever the Trump presidency is remembered for, the election of 2016 might first and foremost stand out as a breakdown in the old system of party politics and its relationship with the fourth estate: Media.

We used to be able to trust the two-party system to reliably send a pair of vetted, party-sanctioned presidential candidates to the general election year after year. But this time, a complete outsider, a reality TV character, insult-comicked his way to the top of one party’s ticket, and confounded all the conventional wisdom by going on to defeat his opponent in the general.

The waning of traditional media (print journalism and network news) in favor of sensationalized cable TV news has been a subject of discussion for the last four election cycles at least. But this time, it might be for real.

And despite the fact that Trump was a creation of television, or that his political gravitas comes from his years of firing people on The Apprentice, his ascendancy to the presidency was not necessarily about television as much as the post-television media of Twitter and Facebook. We appear to be in uncharted political territory here, and nobody over 35 or outside of Russian troll farms seems to understand how any of it works.

So, this is where we stand in the 2016 era, still capable of being shocked when a 69-year old rock star falls from the sky, yet still mostly clueless about the nature and origins of the changes that are drastically altering our political and media landscape as we speak. This 50-year old template we’ve been living on is getting stretched pretty darn thin. How much thinner can it go before it finally breaks? Or has that already happened?

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Musically speaking, Bad Year for Rock and Roll, has anthem written all over it, and then there is that video, a beautifully synchronized highlight reel of some of the figures who died during the Annus Horribilis for Rock and Roll: Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmie, Prince, Maurice White the frontman of Earth Wind & Fire, Beatles producer George Martin, Leon Russell, and Muhammad Ali, and that’s all just in the space of the song’s intro. What follows in the video is a melange of extended clips of these people and many more who left us that year: Keith Emerson, Phife Dawg, Nick Menza, Merle Haggard, Alan Vega, Garry Shandling. Gene Wilder, and some others whom I couldn’t quite catch.

The song is anthemic; the video is cinematic–featuring brief clips from Rock and Roll High School, and Harold and Maude, among other films, as well as extended clips of Dustin Hoffman and Catherine Ross from The Graduate, and Peter Sellers from the Pink Panther movies.

How Peter Sellers got into the Bad Year for Rock and Roll mix is not entirely clear. Perhaps a Pink Panther movie was the comfort food when the narrator was in for the night and feeling blue. Either way, Sellers fits the spirit of the song, and definitely the video.

The throughline seems to be that everybody in the video is in the prime of their youthful coolness, and that these primes were not all that long ago by current pop culture standards. The Graduate still feels like New Cinema to us even though it is now as old as Birth of a Nation was when the Graduate came out.

The Graduate

The Graduate clips could represent the death of the film’s director Mike Nichols in 2014, though that would considerably stretch the bounds of the Bad Year for Rock and Roll. So maybe not.

The clips in question come from that climactic final scene of the movie: Ben and Elaine making their triumphal escape from the church one step ahead of the enraged mob of parents and adults, followed by the close ups on Ben and Elaine’s faces as they complete their getaway in the back of the bus during the film’s coda.

The Graduate could have ended on the scene of the young couple fleeing the church with adrenaline-fueled grins of elation on their faces. But Nichols chose to include the extra footage of Ben and Elaine sitting silently on the back of the bus, zooming in close on their faces to show their elation gradually settling into contemplation as the euphoria of their escape fades, and the reality that they have just placed themselves at the beginning of some unknown journey begins to register.  

People usually describe the release of The Graduate in late 1967 and the subsequent groundswell of popularity it gained among college aged kids as the beginning of the New Cinema in America, a cultural milestone wherein the Sixties Counterculture took over film the way it had taken over pop music a couple of years earlier.

The journey Ben and Elaine were embarking on after having rejected their parents’ world was the journey that the entire Sixties generation was embarking on, and taking us later arrivals along with them in the subsequent decades.

Now, half a century later, we are all contemplating the end of that journey.

In the Bad Year for Rock and Roll video, most of the clips of the dearly departed come from the 70s and 80s, and still feel and look like the golden years of the FM radio era and the salad years of MTV, that 1981 renaissance when music videos re-captured the locus of rock and roll from the Boomers and handed it to a newer generation of teenagers.

