MAGNET Feedback With The Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey


The folks at MAGNET saw fit to give me a crack at Feedback, and I’m honored. They must know me well, because the list of 20 songs they sent me were mostly slam dunks for me to relate to and enthuse over. It would’ve been almost scarily prescient if they’d thrown me songs by Nice As Fuck, La Luz, Courtney Barnett, case/lang/veirs or Summer Cannibals, artists who’ve been inspiring the hell out of me recently. It’s like they slipped into my house and saw the LPs stacked up by the turntable—though the selections here did seem to prove a decent knowledge of my record collection, so I’m pretty cool with that. —Scott McCaughey

The Beach Boys, “Heroes And Villains” from: Smiley Smile
This song has always been huge for me. As a kid, I bought the 45 when it came out, with its silly cartoon pic sleeve (and puzzling b-side “You’re Welcome”—1:17 long, two words?). I just thought, here’s a way-cool pop song—I didn’t know anything about Smile or the many permutations Brian Wilson put the song through. And then in March 1973, I saw the Beach Boys live for the first time. The wide-reaching Surf’s Up and Holland had sparked a resurgence in my interest in the group, which now bordered on fanaticism. Future Young Fresh Fellow Chuck Carroll and his brother and I drove four hours to see the band in the men’s gym at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Seated in folding chairs in the front row, we were excited but not quite prepared for the majesty of the Beach Boys’ experience of that era. They opened with “Heroes And Villains,” and it opened up a whole new world for me. I felt engulfed and lifted by the most gloriously beautiful sounds I’d ever witnessed, and newly aware of how intense and fully realized a live performance could be. (This is all without Brian’s onstage participation, by the way, which, of course, had been the norm for many years.) They concentrated on material from Pet Sounds forward and only touched upon their surfin’ hotrod hits in the encores. (Yeah, I was thrilled to hear those, too.) Afterward, we strolled surreptitiously into the backstage locker room (what security?) and chatted with Carl, Dennis, Al and the Wilsons’ mother, Audrey. I told Carl I loved all the old songs, but that newer songs like “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road” were more specifically blowing my 18-year-old mind. He said, “That means a lot.” I’ll never forget that moment. Through all the innovation and brilliance, the mysteries, miseries and triumphs, the Beach Boys have never stopped inspiring me.

The Smithereens, “Hand Of Glory” from: Especially For You
What a strange song. Written by my dear friend Jimmy Silva (1952-1994), it was covered by our pals the Smithereens on their breakout first LP. Drummer Dennis Diken had played on Silva’s original version, and the Smithereens stayed fairly true to it, it being an already perfectly formed slab of driving psychedelic folk/rock. On its surface, that is. Snatches of images, swathed in hypnotic reverbed harmonies, reveal a dark undercurrent beneath the 12-string slither: “Tallow drips upon a withered hand, beneath the shadow of a gallows pole/I took the branch of a tree, let it lie in a pickling jar/Hand of glory.” I recall that the lyrics were inspired by Jimmy’s delving into mythic 1890s tome The Golden Bough, but really, what better formula is there than a disturbing lyric delivered via shimmering pop song? It’s always been there for me. On the lighter side, when Silva got that first sizable publishing check in the mail, he bought himself a brand-new Ford pickup, referred to fondly from that day forward as his “Royalty Truck.” By the way, I first jammed in Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak’s basement with him, Dennis, and Mike Mesaros, pre-Pat DiNizio, in 1978. Thus, a case could be made for me being the original singer in the Smithereens, which would have resulted in very different, and less successful, lives for all of us. Thankfully they found Pat—I could never have written songs that exceptionally inescapable. In February, I played an emotional memorial show at Thee Parkside in San Francisco, in which Messrs. Mesaros and Diken were reunited, and proper due was paid to our dear musical friend Eric Scott (Flywheels) as well as long-gone Mr. Silva himself. They will abide.

