Tribute Madness

16 Jun

If you wanna talk lowest common denominator, tribute records just gotta be among the easiest to grok. We’ve all heard great cover tunes in our lives – the glorious JIMI HENDRIX reinvention of BOB DYLAN’s “All Along the Watchtower” immediately comes to mind for me. We know: the right song in the right hands can absolutely slay. And the suits know this too. Like all those remakes of classic films Hollywood churns out these days, tribute records have readymade audiences and built-in sales potential.

When those early tribute records to VELVET UNDERGROUND/KINKS/BYRDS etc. first began appearing on the UK Imaginary Records label in the later 80’s, I found myself curious to find out what kinda of ingenious updates might lay in such grooves. But within a few years, major labels had run this new tribute concept into the ground. Damn near every artist of note saw their catalogue plundered by whatever half-assed pop/rock act was being pushed at the time. By the end of the millennium, somebody with record sales on par with, say, GUNS ‘N’ ROSES could expect to have a half-dozen tribute CDs to their name. And if you were a BEATLES or a BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, god help you – the tribute albums by bluegrass and country artists alone could number in the double digits.

Still, reinterpreting someone else’s work has the potential for great and wonderous things, and I’ve stumbled across more than a few really great tribute recs in my time. In no particular order, I give you my favorites:

ClawhamCLAWHAMMER Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are NOT Devo! (Sympathy For The Record Industry, 1991) What do you get when one of the original Fullerton Kids of the Black Hole hooks up with a DOWN BY LAW gtrist, a deadhead bassist, and the best Keith Moon impostor LA ever gave the world? That’s right, ya get CLAW HAMMER. For once I wholeheartedly agree with what Jay over at Detailed Twang had to say about em: “When Jon Wahl and Chris Bagarozzi played guitar together, I swear to god at times it was like what everyone said Tom Verlaine & Richard Lloyd were supposed to have sounded like live – unpredictable bits of chaos, pure unbridled energy and extremely amplified sound.” Yep every time I saw these fellas play (a half dozen times at least!) I felt like I was witnessing some beautiful vestige of longgone Hollywood punk rock spirit revealing itself, for the very last time, right there in front of me. But the way CLAW HAMMER rock the fuck outta DEVO’s first and weirdest album, live and unedited in the studio (I’ll give you “Space Junk” now but the whole album demands to be heard) always reminds me of why I dug them Akron spudboys in the first place. I swear: what DEVO sounded like to my 11 year old ears in 1981 is damn near exactly how CLAW HAMMER’s revisitation hit my 21 year old years in 1991. No kidding.

200px-Our_Band_Could_Be_Your_Life_-_A_Tribute_to_D_Boon_and_the_MinutemenVARIOUS ARTISTSOur Band Could Be Your Life (Little Brother Records, 1994) No no my SST Records bias is not getting the best of me here. Yes there’s a busload of NeareSST Relatives on this thing (Joe Baiza, Lou Barlow, VIDA, Joe Boon & Tony Platon, etc.) but there’s also all manner of indie detritus that I wouldn’t normally expect to give a thumbs up to. Clearly, THE MINUTEMEN held magical qualities that transcend space, time, and subculture divisions, ones that everyone from balding BÖC spin-offs (THE BRAIN SURGEONS) to 90’s shimmer/fuzz titans (SEAM, HAZEL) could relate to equally deeply, in turn drawing new and inspired musical ideas out of.

Few bands here attempt to match the Boon/Watt/Hurley rhythm combustion step for step – a wise move too, as damn near no one has ever rocked with such authority upon this Earth. What this comp is really about is the experiments, the polemics, the intimacy, and those wonderful little tunes that San Pedro once gave us. And if you were one of those folks who felt THE MINUTEMEN could improve things by ditching all that ornery ‘n’ jagged jazzfunk, then this rec will be a godsend. Dare I admit that in recent years I’ve listened to this comp more than any actual MINUTEMEN album proper? Not unlike THE MINUTEMEN themselves once did with their brilliant covers of CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and STEELY DAN’s “Dr. Wu”, turning the familiar on it’s head – like Tom Watson’s OVERPASS does here with their great version of “Fake Contest” – has helped me rethink damn near all these tracks in new and unexpected ways.