It’s hard to accept that MTV itself is pushing 40 now, and that it’s time for even those next-generation New Wave rock stars to begin exiting the stage.

It’s hard because this is not about them getting old; it’s about us getting old. Before acceptance comes denial, bargaining, and depression (or at least melancholy). And Bad Year for Rock and Roll, the song and video, manages to evoke all three, in a beautiful way. 

It’s a nostalgic farewell to the greater 1960s, the same long goodbye tour we’ve been on since the Wonder Years and Goodfellas honed the tailfins, home movies, and jukebox moments of the Bobby Fuller era into a highlight reel that we never tire of watching.

Never mind that the Wonder Years came out 20 years after the era it mythologizes, and that it’s now been 30 years since the Wonder Years came out. It still feels like we’re watching our movie; that the protagonists are still ageless and right there with us simply because they always have been.

But then you lose a Bowie, a Kantner, a Frey, a Chuck Berry, a Fats Domino, a Tom Petty, a Burt Reynolds, a Dick Dale, a Roky Erickson, a Ric Ocasek, a Ginger Baker. And slowly but inexorably, you realize that although the biodome of pop culture preserves the illusion of immortality, in actuality the long goodbye is still sweeping us all along the threshing floor with it towards the animal soup where Bobby Fuller is–the Postwar Cinematic Dead Man stew that plays and replays on a celluloid sizzle reel. A sizzle reel that has always felt so present…until now, as the film stock takes on a slightly more spectral and faded look with each passing loop through the projector and each Bad Year for Rock and Roll.

 

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Jesus Was a Social Drinker

If Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, then Jesus Was a Social Drinker. Believe it.

It’s been nearly fifty years since the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar debuted, and it was one half of four score and seven years ago that Kris Kristofferson repackaged Jesus as a Capricorn who ate organic foods, a doff of the cap to the early 70s movement of back-to-the-land communal messianism.

Which means it’s probably more than about time for Jesus to show up again as a prophet for this generation, a narrow-hipped working class hero with a key ring on his belt buckle, a stand up guy who holds his liquor well, has little social media presence, can drive a stick, fix a garbage disposal, open a beer with a lighter from his barstool at Ireland’s 32, and effortlessly maintain his progressive values all at the same time.

This is exactly the kind of messiah people are praying for in the San Francisco of the 2010s. Believe it.

As we wait for those prayers to be answered, let this song serve as a reminder that the golden-haloed blue-collar social drinking messiah could be the hunched beatnik on the street corner about to disappear into the night forever, or it could be the down-on-his-luck jamoke propping up the doorway you ‘re about to darken, whether it be to a cantina or a cathedral, but probably a cantina. So be cool.

(PS: That synth jam in the song’s extended fadeout…Keith Emerson lives!)

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In the Mausoleum (For Alan Vega)

Alan Vega (1938-2016)

This is probably the most up-tempo song you’re ever going to hear with the word “mausoleum” in the title and in the chorus, and that may have something to do with its dedication to Alan Vega, another rock and roll casualty of 2016.

There is an unmistakably mid-80s feel to this song, upbeat, clean, a little bit BoDeans, a little bit Timbuk 3. The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades in this mausoleum. And those shades probably resemble the ones Chuck Prophet is wearing on the album cover, a sun-drenched cover photo that looks more Latin America than San Francisco.

This bright aesthetic, this summertime thing, is characteristic for Prophet,  nicely bookending his persona in other songs as a world-weary NorCal singer-songwriter more in tune with life’s fog-colored corridors than with its spicy Havana days and nights.

The Mission Express’ hometown of San Francisco is just not a Southwest city the way its alter-ego city of LA is (although the actual Mission neighborhood of San Francisco is itself often described as an oasis of sunny Latin American culture in a sea of maritime fog).

This writer may be biased in the matter, but Chuck grew up in sun-baked suburban SoCal. When you grow up there (as did I), the bright sun stays baked into your rods and cones and muscles and bones no matter where life takes you; and that body memory stays primed, ready to be played like Angela Lansbury’s Queen of Diamonds every time you break free from the gravity of NorCal and return to the timeless road horizon of sun, sand, big sky, and heatwave-emitting asphalt.

