Monday, March 25, 2013

New Music from the Elusive Mr. Bishop

“A Little Physics and a Lot of Luck” from Di-Tone Records is the new six song CD from veteran songwriter Thom Bishop (also known as Junior Burke).  Thom burst onto the Chicago music scene in the mid-70’s in a blaze of creative energy and has been performing and writing (plays, screenplays, musical theater, novels, and songs) ever since.   Despite a fairly considerable artistic output over the years, Bishop has managed to keep a low profile over the last 20 years.  You can read more about him after the review. 
This new album, his fifth release, is, in large part, an homage to Bishop’s musical influences, particularly the rock ‘n roll and literature of the late 50’s, with a nod to the psychedelic 60’s with Lennon’s I’m Only Sleeping and the title cut which is pure 70’s.  It was mostly recorded in the late 70’s and early 80’s, around the time that his first record came out.  Indeed, two of the six cuts are from his first album.
The title track kicks off the album with piano and harmonica.  It sounds almost straight out of an early Bruce Springsteen anthem, chugging along like Thunder Road.  The drums kick in and the electric guitar fills in over the top.    Bishop tries to match the intensity with his vocals, generally to good effect, although his vocal strength is more of a smooth purr than a growl.
I’m not entirely convinced that the lyrics fit that well with the heartland rock treatment.  The words feel like they’re from a slightly different era, more theatrical than salt of the earth.  There’s a lot of clever literary wordplay, particularly inversions of common phrases.  The title is a twist on the old cliché that what goes up must come down.  Here, it’s “what goes down, must come back up again.”  It’s not really a rock anthem, as the music might suggest, and the wordplay could get lost in the arrangement.
The verses, which don’t rely as much of the clever wordplay may also get a little lost compared to the bravado and cleverness of the chorus.   This is particularly true of his line in the second verse, “in the neon rain I felt the glass that had shattered deep inside.”  The line aches with fragility.  It’s painful to think of walking on broken glass, but to have something like glass shattering deep inside is almost unbearable to think of.  In a recent conversation, Bishop explained that this was the only line that he rewrote and rerecorded from the original version.  When he wrote the song, it went something like “in the neon rain I cried as hard as I did when Elvis died.”  He later updated the reference from Presley to John Lennon, but even that reference is now dated, so it had to go.  Clearly, this update is much sharper and is more directly applicable to the personal loss documented in the song.
The story boils down to flying into town to see an ex-lover.  He’s having a drink; “the last one before the airplane touches down.”   He’s probably had many drinks, since he says in the chorus that “you drain your cup then fill it up.” He views the meeting as a theatrical performance where he’ll “step on stage when the circus comes to town.”  He knows she’ll be there, “unless she’s too sick to attend.”  You can feel him hedging his bets, trying to not be crushed if she doesn’t show.  It’s obviously a big deal to him, but he’s not sure what his audience of one really thinks about it.
He tried to forget her, but it was a painful breakup.  He tells us that, “some scars are too deep to heal, too dark to ever mend.”  But by the end of the song, he feels certain that she will be there and perhaps everything may even work out.  It’s just “a little physics and a lot of luck.”  Of course, the title phrase is pure wishful thinking, with not an ounce of physics.
He drops a reference to Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh in that last verse: “when our souls collide for the final time when the Iceman comes to town.”  If you don’t know the play, it takes place in a bar where a bunch of alcoholic dreamers talk endlessly about their dreams, but never do anything.  A salesman comes and tries to strip them of their illusions and they find that without them they have nothing.  So at the end they go back to drinking and dreaming. It’s generally considered one of the bleakest plays of the 20th Century.  Bishop could simply be suggesting in this reference that when they meet, that their illusions will be stripped away and they’ll see each other exactly as they are.  But the play suggests that rising above your illusions and wishful thinking is extremely difficult and that life itself is almost too painful and difficult to bear without them.
Let me make one final comment on the arrangement for the song and you can take it for what it’s worth.  It is a full throttle, piano-driven rocker and the musicianship, as on all the songs, is superb.  I do think though that this song would have benefited from having more of a break in it, either a full instrumental break or a change in tempo or greater change in dynamics between the verses and choruses.
The next track, Endless Sleep was a hit for rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds in 1958 and a country hit for Hank Williams Jr. in 1964.  It’s a favorite song of Thom’s, which he considers a “fabulous piece …of gothic rock.” The original recording is pretty laid back and almost sounds like a ballad with Reynolds’ smooth vocals very much on top of the mix.  Bishop’s approach is more aggressive, layering on some Texas roadhouse guitar sass for straight ahead vintage rock.   His vocal is as smooth and velvety as Reynolds’ original.  Bishop also contributes some very accomplished blues harmonica on the track.  The guitar part is played by Elliot Randall, who played the solo on Steely Dan’s Reeling in the Years.  Jazz Pianist and Composer Kenny Ascher, who worked with John Lennon, contributed percussion.
