Category: culture

New Turntable, New (Old) Vinyl

Spring has sprung and it’s time to write again. The world hasn’t quite ended but but I promise to get back to that before long.

In my last post I mentioned the latest Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The more I listened the more it seemed like a recording made for vinyl . Which got me talking out loud about wanting to get back into listening to vinyl albums. Which inspired my wife to get me a turntable for Christmas.

I’m now the owner of an Audio-Technica AT-LP60-USB, which allows one to listen to vinyl through (and, if desired, make recordings from) a computer. So far this unit has exceeded expectations. It’s belt-driven (easy installation) and to my relief the table spins at the correct speed — in high school I had a Craig system that played records a hair too fast, enough to be annoying. The stock stylus yields clear, rich playback. The unit comes with a built-in pre-amp, an advantage over comparable models. It’s popular and a big seller, probably the best budget turntable for the investor in audiophile vinyl who wants assurance the player won’t damage his/her records.

Some reviews of vinyl versions of A Moon Shaped Pool pointed at bad pressings with surface noise and skipping. So I decided to use an Amazon gift card to pick up a couple of very different albums: 180 gram reissues from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and a lesser known English band, Slowdive.

img_20170312_152507455.jpgAre You Experienced? is a record my parents would’ve never bought me when I was six years old. Word was out that “Purple Haze” opened with chords that clearly contained diabolus in musica. By the time I was old enough to buy my own albums I was interested in bands like Kansas, Yes, and Pink Floyd. With 2017 would marking the 50th anniversary of the watershed year in pop music I wanted something to commemorate it. I’d heard the title track to Are You Experienced? enough times on album-oriented radio to decide it was a favorite deep cut.

The iconic bright yellow and purple album arrived, appropriately enough, on the first day of daylight savings time (Amazon made good on its promised shipping date, even though it was a Sunday). The 2014 reissue is among the last projects completed by remastering wiz George Marino. There’s minimal surface noise and clear playback with the depth, resonance, and analog edginess Hendrix deserves.

The whole album is an undisputed masterpiece and game-changer in the annals of electric guitar, so there’s hardly a superlative I can offer here that hasn’t been written thousands of times. Apart from the title track and the obvious hits (this is almost a greatest hits record in itself) I especially like dark finale to side A, “I Don’t Live Today” with its pulsating, strobe-like effect of Hendrix’s whammy bar. This LP is the American version, so another favorite “Highway Chile” isn’t present. But that’s hardly a complaint. I can’t wrap my mind around how great this record sounds.

img_20170314_121045.jpgA couple of days later Slowdive arrived. I ordered Blue Day, a compilation of early EP sides from the band’s first run between 1991-95. I discovered Slowdive while getting into Velour 100, a Michigan band which drew “shoegaze” comparisons. After listening to every recording of Slowdive available on YouTube I concluded their EP’s were stronger than their first two LP’s (they later made an excellent experimental third album as their contract expired).

Blue Day (1992) captures Slowdive at their late teen, pristine, pre-LP creative best. They had no producer in the traditional sense; engineer Chris Hufford allowed the band to “explore the space.” The results were arresting. While following the steps of My Bloody Valentine in terms of arrays of effects pedals (hence, “shoegaze”), Slowdive forged their own slow, sad, and gorgeously ethereal sound. Buried under the swirl of effects and distortion were plaintive pop songs. Chief songwriter Neil Halstead had not been allowed to listen to pop records as a youth; he reached into a classical and orchestral background to create something with density.

“Avalyn 1,” the second track on side A, is simple in construction — a repetitive two-chord progression — but important in documenting the moment when Slowdive found their signature sound. The next tracks, “Morningrise” and “She Calls” are among their very best, displaying an almost cinematic intensity.

