Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Drumming Thomases

As I bulleted up to the Beacon Theater to see Elvis Costello for the umpteenth time, delayed by tornadoes (not local ones, but covering Joplin at CNN), I paused to consider, honestly, somewhat jaded, what part of this evening would be able to provide a transcendent moment for me.

It's not that I'm hard to please (well, I am, but not on this count), it's just that my Elvisgoing is second only to my Brucegoing in terms of sheer hours logged agog on my feet, and I occasionally suffer from having heard certain songs live so many times -- for example, "Pump it Up" -- that it's hard for them to still have meaning. I start craving the obscure, or the complete reinvention of a song, or a guest appearance (as when Elvis himself showed up to sing "Higher and Higher" with Bruce at Madison Square Garden) to kick this concert into the category of Not Just Another Elvis Show.

Having read up about Elvis's tour, which features a spinning wheel of song titles [right] spun by audience volunteers and a go-go dancing cage -- neither of which promised transcendence -- I was hoping he would perform one or both of the Beatles covers on the wheel -- "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Girl." But I would  be equally happy to hear the chestnuts he'd been excavating from the mid-80's King of America/Blood and Chocolate albums -- the last time he played New York with this spinning songbook  -- back  when I worked for Rolling Stone and Elvis played five nights at a legitimate Broadway theater, having traveled light years from his punk origins.

Turned out, the moments that truly moved me -- mesmerized me, seared onto my brain, left me breathless -- had nothing to do with Elvis at all. Nor was it the guest cameo (on "Lipstick Vogue" by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, whose name holds as minimal impact for me as Elvis Costello's name did for my dad when he was my age).
No, the surprise was that it was all about drumming. Intergenerational drumming.

When it comes to rock and roll, at times I feel like I've let my kids down -- I have a daughter who is about to turn 17, the age I was when I first saw Costello in concert, yet she has only a passing knowledge of his extensive songbook, has never seen him live, and -- though she did see some Springsteen shows when she was younger -- really hasn't been to a legit rock show as a cognizant teenager. Her passion is theater; if we're in the car, she switches the radio to the Broadway channel.

I don't expect her to embrace the music of my generation any more than I was going to embrace the opera that my dad sat around the living room listening to, but I feel like her disaffection reflects something changed in pop music -- wide-appeal, important bands like U2 and REM really haven't been replicated; the instantaneousness of iPods and MP3s and uploaded concert YouTube videos have made the chores involved with obtaining tickets and attending a concert seem almost as antiquated as TV without DVR.

But that disaffection clearly did not ruin rock for Tennessee Thomas, the daughter of Pete Thomas -- Costello's most constant sideman since the Attractions formed after the recording of 1977's My Aim is True (which Elvis cut with a group called "Clover"). (Keyboardist Steve Nieve is also still very much displaying his genius stylings; the original bassist has been replaced by the cheerful if not dynamic Davey Faragher.)

The extra wallop packed at the concert was genetic: a second kit was set up behind is and was manned -- womanned? -- on a half-dozen songs by  Tennessee -- who, the last time the spinning songbook played New York City, was only two years old.

As she started pounding, I didn't realize I had already seen Tennessee on the big screen (in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, above), I also didn't know she had her own band The Like [right] or had been touring with Zooey Deschanel's She and Him.

None of this mattered. All I could see was this amazing synchronicity -- father daughter drumming, borne of genes and study and yet also distinguishable. She had all of dad's moves and rhythms, but her own gestalt. And it created a visual legacy for the kind of propagation of musical heritage that Elvis has always been a major proponent of. (Setlist here, thanks to Sal Nunziato.)

I was reminded of a photo shoot by Annie Leibovitz done in 1987 for the 20th Anniversary Issue of Rolling Stone, that I did the interviews for -- a whole bunch of offspring of rock and rollers, from Carnie Wilson and John Carter Cash to Otis Redding and Mike Nesmith's kids. [Below]
Interviewing them at the time, not much older than them, I mostly felt sorry for them -- growing up in a world where your name gets you places and favors but, hey, even Julian Lennon couldn't sustain a career.

Today, the morning after the Costello show, I turned on Sirius's E Street Radio channel, and the guest deejay was Ali Weinberg -- daughter of Springsteen's drummer Max. This seemed bizarrely synchronous. (Ali's brother Jay is the drummer offspring -- he toured with Bruce when Max had to return to his day job at Conan (below); Ali has played accordion onstage with Bruce. (right)
Ali's deejaying triggered all kinds of responses in me. First of all, she played "Murder, Incorporated," saying it was one of her favorites. I smiled because it's a song I have a little history with.

Back in college I had obtained a fifteenth generation cassette dupe of a demo of the song from the 1982 Born in the USA sessions. I couldn't understand a word of it, but it was unlike anything else I'd heard Bruce do. So when I finally had my one and only audience with Bruce -- backstage at the taping of the final Letterman NBC show in June 1993 -- I took the opportunity to tell Bruce he HAD to release the song.

"Yeah, there's a lot of them that people want," he said in his cheerful, sheepish way. "No," I insisted. "That one is different." I felt a small burst of pride when he released a greatest hits album in February 1995, and one of the few new songs he added to it was Murder, Inc. -- though in the liner notes he credited fans who held up banners at shows requesting it. (Sigh.)

Ali ended her hour-long record-spinning by playing back-to-back live versions of "Radio Nowhere" -- one with her Dad on drums, one with her brother. It was commendable -- she was literally saying that her brother was not following in her father's footsteps, but charting his own distinctive course.

That's how I felt watching Tennesee, also. It wasn't just that she was a girl with Laura Dern bangs and retro It-Girl fashion stylings, and her dad was a shaggy grey pub rocker; she had her own musical vibe. But also held her own. And -- like magic -- "Pump it Up" was re-energized for me.

UPDATE 1: Clip of Pump it up....skip to 3:08

UPDATE 2: the sound's not great but here's the best visuals of the dynamic duo on PUMP IT UP and WHAT'S SO FUNNY 'BOUT PEACE LOVE & UNDERSTANDING from May 23rd show. @1:00 mark @2:22 @4:40 @6:50.


Sal Nunziato said...

It made me smile AGAIN! That little hiccup at 3:59 is just beautiful. I love this and I loved last night.

We need someone to upload PLU. THAT was the showstopper.

allen vella said...

Great post..definately a high point of the show, watching those two drum together. Funny, I've got the same Elvis/Bruce disease..love it! ...and Sal your right..the in sync rolls around the kit on PLU were amazing...would love to see more video of this. Thanks

David Handelman said...

Sal -- amazingly, if you just wait 24 hours, YouTube comes through. ( I am kinda jealous of the final night setlist.)