Crybaby

Tim, a 19-year-old who lives in Lindenhurst, New York, remembers the exact moment he started listening to the singer Lil Peep on repeat. “I have pretty bad anxiety and depression,” he told me, sitting on the boardwalk in Long Beach, New York on Saturday with his back to the Atlantic Ocean. “When that got really bad with a relationship I was in, Lil Peep was my outlet. You listen to him as a way to be like, someone else has been through the same thing that I’ve been through.” Tim got a Lil Peep tattoo on his lower left rib cage, and he converted his friends Erin and Amanda, both with him, to Peep fandom as well.

Several hundred fans with similar stories lined up outside the beachside Allegria Hotel on this quiet, cool, clear December afternoon to remember Lil Peep, born Gustav Åhr, who died on the evening of November 15th of a suspected drug overdose. Half an hour before doors opened, a line stretched out the hotel and down the street. The fans were overwhelmingly young; they wore black Come Over When You’re Sober sweatshirts in honor of Lil Peep’s final recording, or some form of pink, a color the singer favored. The line buzzed with word that collaborator Lil Tracy was present and again when the rapper Fat Nick showed up to join the queue. Teens kept their hoods up as a shield against cold — and grief.

In the two years before his death, Lil Peep amassed an impressively promising discography, pointing rock, which has long been short on new ideas, towards the 21st century. His songs often build around a single, tremulous guitar line played with little distortion, hurry or drama; underneath that, Peep or a collaborator programmed jaw-rattling bass and a steady march of hi-hats. As a singer, he had a gift for delivering highly hummable melodies with conversational ease, enough familiarity with hip-hop cadence and vocabulary to earn the title of rapper and a knack for plainspoken emotional transmissions — including frank musings on suicidal thoughts, crushing heartache and drug use — that drew in anyone familiar with angst.

The result of this mishmash could be dizzying in the best way: Take “Crybaby,” which seesaws from self-flagellating to boasting to flirty to doom-y in the space of just a few lines. Lil Peep relied primarily on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, streaming platforms ideal for young artists going somewhere fast, rather than Spotify, which is far more regulated, to release his music. He has some four dozen songs on SoundCloud with more than a million streams each, and in addition to earning the admiration of the music internet, Lil Peep impressed stars like Post Malone, Diplo and Marshmello.

On Saturday during a tearful ceremony at the Allegria Hotel, friends and family fleshed out the man behind the work. Though Lil Peep’s music tends to be somber, Emma Harris, who dated the singer, and Dylan “Smokeasac” Mullen (via a written tribute read by George Astasio), who produced some of his music, remembered how funny he was. Liza Womack, Lil Peep’s mother, and longtime friend Ian Grant spoke about his relentless drive — the singer frequently labored through the night, and his mother would find him still at it when she got up in the morning to go to work. Another friend, Eddie Whalen, presented Lil Peep as his fashion guru, the invaluable friend who taught him it was ok to throw out his Sketchers and to stop tucking his shirts into pants pulled up high.

Across eight different speeches, there was sense of both devotion and devastation. Not a dry eye was left after Harris recounted falling in love with Lil Peep by the time she was in fifth grade, enthralled because she “never met anyone who colored his hair more than me.” “I don’t think it’s physically possible to shed more tears for anyone,” she added, and her words were echoed later by Whalen, who told the crowd, “these last few weeks, I’ve learned what crying really is.” In a ceremony on the beach after the service where fans laid roses in the surf in Lil Peep’s honor, one fan showed his affection for the singer by stripping to his underwear and running into the Atlantic, red rose in hand.

Unsurprisingly, many speakers at the Allegria also praised Lil Peep’s musical savvy. “Gus and his housemates had a weekly Frank Sinatra night,” Womack said. “His favorite song to sing was ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ and he was fucking good at singing it.” And in a more visceral form of tribute, when Lil Peep songs like “Star Shopping” or “Save That Shit” played during video montages, friends in the audience thew their arms around each other’s shoulders, swayed side to side and sang every word.