Why did they quit? The Britpop rivalry between Blur and Oasis erupted; suddenly “shoegaze” was dreadfully out of fashion — or, as Slowdive drummer Simon Scott put it, people were no longer “willing to admit they liked it. Halstead and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive’s female voice) continued as Mojave 3 while the other members pursued other projects inside and out of music. But Slowdive’s music didn’t die. In fact, in their absence it attained cult status. Such was the demand for a reunion that Slowdive reassembled for tours in 2014 and 2015. Now there’s a new album in the offing, and another tour this spring. I’m going to see them in May during one of just eight North American dates. I hope to get close enough to watch guitarist Christian Savill’s technique.

So I’m happy with the turntable and these first couple of high-quality vinyl acquisitions. Hendrix sounds better through headphones while Slowdive is better through speakers — especially Nick Chaplin’s bass — owing, I suppose, to how their respective albums were engineered.

With all the other media available for music I don’t see myself spending a lot of money to rebuild or replace an old record collection (some are still playable). But my short list includes Led Zeppelin (I would argue their best), King’s X Dogman (to compliment Hendrix), Buffalo Springfield Again,  Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi, and that mysterious bootleg of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. 

Oh, and that Radiohead LP if they get the pressing right.

 

 

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When Beauty Saved the World

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                                                 Elena Mukhina, 1978 world champion

If gymnastics is coming from your soul, then you will be an unforgettable gymnast…

~ Natalia Yurchenko

During this past summer’s Rio Olympics there was discussion on Facebook about the women’s gymnastics competition. The stature and physical strength of the gold medalist American women was noted in contrast to the skinny, underaged appearance of their opponents. And their powerful tumbling skills wowed everyone.

While I laud the American victory, I wasn’t wowed. I found the competition aesthetically displeasing. While men’s gymnastics continues to evolve with riskier acrobatic skill, the women’s side of the sport, placing the same emphasis on acrobatics, has lost something. Twitchy, bouncy, bounding, it’s hardly women’s gymnastics anymore. Given the general drift of Western dominated culture this is probably unsurprising. But I don’t like it, and I didn’t withhold my two cents from my teens while watching the events on television. As a kid who watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports religiousl, I’ve followed the sport since the mid ‘70s. In my opinion women’s gymnastics reached its efflorescence at the 1989 World Championships when the Soviet Union — two years from disappearing from the map — fielded the greatest team in the sport’s history. From artistic standpoint it’s been mostly downhill from there.

I’ve been listening to the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it struck me that ambient bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood’s incidental arrangements have the tone and texture of old Soviet documentary soundtracks. Some YouTubers have loaded training footage of the classic Soviet gymnasts onto their channels, so I was prompted to take a look.

The Soviet team trained at a secret facility outside Moscow called Ozero Krugloye, “Round Lake” (a moon-shaped lake, if you will). In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cameras went inside this gym which, like everything in the old Soviet Union, looked well-worn with faded panels and browned, oily ballet bars. The footage is unsparing, hardly the stuff of propaganda. With a training regimen as strict as Marine PT, some of the girls have a look of panic as they repeat attempts at mastering moves. There are fun moments: a toga party, practical jokes, and laughter. But mostly clouds of chalk, wrist tape, t-shirts in English over leotards, disheveled hair held back with ribbons of red and white yarn, and facial expressions serious beyond their years.

Those faces are familiar from Saturdays in front of the TV: Maria Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova, Stella Zakharova, Elena Mukhina, Natalia Yurchenko…names as obscure to most Americans as a list of cosmonauts.

Natalia Yurchenko, 1983 world champion

If the name Yurchenko rings a bell it’s because this gal, born above the Arctic circle, reinvented vaulting in the early ‘80s with a round-off back handspring onto the springboard. Three decades later both male and female gymnasts are doing variations of the Yurchenko. The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame described Yurchenko’s performances as, “hypnotic for their unhurried beauty” and “paradoxical.” In the documentaries “Natasha” is captured mentoring younger gymnasts, playing a somber piece on the gym’s old upright piano, and exchanging icey stares across the tumbling floor with her gruff and burly coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, her eyes cold and blue as the Arctic sea.

