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Wednesday, March 05, 2003
By MARTIN EDLUND
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, art rang false. It seemed
too articulate, too artful.Thank goodness for the slow-moving machinery of
the music business that it gave us even a short moment of silence.
When songs about 9/11 did come -- and it wasn¹t long -- they were an
inadequate answer to the silence that preceded them.They didn¹t feel like
acts of catharsis so much as dashedoff works of opportunism. Neil Young¹s
"Let¹s Roll" -- rushed from recording studio to record store -- was unequal to
the complexity of our emotions; Paul McCartney¹s "Freedom" was an empty
battle cry; Steve Earle¹s "John Walker¹s Blues" was misguided; and Alan
Jackson¹s "Where Were You" was just plain stupid. Only Bruce Springsteen¹s
album, "The Rising," did even partial justice to its subject.
Today, more than 16 months after the fateful day, we get an altogether
different musical document of 9/11: the album "Uncle" by Mike "Sport"
Murphy. Murphy is not a popular artist on the level of those others. A
long-time New York underground musician, he is known only to indie-rock
obsessives. Perhaps as a result, his offering is less ambitious. Murphy
speaks only for himself, and only to an intended audience of one: His
nephew, Peter Vega, a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center site.
A devotee of Stephen Foster, Brian Wilson, and the composer Charles
Ives, Murphy¹s songs cover a range of styles. But more important than their
musical variety is the multiplicity of emotions they touch on. The album
begins with the song "No Fair," which recalls Murphy¹s visits to his old
neighborhood in the confusing weeks after 9/11 -- before Pete¹s death was
confirmed.The chorus includes the childish plea "Oh no, it isn¹t fair / no
fair," sung to a weeping violin.
The album continues, journal-like, through a range of emotions: hope,
sorrow, anger, gratitude."Bad Guest" and "Played by Linda Blair" examine the
extra stress Pete¹s death puts on already-strained family relations. "Miles
Across the Sea" and the Beach Boys-inspired "Paul LaGrutta" thank friends
for their support.
Murphy and Pete were about the same age, and they grew up as brothers
rather than uncle and nephew. "Uncle" includes many of their in-jokes and
private messages; it¹s a privileged glimpse into a close, loving
relationship. In this sense, some of its least-musical aspects are its most
affecting. "Behistun" is a 20-year-old recording of the first song Murphy
ever wrote, submitted with the note: "Pete would collapse in hysterics to
know it made a legit release, and that¹s why it¹s here."
Murphy litters the album with haunting snippets of recordings he and
Pete made together when they were young.Track nine, titled "Welcome to New
Jersey," is a ghostly round sung by the two after a childhood road trip. The
brassy funeral dirge, "In Other Words, Never," ends with young Pete saying,
"Say Goodnight world, I¹m going to sleep now. I want to get up early
"Uncle" won¹t begin to equal the commercial success of the other 9/11
albums (Springsteen¹s and Jackson¹s are both up for Album of the Year at
next month¹s Grammy¹s). Nor should it; "Uncle" is self-indulgent and
meandering. But its purpose is self-indulgence; in its honesty and humble
ambition -- the desire to memorialize a loved one and vent one¹s own pain --
it succeeds where the others fail.
It's clear the guy applauds the thing more from a philosphical standpoint than as "music to enjoy." This doesn't bother me, though; it's another way to skin the cat. There's something valid about his backhanded commentary toward the end, and while it pains me to see the perception expressed that my music "shouldn't" succeed commerically, it is a glimpse into the other side of my dilemma. I spend so much time and effort on this side, I welcome a sober take on the bemusement many of even my staunchest supporters seem to feel toward the work. For example, this from KRS owner Slim Moon:
"There is some stuff that I put out because it just makes sense. It might not be my favorite, but it makes sense. Then sometimes I insist that we put out something like Sport Murphy, which doesn’t make sense at all. I’m moved by music that is personal and autobiographical and kinda corny."