There’s just something sui generis about the elements of empty desert, glaring sun, and Laundromat-dryer hot air transmitted through the strings of an electric guitar, when the cool darkness of a concrete barroom represents the only refuge you have from these elements.

It’s something that puts LA in the same camp as El Paso, Texas and the entire Southwest, as opposed to cities north like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

There’s a particular sound that the amps and drums make in the rarefied desert air–the twang of open strings through dry heat and a Fender Twin–that is somehow just not Northwest grunge. This is Bobby Fuller territory, as well as the homeland of Chuck Prophet and many others. Some call it desert rock, and some just call it the unmistakable sound of the open road.

photo credit: Tobias Negele

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Rider or the Train

This may be the purest power pop song on the album. I hear Nick Lowe in the arrangement and Warren Zevon in the lyrics, lyrics which pose the eternal question: Am I the rider or am I the train?

In other words, I think I am, therefore I am…but am what exactly? The creator or the creation? The dreamer or the dream?

And more importantly, will there be a pair of arms for me to fall into when the ride is over?

If songwriters didn’t chase that muse, we wouldn’t call it music.  And no matter who’s riding and who’s driving, this is road music. Enjoy every sandwich.

 

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If I Was Connie Britton

The fact that I took a couple of years off before finishing this article may be a blessing in disguise, because two years ago today I was pretty sure Connie Britton was some fabulous drag queen. But having since seen Season One of American Horror Story, I know exactly who the real Connie Britton is.

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Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues

Based on the title alone, this song ought to be the third act of the Prophet-Lipschutz Mid-Century trilogy of the album, the one preceded by Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (the song) and Bad Year for Rock n’ Roll.

But rather than exploring sentimentality and ambiguity like those first two songs do, this one expresses an angst-in-your-pants urgency, driven home with a Keith Richards rhythm track, and tempered with a “Baby I Need Your Loving” backing vocal and some catchy instrumental breaks.

Instead the third act of that trilogy arrives in the following ballad.

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We Got Up and Played

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is road music. The great Americana journey. One minute you’re looking into the rearview at the vanishing point of Bobby Fuller, and the next you’re staring up into the bright lights big city of your next big gig.

But as show time nears, you’re poignantly reminded that in rock n roll all that glitters is not glam. As often as not, that shimmering you see up ahead in the distance is the shards of broken glass from a bottle fight between Eddie the bartender and Henry Chinaski.

And that’s more or less the sacred space into which this song delivers us. Consider the picture painted by verse one, and note how quickly things go from bad to perverse:

Well, the soundman never showed

Doorman cracks a whip

Bartender standing in the middle of the street

With his pants around his neck

Ok, alright, the soundman never showed. It happens.

Alright okay, the doorman cracks a whip. That too happens. A lot.

But the bartender standing where?…With his pants around his what??Before the show has even started??

That doesn’t happen! And when it does, watch out, because all bets are off.

(Before going any further, can we just take a Tenderloin minute to appreciate how great a standalone haiku “bartender standing in the middle of the street with his pants around his neck” truly is?)

The bartender is supposed to be the anchor in the storm, the club diplomat, the maintainer of order, or at least the façade of order–at times welcoming and friendly, at other times cool and efficient, but always with his pants on right and never acting out in the middle of a psychotic episode.

It’s like the pilot bursting out of the cockpit midflight, running down the aisle in underwear and a Santa hat, screaming “This is TransLove Airways, and you’re all going to die today! You’re all going to die!!” as the co-pilot chases him down with a butterfly net.

It’s the one thing that’s just never supposed to happen, not in any kind of orderly universe. And when it does, it can only mean that a cataclysmic, world-altering crisis is upon us. It means that the poles have shifted, the center no longer holds, the fundamental building blocks of our universe no longer stack. Something wicked and Lovecraftian this way comes.

You’d expect some jocular roadhouse vocals to accompany lyrics like this. But no, not even close. Prophet sings it arrow straight, like a rock aria imbued with all the gravitas of “Memory” from the musical Cats. And note the tempo. This may be the slowest song the Mission Express has ever recorded. You just can’t hide from the naked truth of the words the way you can when they’re sung at a more rollicky clip.

If Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (the album) was truly written as a rock musical, then this song would be its climactic finale, the part of the show where you pull out your vape pens and hold them high.

If Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins was instead written as a road album, then this song is the journey’s end, the midlife crossroads where you take a good hard look at the choices that got you there and decide whether to re-up or cut bait.

Back to the lyrics:

Somebody famous

Played here last night

Two underage kids were found beneath the stage

There was a pretty nasty fight.

If you play the greatest show ever and nobody hears it because they’re all outside watching the bartender fashion his chinos into a noose, did you even make a sound at all?

For all practical purposes the answer to that question is no you did not.

Likewise, the stage may still be sticky from the drink spilled there by somebody famous last night, but it might as well have been a century ago for all the good it does you today.

And so it goes, the elusive pursuit of redemption via rock and roll. Either you just missed it last night, or it’s just up ahead in the proverbial manana, the one to which Janis Joplin said, “it’s all the same day, man. Tomorrow never comes.”

But you pretend not to hear Janis, to suspend cynicism for another 24 hours, to get back in the van and drive onward. Furthur. For a chance to pull the handle of the next big gig and see if everything comes up cherries this time. Will this be the one where Reuben Kincaid leaps out from the crowd in a spumoni leisure suit, waving a novelty-sized bonus check and telling you you’re going to be the biggest thing since Pink Lady met Jeff?

You’ll never know unless you go.

…Or maybe this is the time to lower expectations, to cut bait and reel it in, to understand that the journey is the reward–not the elusive pot of fame at the end of the rainbow, always close enough to touch, but always a day away and just beyond your grasp, no matter which direction you travel in time or space.

When we started out

We fought all the time

Dumb and afraid

And out of our minds.

What if you were the musician facing that crossroads? What if you had shed the skin of your previous life several time zones ago, burned all your bridges, loaded your gear into a vanful of frenemies and set off to conquer the world one glamourless gig at a time, chasing the dream further and further across rectilinear state lines, only to wind up at this carnival of the doomed, some 2,000 road years from home?

You thought getting there was the hard part? Not even close, mate. And the next move is yours. Do you pack up and go, or do you get up and play?

It continues:

I was thinking of you

Thought I might give you a call

I went out for a walk

Searching in vain, for some life beyond these walls.

The eucalyptus trees

Were all standing bare

Yeah, Cleveland’s kind of sad

This time of year

But we got up and played

We got up and sang

We plugged in our guitars

And tried to make it rain

We got up and played

Our friend the eucalyptus tree is back. Barren and gloomy this time, and with no tattoo-covered siren lounging in its shade, beckoning you to come hither and crawl inside her skin.

And hello Cleveland! Listeners are probably dying to know the backstory on this one. How much of it is inspired by true events, and how much of it is just an allegory for life on the road?

Is this the actual Cleveland we’re talking about here or the metaphorical Cleveland of Spinal Tap and sitcom jokes? Are eucalyptus trees even possible in sub-zero winters like those, or are they more of a Chekhov’s gun, introduced back in the album’s second track only to go off now?

It’s not hard to hear the weariness in this song and connect it back to the narrator in Bad Year for Rock and Roll, a guy who’s given up on dressing up and going out, a guy who instead stays in and partakes of life through the filter of TV now. Maybe the Cleveland incident was the last straw for this road vet, the one that finally made him hang up the rhinestones for good and just sink into the sofa and bathe in the warm glow of television instead.

Based on Prophet’s inscrutable delivery, you really can hear the payoff line, “we got up and played…” in a couple of distinct ways:

1: As an acknowledgment of profound defeat. The realization that not only are you going nowhere musically, but that you’ve got nowhere better to go physically either. So you get up and play, night after night after night, stuck in the proverbial Lodi with the Memphis blues again and again and again.

Or 2: As a rallying call to the group from its leader. John Lennon’s signature line to his struggling band mates when faced with yet another crummy gig was, “Where are we going, fellas?” 

Their response was always, “To the top, Johnny! To the toppermost of the poppermost!”

We know how that rock n roll tale ends. So why not this one too? When your faith gets tested, the answer is invariably more faith, right?

When the chorus does reach its triumphal swell (we got up and plaa-yyed,) it manages to lift you out of your seat and take you right along with it whether you feel like going or not.