Like all coaches under the Soviet regime Rastorotsky was under the gun to produce champions. The girls felt the “form and pressure” of the time: between 1952 and 1992 Soviet women won all but one of the Olympic team titles in gymnastics. Medals aside, there was an overarching commitment to doing the sport the right way, and they produced routines through strain and sorrow that solved the problem most worth solving: how to express beauty. Theirs was a synthesis of daring acrobatics and sublime artistry. The toe point, the subtle hand gesture, the extension of the limbs into space, the balletic expression — all exuded what Cathy Rigby called amplitude.

In one of the documentaries, choreographer Emilia Sakalova exhorts Stella Zakharova, “Your hands are your language. You speak about life with them…You protest against death and it won’t overcome you. It won’t!”

Years ago my two oldest girls and I attended minor league hockey games with a pair of Russian-Ukrainian friends, a father and son. One evening after a game Sergei (the son) needed to stop by the hospital where he worked to check his schedule. The kids and I waited outside with his dad, Viktor. At length Viktor stood on the concrete parking stop block and began balancing, leaping, pirouetting — as if he were on the balance beam, laughing and smiling and challenging my girls to give it a try. Maybe balancing the human form on the precipice is perhaps a deep-seated Russian thing, as natural to them as picking up a ball and glove to us.

Regardless of how hard the Soviet coaches were, the girls wanted to be at Round Lake. They had expressive aspirations as most people do. The system aside, they were hardly hardened communists (not a few of them have since come to the United States). When I watched them on Wide World of Sports years ago I began to apprehend a humanity “over there” capable of things noble, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy. These girls lead me to think about “other” people in terms beyond the geopolitical narrative.

In Moscow, an orphaned girl was taken to the CSKA sports club, “Central Red Army,” known for its soccer and ice hockey teams. The girl wanted to be a figure skater, but jumped at the chance to do gymnastics. Years later, in 1978, Elena Mukhina destroyed a filled-out and less focused Nadia Comaneci at the world championships in Strasbourg, France. If there was one Soviet gymnast who exemplified the ideal, it was Mukhina: tumbling runs on the floor and death-defying moves on the bars and balance beam previously unseen, without compromising a single detail of the graceful line of the studied dancer.

A broken leg kept Mukhina out of the ‘79 championships. In the run-up to the Moscow Games her coaches pushed too hard. At practice, running on a leg not properly healed, she under-rotated a dangerous Thomas salto and snapped her spine.

Lena Mukhina spent the first half her life extending the range of human motion and floating through space; the latter half she spent paralyzed. Bitterness gave way to acceptance and faith. “Everything good in my life comes from God,” she told a magazine. She added that she would do even greater things, and “the world will see.” I can’t be sure, but my guess is that she was referring to resurrection and the age to come. Her body stilled, her large eyes were as alive and contemplative as those of the saints whose icons lined the bookshelves and walls of her apartment.

So as the Rio games fade from view; as the tenth anniversary of Lena’s passing from this present world approaches; as this world seems destined to rekindle a Cold War…here’s to beauty.

Why We Need the Creed

In 1993 Contemporary Christian music artist Rich Mullins released his magnum opus, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. The flagship song from that album was “Creed,” a hammered dulcimer-driven recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, punctuated by Mullins’ own affirmation: I did not make it / no, it is making me / it is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.

As a hardcore evangelical (which I still am) and an amateur student of theology (still that, too) I was, at the time, wary of words like “liturgy” and “creed.” My, uh, credo was,

My faith has found a resting place / Not in device or creed / I trust the ever living One / His wounds for me shall plead…

Turns out the late Ragamuffin was onto something a decade or so before the rest of a restless band of evangelicals, exhausted from the culture wars and endless schism, caught up with the value of a liturgy and a common creedal legacy.

img_20160905_134335.jpgEnter a man for the moment. Michael Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley College, an evangelical Anglican theological school near Melbourne, Australia. Bird’s own life has followed a trajectory that resonates with many a Western evangelical: an unbeliever as a youth, a machine-gun toting paratrooper in the Australian military (the Aussie version of Bear Grylls), converted in a Baptist church, then discovering the Anglican tradition. With a Ph.D. in New Testament studies Bird is a prolific author of scholarly articles and books, and maintains the popular blog Euangelion (link in the right column). Writing from a “post-post-modern” perspective, Bird is keen to speak to an audience of believers and skeptics alike trying to figure out which end is up.