I assume it's cool with Slim that I post that remark, since it's on the KRS website. Now I know Slim would never insult me, and I don't take "corny" as any kind of insult... it's one word for a particular quality I look for in music. Likewise, I don't choose to view this guy's use of "self-indulgent" as a swipe. But put yourself in my position if you can... People who LIKE my stuff can't imagine anyone wanting it! It feels a bit like riding the retard bus. It's not their fault, it's mine. Fully. I make strange, ungainly things. In no way am I discrediting their views, nor do I resent their expression of them. God knows, nobody has put his money where his mouth is for me as fully as Slim, nor have too many writers evidenced the kind of serious, analytical thought regarding my albums as has Martin Edlund. Both indicate real respect along with a strange whiff of benign dismissiveness.
All this seems an odd afterword to a very complimentary review, but it affords a chance to demonstrate why I have such furious push-and-pull convulsions about bothering to make this stuff.
Tuesday, March 04, 2003
Mike "Sport" Murphy's Uncle hardly seems the typical fare for the fiercely independent Kill Rock Stars imprint. That's not to say that Murphy isn't the fiercest of independents himself, but rather than the usual punk offering of the label, Uncle is a quiet homage to Murphy's firefighting nephew who died in the line of duty during the World Trade Center rescue effort. Murphy and his nephew Pete were quite close in age and grew up living together, forming a brotherly bond throughout their childhood. It's clear that Murphy didn't intend to make a record for all tastes here. Rather, this is a collection of thoughts, songs, and found recordings of them as young children, intended as an exclusive gift to Pete. It's got its share of in-jokes and bits that have little relevance outside their family, but there's not an ounce of sappiness in this tribute -- only truly heartfelt moments between Murphy and his nephew. In compiling Uncle's songs, Murphy included tracks that were inspired by the pair's mutual experiences, simple cassette recordings of the boys in their younger years, and even some later-recorded numbers with Pete in the studio. When songs were written specifically for this record, Murphy gave himself roughly a day to capture his emotions and record them to tape. What results is a Cohen-esque epitaph rendered in the form of an incredible record.
A heart-tugging cry of 'Uncle'
By ISAAC GUZMAN
DAILY NEWS FEATURE WRITER
In the 17 months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, dozens of musicians, ranging from elder statesman Bruce Springsteen to the "riot grrrl" band Sleater-Kinney, have released songs about the tragedy. But few, if any, have made a statement as personal as "Uncle," the third album from Long Island's Sport Murphy. The record's 22 tracks were all written and recorded as a tribute to Murphy's nephew, Pete Vega, a firefighter who died after Brooklyn Heights Ladder Co. 118 responded to the World Trade Center attack.
Murphy, 43, and Vega, who was 36 with a wife and daughter when he died, were practically raised as brothers in Brooklyn's Windsor Terrace neighborhood. Murphy was so distraught that he started drinking after several years of sobriety. But he resisted writing anything about Vega, so that he wouldn't be accused of trying to "capitalize on 9/11 sympathy and propping myself up as some kind of spokesperson."
Months later, however, the songs finally began pouring out. Some, such
as "No Fair" and "Everybody's Gone," were filled with grief. Others, like "Johnny Lightning," recalled the pair's youthful high jinks, some of which found their way onto the album due to Murphy's childhood fascination with portable tape recorders.
"It all just kind of came spilling out," Murphy says. "Some nights were emotional, but it was a good release that way. Some of it was just frustrating because I felt like nothing I could do could say enough."
Released on the Kill Rock Stars label, the album has received high critical praise. Britain's Uncut magazine called Murphy "a skewed pop visionary" who is "the true heir to the mercurial genius of [the Beach Boys'] 'Pet Sounds.'"
Ranging from bizarre analog keyboard experiments to lush folk-pop and even a take on Charles A. Tindley's 1901 gospel song "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today," "Uncle" covers a wide musical terrain. Once the leader of the local alternative rock band the Skels, Murphy has been drawn to unlikely sources, such as early-20th-centry composer Charles Ives and 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster, as well as modern-era musicians Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks (who appears on the album).
"Sport's not relying on cliches," says David Garland, host of WNYC's "Spinning on Air. "He's being inventive with the music and the words, yet the end result is not something terribly highfalutin."
In fact, Garland was so taken with Murphy's approach that he plays on several of "Uncle's" tracks. He's one of nearly two dozen musicians who participated on the album. It's an approach that Murphy has fostered since releasing his first solo album, "Willoughby," in 1999.
What stands out most, however, is the naked honesty that informs every song. In remembering his nephew, Murphy found a powerful source of inspiration, one that is nearly as palpable in the music as it was during Vega's life.