The story is fairly straightforward.  After a fight, the narrator’s lover wanders down to the seashore and throws herself in the waves.  He comes looking for her.  The “angry sea” taunts him that he’s taken his lover away.  She calls to him to join her in the endless sleep of death.  And finally, he jumps in, finds her and wrests her away from the sea and saves her from death.
The song exemplifies some of the casual chauvinism of the 1950’s.  His girl is little more than a cipher.  Her only words are “Come join me, baby, in my endless sleep.”  Her only action is to throw herself in the waves after a fight. The narrator has something of a dialog with the “angry sea” and she’s little more than a pawn in the argument.  At the end, he declares victory over the sea as, “my heart cried out ‘she's mine to keep’/I saved my baby from an endless sleep.”  It’s almost more about him than it is about her.
The Wireless Wonder is Bishop’s paean to 50’s radio, the Beats, and the allure of the open road.  This was the title cut from his first album and is really a suite.  The intro is pastoral folk rock, with acoustic guitar over a gentle beat.  Bishop told me he spent a lot of time on his grandparent’s farm when he was young in downstate Illinois, but I still have a hard time imagining him as the “fair haired farm boy, who’s never been kissed,” milking cows and slopping hogs.  In any event, he “curls up next to the radio” at the end of a long day.  After listening impatiently to the news (“the cold war, the hot war, and all that other jazz”), the anticipation and the tempo picks up and the song switches gears to straight ahead 50’s rock ‘n roll.
This is the true beating heart of the song and what connects it to the rest of the collection.  You can imagine all the hours that Bishop and his innocent farm-boy alter-ego spent listening to Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, “the mods and rockers,” and Eddie Cochran while reading Jack Kerouac and itching to get his “blue suede shoes” on the road.  This is a full throated embrace of the romanticism of the road through the wonder of the radio.  He was “hip to the voice of the highway/schooled in the rules of the road.” 
Though the lyrics in this section are mostly a pastiche, stringing together pop references, the phrasing and images are crisp and evoke the “magic” of the radio and the place in time perfectly.  The only other song I can think of that tries to string together pop culture references in a remotely similar fashion is the mostly forgettable Billy Joel song, We Didn’t Start the Fire.  Here it works perfectly.
When we get to section three, the piano and guitar drop out and we’re left with a thumping drumbeat and bass.  This is a particularly tricky maneuver.  The somewhat older and perhaps wiser narrator has replaced the wide-eyed innocent and addresses the listener directly in a spoken monologue.  It begins with “headlights, searchlights, probing mother night.”  He places himself in Chicago, where he’s taking a “drive along the Lakefront on this steamy Friday evening.”  He notes that Chicago is where Route 66 starts.  And Route 66 leads to California, “the golden land gulf where it all empties out.”
He recounts a drive along Route 66 through the night.  Instead of dissolving in disillusionment, he “keep[s] pushing.” In the morning, with the sunrise, he feels that he’s moving toward “a hazy gold redemption in sunny California.”
The music picks back up and he recounts travels real or imagined across the country, through the heartland and the South, and thrill of being able to “bounce off Broadway…then fly to Frisco three hours late.”  At the end, there is a saxophone solo, a Kansas City Blues flourish to top off the arrangement.  The solo is played by Ron Dewar who toured with Elvis Presley. There’s also some great piano work by multi-instrumentalist Ed Tossing, who has worked with Bishop on a number of projects through the years.  Bishop claims that there’s possibly no better keyboard player in rock or jazz than Ed Tossing out there, and based on what I’ve heard on Bishop’s albums, I’m inclined to agree.  The only one that I can think of, and they are similar in some ways, is Lyle Mays, long-time collaborator with guitarist Pat Metheny.  Bruce Hornsby is also worthy of consideration, but the styles are a little different.
This is a great and ambitious song and I’m glad to see it rescued here, so that we can all enjoy it again.  In a recent interview, I asked Thom why he didn’t just re-release the whole album, which I thought was pretty good when it came out, and still do.  He said that for him only about half of the album really worked.  He said he made the classic mistake of putting too many that he had just written on the album, instead of picking his best work.  While I might agree that not all of the songs are of the same high caliber as The Wireless Wonder, I’m sure he also thought that he’d be releasing albums year after year, instead of waiting the better part of a decade for the second.