This is the power ballad of the album, the one people sing along with on the jukebox in an Irish pub. Even Jesus the Social Drinker pauses a moment to look up from his stool and fix his eyes on some distant horizon when this song comes on.

The singer may be wallowing in failure and self-pity that night in Cleveland, but tomorrow is another day, and last night’s disappointments are next week’s lyrics. Amiright?

So, either: Untie the pants from around your neck, pull up the bootstraps, and get back in the van!

Or: Pawn the pants and the boots and the amp and the guitar, take the Greyhound home, and clock in to begin serving the first day of the rest of your life.

This allegory isn’t just for the touring musician, either. This song is for you and me, and everyone else who reads liner notes.

What do we do when Bobby Fuller dies way too young? When Bobby Kennedy dies way too young? When rock and roll itself ages gracefully for 50 years and then starts to terminally fade all at once?

What do we do when people use perfect summer days to fly airplanes into skyscrapers? When presidential elections become plot points for primetime wrestling cable news reality shows?

Do we stay inside and call it a day, or do we go out and play?

This is the journey we’re on. We never know exactly where it ends or how. Whether it’s going to be a good ride or a bad ride is pretty much up to us. We write our own ticket. We script our own ending.

Do we want the epitaph to read ‘We Sat Down and Watched’ or ‘We Got Up and Played’?

To those of us for whom being born into the Postwar Cinematic Pax Americana stew means never having to contemplate any real existential threats to our way of life–not even a draft board to report to anymore, the answer to that eternal question tends to be the very essence of our own little crossroads. Do we go out and see the show? Or do we stay in and watch the tube?

The title of the song tells us exactly what the Mission Express would do. The final, hopeful verse ends on an unresolved note, but places the ball firmly in the listener’s court:

“We loaded in a couple of hours ago. Now we’re standing around, wondering who’ll show….”

You can’t see Bobby Fuller or David Bowie or Prince anymore. But the Mission Express still do go out on the road, and they still do get up and play, including in Cleveland. And while it’s easy to assume we can always just catch them the next time they come through, the rock and roll world is littered with the sawdust and peanut shells of if-onlys and should’ve, could’ve, would’ves.

If you had a dollar for every time someone said, “Hey man, I could have seen those guys back when they played the Starry Plough…but didn’t for some reason that seemed important at the time,” then you could probably afford a month’s rent in San Francisco.

The band is loaded in and ready to go. The question for rock n roll in the 2010s and beyond is…will anyone show?

*

Alex Nieto

The curtain opens for BFDFYS on a hot summer morn in El Paso, and it closes on a cold winter’s eve in Cleveland.

But the album is not quite finished yet. One last curtain call remains before it’s all done. Like the hand of Carrie, just when you thought it was all over, one more song will reach out to angrily pull you right back in.

The album kicked off with the lyric, “a cop shoots a kid on a hot summer morn…” And the whole cycle begins anew with Alex Nieto, when another group of cops shoots another kid in another town, San Francisco this time. And this time it’s not just a song, but a true headline-grabbing story.

28-year old Alex Nieto was one of those relatively rare things in San Francisco, a native and lifelong resident of the city, the Bernal Heights neighborhood to be precise, a community particularly impacted by gentrification in this era.

On the evening of March 21, 2014, Nieto was walking along a path in the same neighborhood park he played in as a child, about to eat a burrito he had just bought, before eventually heading down the hill to his job, when he had an encounter with some of the new residents in the neighborhood, an encounter that proved fatal for Nieto and shocked people into wondering whose San Francisco it was anymore. I have tried, but find it hard to tell this story in the voice of an objective narrator. Many San Franciscans do. “Death by Gentrification,” is how one local journalist described it. You can read her account here.

Alex Nieto” is a protest song, the kind strummed with the knuckles of a clenched fist, and no worries about hitting all the strings or forming a true chord. Swinging away before the amp has even warmed up.

The whole point of this kind of protest song is to get it all down in one hot take before emotions have a chance to settle (Neil Young penning “Ohio.” CSNY recording and releasing it within weeks of the killings the song commemorates).