But the devotion this singer inspired spread beyond his tracks. Astasio called Peep “a superhero with a huge heart,” and Womack struck a similar theme, presenting her son as someone who hit back against various forms of societal prejudice. “Gus understood that many good people suffered injustice because of what they looked like or how much money they had,” she told the crowd. “He saw how the cool kids who lived in the fancy neighborhoods looked down on his friends who lived in the projects — and looked down on his own family who lived in an apartment and drove an old Nissan. Gus got fed up with that world. He rejected it.”

Womack encouraged others to learn from her son’s example. “Please do not make assumptions about people or events in ignorance,” she declared. “Ask yourself these questions: Do I really know this person? Have I sat down face to face and asked him to tell me about himself? … Am I dismissing this person because he does not match my definition of a ‘good kid’?”

“Be honest,” she continued. “Gus was.”

And his fans loved him for it. Roberto, 19, said he started crying when he heard news of the Ll Peep’s death, and he drove with Bobby and Gino, both 17, all the way to Long Beach on Saturday from York, PA to pay respects. “[Peep] was the only artist who put what he felt out there,” Roberto told me. “And he was the only artist I felt for.”

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Pharrel’s Girl: Leave the Album, Take the Single

For a good portion of last year, the producer-songwriter-singer Pharrell seemed to be singlehandedly keeping the recording industry afloat through his work on an inescapable pair of hits: “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky.”  With success like that, it’d be foolish not to put out more music as quickly as possible, so he is releasing G I R L, a solo album, this week. Pharrell made his name more than a decade ago as a producer who could provide access to the rarified air up near the top of the charts in a number of genres. In the shifty pop landscape, a reliable hit-maker is king, and Pharrell still knows what it takes to make a hit—his latest single, “Happy,” just hit the top spot on the pop charts, nearly 14 years after he produced his first #1 for Jay-Z.

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For Marva

Marva Whitney, a powerful female funk singer who worked with James Brown in the late 60s (which, according to James Brown’s recent biography The One, was somewhat of a terrifying and dangerous experience, due to Brown’s rigid rules and his violent tendencies), died recently.  She only released one album in her James Brown days, It’s My Thing, which mainly contains her versions of Brown recordings and a couple duets.  In 2006, Whitney made an unorthodox move, recording “I Am What I Am” with a Japanese funk orchestra. It might be my favorite one of her songs:

Same Name, Different Tune

I’ve been reading Willie Nelson’s memoir, Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die, for a review I’m writing, and I’ve been listening heavily to Nelson’s music at the same time.  Nelson has put out a massive number of albums in his lifetime, but I’ve been mainly focusing on his work from the 70s, which is often remarkably spare and wonderfully simple.  In 1977, he recorded To Lefty From Willie, a short tribute album to the country singer Lefty Frizzell.  It includes the song “That’s The Way Love Goes,” a pretty little ditty:

 

Janet Jackson also recorded a “That’s The Way Love Goes,” the highlight of her 1993 album Janet (it shares nothing with Nelson’s tune, aside from the use of the title phrase for the hook).  Jackson steals the circular guitar riff from James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” for the song’s backbone, but she removes its thinness and tension, transforming it into something secure and soothing.  Where Nelson goes for satisfying chord changes and interlocking parts, Jackson locks in a single, unified pulse.

Guessing Games

When I saw Lambchop last spring, they finished their set with an odd cover choice: “Guess I’m Dumb,” originally written by Brian Wilson and performed by Glenn Campbell in 1965.  Before Campbell hit it big (big enough to receive a tribute performance at the 2012 Grammies) with some country pop hits later in the 60s — “Gentle On My Mind” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in 1967 and 1968 respectively — he played guitar for numerous artists.  When Brian Wilson decided to stop touring and focus on composing increasingly complex pop in the studio, Campbell went on the road as the fifth Beach Boy in Wilson’s place for a little while.  (As seen in the photo on the left, Campbell has the clean cut look of the early Beach Boys down pat.)  “Guess I’m Dumb” has a strong Pet Sounds feel to it, with pristine production and a heavy dose of strings and horns.  Similar to the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” which contains the lyric “They say I got brains but they ain’t doing me no good/ I wish they could,” the Campbell track has plenty of sweet self-deprecation voiced in a high register.  I haven’t found a recording of the Lambchop cover anywhere, though I remember it being pretty during their show.

