One chilly day in January 1979, Lou Reed and John Cale visited the music station WPIX in New York City, Reed to serve as “guest disk jockey” for a stretch or so and Cale to play some songs from his live repertoire. Reed had released his live album Take No Prisoners a couple of months earlier. Cale hadn’t released a studio album since 1975, with only the compilation Guts in between, and his live album Sabotage/Live wouldn’t come out until the end of the year.
Reed arrives at the studio first and has the air to himself for a little while before Cale shows up to play his songs. It isn’t accurate to say that Reed is in a bad mood—he’s perfectly jovial and praises WPIX fulsomely—but he is simply taking no shit, very opinionated about all manner of subject, and boy, does he not like music critics, particularly Robert Christgau and John Rockwell, two prominent New York critics.
Reed fans will recall that on the very, very rambling version of “Walk on the Wild Side” found on Take No Prisoners, recorded eight months earlier, Reed complains about—guess who—Rockwell and Christgau: “Imagine working for a fuckin’ year and you got a B+ from an asshole in the Village Voice?” grouses Reed on that album. On WPIX that day, Reed is still pissed off about the music press. “It’s very sick, perverse world in the land of journalism,” he says, and later gripes about receiving a C- from Christgau (who never actually gave any Reed album a score that low but whatevs).
Later on Reed says, “A bad review from Rolling Stone is proof to me that I’m still alive.”
During the show Reed actually takes calls from listeners—and seems to enjoy it quite a bit. There’s a great moment early on when a caller accidentally says the word “shit” and Lou has to set him straight.
Towards the end John Cale arrives and plays three songs. First up is “Jack The Ripper at the Moulin Rouge,” which was supposed to be released as a single in 1978 but never was; you can find it on Seducing Down the Door. Then Cale plays “Evidence,” best known from Sabotage/Live, and “Leaving It Up To You,” off of Helen of Troy.
Many of my dearest friends happen to be professional musicians. Perhaps this is because it’s a talent I respect so much and yet possess so little of myself. But this also means that all my life I’ve been put in the position of having a friend send me “my new album” and there is always that moment right before I press play when I imagine what I would say to them if I just don’t like it.
I’ve been good friends with actress/singer Ann Magnuson for half my life. We met when I—a massive fan of her group Bongwater—proposed that I do a video for their song “The Power of Pussy” sometime back in 1991. I’ve seen Ann do her various extravaganzas live probably more than any other performer and have always considered her to be a major, major talent (even if Hollywood has never known quite what to do with her). She can act, sing, write songs, curate museum exhibits and she paints fabulous fake Basquiats. She’s an energetic all-around talent who excels in the DIY arena with a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney-style “let’s put on a show” plucky work ethic. And her work is uncommonly smart and sophisticated.
Allow me to preface the following remarks by letting the reader know that as someone who reads, writes and edits the work of others all the live long day, I can’t listen to radio, TV or music with lyrics (let alone your podcast, random pesky Facebook “friend” who I have never met) during the workday, or else it’s impossible for me to do what I need to do. My wife works from home, too and she won’t have it. So we listen to classical music during the day around the house if we listen to anything at all.
When Ann Magnuson sent me her new Dream Girl CD in the post over the summer, I was pretty confident that it would be something that I would really love, so I immediately popped it on the stereo. The first number, “We’re All Mad” was lovely, a shimmering, gossamer—and eerie—folk song with classic Disney soundtrack dramatics. But the second song, “Be A Satyr,” a rambling drum-led beatnik sex rant reminiscent of “Help I’m a Rock” by the Mothers of Invention (and about as long) tested my patience to the point where I hit eject before the track was over, prompting my wife to remark tartly “Thank you.”
About a week went by. I tried listening to Dream Girl again, but I skipped around, failing to connect with any of it. Then one morning, I grabbed the CD to listen to in the car on the way to the gym. Now I go to the gym pretty early. The sun’s not shining and there are few other cars on the road at that hour. In that context, or enclosed environment, I was completely blown away by the brilliance of the exact same album that had annoyed me as I listened to it casually, with my iPad in hand, surfing Amazon and laying on the couch a few days before.
Now I think Dream Girl is one of the very best things I’ve heard so far in 2016. I listened to it nonstop for two months—for eight solid weeks, every single day—driving to the gym and back in the predawn hours and—this is the important part—giving it my undivided attention.
And that’s my message for you, the reader, who hopefully will take advantage of listening to Dream Girl in its entirety after (after!) you read the following interview with its multitalented creator. You cannot listen to this album casually and “get” it. Like a Firesign Theatre album, there are (apparently) hidden things, jokey multiple meanings and clever punning going on all over the place. It’s musical, but Ann’s vocals are as much spoken word as they are strictly singing. I’ll say it again: You have to pay attention to it, there is no other way to appreciate what she’s doing here.