The Dream Syndicate, “Tell Me When It’s Over” from: The Days Of Wine And Roses
The year: 1983. The place: Paramount Theater, Seattle. I went to see U2 (they were triumphant), but I was even more excited to see the opening band. I’d fallen for Days Of Wine And Roses like just about every other record store clerk across the land, and seeing the Dream Syndicate’s noisy mayhem firsthand was electrifying. I remember Karl Precoda’s guitar strings broken and wrapped around the neck of his Strat squealing through the last song. I’ve been lucky enough to play this song with Steve Wynn many times over the last decade, either in the guise of the Baseball Project or the Miracle 3. There’s something about its loping, droney groove that gets me (and the audience) every time. Add Peter Buck doing the stately riff on 12-string and super-powerhouse Linda Pitmon drumming, and I’m pretty much in heaven. A caterwauling, cacophonous heaven.

The Mendoza Line, “Catch A Collapsing Star” from: Full Of Light And Full Of Fire
Well, here’s a three-headed monstrosity of a band that never got their fucking due, that’s for sure. There are scores of Mendoza Line songs that demand attention, and indeed, this is one of them. Tim Bracy’s patented Dylanesque delivery (he must get sick of hearing that) in top form, and soon-to-be-ex-wife Shannon McArdle’s harmonies raised to almost Chipmunks status—it’s a combination that I find disturbingly irresistible. In the words of Rod Stewart, if you don’t know them, I really don’t know where you’ve been! Find and purchase all of their CDs (no vinyl, I’m afraid, a product of their times), listen to them relentlessly, kiss your children when you put them to bed, and don’t use the corkscrew for anything evil. Full disclosure: Timothy and I co-wrote “Dark Hand Of Contagion” from the Minus 5’s Killingsworth; it’s a deviously depressing number, but the line “Your wedding day was so well-planned, like a German occupation” always gets a hearty laugh at shows—not my line. Tim and Elizabeth Nelson Bracy have a highly current combo called Paranoid Style with a fresh LP that’s raunchy and torn, and I only helped or hindered on a couple songs. “Accept no imitations, baby, catch a collapsing star/It’s our limitations that make us what we are.”

Wilco, “Candy Floss” from: Summerteeth
You know those early-ish Who records with the overdubbed acoustic guitar mixed really loud and the drums flailing away and the lovely harmonies and the driving rhythm not necessarily featured like it should have been? This bonus track from Wilco’s masterpiece (neither their first nor nearly their last) Summerteeth always reminds me of that curious 1960s production niche. Was it intentional? I wouldn’t doubt it. The fact that “Candy Floss” in all its joyous glory was a “bonus track” only confirms how great this record is and exemplifies what would become a career-defining trait of one of the world’s Truly Greatest Bands Of All Time, which is: nothing but great songs, sublime production, wild abandon, considered humanity, all the time. This song places itself as a toss-off when in fact for any other hopeful contender it could be the culmination of all they’d hoped to achieve. Being friends with other musicians might skew your perceptions of their work favorably, but I’ve never felt it to be the case with Wilco—I’m pretty sure I’d be a worshipful fan even if they were a bunch of jerks I’d never met. Yeah, they aren’t.

The Monkees, “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” from: More Of The Monkees
The Monkees took young, freckle-faced me by storm. I was already a Beatle-maniac, so they didn’t change my life in that same way. But they perfectly fed my appetite for perfect pop records, and let there be no doubt that they made plenty. We all know that the group benefited from superb material from top songwriters, and “Look Out” is one (some might say the lesser) of maybe four Neil Diamond-penned ditties. “I’m A Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” were both hit singles, but “Look Out” has its own charms, the trademark Diamond acoustic-driven rhythm, and Davy Jones at his heart-throbbing best. Speaking as someone who has (ridiculously?—you be the judge!) devoted an entire side of an album to lavishing appreciation on Michael, Peter, Davy and Micky (and let’s not forget writers/producers Boyce & Hart), I can only say in my defense that the Monkees records were fantastic then and have definitely stood the test of time. And I watched Head recently and I think it’s a cruelly underrated film. So there.

