The song “Black Sheep Boy” appeared on 1967’s Tim Hardin 2. It was the third track, sandwiched between “Red Balloon” and “Lady Came from Baltimore.” “Lady Came from Baltimore” was a love song – one of the simplest, purest, and more affecting love songs you’ll ever hear, written about Hardin’s new wife Susan Morss, who is referred to as “Susan Moore” in the lyrics. “Red Balloon” could also be described as a love song, though, the object of Hardin’s affection wasn’t Susan Morss, but heroin.
When I was in high school, a kid gave me this Velvet Underground tape. It was the first two records, dubbed onto a cassette pretty carelessly, with songs cutting off at the end of sides A and B. The kid who gave it to me was a fellow guitar player, but a lot cooler than me. He was a slouchy guy with greasy shoulder-length hair, and he told me stories about the Velvets tuning all their strings to the same note, or physically carving the frets out of the necks of their guitars so they could slide dissonantly between microtones during guitar solos. I put the tape on and it sounded like what I imagined taking drug (a lot of drugs) felt like. It scared me. And it made me want to take drugs, which also scared me.
“Lola” is rich and complex, heroically humanizing a character who could have been an adolescent joke (one year after the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” admittedly) before crowning her and seating her at the center of a song that testifies to the primacy of love over all things.
Andy Warhol’s Vinyl, made in 1965, was the first filmed version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and it opens with a shot so powerful Stanley Kubrick would later ape it in his 1971 remake: Surrounded by his cronies, our (anti)hero gazes directly into the camera, his face wearing an expression of blank, thuggish entitlement. But similarities end there: When Warhol’s camera zooms back, it frames the shot that will compose most of this black-and-white, three-take film.
The films of Basque director Julio Medem derive much of their power from their constant proximity to the melodramatic, the grandiose, and even, at times, the ridiculous. As with Leos Carax or Harmony Korine, the dead-serious notion of cinema as a kind of visual alchemy pervades everything Medem does, which means that when he fails — as he does often, and with naked abandon — he provokes unintentional titters. When Medem succeeds, though, his films feel like a head rush.
I was on tour in 2009 when McSweeney’s contacted me about contributing something for an issue they were doing on extinct literary forms and said they wondered if I might be interested in writing something in the style of a Norse “Fornaldarsaga.” The Norse sagas represent some of the earliest written fiction and they’re pretty incredible. Purporting to document true events in Scandinavian history, they’re actually breathtakingly violent, quirky and fast-moving adventure tales that are still fun to read today.
Last year, I was asked to arrange and produce an album by cult legend Roky Erickson. The project was a massive undertaking, the often-troubled singer’s album first in 15 years. I culled 60 songs down to 11, and it took me about a year of my life to complete. Once it was finished, I thought, “What the hell, I guess I’ll write up some liner notes for this thing too.”
One morning months later, I was woken up by a chorus of text message alerts. All my friends were writing to tell me I’d been nominated for a Grammy – for liner notes.
When Kinji Fukasaku was 15, the war his Japan had been waging suddenly ended in the detonation of an atomic bomb. The young Fukasaku, who had been working at an armaments factory – his time mostly spent cleaning up the corpses of his co-workers killed every day in Allied bombings – watched as his proud country collapsed into chaos and economic ruin. Years later, Fukasaku would translate those firsthand childhood experiences of Japan’s disintegration into a catalog of vibrant and blisteringly angry films that would make him that country’s most successful director.
Ten years ago, Roky Erickson’s legacy as one of rock n roll’s most tragic figures had already been written. Once regarded as a spectacularly gifted singer and one of psychedelic music’s founding fathers, Erickson had watched his career fall apart while locked in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane. He had eventually retreated to a housing project in South Austin where he kept multiple TVs and radios on at full volume to drown out the voices in his head. No one had heard from him in over a decade. His friends and fans had all given up hope. They assumed he would simply fade away.
Instead, Roky has shocked everyone with a recovery that’s nothing short of miraculous.
The greatest height the pop career of Townes Van Zandt ever reached was in 1982. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were working on a duet album together and they needed one more tune; at the last minute they decided to cover Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and were so pleased with their recording they titled their album after it and made it the leading track. The song became a smash hit, resulting in something like financial security for the man who wrote it, America’s best-loved utterly unknown songwriter.
Be Here to Love Me, Margaret Brown’s haunting documentary on Van Zandt, includes some footage from the television program “Nashville Now” in which interviewer asks Van Zandt about Nelson and Haggard’s cover. Instead of expressing his gratitude towards the two country legends, Van Zandt mocks them.