Perfect Sound Forever

Wreckless Eric, C'est Moi

left to right: Mr. Dury, the Wreckless one, Mr. Costello, Mr. Lowe, Larry Wallis
photo by Chris Gabrin

Two Tracks on Stiffs Live
By Kurt Wildermuth
(October 2009)

Some people want to fill the world with writing about how music changed their lives. Most of the time, I find pieces like that pretentious and embarrassing and I swear never to write them. In July 2009, though, an email from someone I knew in the sixth and seventh grades got me thinking about the late seventies. Later that week, maybe in part because of that email, I spoke very briefly with Wreckless Eric after a show in New York. Late seventies... Wreckless Eric... in New York... so... here I go... again...

1. "The album dissatisfies because it is not perhaps their most honest record--but Beatle honesty veered perilously close to masochism on occasion and 'Abbey Road's' slickness is also its salvation." --Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, The Beatles: An Illustrated Record (1975; revised and updated 1978)

It's 2009, and I'm a forty-four-year-old man at the Lakeside Lounge. It's a dive bar in the East Village, with a tiny stage tucked between the (streetside) windows and the bathrooms. The singer-songwriters and pop/rock-and-rollers Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric--who are a couple and who last year released an eponymous CD on Stiff Records, Wreckless Eric's label of the late seventies--are playing a show. At times, the show becomes an X-ray of the show.

The songs--hers, his, theirs, a few covers--are tender, fierce, funny, sad, cynical, nostalgic. Above all, they are self-sufficient: "this is called 'The Downside of Being a Fuck-Up,'" Wreckless Eric announces. "It's about the downside of being a fuck-up," he adds wryly. Then even more wryly, "Sometimes it's hard to say what they're about..." The guitars ring out and sizzle as they're supposed to, Amy's keyboard adds color, and the harmonies convey the lyrics' sense of how hard it can be for lovers to stay together. A fan of either performer won't necessarily like the other one, but an admirer of both--and a lover of the literate but not collegiate pop/rock song generally--should be wowed. The fifty or so of us packed into this hotbox mostly seem wowed.

When I say that we don't really need to know what's going on inside the performers' heads and hearts, I'm not objecting to honesty. I love Amy's confession that she fell for Eric as she saw him play at the Lakeside a few years ago; and I love Eric's self-deprecating illustration of how an Englishman screws up his first meeting with a woman who has a crush on him. I'm amused by Eric's running head-count of audience members, his confession that at every show he notices the empty seats. But when Amy and Eric's between-song comments, about their intermittent artistic recognition, about their financial problems, and about their lack of business sense, lead to Amy's briefly melting down on stage, the honesty doesn't serve anybody.

The audience listens silently as Amy confesses something like: "I had such high hopes for this show... New York is so important, the biggest city... Well, not the biggest city. . . ."

Eric watches her, looking concerned. It's as though she's riding a bicycle on the highwire and feels the need to also eat fire or swallow a sword.

I'm thinking: Amy, the show is great! We're loving it. You don't have to do this.

Eric says something like: "Amy needs to hear that everything is all right." To let her know, the audience cheers and claps.

Amy doesn't seem uplifted, but the show goes on and keeps getting better. Maybe the duo is always this alive. Maybe the crossed mental and emotional wires are squeezing out sparks. Maybe the grit of New York on a humid summer night is working weird magic.

They reach Eric's signature song, the 1977 single "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World." In the movie Stranger than Fiction (2006), dull Will Ferrell wins over artsy Maggie Gyllenhaal by playing this sweet, slightly tart little love song on an acoustic guitar. As Amy and Eric fire on all cylinders, the pure joy of the tune careens around the room.

When I'd first entered that room, about fifteen minutes before the show, Amy and Eric had each looked at me, as if wondering who I was and why I'd come. Was I friend or foe? Would I want to say hi? I hadn't wanted to say anything. I admire them, but I haven't been keeping track of their work--hers since 1998, his since 1980. I haven't even heard their CD together. I showed up out of solidarity and curiosity, and I've stayed at the back of the room.

