Led Zeppelin – “Seattle Graffiti” Box Set (2012)

There are a number of terms used to describe releases such as Seattle Graffiti, often interchangeably. That being said, I think the tag of “unofficial” is probably the most accurate. “Bootleg” is generally reserved for an illegally made copy of an official release, whereas what we have here is a live recording that was never released by the band or the label. Maybe it’s just semantics. But either way, Seattle Graffiti is not part of the Led Zeppelin canon.

I was originally drawn to Seattle Graffiti for two pretty obvious reasons – I’m a big fan of Led Zeppelin, and I’ve spent most of my life in the Seattle area. I was too young to have seen the Mothership play here (or anywhere else for that matter) live, being not even 10 years old when the band broke up; I’m part of that very next generation of Zep fans, the first group who “discovered” them after they disbanded. Fortunately for me, though, there are a number of Zeppelin recordings from live shows in Seattle, and Seattle Graffiti may be the best of the bunch.

Before we get into the music, let’s talk about the physical object itself. The outer package is a sturdy and well-deigned box, just the right size to hold everything without bursting at the seems or having too much dead space inside. Apparently released in 2012, this version (there are any number of unofficial releases containing some or all of this show) is a limited edition of 500, each copy individually numbered on a sticker affixed to the box top and underneath the shrink – so you won’t lose your numbered sticker when you take the plastic off. Inside you get the complete show, all three hours and six minutes, on both CD and vinyl. The three CDs are in individual plastic sleeves attached to the inside of the box top, which has the benefit of keeping them from loosely moving around inside, but the downside, at least for my copy, is the adhesive used is tacky around the edges and some of it got on the insert. As for the insert itself, it’s fine but seems like a bit of an afterthought – a 12″ by 12″ fold-over, the front and back are basically the same as the front and back design of the box, while the inside is a collage of photos. Decent, but not really adding much. The vinyl is pressed on five records, each in a nice plastic-lined paper sleeve. The one copy of the box set I’ve seen inside had four records on blue vinyl with the fifth on white. I have no idea if that’s normal or if there are other color combinations.

While that’s great and all, what about the music? Well, as I mentioned, you’ve got just over three hours of live Zep at arguably their peak – Plant references their just-released double album Physical Graffiti a few times, an album that was arguably their catalog’s watershed. Of the band’s six albums up to this point, only Led Zeppelin III is not represented with at least one song on Seattle Graffiti, the other five all fairly evenly represented. Most of the classics are here – “Dazed And Confused”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “Kashmir”, “Stairway To Heaven”… from my personal perspective the most obscure track and the only one I couldn’t immediately call to mind simply by the title is “Sick Again”. As for the quality, well, it’s pretty damn good. Overall the sound is clean, though there are a few passages that get a bit warbly, suggesting the master tape itself may be slightly damaged. But even that doesn’t detract much from your enjoyment, because unlike so many unofficial live releases it doesn’t sound muffled or obscured with too much crowd noise. I’m not a connoisseur of these kinds of live recordings, but it’s probably the best one I’ve ever heard.

As an unofficial release, my understanding is that it’s legality sort of depends on where in the world you are – I believe in the EU these kinds of things are allowed so long as royalties are paid, but I certainly could be wrong. In the last couple of years Discogs has blocked the sale of unofficial releases like Seattle Graffiti, but you’ll still see it from time to time on other sites like eBay. At the time I wrote this, there was an open copy for sale there for $169, which may seem steep but is not bad considering it’s five records plus the whole thing on CD as well.

Overall this is probably only going to appeal to the Zeppelin die-hard, though if you’re only going to dip your toes into the gray parts of the live catalog this is probably the high point given the sound quality.

The Pretenders – “Pretenders” (1980)

Part of the reason for Life in the Vinyl Lane is to provide an vehicle for my compulsion to write. It’s an outlet of sorts, a way of capturing thoughts and impressions, and then sharing those with, well, whoever out there happens to read the blog. How many people is that? I don’t pay much attention to the stats offered by my web host so I’m not entirely sure. But I know at least a few of you are out there because from time to time I get an email, which is (almost) always nice.