His latest book, What Christians Ought to Believe, serves to help the scattered ragamuffins get on the same page as their world becomes increasingly post-Christian:

Know this: the world of our parents and grandparents is no more. We have to realize that the Western world has changed; it either already is or else is very quickly becoming decidedly post-Christian and radically secular. The church is no longer the chaplain for Christendom; it is now a recalcitrant resistance to a secularizing agenda. The church is no longer the moral majority; it is now the immoral minority with offensive views on everything from family to religious pluralism and sexuality. The church is no longer the first estate but more like an enemy of the state through its unflinching devotion to God and its uncompromising refusal to bow the knee to cultural and political lords of the land. [p. 203]

Written like an Ignatius of Antioch — or a soldier who’s slept in some trenches and eaten a few bugs.

His book explains why the Apostles’ Creed is indispensable to shoring up the faith of the faithful, and shoring the faithful together.

As Bird shows in his helpful appendix, the creed was developed from a series of catechetical questions attributed to Hippolytus of Rome around 215 A.D. Each line reads almost identically to the “Do you believe…?” questions from the catechism. As a Western document the Apostles’ Creed never caught on in the Christian East, though it predates the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed by more than a century. But as a compact statement it marks the key signposts of the faith identified by the early church.

Bird expounds on the significance of each line of the creed. For example, only three humans are mentioned: Jesus, Mary, and Pontius Pilate. Why the latter? Because Pilate’s inclusion places the central event of the Christian story within recorded human history, as if the creed dares the reader to look into the writings of Philo and Flavius Josephus to ponder whether the events of Christ’s life were historical or fictional.

Bird gives four reasons why the Apostles’ Creed invigorates believers’ faith:

1) In a liturgical context, its recitation marks a logical transition from the ministry of the Word to the Lord’s Supper. “We recite the creed after sermons to remember that we weigh all teachings against the fabric of Scripture as it has been taught in the churches.”

2) The creed promotes unity and fellowship among believers, “a faith that transcends denominational divisions.”

3) The creed places us within the story of God’s plan to usher in the new creation. We are situated with other believers of the past, present, and future.

4) The creed helps strengthen one’s devotional life. Quoting Thomas Oden, “‘I believe’…is to speak from the heart, to reveal who one is by confessing one’s essential belief, the faith that makes life worth living.”

Or, as the Ragamuffin sang, I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am…

 

Supernatural

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In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul reminded his readers that, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth… God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” This was in keeping with Jesus’ dictum that the least in the kingdom of God is the greatest: the last shall be first.

In that same letter Paul also cautioned his readers to be careful with their bodies, viz. sexual immorality, because these are temples of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, these bodies will be raised again. The body — the physical creation — matters greatly; in keeping with the Creator’s righteousness it will be restored and renewed.

Heaven knows I love sports, and over my life I’ve tried my best in football, basketball, baseball, cross country, tennis, golf. But I sucked as an athlete. It made no difference how hard I practiced. I wasn’t endowed with speed or agility or finely-tuned motor skills. So my empathy and sympathy have always been with the underdogs, the losers, those brave enough to participate despite the inevitable fact that they will be destroyed and humiliated on the playing field, the court, or the pool.

Yet, there comes those times when an athlete appears whose abilities are so off the charts, so devastatingly marvelous that you cannot help but sit in awe, as if God were giving us a sneak peak of the physical perfection that will adorn the age to come.