By the end of the set, though, having just gone to the men's room, I am standing by the side wall, parallel to the edge of the stage, ready to head home. Eric announces, winningly, "I thought that went rather well!" and steps off the stage. He walks straight toward me, but doesn't know where to go. Basically, there is nowhere for him to go but into a bathroom or out of the room. He stops short and downs the rest of his water.

I want to compensate for the dimwitted audience members Eric had described during the show: the woman in another city who seemed to mistake him (his real name is Eric Goulden) for Eric Burden, leader singer of the sixties English band the Animals; the man who before tonight's show told him, "I'm a big fan of Amy." I want to make up for not having kept up with Eric's music during the past thirty years. I want to second Eric's emotion that, despite whatever odd feelings he and Amy were experiencing--or, who knows, maybe because of those odd feelings--the show went rather well!

I walk over, he looks up, and I say, a little slowly and very deliberately, "I've been a fan since 1979, when I bought the Stiffs Live album." He seems startled, incredulous. For a second, I wonder if the years have taken a toll on his comprehension. I ask, "Do you remember that compilation? You had two tracks on it."

"Yeah!" he answers, looking delighted, as if I were a long-lost friend reminding him of that fun time we had when...

"I thought they were fantastic, and it's such a pleasure to have finally seen you after all these years. You and Amy sound great together." We shake hands. "It's a shame that Amy's spirits were so low."

"Yeah, well . . ." He hangs his head. "She went to see the accountant today. . . ." His voice trails off.

"It didn't matter! The show was great!"

Wreckless Eric is beaming. He is speechless.

2. "Le beau est toujours bizarre." --Charles Baudelaire (Exposition universelle de 1855)

It's 1979, and I'm a fourteen-year-old boy on suburban Long Island. Adolescence has hit me hard, left me shaking inside my skin as though most of my social interactions are like stepping from a cool room into a hot shower--or is that from a warm room into a cold shower? Junior high school is a horror, a stripping-away of all my childhood certainties, an incarceration alongside iron-fisted hoodlums and slick jocks and girls who can't or won't look past my freakish exterior and see the rock star, the enigmatic dynamo, I feel like when the lights are out in my room and a song I love is playing.

A bar mitzvah on Long Island, 1978. Photo courtesy of the bar mitzvah boy, Craig Woods (center).
The author is the weird dude standing behind him, with the glasses

My dad seldom says much, but he thinks and feels. These days, maybe every couple weeks on a Saturday, he expresses his love for me by driving me to department stores. Korvette's and, down the road, Model's have record departments where I can spend my allowance and money handed to me by my grandmothers. Dad's record collection, largely from his bachelor days, is one of his few prized possessions, and now he is enabling me to indulge my own interest in music, an interest growing into an obsession. I'm devoted to the Beatles, but I'm discovering different kinds of rock, pop, and pop/rock, much of which spark my imagination the way the Beatles' music does. I've embraced new wave and am making my way toward punk.

When asked about his interest in punk, Allen Ginsberg drew a line from the Beats to the Beatles to punks. They were all searching for ecstasy, he explained.

In 1979, on commercial radio in and around New York, you could hear the search for ecstasy. FM hadn't calcified into the classic-rock rotation, and DJs were playing interesting, energetic new stuff: Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and "One Way or Another" and "Dreaming," the Police's "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Message in a Bottle," Patti Smith's "Because the Night," the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Alison" and "Radio, Radio" and "Accidents Will Happen," Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "I'm the Man," the Flying Lizards' cover of "Money (That's What I Want)," Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind," Ian Dury and the Blockheads' "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick," the Clash's "Train in Vain" and "London Calling."

In 1979, when the B-52's played "Rock Lobster" on Saturday Night Live, my mom--who, through me, had come to love the Beatles and would later come to love the Ramones--begged me not to buy their album. I knew that she knew that it would take me somewhere she couldn't go. I bought it, and it took me places.

Later that year, I bought a three-song twelve-inch that Mom really, really wouldn't have approved of: Meet the Plasmatics, the debut recording by a New York punk/glam band whose guitarist, Richie Stotts, wore a Mohawk and a tutu and zombie makeup, and whose gravel-voiced vocalist, Wendy O. Williams, was a porn "star" who went onstage topless and wore duct tape on her nipples or shaving cream all over her breasts and destroyed guitars with chainsaws and blew up cars. On WPIX, an FM station that, from 1979 to 1980, adopted a free-form, largely new wave/punk format, I heard two songs from Meet the Plasmatics, and soon after, on one buying spree, I found it and a rare Beatles import.