I’ve found it harder to write this year for some reason. I’m not listening to less music, that’s for sure. Hell, I finally broke down and got a paid Spotify subscription and I’ve been wearing that thing out. Plus I did some decent sized mail orders from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records and Philly’s Suicide Bong label, and even got four massive moving boxes full of free funk, soul, and jazz. It’s been an embarrassment of vinyl (and cassette) riches in 2020. But I’m still struggling to hit the keys on the laptop. Has the compulsion to write turned into a compulsion to publish posts, the writing taking a back seat to volume, quantity trumping whatever sense of quality I try to maintain? I’m not sure. All I know is it’s Monday afternoon on the tail end of a three-day weekend and I feel like I should have written a lot for the blog when in fact this is only the second post I managed.

What does this have to do with The Pretenders? No clue. I cleaned the last batch of those freebies I mentioned earlier, or at least the last batch I 100% intend on keeping, and somehow this found its way nestled between Billy Preston and Ricard Pryor in this collection. There were a handful of unlikely mainstream pop and rock records hidden away in there, many of which I’ve never actually heard all the way through. Like Pretenders. This is probably the first time I’ve sat down and listen to any album by The Pretenders. And I have to say, Chrissie Hynde is pretty bad-ass. Clearly this shouldn’t be a revelation to me, but having only previously associated her with “Back On The Chain Gang” and “Brass In Pocket” it came as a bit of a surprise. It just goes to show, no matter how much you’ve listened to up to this point, there’s always more out there. And that’s what keeps me coming back to the keyboard…

Organizing…

When I first got back into buying vinyl, organizing my records was easy. When you only have 50 or even 100 records, you can just do it alphabetically by artist and voilĂ , you’re done. At that point you probably know exactly what you have, so finding things isn’t difficult. But as the hundreds start to multiply, and maybe even move into four figures, purely alphabetical loses its practicality. Sometimes I feel like reggae or jazz or what have you, and if I don’t want to look through hundreds or thousands of records it’s easier if I have them organized together by genre.

But how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go? Like many, I’ve definitely changed strategies from time to time. At one point I had one section for rock and another for punk/metal, but eventually got frustrated that sometimes I couldn’t remember where I’d landed with a certain band. It’s easy for Metallica or the Sex Pistols, but what about AC/DC? Is Iggy Pop’s later work rock or punk? Do you make the distinction by artist or by album? It became too much and I brought them all back together into one big section. But that’s not to say I abandoned categorization, because I haven’t.

The first “cut” is by size – I keep all my 7″ and 10″ records together and separate from the 12″ stuff, which I’m sure is pretty common. But from there I have one weird quirk. The next separation point is that I keep all my records by Icelandic artists together, and within the Icelandic section I make no further distinctions by genre. Is this logical? Clearly not. However, I’ve picked up a ton of Icelandic vinyl after a dozen trips to Reykjavik and, well, I just like to keep them separate. If I had to sell off the bulk of my vinyl, I can imagine a scenario in which all I kept was the Icelandic stuff. Because I’m weird like that. These mean something different to me than a lot of other records do. Plus I have a lot of them… 485 to be exact, if my Discogs inventory is accurate. So my Icelandic 7″ and 10″ records have their own section alongside my non-icelandic smaller sized discs, and the 12″ers fill 5 1/2 Ikea cube shelves. Which makes me oddly happy.

I don’t do any further breaking down of my non-Icelandic 7″ and 10″ – there just aren’t enough of them to bother. As for 12″, my sectioning looks like this:

  • Rock, including Metal and Punk
  • Blues, Jazz, and Funk
  • Reggae and Ska
  • Hip Hop
  • 12″ singles
  • Electronic
  • Industrial, Experimental, and Avantgarde
  • Soundtracks, Comedy, and Spoken Word
  • Box Sets
  • Stuff on the Medical Records label

The last one might leave you scratching your head a bit. It came about because of an offer the Seattle-based label made online – one copy of every item in their catalog that they had in stock, discounted by something like 30%. Whiskey may have contributed to my decision to pull the trigger, but I never regretted it. As an added benefit, the 50 or so titles I have on the label take up one Ikea shelf cube perfectly. Plus sometimes I want some random synth stuff, and when I do I can go right to that shelf and make a pull.