4e93923f8da0cc899325a010.L._AA200_MEDIUM COOLImagination (Rough Trade/New Routes, 1991) This is actually nothing but a quiet, unassuming tribute to 50’s counterculture icon Chet Baker, and many of you will find it too straight-up/EZ for comfort. But since the project was led by ex-PANTHER BURN Ron Miller and most other folks involved (Alex Chilton, Adele Bertei, James White/Chance, and some other ex-CONTORTIONS) have trod crooked paths for longer than many of us have been alive . . . this never feels anything less than totally individual and heartfelt. My hero James White effortlessly takes the cake with his sweetly off-key versions of “Let’s Get Lost” and “Imagination”, proving definitively that his unique talents were otherwise wasted during the 90’s. And though I coulda done without Angel Torsen on the mic, it all helps me better understand the true beauty of Chet Baker in relation to the grim backdrop of America in the 1950’s. John Giorno’s liner notes sum up the context better than I can: “It was before Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, before there was a possibility of a way out, other than suicide, and before the possibility of Enlightenment. The only way out was booze and sex, and whatever few drugs were available; and music, medium cool and CHET BAKER.”

DSCF2725VARIOUS ARTISTSMatter Dominates Spirit?: A Jim Shepard Tribute (Meta Records, 2001) – The passing of long-time Columbus, OH resident Jim Shepard (VERTICAL SLIT, V-3, LAQUER, EGO SUMMIT, etc.) left an ugly, gaping wound on the face of underground rock that I don’t imagine will ever heal properly. But as tributes go, Charles Cicirella really outdid himself here. This double album, hand painted/crafted with nice inserts (including a lengthly essay by ex-THOMAS JEFFERSON SLAVE APARTMENTS leader Ron House) is about as loving as they come. Though it’s mostly close friends who are tackling Jim’s material (Don Howland, Robert Pollard, Mike Rep, former V-3er Nudge Squidfish etc.), there’s also alot of stray songs/noise/poetry by Jim himself, reminding you of just how diverse his commitment to expressive sonic beauty actual was. This is one guy who lived, created, and died at the edges of that anonymous, lower-middle class life tedium most of us are unwillingly exiled to. The spaces he occupied were ever shrinking, sometimes ugly, but always beautifully vibrant and alive. The note from Jim gracing the back of this record admits to it: “3:53 am 9/11. I’ve headed into The Sniper Zone – Hopefully, I’ll get back safe – J-Man”. Yep anyone who has ever tried to navigate that particular purgatory would do well to dig into Jim’s art. And since my turntable’s not working right now, we’ll end this with Jim and his VERTICAL SLIT doing “All“.


3 Responses to “Tribute Madness”

  1. Dave Lang June 20, 2009 at 1:01 am #

    Funny you mention that Clawhammer record… my friends and I were playing it just the other week at my brother’s place, intoxicated on a Friday night. My bro lent it to a “friend” in about 1993 and only just recently got it back! Such an excellent record, and I’m really not a Devo fan at all.
    I had no idea that Jim Shepard record existed! Damn, I’m gonna have to track it down. I used to be obsessed w/ that guy’s work. You nailed it right: “This is one guy who lived, created, and died at the edges of that anonymous, lower-middle class life tedium most of us are unwillingly exiled to.”
    Good post!

    PS – haven’t listened to that Minutemen tribute in 10 years… I’ll dig it out.

  2. mrowster June 22, 2009 at 7:49 pm #

    Yeah be warned the Jim Shepard tribute is “scarce” in record collector terms. But any true lover of Jim S. will love this one fr sure.

  3. Ron Miller September 28, 2009 at 12:36 am #

    You got it right-

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