Richmond Fontaine, “Northwest” from: We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River
On side two of the Of Monkees And Men platter, I offer the Minus 5’s sincere appreciation of other non-fictional sorts who’ve affected me strongly and positively in one way or another. From lost friends and musical cohorts Jimmy Silva and John Weymer (the latter my notorious bandmate in high school aggregations Hannibal’s Chorus Boys/Vannevar Bush & His Differential Analyzers), to legendary film star Robert Ryan, to Portland’s own long-lingering combo Richmond Fontaine. Now that Fontaine has announced its intentions to finally call it a day, the song I wrote for them (tipsy but unbowed at the Montage bar in Portland) can also be seen as a sort of eulogy like the others. They’ve recently given us an unasked-for but exquisite final statement, and You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To is in constant play in my mind. “Wake Up Ray” and “I Got Off The Bus” are as good as songwriting and sympathetic symbiotic group playing get. If these are their last words, they will be remembered. Now, “Northwest” is a sweet snippet, and as someone who lives in Portland within spitting distance of I-5, I hear it and feel it as intended, I guess. I’ll just say that Richmond Fontaine has created a body of work that, while certainly appreciated more abroad than here “at home,” still deserves more attention and I daresay will find it as the years scroll past. I was so pleased to join them recently as they celebrated the release of their new album with shows in Seattle and Portland in which the Minus 5 joined in, and boy, was it spectacularly worth it. If you were there, stand up loud and proud, because you and we all won.

Mott The Hoople, “All The Young Dudes” from: All The Young Dudes
David Bowie did the world one of countless favors when he gifted this song to Mott, thus reviving an all-time favorite band and making possible the ultimate glam-rock trilogy of All The Young Dudes, Mott and The Hoople. There’s never been a song before or since like “Dudes,” with its crowning melodic guitar riff, genius meandering chord progression, anthemic outcast lyrics and the audience shoutouts as the song fades away (“You there with the glasses—I want you.”). Ian Hunter still encores with it, and at the ripe age of 75 (or so), he still owns it and is still the Dude. (Sorry, Jeff Bridges. You’re awesome, too.) I followed Mott around England in 1974 (thanks, Britrail Pass) and to think 40-some years later I’d have actually joined Ian onstage for this song a number of times … it’s unfathomable. Thanks, Ian!

The Posies, “Golden Blunders” from: Dear 23
In a way, the Posies mirror the development of the Young Fresh Fellows, but only by outdistancing us at every milestone. Like the YFF, Jon and Ken made a first record bathed in innocence and lack of self-examination, and that very innocence and inexperience (though better than what anybody else was doing!) was a part of what made the music so endearing. They took a huge leap when they graduated from the sexy PopLlama Products label to DGC, and from self-produced-on-a-parent’s-eight-track-machine to a produced-by-John-Leckie sophomore effort. Yes, Leckie of Beatles and XTC fame, amongst so many other credits. The album is a thick, powerful record that to its credit does not sound dated at all 20-plus years on. It most reminds me of another one of my all-time favorite albums/productions: Wish You Were Here by Badfinger, helmed by another former Abbey Road tape-op by the name of Chris Thomas. And while “Golden Blunders” is not my favorite song on Dear 23 (that honor reserved for “Apology”), it is perfect, and was covered by a Beatle. Yeah—my friends wrote a song and Ringo Starr recorded it! That’s just too damn cool. The Posies carry on, off and on, and no one can stop them.