Washington Post writer David Sheinin has taken a beating in comment threads for having compared Olympic and World Champion swimmer Katie Ledecky to a Lamborghini. I won’t be surprised if I “trigger” somebody (such is the state of American culture is these days) by drawing a comparison between this incredible young athlete and the greatest racehorse that ever lived. Frankly, I can come up with no other. What Katie Ledecky did in the recent Olympic 800 meter freestyle event is perfectly reminiscent of Secretariat’s mastery of the field at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. It still tingles the skin to her CBS announcer Chic Anderson’s call as Secretariat put on the after-burners in the back stretch, leaving Sham and the other now forgotten horses in the dust:

“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by twellllllve…Secretariat by fourteen lengths on the turn…”

Maybe the social justice keyboard warriors should take a chill pill. Sheinin wasn’t intending to “objectify” Katie Ledecky with the Lamborghini comparison. The speed, the elegance, the precision and power of Ledecky’s performance — it all evokes something beyond the reach of humans.

Reflecting on Secretariat’s Belmont run, Pat Lynch said,

It was like the Lord was holding the reins…Secretariat was one of his creatures, and he maybe whispered to him, “Go.” And that horse really went. It was really almost a supernatural experience. It really was.” 

Secretariat sailed down the home stretch before a crowd 70,000 spectators, whose collective panic over his breakneck pace gave way to delirium as he crossed the finish line 31 lengths in front. He destroyed the track record by 2 and 3/5’s seconds — an achievement that will likely never be topped.

George Plimpton recalled that teenage girls leaning against the rail wept as “Big Red” blew by.

Steve Crist summed it up: “You’re not supposed to win majors by a dozen strokes; you’re not supposed to score a hundred points — and you’re not supposed to win the Belmont by thirty-one lengths.”

We can now add: You’re not supposed to shatter a world record (your own) while swimming a qualifying heat. You’re not supposed to beat the next closest swimmer by eleven seconds — a distance in the pool as eternal as 31 lengths.

Katie Ledecky is the greatest swimmer in the world. Perhaps the greatest ever. But in an Olympics where the media buzz was focused on Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, Ledecky wasn’t granted the singular attention Secretariat commanded in the summer of ’73 when nothing else was going on besides baseball and Watergate.

Secretariat never had to do post-event press conferences, grant interviews, sign autographs, or pose for selfies with giddy fans. But you could tell he was a proud horse. Somewhere in that equine mind he knew he was a bad ass, and he wore it regally.

Ledecky has done several interviews during and after her Olympic feats. She is impossibly unassuming, taken aback somewhat by the accolades yet taking it all in stride. In an interview CBS’ Nora O’Donnell, coach Bruce Gemmell said that Ledecky’s success is a mix of training, technique, and genetics (ah, don’t I know it) that makes her a “rare breed.”

O’Donnell asked Ledecky, “What do you eat?”

“Ah, um,” [laughing] “whatever my mom makes me.”

So modest, so ordinary, so human, it brought tears to my eyes.

The Christ Haunted Queen

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                                                  Rapt fans at a Queen concert, 1973

Four decades ago this summer I attended a pool party for our eighth grade class – our last splash together before becoming lowly high school freshmen. We were invited to bring our favorite records to play on the sound system. I brought along Queen’s latest LP, A Night at the Opera, featuring the iconic finale, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a hit. Of the records brought to the party mine got played through a couple of times. My cool factor rose several notches. Cool enough to have an actual girl sit on my shoulders for a round of “chicken fight” with another boy-girl pair.

The first time I heard Queen on the radio (’75) I was drawn to their dense and unique sound. I went to the drug store and bought the single “Killer Queen,” with its scintillating B-side, “Flick of the Wrist” featuring some exotically Middle Eastern guitar leads. A rocking band with some tight female harmonies – or so I thought. Turns out those high-pitched vocals belonged to Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor.

When “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the definitive rock anthem of the spring of ’76 I scraped together seven bucks to buy A Night at the Opera. After immersing myself in it for weeks I turned to collecting their older albums – a good exercise, because in my evaluation everything Queen did after Opera was marked by steady decline. By the ’80s they would become unlistenable to my ears.

