Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Certain Songs #1162: The Miss Alans – “Angel Death Blues” | Medialoper

Album: Remnants
Year: 1990

So it was Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, 1988, and Cindy & I were sitting around in my apartment at Wishon & McKinley having a couple of pre-show drinks before going to go see The Miss Alans open for someone (I think the Meat Puppets), the final event of what had already been an unusually cruel summer.

Looking out my window down Wishon, I noticed the flashing lights a few blocks down that normally accompany some kind of accident, but I didn’t think anything of it: the corner of Wishon & McKinley seemed to be an accident magnet, so I’d almost become inured to paying much attention to any kind of accidents in the area.

What I didn’t know, of course, even as we unknowingly drove past the aftermath on the way to the gig at the Old Town, was that it was Manny. Scott knew, however, when the call came, because he’d just seen Manny riding it to soundcheck, half-admiring and half-jealous, because Scott had recently walked away from his own motorcycle-totalling wreck. Like I said, that fucking summer of 1988.

The rest is a blur: arriving at the Old Town only to find out that The Miss Alans weren’t opening that night after all; that Manny had been hit by a car and landed on his head; they’d taken him to Fresno Community Hospital.

So that’s where we all went, maybe a dozen or so of us, standing outside of the hospital in our best now ironically black going-to-the-show dress-up clothes, wondering what the hell happened to our friend, worried that he was going to die, mostly in shock. Totally in shock, which is why my memories of that night are so spotty. Scott talked his way in to see Manny in the ICU, and he ended up in tears because he didn’t think Manny was going to live.

Somehow, almost instinctively, many of us ended up at Erica’s & Mark’s apartment overlooking the field behind Archer’s Music, drinking beer, hanging out, working through our fear and anger — one of the most effective methods was the “Manny Diez Memorial Beer Toss” from their balcony towards the wall that protected that field from the street — wondering, waiting, worrying, knowing that no matter what happened, everything was going to be different.

Eventually a narrative evolved: it was just a lady who had missed a stop sign and a guy who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. No drugs, no drink, and outside of the fact that Manny wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time — perfectly legal in 1988 — nothing that could impart any kind of lesson. It was just a stupid random fucked-up thing that happened.

At some point, I stumbled home, walking right past the corner where it happened, not knowing if my friend — who at that moment was on my answering machine message — was going to make it.

SPOILER ALERT: He made it.

But there were a few days where we weren’t sure, and as the news reverberated around our scene, it kind of hit different people different ways: there was a story, possibly apocryphal, of the lead singer of another local band serenading a comatose Manny in his hospital bed, and — after it became clear that Manny was going to survive — ongoing discussions about whether anybody should be riding motorcycles ever again. But overall, it was the kind of event that brought everybody together, as some petty differences were put away for awhile. For awhile, of course.

And despite the fact that Manny had re-learn his riffs differently because he still didn’t have complete control of his pinky finger, within a month, they were rehearsing again. Even more remarkable, around Thanksgiving 1988 or so (nobody remembers exactly), they played their first gig since the accident. “The Return of Manny Skywalker” was how my long-lost promo on KFSR went. Cos we were kids. Meanwhile, Manny prepped for the gig with his physical therapist by standing on a trampoline and playing his guitar while wearing a Joycean eyepatch.

They didn’t have the trampoline for the show, but the physical therapist was there in the front row to keep an eye on Manny, and the whole goddamned thing was choked with the heavy emotions of relief: relief that Manny hadn’t died, relief that he could still play, and relief that they were still a band.

Having your friend & bandmate almost die allows you to put otherwise-simmering things on hold, but eventually you get back to some kind of new normal, and of course part of that new normal was the disagreement in band direction that I wrote about in the posts about “The Shiny Unfeeling” and “Yellow Gardens.”

The upshot of that was that very soon after recording Smack The Horse during the spring of 1989, The Miss Alans used some of the sophistication they’d learned from Ian O’Higgins to write songs like “Angel Death Blues,” a psychedelic merry-go-round that is one of my very favorite songs they ever did. And in fact, had they ever been able to record it in a studio, it might be my favorite.

It starts with quick Ron Woods drum roll, leading into a pretty Manny lead over some jangly Scott guitar and a melodic bassline from Jay, meandering for just a bit until Ron focuses them all with a build and build and build, and then after a pause, and a ting-a-ling on the bell of Ron’s ride cymbal they just fucking explode into the chorus.

We are some, just some of the people
Who love your life
You think it’s petty, but it’s not
Because of all of the love
Held in your hands and heart

And it’s utterly glorious: there’s feedback everywhere, Manny’s guitar is bombs bursting in air, Ron’s drums are everywhere at once as Scott holds the long notes on “weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and “sooooooooommmmmmmmme” like he’s hanging onto them for dear life while Jay tosses in a big bass hook for good measure.

But it’s after the second verse where things get batshit crazy.

Ron Woods is normally not a flashy drummer: he’s always been one my favorites because he comes up with smart, inventive parts that always make sense in the context of the song. And he’s a shitload of fun to watch, because he’s so fucking expressive: my favorite bit of Miss Alans stagecraft (now that Jay is too old to jump off of his bass cabinet) is Ron standing up off of his stool at the end of a song, like he hit the last beat so hard, it bounced him from his sitting position. When I was learning to play drums, that expressiveness was just one of the things I stole from him (and I have always been thankful that he sold me his old Premier kit for like $300) (which like an asshole, I let my mom sell a decade later, one of the stupider decisions in a life rife with them).

I think the back half of “Angel Death Blues” is peak Ron Woods. After the second chorus — which has already touched the sky — instead of going back the opening riff again, Scott and Manny strum, and then, out of nowhere Ron goes into total Keith Moon mode, rolling and crashing and rolling and crashing, drawing circles around the entire band, while Scott sings:

We are, we are, we are
Held in your hands don’t forget
Remember when remember the children used to laugh
Don’t forget

When Ron finally gets back into some semblance of a regular beat, “Angel Death Blues” has already leveled up beyond the beyond, with Scott and Manny singing against each other over a breathtaking whirlwind of sound until Ron finally shuts it all down with a roll, allowing Manny & Scott to slow down and jangle it to an end.

By turns melodic as hell and powerful beyond all belief, “Angel Death Blues” represents yet another peak for The Miss Alans, an endlessly fascinating and mysterious tangle of vocals, guitars and especially drums, evoking one of the key incidents in everybody’s lives without ever specifically referring to it.

“Angel Death Blues”

“Angel Death Blues” performed live at the Wild Blue, 03-30-1991

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