The policemen who shot 59 bullets at the body of Alex Nieto have all moved up through the ranks. The dog-walking techies who called the cops on Nieto have moved out to leafier suburbs, while Alex Nieto’s life ended on the hill where he was born, largely because he didn’t realize that his park, where he went to eat a burrito in peace, had become a dog park, where dudes unleash their canines to use as babe magnets, and where people like Alex Nieto himself were now perceived as unwelcome threats.

The album tells us that Bobby Fuller died for our sins. The question San Francisco is asking, or should be asking, is whose sins did Alex Nieto die for?

 

IV. Coda

If you expected a story with any kind of satisfactory ending, then you came to the wrong place. San Francisco feels more and more like A Tale of Two Cities now, and in this sense the city serves as a harbinger of the world to come. While we continue to bask in the remaining glow of the Bobby Fuller years, we are already 20 years into a new century, one that has only begun its complete overhaul of our analogue world into 1s and 0s.

The first crop of digital natives is about to start having children of their own. Today’s college freshmen have had iPhones since first grade. The current frontier is the so-called Internet of Things. My adorable neighbor child just began kindergarten. His first assignment was to draw a picture of everyone in his household. He drew a picture of his parents, the cat….and the Roomba.

As for this writer, I tried exactly once to issue a voice command to my digital assistant, asking Siri several years ago for the words to a Wild Man Fischer song. I requested, “My Name Is Larry: Lyrics.” And the result? Siri thinks I instructed it that my name is Larry Lyrics, and it’s called me that ever since whenever accidentally summoned from it from its slumber. 

Legendary Rhodes Scholar, singer-songwriter, contemporary of Bobby Fuller, and onetime literary professor, Kris Kristofferson was recently profiled in Rolling Stone for his 80th birthday. They described him as spending his days walking around his house in a haze of cannabis, periodically threatening to come out of retirement and write another song using his “hand machine” (his term for a smartphone). Old school songwriters know a futuristically powerful recording studio tool when they hold one. 

We are vestiges of a pre-digital era, the Bobby Fuller era if you like, a narrow bridge of time connecting the world of horse carriages with the world of self-driving electric cars, an era not much longer than a human lifespan in total.  We are a generation that has one foot in both ages, but belongs to neither.

We are perhaps not unlike like the proverbial ‘49ers–people who came on muleback to a pre-industrial San Francisco when they were young, and were still there at the turn of the last century amidst the din of automobiles, factories and steamships, bloviating about how good the good old days were to anyone who would stop long enough to listen.

Back in the last century, 1996 to be precise, when I lived in the Mission neighborhood, I remember shaking my head sadly at two 19-year olds because they didn’t know how to work a record player. I remember thinking, ‘this pair is so not ready for the real world.’ The old ‘49ers must have said the same thing about 1890s San Francisco teenagers who didn’t know how to saddle a horse. But which party was better positioned for the world that was about to emerge with the new century?

Of course, these are just the personal projections of an aging beer fly on the smart-wall of the rapidly evolving biodome of San Francisco, a guy who stays in a lot more than he goes out. There is an entire generation living through and in some cases being the change in these decidedly exciting times.

BFDFYS is an album full of melancholy for a vanishing glorious past, but also a celebration of a glorious present–a world of tattoos, tail fins, sudden chance encounters, dive bars, Tejano music, rock n roll, and the wide open road.

It may be an analogue world trying to share the waterhole with an ascending digital world, like Neanderthals and homo sapiens, but it is a cinematic and photogenic Postwar world, and film is free now. Future historians will look back on and listen to the ephemera of this Postwar/pre-IoT world and conclude that there may have never been a time on this planet when people were happier or more content.

Meanwhile, unless the Mission Bay biotech labs begin making tremendous advances in stem cells starting tomorrow, the actuarial tables tell us that the 2020s will be a very bad decade for rock n roll.

If the sun must set, long live the sunset…

This is the stretch of road you’re born onto. And once you’re off, you’re off. So, until Chuck and the gang’s next album drops, fill ‘er up with ethyl, pop in the Mission Express, and drive like it’s a rental.

***

 

(PS: If you made it this far, and want more of these Mid-Century musings, you might want to check out the TV Room Podcast here)

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Alex Nieto (1986-2014)

 

 

 

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