And if you’re thinking this all sounds intriguing—or if you don’t believe my rave-review-but-with-a-twist approach here—for the next week we’ll be hosting a streaming file of the entire Dream Girl album. DO give it your full attention, it’s massively rewarding I think—and hope—you’ll agree. Try to listen in your car if you can. At least take a break and listen on headphones with your eyes closed and your head down on your desk (put down that mouse!) and dig Ann Magnuson’s dreamy and surreal theater of the mind. Buy the Dream Girl CD here.
I asked Ann Magnuson a few questions over email…
Richard Metzger: When you sent me the CD in the summer you wrote that it was a “return to your Bongwater days” but Dream Girl is super slick, whereas Bongwater was sort of shambolic psychedelia. What did you mean by that?
Ann Magnuson: I was referring more to the lyrical content, as opposed to the musical styles; a return to surreal storytelling via spoken word using my dreams, different voices, characters, sexual personae… and creating much of it through improvisation. But there are a couple of songs that are not unlike the folksy stuff I did on the BW records.
It’s wild that you say Dream Girl is “super slick” because it’s actually pretty stripped down, in terms of instrumentation, except for maybe “Cat in the Sun.” The Millionaire (from Combustible Edison) provided orchestrations on that. I told him to go full on sunshine-pop psychedelic with it and add a massive sprinkling of Yardley folk-hippie chick “Come With The Gentle People” Renaissance Faerie Dust. You, know, wooden wind chimes and flutes; lounging around in Mexican caftans at Nepenthe in Big Sur?
Like with Bongwater, I used my dream journals and a lot of improvisation with this new CD. Mostly, I just had fun in the studio rather than go in with too many preconceived ideas and arrangements. In that way I feel like Dream Girl has helped me get back in touch with my own voice as well as a sense of playfulness. In that way, the entire project was “shambolic.” I think we get pretty psychedelic in a lot of it, just in a very different way than Bongwater did. It’s a gentler trip. Although “Ayahuasca, The Movie” gets pretty wild!
Did “Cat in the Sun” start out as something you would sing to your own cat?
Ann Magnuson: Kind of. That one initially started out as a declaration, “Cat in the sun!” You know, like “Land, Ho!” or “Thar she blows!” Then it became more musical. And yes, I would sing it to our cat.
I’ve sung it to our cat. She liked it. I think she even got the “Band on the Run” joke.
Ann Magnuson: I am constantly making up songs and singing them around the house. 90% of them just disappear into the ether. But “Cat in the Sun” survived. So did “Be a Satyr.”
Dream Girl is the single most Firesign Theatre-esque thing I’ve ever heard that’s not actually the Firesign Theatre themselves—you’re a one-woman version of them—and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. It’s super smart, funny, nuanced and even though it’s primarily a spoken word collection, it still bears repeated listenings due to its innate musicality and to hear all of the “dog whistles” contained therein. I really think this “theater of the mind” format suits you.
Ann Magnuson: Thank you! I definitely take that as a compliment! I never owned any Firesign Theatre records myself but the older hippie dudes I hung out in high school with played Firesign Theatre records all the time. I heard that stuff at nearly every party we had back in the early 70s (usually when everyone was extremely toasted or peaking on something we shouldn’t have been frying our teenage brains on.) Yes, I love the “theater of the mind” format very much! That’s what I wanted to get back in touch with—simple, albeit “trippy”—storytelling; stories that were like little movies where the listener creates the visuals inside their head.
Didn’t we all grow up doing that while listening to music on headphones (or often with the transistor radio) before the tyranny of the image? (Which is now literally in everyone’s face thanks to cellphones.) One of the earliest memories I have is of a radio show that was actually piped in over the public address system in our grade school—in fact I think it was broadcast to all of the grade schools in West Virginia—back in the early Sixties. I think it was called “Talking Pictures.” The radio host would narrate a story and play a piece of classical music and we would all lay our heads down on our desks and just listen. Then, after it was done, our teacher gave us art supplies and we were instructed to draw or paint pictures, interpreting what we’d just heard. The one I remember the most clearly is Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” Can you imagine any school—let alone one in West Virginia—doing that today!? I think it only lasted a couple of years. My mom narrated some of them since she was involved in the local radio station as well as community theater. I got exposed to a lot of radio and theater growing up and so this concept of the “theater of the mind” goes waaaaay back!
And yes, I love the ‘dog whistles’. I intentionally sprinkled in some specifically for the Bongwater fans; David Bowie’s toy xylophone being just one example.
