"Everybody had a hard year/Everybody had a good time," John Lennon sang in "I Got a Feeling," on the Beatles' 1970 album, Let It Be. This is how good it got in music for me, amid the hard, in 2013. I waited after the end of the year to write this and wisely so – one of my best nights out was the last.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Padua and Milan, Italy, 5/31 and 6/3/13
I saw these shows from an extraordinary proximity, even for a journalist: on stage, next to one of the mixing desks, and at the foot of the stairs next to Max Weinberg's drum kit. The concerts were epic in length and mined with surprises, no great shock as Springsteen is now in an era of regular near-four-hour marathons (at least in Europe), with the set list getting tossed after the first number. But I saw the leadership and empathy – the request-sign impulse and hand signals; the "What key is 'Twist and Shout' in again?" conferences – behind the action. There is nothing like it in live rock & roll right now. Trust me.
Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing and other stories (K Scope)
The best record I didn't get to review in 2013 was truly progressive rock, not just prog-rock: vigorous, complex composition and rich, instrumental dynamics, played live in the studio by Wilson and his band with engineering by Alan Parsons (the Beatles, The Dark Side of the Moon). The first 12 minutes, "Luminol," summed up Wilson's long reach – the thick, dark curtains of mellotron, played by Wilson on one originally used by King Crimson; Gothic-Beach Boys vocal chrome; a tense metallic-fusion charge that suggested a Mahavishnu Chili Peppers. A sister release, Drive Home (K Scope), included live versions of four songs from the Raven tour – something else I missed, damn it.
We Buy White Albums, Rutherford Chang, Recess Galley, New York
This exhibit last winter was nothing but covers of first-pressing copies of 1968's The Beatles, bought by Chang and customized by their former owners in, among other things, crayons, water damage, doodles and messages to friends and lovers. And he keeps buying more (he's up to 918). Chang's project – part of a group exhibition that just opened at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center – is both absolute minimalism, the same thing over and over, but never static, reflecting pop's unique, daily interaction with human experience. Chang has also made his own "White Album," a double LP of digital recordings of 100 copies playing at once – by the end of each side, the Beatles sound like they're playing through a wormhole – in a cover comprised of images from those abused, overloved records. Hear Side One below.
My Last Interview with Lou Reed, New York City, 8/7/13
It was business as usual – Reed in blunt, proudly confrontational form over breakfast, talking about noise, New York in the Sixties and the art of frank, literary songwriting for my liner notes in the deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat. We had done this often; I expected to do more. At one point, he patted my knee, grinned and said, "Do you realize we have been doing this for almost thirty years? Isn't that astonishing?" And it was – every time.
John Murry – The Graceless Age (Evangeline)
First released in Britain in 2012, out here a year later, this album was Mississippi-born Murry's full-length debut; I'd previously written about his 2006 record with folk elder Bob Frank, World Without End, a real-life-murder ballad cycle. The Graceless Age was real life too, based on Murry's struggles with drugs and recovery. Produced with Tim Mooney of American Music Club, it is consistently great and straight in its lyrical candor and spectral-country comfort. Murry is related to the Southern author William Faulkner; The Graceless Age honors the family line.
Television, Rough Trade NYC, Brooklyn 11/29/13
Two of my favorite things at once: a new record store and, in the back performance space, a New York guitar-heaven institution, playing its first local show since 2007. I won't get into the no-Richard Lloyd debate; I can't do anything about it. But guitarist Jimmy Ripp was no shy violet in that spot, whooping and curling with heated poise and his own flourishes around leader-guitarist Tom Verlaine's curt spikes and violent shivers. There was "new" material – the spice-caravan trip "Persia," which I have on a bootleg from 2005 – and a never-recorded antique, "I'm Gonna Find You," from the 1974 set lists with bassist Richard Hell. Someone yelled out a question about a new album. Verlaine acted like he didn't hear it.
Grateful 45's: Vintage Dead-Singles T-Shirts
They were in high rotation in my wardrobe last summer: T-shirts bearing, on the front, actual 45 RPM labels from Grateful Dead singles released in the late Sixties and Seventies. Produced by On the One Merchandising (ontheonemerch.com) and licensed by the band, Grateful 45's come in hits ("Uncle John's Band," "Sugar Magnolia") and record-collector dreams (a Japanese single of "Viola Lee Blues," the 1968 studio 45 of "Dark Star"). Get yours at Jayli Clothing.
Lord of Garbage by Kim Fowley (Kicks Books)
This pocket-sized memoir tears along like a three-minute single. It stops at the end of the Sixties, well short of Fowley's Seventies brainstorm, the Runaways. He promises two more volumes. But Fowley had already raised a lifetime's ruckus by 1969. Born and raised on the B-movie margins of Hollywood, Fowley knew everybody of colorful repute (Alan Freed, Frank Zappa, and Sky Saxon, to name a handful) and became a writer-producer with idiosyncratic antennae ("Alley Oop," Soft Machine, the future Slade). He is brisk, funny, judgemental and unapologetic about his antics and options. "I had the choice of going onstage and jamming with the MC5," he writes of a crossroads one day, "or dating Michelle Phillips, and I chose her." Who wouldn't?