There are, of course, still challenges. Is the first Spinal Tap album rock or a soundtrack? And if it’s a soundtrack, what about their second album Break Like The Wind? I don’t want to have Spinal Tap albums in two different places, so what to do? (Note – I solved this problem by not buying Break Like The Wind) Bands whose styles changed over the years can be problematic as well. Cabaret Voltaire could fall into Industrial, or Electronic, or Rock. Does Snoop Dog’s album as Snoop Lion go under Hip Hop or Reggae? It can be maddening, and sometimes I’m inconsistent in my approach. All my Cabaret Voltaire albums are in the Industrial section, while Snoop Dog is in Hip Hop and Snoop Lion is in Reggae. I don’t know what to tell you. It makes sense to me.

Within the sections I simply order things alphabetically by artist, with comps coming at the beginning of the section, though even here there’s one notable exception – Icelandic vinyl is sorted using Icelandic-style alphabetizing, i.e. alphabetic by first name, while everything else uses American rules and goes by last name. This sort of makes sense to me because when I’m record shopping in Iceland that’s how I’m used to seeing those artists sorted. Then again, maybe I’m being subconsciously pretentious. I don’t know. A lot of collectors are intentional about ordering releases by a given artists in specific ways, usually chronologically or alphabetically. Honestly I don’t bother with that. If I can quickly find the Mudhoney section in Rock, I can flip through the 9-10 records to find what I’m looking for. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a record collector – I totally get the desire to organize within an artist; it’s just something that doesn’t matter much to me, and now that my shelves hold north of 2,500 records it would take a long time to do and frankly I can’t be bothered. That doesn’t mean that I might not get bored some rainy weekend and just do it.

I’m always interested to find out how others organize their collections. I’ve seen a few with sections by label which is interesting. In my one instance of this I sort of fell into it by accident more than as an intentional strategy. Certainly there are genre specialists who break things down into subgenres – I’m sure a jazz collected could easily slice and dice in dozens of ways. The key, of course, is understanding your own method so that you can find something when you want it – however that works for you is perfect.

Freddie Hubbard – “Skagly” (1980)

It’s all blurring together, day following day, week following week, and even the weekends not offering much respite because most things are still closed and if you’re following the state’s recommendations you’re not meeting your friends and family face-to-face. The best you get is sharing a nod with another person when making one of your essential purchases, both of you anonymized by your masks, only the eyes showing any emotion. And that emotion is, as often as not, a sort of resignation, all of us just wanting this to be over.

It’s May, which in Seattle means a few beautiful days of sun and perfect temperatures, followed by a few rainy ones that are surprisingly cold after finally seeing the sun for the first time in six months. You want to be out and a about, and sure, you can go for a walk, but you can’t really go somewhere. I crave walking through West Seattle or Georgetown to get brunch and buy records and maybe stop at a market to pick up something to grill later, or some cupcakes for desert. I want to be out there with a bit of a bounce in my step again.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with Skagly, well, that feeling, that craving is completely and perfectly expressed by Hubbard’s horn on “Happiness Is Now”. Sometimes the horn walks, others it has a slight strut to it, and sometimes it breaks out into a quick dance, the kind of sidewalk soft-shoe you might do when out enjoying time with your friends, perhaps after imbibing in a glass of wine or two. Hearing it on a quiet, rainy Saturday morning, one with the slightest promise of clearing up later peeking around its edges, made me both happy and wistful, longing and hopeful. I’m not sure what the new normal will look like, or how we’ll reflect on this period five or ten years down the road. Hell, maybe this will be just the start and things will get worse. As for me, though, I’m staying hopeful. Hopefully that I can toe-tap down the sidewalks again sometime this summer.