That happened at a real record store (Record Stop, in Lake Ronkonkoma--real names be proof), but I still frequented Korvette's and Model's. In those days, deeply discounted--remaindered--records were called "cutouts," because a corner would be cut off the cover or a notch would be cut into it. The selection of cutouts at Korvette's was especially rich, a trove of nonhits of low-priced ecstasy. On a shopping trip I can still picture, I bought, for $3 or $4 apiece, Jethro Tull's Heavy Horses (1978) and a collection with the wittily self-sabotaging and therefore irresistible title Stiffs Live (or Live Stiffs, depending on how you look at the title running around the edge of the front cover). I still own Heavy Horses and play it every ten years or so. I still own Stiffs Live as well and play it every five years or so, but that album plays frequently inside me. That's how much I listened to it, how much I entered into it, and how much of an impact it had on me.

Bunched together at the center of the otherwise white cover are the Stiffs, not a band but a bunch of Stiff Records artists who toured together: Nick Lowe, red-faced and jowly and with oddly narrow feet; Ian Dury, scruffy and hunched; Elvis Costello, sharp but geeky; Larry Wallis, whose long hair and mirrored shades suggest the founding member of Motorhead that, in fact, he was; Wreckless Eric, wearing a checked jacket, a bowtie, a white shirt with French cuffs, and a goofy grin. The cruddiness of the typography and the image promise no great chops but at least $3 or $4 worth of irreverence. The big draws for me were Lowe, Costello, and Dury.

3. "We have to learn to play with nothing, with our guitars broken, and it's raining." --Jonathan Richman, quoted in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (1976; revised and updated 1980)

"All right, all right... Good evening, London, how ya doin'?" says the emcee, a Cockney-accented bloke, at the start of the album. "Do you feel all right? Are you ready for a good time? Are you ready for some Stiff music?" The crowd cheers. He introduces "the one and only" Nick Lowe.

Nick and band (billed as Nick Lowe's Last Chicken in The Shop but really Rockpile, plus Larry Wallis and Penny Tobin) rip through a ferocious "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll)." In terms of intensity, within Lowe's entire catalog this revved-up rockabilly version is equaled only by the track that follows, an unhinged and otherwise unreleased garage rocker called "Let's Eat." Here is the direct link between Nick Lowe and the punks, such as the Damned, that he produced and thus, by "bashing out" those records, earned himself the nickname 'Basher.' Lowe's early studio pop can be brilliant, and his more-recent, mellowed-out incarnation has soul, but these live recordings capture a kind of direct expression, maybe even a purity, that Lowe has worked long and hard to recapture. "Heart of the City," for example (on his debut album, 1978's Jesus of Cool/Pure Pop for Now People), almost has that quality, but irony has already started to distance the man from his material.

Here, the songs are near-throwaways--catchy and clever but one-dimensional, excuses to play fast. On each, the band races to the finish, sounding like it both loves this music and can't wait to get it over with. Lowe delivers the lyrics as though they matter. He doesn't necessarily feel these feelings, but the substance, if you need to find substance in your rock and roll, is the kinetics.

Elsewhere on the album, Elvis Costello and the Attractions deliver a delicate version of Bacharach-David's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" and an indelicate version of Costello's own "Miracle Man." Ian Dury does his patented, musically complicated mutant disco on "Wake Up and Make Love with Me," music-hall bawdiness on "Billerickay Dickie," and (accompanied by all the other Stiffs) a romping good time on "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll and Chaos." Larry Wallis (backed by Rockpile and Penny Tobin, who are this time billed as 'Larry Wallis's Psychedelic Rowdies') contributes an effectively snarly version of his single "Police Car."