Alexander “Skip” Spence, “Little Hands” from: Oar
“Little Hands” opens Skip Spence’s one and only album so perfectly—it seems to fall out of the ether and magically coalesce, much as it must have when Skip layered the sounds together one by one in Columbia Records Nashville recording studio back in 1968. And then the ghostly voice rises over the creakily irresistible guitars, singing of children and mothers and drummers and freedom. It’s hard to ever truly know what Spence was getting at with this singular album, captured at the only time in his life when it could have been possible, when he was far enough out there but not too quite far. There’s never been another record quite like it, and it was a worthy if risky proposition to give it the tribute album treatment years later. Robert Plant rose to the challenge of covering “Little Hands” and wisely made it his own—smoothing the rough edges cost the song some of its mystery but the essence is still there, beautifully sung. Covering these songs was a real challenge and credit to Plant, Beck, Mudhoney and many others for fine versions. The Minus 5 drew the outtake “Givin’ Up Things” (mislabeled “Doodle” at the time), and I’m still very pleased with the rendition Peter Buck and I concocted, with the basic acoustic guitar and live vocal recorded by a microphone laid inside the clothes dryer in my basement. Don’t try this at home, kids. When I lived in Cotati, Calif., in 1978, Skip came over to my house after a Moby Grape show down the street at the Inn Of The Beginning (in which he did not perform but slept on drum cases to the side of the stage). He asked to hear Rubber Soul and I was pleased to oblige. After the LP ended, I asked what he wanted to hear and he replied: Rubber Soul. And it was done.

The Kinks, “Wicked Annabella” from: Village Green Preservation Society
Yes, obviously Village Green Preservation Society is in my Top Ten Desert Island All Time Golden Greats Super Hits. How could it not be? As quintessentially English as the subject may be, I relate to it completely. “Wicked Annabella” is pretty weird, musically and lyrically, and that’s a plus. The Minus 5 covered it on the flip of a Spanish 45, along with Guided By Voices’ “Echos Myron.” Now that’s a double b-side for you.

Fernando, “True Instigator” from: True Instigator
Fernando is flat out one of my favorite singers. I first heard him when a friend from Portland turned me on to Pacoima, in all its bilingual Luther Russell-produced glory. Even a few boring hours up I-5 in Seattle, Fernando was a secret then. It’s many years later and I’m really happy to see him out there touring non-stop (with European and U.S. stints alongside fellow travelers Dan Stuart, Richmond Fontaine and the Jayhawks) and spreading that amazing voice around. Peter Buck and I both made some noise on his latest, the gorgeously spooky masterpiece Leave The Radio On. “True Instigator,” the title track from his previous album, shows how adept Fernando Viciconte is at delivering a heavy Neil Young-style rocker, with sidekick Dan Eccles (also of Richmond Fontaine) lighting up on the guitar.

Michael Stipe, “The Man Who Sold The World” from: unreleased
Yeah, I was sad when R.E.M. announced to the world in 2011 that its mission was complete. I wanted to go around the world (or at least do a week in New York or Dublin or Athens or … ) playing the songs from Collapse Into Now so everyone might realize that final album belongs right up at the top of R.E.M.’s canon. But I knew well enough at the end of the touring cycle in 2008 that it might not happen again. Even at the luxurious level that a band of R.E.M.’s stature allows, touring can be a disruptive and exhausting endeavor. So, while I couldn’t love it, I understood and respected the decision. Peter and Mike quite naturally continued showing up on stages and riding in vans in ensuing years, and often I was happily there beside them. Michael delved into his many other artistic interests, and I have to say I love his work in sculpture, photography, etc. It would have been sad to be deprived of his incredible voice and gift for interpretation, but we don’t have to worry about that. He’s turned up on occasion opening for Patti Smith, singing covers of songs I love (including the aforementioned “All The Young Dudes,” as well as personal R.E.M. favorite “New Test Leper”). After Bowie died, Michael appeared on The Tonight Show with this amazing rendition of a song once famously covered by his friend Kurt Cobain. And took it to a very special place. Exquisite! And please, kudos to “the pianist,” who’s only credited as such as far as I can ascertain. A truly brilliant arrangement.