Book Review – “Sing Backwards And Weep – A Memoir” by Mark Lanegan

I kind of went back-and-forth when considering writing about Mark Lanegan’s new memoir, Sing Backwards And Weep. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was trying to find some balance between the book’s stark and direct portrayal of addiction and generally bad behavior (by a whole lot of of people) and, well, the fact that Lanegan comes across as a pretty unlikeable human being. There are points in Sing Backwards And Weep when you pretty much stop rooting for Lanegan, finding yourself hoping he gets what he has coming to him for the way he treated someone. And to be fair, sometimes he does, whether it’s getting ripped off by Amsterdam drug dealers twice in the same night while desperately fighting heroin withdrawal or the perceived betrayal this friend Slayer “steal” one of Lanegan’s best customers when the singer was dealing to support his habit (something Lanegan does to someone else in an example of role reversal later in the book). Ultimately Lanegan’s seeming honesty wins out. I say “seeming” because we only get Mark’s side of the story, though more often than not he comes away looking much worse than anyone else involved so it feels like at the very least we’re getting his honest recollections and perceptions of events, even if others might have different takes. Plus at times he’s brutally self-aware, clearly recognizing not only his role in events but also that, to be blunt, often he was the asshole.

Those moments of acknowledgement, while sprinkled throughout the book, are often not in the places you’d expect, sometimes leaving the reader wondering, “so if he doesn’t acknowledge how bad this particular thing is, but he does acknowledge how bad other things are, how does he really feel about this event?” And that was certainly part of my struggle in coming to grips with how I felt about the Mark Lanegan described in Sing Backwards. But to be fair, if Lanegan deeply regretted even half the things he tells us he did the book would be unreadable, nothing more than a repetitive mea culpa mantra that would have been both annoying and come across as ingenuine. Sometimes, though, you’re left unsure. Does Lanegan have any regrets about being part of the scheme to steal some of Sub Pop co-founder Jon Poneman’s record collection, which was sold to buy drugs? At the time Lanegan saw it as payback for Poneman going back on a promise made regarding the photo to be used on the cover of Lanegan’s solo debut, 1990s The Winding Sheet. I also wonder if former Poison Idea drummer Steve Hanford (1) knew he was going to be named as the guy who physically stole Poneman’s records while Hanford was, ironically, helping the former record label exec organize his record collection. A lot of people are named in Sing Backwards, many of them in unflattering situations, and at least a few of them aren’t happy about it, such has Lanegan’s former Screaming Trees bandmate Gary Lee Conner and Oasis member Liam Gallagher, both who have gone online (Facebook and Twitter respectively) with responses.

The two most interesting threads were those around Lanegan’s relationships with a pair of fellow vocalists, Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, both who also suffered under and eventually passed in part due to their addictions. Lanegan heaped praise on both, referring to Pierce as his favorite vocalist, though was also frank when relating some of the more frightening and sobering interactions he had with each, such as the incomprehensible message Pierce left on his answering machine shortly before he died and Staley being convinced that spiders exited an abscess in his arm and were hiding in his bathroom wall. Lanegan never shies away, his storytelling almost brutal in its directness.

If I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t put down Sing Backwards And Weep. Lanegan’s matter-of-fact, conversational writing style and knack for storytelling make it an effortless read. Sure the subject matter was often dark, and more than once I found myself shaking my head as the singer sank to a new low, but the tale is powerful and harrowing even if you do become a bit numb to the squalor after so many tales of depravity. The one thing missing is the rest of the story, as it were, the book ending abruptly with Lanegan receiving a phone call in 2002 informing him of Staley’s death. I was left wondering how Mark would describe his life after kicking dope; we didn’t get the redemption part of the story. Hopefully he’ll share it with us someday.

(1) I wrote the first draft of this post on May 17, and planned on posting it today. So imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to learn that Steve Handford died yesterday morning. RIP Steve.