Side 1 of Sheer Heart Attack (’75) is Queen’s high water mark. Book-ended by two sizzling rockers by guitarist Brian May (“Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here”), the middle section is comprised of “Killer Queen” and a three-track suite: Taylor’s proto-grunge “Tenement Funster,” featuring a guitar break that nods to David Gilmour on “Time”; the frenetic “Flick of the Wrist,” and the classically infused “Lily of the Valley.”

To say Queen II (’74) is excessive is an understatement. The tracks are so busy and overwrought there’s hardly one I can nowadays listen all the way through, though each has its moments. “Ogre Battle,” for example, opens with shredding, Hendrix-like backwards riff that preludes speed metal.

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                                                                                    Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, Brian May, and John Deacon

But the self-titled Queen (’73) has some real jewels. Best known for the single “Keep Yourself Alive” and the AOR favorite “Liar,” the album has lyrical depth to match a musical range that keeps the listener guessing. It includes a dark and obscure track buried at the end of side one. The more I hear it the more convinced I am that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its counterpart, or aftermath.

“A band is a like a sausage factory”

In a 1985 interview with Los Angeles DJ Mary Turner, Freddie Mercury cautioned listeners not to read anything into Queen’s music. There are no hidden messages, no political stances; they were not out to change the world. For Mercury, pop music is a business aimed at satisfying consumers. He categorized Queen’s music as “escapist.” Moreover, the songs were like sausages to be eaten and then, well, you know. He especially didn’t see the need for people go prowling around the band’s old material, or cling to it. They should move on to enjoy new things. For Mercury, exploring other genres and making different kinds of music prevented boredom. Anything and everything was possible, acceptable.

Well, perhaps that aesthetic had been at play all along. So much so that Mercury left space for rather looming figure to make three appearances on Queen.

“Great King Rat” (side 1, track 3) is about a “dirty old man” who leads people into destruction. After a tempo change the voice become first person; he beckons people not to believe their Bibles, and reminds them that when “the great Lord when he died, sinners knelt at his side.”

“Jesus” (side 2, track 5) is highly visual, depicting crowds “going down to see the Lord Jesus,” in search of healing. It’s impossible to determine the slant of this song: curious historical sketch or mocking satire: an “unclean” leper kneeling at Jesus’ feet “rang his bell.”

But the innermost track — the one an impatient listener might skip while flipping the vinyl to get to “Liar” — is no joke.

Bismillah, no! We will not let you go…

“My Fairy King” is Queen at their theatrical best, encapsulating the ground they would cover over their first four albums in four minutes and four seconds. Lyrically, it depicts a land brimming with childhood imagination. Its king “can see things that are not there for you and me.” Lions lie down down with deer; dragons fly like sparrows through the air. In this world the king “can do right and nothing wrong.”

But,

Then came men to savage in the night
To run like thieves and to kill like knives
To take away the power from the magic hand
To bring about the ruin to the promised land

The scene turns to “burning hell with screaming pain,” and a voice calls out in the cacophony, “Son of heaven set me free and let me go.”  

A plaintive section follows with a piano line and lyric that anticipate the theme of “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

Someone, someone…has drained the colour from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
O Mother Mercury
Look what they’ve done to me (yeah)
I cannot run I cannot hide

The denouement of guitar and piano builds in intensity before subsiding in a pool of dying notes, like the light fading from a Maxfield Parrish painting.

As if to say, nothing really matters.

 

Spoonful Blues

It’s all I want honey, in this creation is a…spoonful
I go to bed, get up and wanna fight ’bout a…spoonful…

~ Charley Patton, “Spoonful Blues” (1929)dust

Last fall I took up Middle Eastern cooking, specifically dishes from the Levant region. In addition to preparing kabobs and salads with my wife I also got into making homemade booza, a sticky Arabic ice cream made famous at the Bakdash parlor in Al-Hamidiyah souq, Damascus, Syria. While visiting a nearby halal market to buy ingredients I noticed on the shelf a stack of boxes of Lipton Dust tea. This is the cheap brand Unilever ships to Cairo and Damascus. I decided to give it a spin.