Heptone

The Heptones recorded several killer reggae albums in the 70s, always driven by their gorgeous, multi-part harmonies.  Their song “I Miss You” came out as a single in 1973 — although the group had been recording for almost eight years at this point, they had only released two or three full-length albums.  “I Miss You” is a cover of a fraught 1972 ballad from the Philadelphia soul group Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who got most of their material from the famous production/songwriting team Gamble and Huff.  The original is over eight minutes long, with Teddy Pendergrass (who went on to a sucessful solo career with disco/steamy slow-jams/”Love T.K.O” in the second half of the 70s) singing lead and tearing into a series of tragic lines as the rest of the Blue Notes provide sad, quietly respectful backing lyrics.  There’s an extended spoken-word portion, and the whole thing is bathed in strings and faded screams.  The Heptones take a different approach, condensing the song into a compact, bouncy nugget.  A great song works in any form.

Springsteen Biographer

The other day I saw Peter Ames Carlin, the author of Bruce, a new biography of Springteen, answer questions about his latest work (he has also written biographies of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney).  The questions were posed by Sean Wilentz, an esteemed historian whose areas of expertise include Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dylan, and now Columbia Records — Wilentz’s new history of America’s oldest record label was released yesterday.  Probably the most notable aspect of the event was the audience, most of whom were Bruce’s main demographic, aging 50+ year-old men and women.  (I was one of maybe three people under the age of forty.)

Bruce inspires a certain level of devotion, and the event was in New Jersey, so these old folks were serious fans.  Almost everyone had a copy of the new book, 2 out of 3 were wearing Springsteen shirts, and the talk occasionally took on characteristics of a revival meeting, with the audience hooting and hollering in support of their favorite rock star. At one point, Carlin quoted lyrics from “Thunder Road,” causing a man to the left of me to engage in a dramatic fist pump.  At another moment, a woman from the crowd asked Carlin about the cover of the book, noting that it was from a 20 year-old copy of Rolling Stone that she had saved at home (presumably as part of her Springsteen shrine).  She seemed disappointed to learn that the publishers had picked it just because it looked cool.

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Thankful ‘n’ Thoughtful

I reviewed Bettye Lavette’s new album of covers, Thankful ‘N’ Thoughtful, for Popmatters.

Most of the covers didn’t do much for me. I thought she did best with a nice rendition of a Black Keys’ track.

The Disappearance Of A Libertine

Pete Doherty burst onto the rock and roll scene in the early 00s as one of the lead singers/guitarists in the Libertines.  With Carl Barat, Doherty wrote quick, explosive songs chock full of scuzzy riffs and harmonies that pulled from any number of famous groups — the Beatles, the Clash, the Stooges, etc.  An ex-literature student, Doherty (2nd from the left in photo) had the baby-face and the fashion down already, and he adapted quickly to the rock and roll lifestyle, getting heavily into drugs and repeatedly running afoul of the law.  The Libs barely lasted long enough to record a second album; one of the biggest hits from this last gasp was “Can’t Stand Me Now,” in which Doherty and Barat traded verses about their mutual dislike. Then Doherty drifted into his own group, Babyshambles. His first album as Babyshambles came out in 2005; it was half-great and half-abysmal, a testament to both the advantages and disadvantages of wandering through celebrity in a doped-out haze.  Two years later, Babyshambles put out Shotter’s Nation, which had the cleanest sound of anything Doherty had ever released. It contained some excellent songs and didn’t have any massive clunkers, but it wasn’t an off-the-cuff expression of sentiment like some of his other work.  Since then, Doherty has done basically nothing, aside from a solo acoustic album that was largely a waste of space. Its too bad that an artist of such potential can’t get it together.

The Last Holiday

I reviewed Gil Scott-Heron’s posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday, for Paste.

 

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