For my money, though, all $3 or $4 of it, Wreckless Eric is the one performer on Stiffs Live whose cuts cut as deeply as Lowe's. Again, we're not talking about songwriting of the highest order, although better-recognized writers have written far less-inspired songs. We're talking about stabs at pop/rock from a young man with a burning desire to have his say, whatever he's saying, however it comes out. "Semaphore Signals" is a postmodern fragment of a fairy tale about a guy who lives on the hill and can't afford to date his girl, who lives in the green belt:

I'm sending semaphore signals
to the green belt
Messages of love down to her house
Semaphore signals to the girl
I love
Semaphore signals coming down
from above
"Reconnez Cherie" is a cubistic and atmospheric look at teenage romance and la vie boheme:
On a convenient seat by the lavatories
In the sodium glare
We used to wait for the bus in a passionate clutch
And go as far as we dared
. . .
Do you remember
When I moved into my studio flat
Hot sticky nights
In the summertime in bedsitland
. . .
Reconnez Cherie
Quand nous avons vie en ecstasy
The senses of these songs, though charming, don't matter nearly as much as the sounds. The songs are excuses to make sounds. Maybe I'm ultimately more interested in sounds than in words, but I would never have figured out the lyrics to "Reconnez Cherie" if Eric hadn't posted them at Yet I've loved the song for thirty years.

"I've traveled the whole wide world/Just to be here tonight," Wreckless Eric "sings," a capella, before the start of "Reconnez Cherie." Then he whines and tells the audience: "My guitar doesn't work!" "Plug it in!" a guy in the crowd shouts back.

"Right." It sounds like he plugs it in. "I think we'll start playing songs now."

That primitivism, as though the band (here billed as 'Wreckless Eric and the New Rockets') is maybe learning to play but is also, more importantly, inventing its own musical language, adds dramatic weight. The songs' narrative conclusions may be foregone, but these performances, jerry-rigged constructions, could come apart at any moment. The singer does and doesn't get the girl. What's at stake is whether the instruments will come unplugged and whether, the whole wide edifice get wrecked.

On "Reconnez Cherie," bassist Denise Roudette and drummer Ian Dury swing credibly. On "Semaphore Signals," they create a sinister march similar to the Plastic Ono Band's cramped rhythms on John Lennon's early solo records (think "Cold Turkey" or "Well Well Well"). As on the studio recordings of these singles (one a B-side), which strike me as demos for these live versions, the real masterstroke is Davey Payne's saxophone. The sax adds a melodic line that runs counter to, at times counteracts, Wreckless Eric's growling, strangled, nasal warble. Critics, even sympathetic ones, have accused Wreckless Eric of not being able to carry a tune, at least on his early, late-seventies work, and here he more seeks the melodies than presents them. One part Keith Richards, one part Johnny Thunders or Nikki Sudden, one part Captain Beefheart, he aches and moans and groans and huffs and puffs. He creaks like a storm-tossed wooden boat. Meanwhile, behind and alongside him, the saxophone says: Everything is all right. There's a method to this madness. There's craft in this craft--or this crap, you might think if you're looking for a smoother jazz. "Punk" is here hinting at or threatening to venture into free jazz, where technique takes the shape of a question mark and the question is how deeply can the instrument express.

I didn't "get" Wreckless Eric at first, but then the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" sounded wrong the first few times I heard it too. Shortcomings like that are the points you start from, grow out of, expand past as a listener and as a person. Pretty soon, I had put Wreckless Eric's seeming cacophony into a broader perspective. In that place, the Beatles mattered most because they dared to change, refused to stop changing, and forced their listeners, their true fans, to change in response. In that place, change and chance were life forces, scary but vital. In that place, every song and album and artist I've mentioned in this piece--and many, many, many that I haven't--moved around like memories, like the glop inside a lava lamp, taking strange and unpredictable shapes.

To this fourteen-year-old boy on suburban Long Island, Wreckless Eric's two tracks on Stiffs Live came to represent a little Oz, a Technicolor dream, an imaginative vista, a way out of the dead zone. They were invitations to adventure. Thirty years later, whenever I find a way to break out of the routine, make beauty, find ecstasy, I am drawing on and paying homage to all the possibilities offered by Wreckless Eric's music and by music as cool and risky as that.

Also see the follow-up article on Eric & Amy

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