Bauhaus, David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Ann Magnuson (as vampire Bowie’s soon-to-be victim) in the opening moments of Tony Scott’s ‘The Hunger’—the single best beginning to a film in all of cinema history???
There’s another self-referential one related to Bowie, too, when the drummer does the thing from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you what it was like to meet, work with, and even make out with him, which is weird considering how long we go back and what a major Bowie freak I am. So I guess I’ll just ask you that now…
I’m glad you noticed that drum bit! Joe Berardi really created a great percussive soundscape for that track.
The whole experience of doing The Hunger was a somewhat dissociative. There were issues with British Actor’s Equity about bringing over an American to do that role. (There was dialogue in my scenes that later got cut out in favor of the prescient MTV-style editing director Tony Scott was fond of.) I got the part after auditioning but it became an off and on again ordeal. Finally it was definitely off, as they ‘had’ to hire a Brit. Then, suddenly, at the last minute, it was back on! They flew me to London first class—on Pan Am no less—which was quite a treat as I’d only previously flown to Europe on the cheapo flying-bus airline Capitol (remember them?). Then I was there on the set standing next to Catherine Deneuve and Bowie and…. it was truly an out of body experience.
A terrific find from John Coulthart. It was “a bit grey out today” on Sunday, May 20, 1979, when the BBC turned Radio One over to David Bowie for a couple of hours. The results were simply delightful—and the session is available in full on YouTube.
Bowie in 1979 was pretty near the top of his game, but then again he seldom seems very far off his game. The tracks Bowie chose to play are as fascinating as those he left off. Several of the artists are to be expected, others entirely unexpected. Bowie, the great popularizer of our time, the man through whom so many influences of the 20th century flowed and were given vital form, you can hear that deep need to show, to bring listeners something new, in every word Bowie utters.
It’s extremely interesting to hear Bowie refer to tracks that are fairly familiar to any decently informed music fan as if nobody knows about them—a lesson in the benefits the Internet (not to mention stacks of CD reissues) has brought, if nothing else.
We’ve tucked the track listing behind the jump, but it’s far more amusing to listen without knowing, don’t you reckon?
I was about to write that “Theme One” is a “seldom heard” classic by Beatles producer George Martin, but seeing how for years, every single morning when Radio 1 began its broadcasting day this was the ceremonial first song, that really wouldn’t be the case for our UK readers. In fact, people of a certain age in England heard this all the time as Wonderful Radio 1’s signature fanfare.
Radio 1 was launched at 7:00 am on September 30th, 1967 after the prosecution of the offshore pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline as a way to service the youth listeners. The Controller of Radios 1 and 2, Sir Robin Scott, came on said a few words, then introduced Martin’s “Theme One.” After this Tony Blackburn, who’d been a DJ at Radio Caroline himself, played The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain” followed by the Bee Gees’ “Massachusetts.”
“Theme One” (Despite it being labelled a “variation” by the uploader, this is the original):
An orchestral version of “Theme One” recorded later:
What a brilliant and glorious way to start the day hearing this song must’ve been. It’s like waking up with the warm sun on your face, even in rainy Britain. Really inspiring and amazing. Of course you’d have an easier time getting out of bed in the morning after hearing this! “Theme One” also closed Radio 1 and 2 at the end of the broadcast day at 2 am. This is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. I wish it had been developed into a full symphony. Anecdotal memories of the broadcasts found on the Internet indicate that some echoey footsteps and then the aural cue of walking into a large room preceded the organ. Additionally, prior to that a series of beeps and a sine wave went out, as the BBC’s broadcast technicians fired up their gear.
As mainstream radio in the UK gets steadily worse, as exposure opportunities for the genuinely interesting and different quickly disappear, and as lowest common denominator fodder like X Factor begins to limit the power of music in the popular imagination, he is missed now more than ever.
In the absence of one unifying national media platform it’s unlikely that we will ever see his like again, though I feel that through his influence, and the proliferation of music websites and blogs, we are all a bit Peelie now. Proof of the man’s legacy is that the anniversary of his passing has become an annual day of celebration, with gigs, radio shows, record fairs and even specific releases happening in his honor, every 25th of October. And this is a good thing, a very good thing.
So in memoriam, here’s a clip from a 2005 BBC program where various artists and radio djs posthumously rifle through his (typically eclectic) record box:
John Peel’s Record Box
After the jump, John Peel’s ‘Sound of the Suburbs’, Jimi Hendrix playing a Radio 1 jingle for Peel’s show in the late 60s, Peel on the assassination of JFK (which he reported on from Dallas for the Liverpool Echo), and an interview where Peel talks about the influence of punk, how its natural home is in the suburbs, and how scenes get co-opted by a jaded music press…