"He was an adrenaline junkie," Murphy says. "He was always jumping out of planes. Before he died, the life he led and the risks he took were pretty instructive when I would get self-pitying about how tough it was to be a musician."
March 3, 2003
Monday, March 03, 2003
Why do I hate this little twat APRIL LEVINE so much? There are a million pubescent annoyances raking in the shekels, but somehow she irks me the most. Yeah, I know it's "AVRIL" and it's "LAVIGNE" ...but fuck that noise... "Advil Visine" for all I care. Arugala Lasagna... Argyle LeSpleen... Orgone Machine... by any monicker she's intolerable. She looks like one of those horrible, expensive Italian dolls that used to scare the shit out of me in the back of the Sears wish book. I was flipping around the dial one day and landed momentarily on some awards ceremony... Grammys, I guess. All these scumbags were coming into the theater, interviewed by Joan Rivers on the way. Now, I can't fucking suffer Joan Rivers under any circumstances, but here I was sympathizing with the old bat as she contended with Afro LaSheen and her band of snotty little boys. Rivers asked typically sillyass questions on the order of "did your parents encourage or discourage you in music" bla bla and Aztec Rogaine just stared her down with those astoundingly lifeless eyes and sneered something like "of course they encouraged me." That may be what she said, but the message was: "overstretched cadaver, you are but a fart in my airspace: begone, or I'll kill you just like I killed Telly Savalas." Whence such arrogance? This little Keane child of the damned did a record about how some dumb chick winds up sorry because the "skater boy" she'd rejected is now a big pop star. So? That's the kind of idea American youth gets all hot and bothered over? Fuck you, Azer Baijan, Oscar Levant, Ah-oo-ga Ballpeen or whatever your name is. I'm glad that other kid won all the trophies with her song about "Don't know why I didn't come."
This other kid is better looking, plays the piano, has something like a voice and her song resembles music. And it may also be the best jazzish ballad about inhibited orgasm since "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More."
Take that, Uphill Beguine...
GREAT WORK (recognized) Bach, Thelonious Monk, Bob Dylan
GREAT WORK (unrecognized) David Garland, Alec Wilder, R Stevie Moore
GREAT WORK (accepted on principle, but seldom enjoyed) Harry Partch, Ives, The Minutemen
GREAT WORK (mistaken for utter shit) Brian Wilson (when his best work was new), Scott Walker (ditto), the Bee Gees
GREAT WORK (appreciated widely but underrated) Carole King, Four Seasons, Hoagy Carmichael
GOOD/DECENT/MEDIOCRE WORK (mistaken for Great Work) Beck, The Byrds, Nirvana
GOOD/DECENT/MEDIOCRE WORK (appreciated widely) all solo Beatles (that isn't utter shit), Lauryn Hill, Bruce Springsteen
GOOD/DECENT/MEDIOCRE WORK (ignored) Epic Soundtracks, Supersister, Neil Innes
GOOD/DECENT/MEDIOCRE WORK (mistaken for utter shit) ELO, Bobby Rydell, KC and the Sunshine Band
GOOD/DECENT/MEDIOCRE WORK (accidentally achieving genuine Great Work status) Alice Cooper (the band), Tijuana Brass, Gary Lewis and the Playboys
UTTER SHIT (famed, praised, best selling) 99 per cent of what's in the store, Rage Against The Machine, Sting
UTTER SHIT (generally accepted as good-to-great by "music savvy" listeners) 80 per cent of your cd collection, Rod Stewart, Liz Phair
UTTER SHIT (mistaken for Great Work) most Philip Glass, most Prince, Rachmaninoff
UTTER SHIT (mistaken for Good/Decent/Mediocre) Eminem, Smashing Pumpkins, John Williams (the composer, not the guitarist)
UTTER SHIT (accidentally achieving Great Work status) Rodd Keith, Joe Meek, Mysterious Clown
Now, obviously, this is totally subjective, so spare me any complaints. I was thoughtful enough to skip stuff like Led Zeppelin. Also, there are vast nuances within the second category (Good to Mediocre is a mighty steep gradient), and a lot of things shift about in my mercurial estimation. Why no mention of faves like Serge Gainsbourg, Neil Young or Sly Stone? My aim is not to be exhaustive or definitive, but to give a broad outline of the situation in order to rank myself as per the thrust of this particular monologue.