Back at the house I put a spoonful of Dust into a coffee filter and ran boiling water through it. The tea that filled my mug was dark. Opaque. I stirred in some sugar and poured it over ice (we’re in the South where iced tea rules). The color in the glass was a dark burgundy. The flavor took me right back to sultry summers in the Carolina Piedmont, when my mom made pitchers of bold, refreshing tea unlike anything I’ve tasted since.

The caffeine kick was exhilarating. I was hooked.

Lipton? Really? This reminded me of that golden moment at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival when bluesman Mississippi John Hurt leaned into the microphone and told a crowd of hipsters, “Just one spoonful of Maxwell House is better than a whole cup of that other [trendy] coffee.” It also underscored the fact that the Lipton sold in U.S. grocery stores is substantially weaker, not what mom used to make.

Wouldn’t you know it. A couple of weeks ago my wife went by the halal market and reported that Dust was no longer in stock. In disbelief I went back last week. Still not there. The worried man behind the counter begged me to try a bag of Çaykur black tea from Turkey. I would have none of it (among other things Dust is cheaper).

I was edgy. Twitchy. I walked out.

I can’t buy Dust online. I’ve looked everywhere. Amazon? No. Ebay? No. There’s an Egyptian site for it but NO FREAKING ORDER FORM.

Hey. Unilever. Customer here in North Carolina who would like to buy mass quantities of your junk. COME ON, MAN!!!

Can anybody, please, help a brother out? Just a spoonful…

The Rolling Stones: My Recipe for Goat Head Soup

I had every intention of writing about the new Monkees album, Good Times!, currently sailing up the summer pop chart fueled by songs penned by Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Noel Gallagher (Oasis)/Paul Weller (The Jam), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). Perfect for the earbuds while watching the kids at the splashpad. But so much is being said and written about it that adding my own two cents seems pointless.

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      Classic Stones: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones

Moreover, I got side-tracked. While very much in a ’60s frame of mind I noticed that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I mentioned this on Facebook, noting how I admired Watts for eschewing the hedonistic rock n’ roll lifestyle while adding, “I can count on one hand the number of Rolling Stones songs I really like.” Which got me wondering: is that really the case?

So for fun I got on Spotify and scoured the billions of tracks the Stones recorded over a 43 year span to see if I could find enough material to comprise a playlist — an album’s worth of “greatest hits” for a band I really don’t like. I wanted a baker’s dozen, 13 seeming an appropriate number for the Stones. I couldn’t even find 12. But throwing in a couple for purely sentimental reasons I came up with eleven. Nigel Tufnel’s cardinal number.

Here they are in the order I would listen to them:

  1. “Mother’s Little Helper.” I gave this song to my youngest daughter as a guitar exercise for working on chord changes — and to watch her expression when she heard Keith Richards’ cackling crow call slide on the electric 12-string. She was unfazed. “I like it. But unless I capo it I won’t be able to sing it.” You go, girl.
  2. “Honky Tonk Women.” This one reminds me of a tall blonde babysitter my brother and I had over the summer of 1969. My bro and I were four and eight, respectively, and she was 14, but very much grown-up to me. When she came over to watch us she would play football with me in the vacant lot next to our property. I remember tackling her once — actually, she ran over me. My face collided with her collar bone and, after a flash of light, the sensation of her frame raking over me: hip, knee, ankle. I opened my eyes to a bouquet of mown grass, perfume, and girl-sweat. Toward the end of that summer our families met at a lakeside park for an outing. She and her sisters sat around me at the picnic table in their swimsuits like sea nymphs, and “Honky Tonk Women” came bursting over the park’s PA speakers. Not that she was ever that kind of girl, mind you. But these memories from summers ago are summoned whenever I hear that cowbell and drum intro.
  3. “Factory Girl.” Tracks from side two of Beggars Banquet (1968) make up over a third of my list. Both waggish and wistful, this acoustic work finds the band handling the old-time country idiom with a reverence that would win Ralph Peer’s approval. It ranks with Zeppelin’s “Going to California” among tracks you’d least expect from a British rock band. Mumford can’t touch this.
  4. “Lady Jane.” Keeping it acoustic we go flipside of “Mother’s Little Helper,” from a song redolent of Appalachia to one featuring Brian Jones on Appalachian dulcimer. I read somewhere of Mick Jagger (I think) saying this instrument was used in the olden days of England. But the lap dulcimer is actually German in origin. Regardless, this stately yet fragile piece, done in a modal Renaissance form, stirs like dawn light through stained glass.
  5. “Stray Cat Blues.” This is an instance where Richards’ maxim on “weaving” guitars actually works. Later in the ’70s some of his and Ronnie Woods’ live duos sounded to my ears like cats fighting; here, the coordination, the energy between the guitars and piano is scintillating. The extended, hi hat-driven outro anticipates Led Zeppelin II.
  6. “Dandelion.” No apologies to Stones purists here. As a Syd Barrett fan I’m a sucker for a musical childhood frolic with hints of darkness crouching in the willows. The Stones could never write like Barrett, but this comes close. I remember hearing this song as a youth late at night on an AOR station and thinking, “Hmm. So the Stones did some spacey, psychedelic stuff? I need to check out more of them sometime…”
  7. “Street Fighting Man.” This. Not only is this unequivocally the best Rolling Stones song, it’s one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Period. It came out the summer of ’68 on the heels of the MLK and RFK assassinations and the donnybrook of a riot at the Democratic National Convention. What amazes in this song is that the only electric instrument present is the bass. The rest is a tour de force of compressed acoustic guitar thrashing, Watts pounding on a toy drum kit, Jones’ sitar hanging over the mayhem like clouds of detonated white phosphorous, and Nicky Hopkins’ reverb-drenched piano galloping off in the left channel. Add to this Jagger’s best vocals of his career: “Heeeeeyyyyyy! Said my name is called Disturrrrbaaance…”
  8. “Ruby Tuesday.” A song so lovely even Jagger liked it. “Who could hang a name on you?” Well, a Maryville, TN-based restaurant chain liked it enough to hang its name above their doors. As on “Dandelion,” this features Watts’ jack-hammer drumming blasting its way through one side of a dream pop soundscape framed by Jones’ classically-inspired recorder.
  9. “Under My Thumb.” The most conventional pop song of this lot, it sounds like the sort of thing Major Nelson’s square friends would get up twisting and contorting to during an after-dinner shindig on I Dream of Jeannie. I’m not a Brian Jones groupie, but something I like in common with these other tracks is his incorporation of unconventional rock instruments — in this case, the marimba. I’m convinced that after his tragic departure the group could only move in a garage band direction.
  10. “Gimme Shelter.” This is the song that launched my search through the Stones catalog. I was familiar Richards’ minacious intro — that spooky, foreboding 40-second annunciation of the end of the ’60s era — but I couldn’t remember the name of the dang song. Apocalyptic is an apt description. This song points not only to the violence that marred the Altamont Free Concert (Dec ’69) but to our age of neoconservative and “humanitarian” interventionism and perpetual war.
  11. “Prodigal Son.” The final track finds the Stones paying homage to their blues roots. Jagger sounds remarkably like a wayfaring Charley Patton — who always ended his sets with a gospel number — with the ill-starred Jones slashing on slide guitar (he wouldn’t live a year past this recording). Listening to this familiar biblical story we hope that by the end these boys have found their way back home.

So that’s my Stones playlist. It seems to touch all the stylistic bases they covered between ’65-69 — the years I regard as their true golden period. The more I listen to these tracks the more I discover and appreciate about the band. And that’s something coming from a hater.