This is followed by a cover of Lennon’s I’m Only Sleeping from the Beatles’ album Revolver.  Bishop has covered Lennon before on his 1996 CD Feed Me a Dream.  After three up-tempo numbers, this song provides a little bit of relief. This song is about that early morning state between sleep and waking, where your head is filled with the fragments of dreams.  The singer doesn’t want to be disturbed from this state of reverie.  He’s still able, in this state, to keep “an eye on the world going by.”  But the song is much more than simply an evocation and celebration of the dreaming state.  It’s also about simply being, taking life at its natural pace and rhythm; allowing it to happen.  We don’t always have to be wide awake or strung out on coffee or cigarettes, living our rat race lives.   As it says in the song:
Everybody seems to think I'm lazy
I don't mind, I think they're crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Till they find there's no need (There's no need)
I was reminded of another Lennon song while I was listening to this one, the late-great Watching the Wheels.  It expresses the same sentiment, but from a place of waking and a place of power.  People are still calling him crazy and accusing him of being “lazy, dreaming [his] life away.”  But he knows that the rat race or the merry-go-round is not where he wants or needs to be.
The song starts off slowly and quietly, providing a little breather between the first few songs and the last.  But as the song progresses, the music gets louder and more electric and insistent, as though someone is trying to almost drag him out of bed and he’s resisting with his whole being.  It reminded me a little bit of how the Black Keys start some of their songs low key and acoustic for a verse or two and then switch gears and turn on the whole band for a crashing finish. Here, the ratcheting up the tension as the dreamer resists being awakened.
While the original has some electronic effects, such as backward guitar loops, for the Beatles it’s a pretty conventional arrangement, inching towards the great psychedelic sound of Sgt Peppers rather than diving in and embracing it.  The rhythm is a very heavy, almost plodding 4/4. 
Bishop’s remake views the song through the lens of the psychedelic period, taking some cues for the arrangement from songs like Lucy in the Sky, Because, and The Sun King.  He starts out slowly with just two guitars. The drums and the full band don’t kick in until the second verse and drop in and out of the mix until the ending section.  This gives it a dreamier feel than the original, which is appropriate to the lyrics.  Flute on the instrumental break adds a little to the late 60’s hippie vibe. In the end, the track manages to be both harder edged and more laid back than the original.  Bishop’s vocals handle both aspects fluidly without harmony support.  All in all, this is an excellent version of the song.
Crazy Black-eyed Lady in a Yellow Satin Dress is pure Honky-tonk, roadhouse blues, complete with piano, guitar and horns.  The lady in question is beautiful and dangerous, a real heartbreaker.  She’s every man’s fantasy, but no one can possess her.  Bishop called it his “version of a Chuck Berry song” in a recent interview.  The song starts out as a bit of a “guy walks into a bar” story.  After listening to this guy bitch and moan for a while, the bartender finally asks him what he’s doing there, and he talks about the woman that he just can’t forget. 
The second verse talks about parents dealing with an inter-faith relationship and using the Crazy Black eyed lady to break up their son’s romance.  It may be the guy in verse one, or it may be someone else.  The final verse generalizes, suggesting that most men would give up something dear to spend an hour with such a woman. 
There’s more great piano work from Ed Tossing and the whole band really rocks out. The key here is that the story, as it plays out in the verses, is much less important than the bigger than life female myth that is conjured by the chorus and the joyous rock and blues music used to deliver the tale. 
The Dream was Never Me puts the Tenor Sax right up front in the arrangement and it acts as a musical hook for the song, filling in at the beginning and end of the song and between each verse.  The song is something of an interior monologue about dreams and illusions and the sometimes painful process of growing up.  The second verse suggests, with perhaps a trace too much hyperbole (“vultures in the east” and “serpents in the sun” and odds of “a million plus to one”), the difficulty of standing up for yourself and asserting yourself, since we all can “lose eventually.” 
The final verse is about Bishop’s disillusionment with the music business and the manufacturing of image.  He states that:
Though you’ll never see my face
I’ll be playing in your head
As I try to state my case
Simply saying what I’ve said.
All the things they get behind
I just never want to be…

The irony here is that the singer is trying to separate himself from the hype and magic that he celebrated in The Wireless Wonder, that “everything is magic on the radio.”  Or perhaps he’s suggesting that the real power of the radio is in the songwriter and performer trying to state his case and “simply saying” what he means.