One wants to be in the GREAT WORK (recognized) category. This can never be. The mind knows and the heart senses (thanx, Biff) that, often, truly GREAT artists become convinced they make UTTER SHIT. The dream is so far reaching that the artist can only see the shortfall, and certainly nobody else is equipped to judge greatness... it's almost unique that in Bob Dylan's case this has happened. So one daydreams of status in the GREAT WORK (unrecognized) category. This delusion can be maintained until one gets "noticed" to any degree whatsoever, and if this goes poorly, it's direct to the GREAT WORK (mistaken for utter shit) category, and there could, of course, be a GREAT WORK (mistaken for good/decent/mediocre) category as well. All is vanity. Seldom (at the outset) is the possibility entertained that one is not worthy of any of the GREAT WORK subsets, otherwise who'd bother? Eventually, however, this realization will sink in.
The ego cannot bear to be in the UTTER SHIT zone, even though, as we see in the final grouping of Keith and Meek and Clown, this could be a slick way back into the GREAT WORK club. Catch is, you need to be completely fucking nuts and will never reap the joy of knowing how GREAT you are. Self-consciousness (of the kind demonstrated by this very blog) forbids that level of trickster accomplishment. So we face the grim truth (we think), and try to determine in which part of the middle area we can homestead. Again, it'd be fantastic to find oneself in the G/D/M (appreciated widely) slot. This is the most enviable position in all the first 2 groupings. You make a sweet living, get the props and the oral sex, and need not go crazy with the Genius saddle (deserved or not). If posterity revises you into the UTTER SHIT file (this is almost always the case, by the way), no skin off your ass. Alas, this is not possible for the likes of me. Truthfully, GREAT WORK (unrecognized) is a likelier prospect. But let's get real.
A G/D/M (mistaken for utter shit) presupposes that one is noticed enough to get mistaken for utter shit (assuming it's a mistake). It ain't me babe. So where? O Where? Any sane person, given all the choices, would be more than content to be in the first subcategory of UTTER SHIT. Your cluelessness will ensure permanent psychological security and you'll live like a pasha until your worthless career ends and your pernicious cultural influence enters its camp half-life. Pretty much the same can be said for the second rung on the UTTER SHIT ladder, assuming you make Rod Stewart bucks (see that's a pretty thin slice of the cold cut, deciding whether he should be there or in the first UTTER SHIT group. It's all ballpark). I firmly believe I am not bad enough to accept any of the UTTER SHIT designations, though that's often in doubt. So we wander through the G/D/M wilderness, bumping into chumps and champs alike, like Casper the Ghost looking for a friend.
I aver that it's certainly possible I could fit the G/D/M (accidentally achieving GREAT WORK status) spot to a charitable observer. But that same self-consciousness issue arises, and this too is flung to the rocks. G/D/M (ignored) might be the most hospitable clime for one such as me. Admittedly way down the spectrum towards MEDIOCRE, with occasional peeks into DECENT if I jump energetically enough and catch a fair breeze. The people I've chosen for this subset, especially Innes, have at times made GREAT WORK. So their selection may betray my own desire for similar ranking.
However, if - and it's a big "if" - I continue making music, there can be no justification for such labor (and it is labor, motherfucker... like you can't imagine) unless I find a way to convince myself that GREAT WORK (any subcategory) is possible. Sometimes I hear Magic Beans and still think it's possible. That was surely as close as I've come… Cactus Boy especially. Believe it or not, and I'm sure you'll believe it, there are rare moments when I believe I ACHIEVED it and that you're all too fucking unevolved to recognize my Genius in its totality. Perhaps a firmly held conviction of that unforgivably egotistical sort is always simmering below, and accounts for all my rage and depression. It surely takes honesty like unto Genius to even admit such a thing, wouldn't you agree? I didn't think so. You're right: I'm an asshole. Anyway, I don't expect to find a means to reconstruct my delusion to any practical degree. If I do, though, it will probably involve going completely bonkers (not an impossible thing), and maybe it'll catapult me into the UTTER SHIT (accidentally achieving GREAT WORK status) subcategory. Luck be a lady!
You'll notice there is no UTTER SHIT (unknown) listing. Of course, there should be, and maybe... gulp... maybe I'm... oh jeez.