Syd Arthur, Mercury Lounge, 6/18/13
I was intrigued by the name. But this young band from Canterbury, England carried the spiritual weight of their namesakes, Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee, with crisp, colorful psychedelia. There was a strong forward lean in the songwriting and a bucolic warmth around Syd Arthur's grip on melody, as if they had written and practiced everything in the country cottage where Traffic were born. Syd Arthur's debut album, On an On, originally issued in 2012, is now out here on the storied, reignited progressive-rock label Harvest. Where it belongs.
Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck, Beacon Theater, 10/15/13
Wilson's opening set was nothing less than all of his 1966 masterpiece, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Beck then brought the Mahavishnu. But the moment that elevated this improbable bill to magic was an exquisite SMiLE sequence: Wilson leading the choral sunshine in "Our Prayer" and "Child Is the Father to the Man," then Beck taking "Surf's Up" for a new, instrumental ride, caressing Wilson's melody in soft, ringing treble while writing his own variations with jazz-ballad class and British-blues flash. I need this on a record.
Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland by Dr.Gunni (Sogur)
When I went to Iceland in 1988 to interview the Sugarcubes, the arctic nation's first, international rock stars, I quickly found out they were not a Year Zero phenomenon. Iceland had a long history of warping American and British pop to its own, compelling ends. Dr. Gunni, a musician and journalist, goes all the way back to his country's wax-cylinder days but hits a gripping, detailed stride in his tales of drinking and striving by, among others, Sixties garage-beat pioneers Hljómar, the Cream-like Ödmenn and the Eighties dada-punk band Kukl (with a very young Björk). Blue Eyed Pop, first published in Icelandic in 2012, has no discography, but Dr.Gunni has curated a soundtrack of playlists.
Label of Distinction: Valley King Records/Secret Serpents
This hybrid imprint operates from a spaced-rock quadrant somewhere over San Francisco, issuing limited-edition singles in transcendental-Americana artwork – near the intersection of Stanley Mouse and Plains Indian animism – by Black Crowes associate Alan Forbes. Among the lift and trips pressed to the vinyl: Feral Ohms, a very-Blue Cheer power trio led by Howlin' Rain singer-guitarist Ethan Miller; Neu-ish healing from Black Elk Medicine Band; and Indo-trance hymns and jams by Anywhere, a mutable troupe that, on a recent 12-inch picture disc, includes Howlin' Rain's Miller, Dale Crover of the Melvins and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic. Seek your stash at secretserpents.com.
Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro, Caff, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 11/13/13
Located in a former auto garage, Caff is a performance space founded in 2004 by this extraordinary ensemble. I wanted to see Argentine tango played live, off the tourist path, during my trip last year. What I got, in the group's visceral cohesion and dense instrumentation (four bandoneóns, piano and a seven-piece line of violins, cello, viola and bull fiddle), was two kinds of modernism: the Sixties and Seventies Nuevo Tango of Astor Piazzolla fired in tight, bullet-like motifs with hard-rock heft and Ramones-like speed, sung by a guy who growled of love's labors like James Hetfield. Fernandez Fierro's latest CD, Tan Idiotas Como Siempre, does all that in nine songs and twenty minutes.
Guitar Band Marathon, Bowery Electric, 12/23/13
My year in guitars included Tap (Tzadik), Pat Metheny's bold and superb reading of compositions by saxophonist-iconoclast John Zorn; Requia and Other Improvisations for Guitar Solo (Tzadik) by Henry Kaiser, his tribute to heroes and forebears such as John Fahey, Sonny Sharrock and Randy California; and this great, long concert, produced by the New York jazz and avant-garde-music record store Downtown Music Gallery. Highlights: the debut of Finnish guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim's great, heavy and furiously improvising quartet with guitarist Anders Nilsson; and a new band led by experimental-crossover star Nels Cline of Wilco. His second suite-like piece was restless in its changes – electric Miles Davis, free-rock charge, "Dark Star"-like suspense – but opened and landed, at the end, with sweet, bluesy elegance.
Gov't Mule, Beacon Theater, 12/30/13
In the second set, drummer Matt Abs suddenly got up in the middle of his solo and gave the chair to Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge, who detonated the air behind singer-guitarist Warren Haynes' super-blues band (and special guitar guest Jimmy Vivino) in a full-Sixties-fireworks version of the Fudge's hit cover "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Then, well after midnight, Haynes brought the Doors' Robby Krieger out for the encore. I expected "Roadhouse Blues," but Haynes and Krieger dealt from the weird end of the deck: "The Changeling" and "Cars Hiss By My Window" from L.A. Woman, signing off with "Five to One." Haynes did a solid Jim Morrison at the mike, especially at the end of "Five to One," adding the Lizard King's famous slurred-growl tag: "You see, I have to get in a car with these people, and get . . . fucked . . . up!" What a way to finish the year.