You can also consider the song as a response to the opening track, suggesting that he’s put any self delusions and pipe dreams behind him.  At the end of the end of the first verse and the end of the song with a slight variation, he states that “the lie was never mine and the dream was never real.”  You have to live your own life and pursue your own dreams, not somebody else’s. 
The last verse also suggests that he wants us take his songs at face value.  The meaning should be clear whether you know him or you never see his face.  Of course, you might argue that the meaning of this particular song is not exactly quite so transparent.
Despite the age of the recordings and the somewhat distant roots of the material, this is not an exercise in nostalgia.  The music sounds fresh and timeless, the performances are impeccable and the songwriting is strong.  Given the iPod and streaming, it sometimes seems as if all music is now contemporary music.  I’m not sure these songs break any new ground in either blues or rock, but they sit comfortably with the classics and should find a home in the ever-changing musical landscape.  And the version of I’m Only Sleeping redefines and elevates an underrated Beatles tune.  You can’t ask for much more than that.
More on Thom Bishop

When he first moved to Chicago, fresh from studying drama at the University of Illinois, Thom was a successful singer-songwriter, performing mostly as a solo artist.  He toured the country from New York to California.  He also dove deeply into the Chicago Theater scene, doing a little bit of acting (Junior Burke was his Actor’s Equity name), but eventually got involved in writing musical theater.  By the end of the 70’s, he had three shows going at the same time, including Bagtime, co-written with Louis Rosen and based on a book by local Chicago writer Bob Greene.
Around 1979, he teamed up with the Chicago rock band Freewheelin’ and they did a number of shows together over a two or three year period. In 1981, he recorded his debut album The Wireless Wonder, with a small label that promptly went out of business.  Disillusioned and looking for new challenges, he decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles, putting his musical career on hiatus.  He did some songwriting for the movies, placing songs in About Last Night (based on the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago) and other films. He also wrote a three act play called American Express that had a couple of performances in LA. 
The tug of the music business still remained strong and he started seriously writing songs again after a couple of years.  He also started to make regular trips back to Chicago in the mid 80’s, playing with friends at Orphans on Lincoln Avenue.  In 1989, he finally recorded his second album, Restless State of Grace.  The album, produced by songwriter James Lee Stanley, has a lush sound that captures Bishop’s tunes very well.
About the same time, one of his friends, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter David Bromberg, was producing an album for Bob Dylan at the time in Chicago and he recorded a couple of Thom’s songs.  Unfortunately, the album was never released, though Thom did hear the songs and some of the other things from the session.  He said that from what he’d heard, the sessions “turned out beautifully” and he hopes they see the light of day at some point.
He also rekindled his songwriting partnership with Louis Rosen and the two of them put together an ambitious original piece of musical theater, The Book of the Night, which had a successful run at the Goodman Theater in 1992, and had a revival off-Broadway in 1997.  He recorded a third album, Feed Me a Dream, in 1996, produced by guitarist and long-time collaborator Billy Panda.  This effort had, for the most part, more of a stripped down, acoustic sound. 
He did the soundtrack and music for a film called American Reel, which starred David Carradine as a down and out musician, trying to make it one more time.  He also got a writing credit for the film, but claims in a recent interview that he really didn’t contribute that much to the screenplay.  On the other hand, he was very proud of the soundtrack, which contained some of Vassar Clements last recorded work and was mostly built around Carradine's own songs.  Thom had nothing but praise for Carradine as an actor and singer/performer.
He published a very good novel, Something Gorgeous, in 2005 under the pen name Junior Burke.  It has been re-released on Kindle this spring.  The book is Bishop’s take on The Great Gatsby, filling in the background of Fitzgerald’s novel with the “true” story of the romance of Gatsby and Daisy.  Bishop’s style in this work is more Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett than Fitzgerald, but he has a knack for dialog and plot and keeps his story moving.  One of the more intriguing things about the book is how faithful it is to the original while turning it inside out.  Even the most outlandish scenes in the book have some basis in Fitzgerald’s story.
Bishop released While You Were Gone in 2007, also under the name Junior Burke.  This was possibly his most accomplished and best produced album. 
Bishop has also very recently completed a draft of his second novel, an alternative history of the 50’s and 60’s which starts out with a young James Dean shooting Ronald Reagan on live TV in 1954.  He also has two musical theater pieces which will be produced this summer and fall in upstate New York, one based on the Greek Myths and the other based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  Perhaps his most important unreleased work is a musical based on the life of Sonny Liston that he co-wrote with musician/producer Jim Tullio, which is under consideration for production in London.
Thom/Junior has taught creative writing at the Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado for a number of years.

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