Culturespill » Heroes

R.I.P. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART

17th December

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If you find yourself browsing a site like this one on a Friday night, chances are you know by now that Captain Beefheart is dead, finally released from the horror of a prolonged battle with multiple sclerosis. Chances are also good that you’ve come across one of the many slapped-together obits crowding the web tonight, where you learned that Beefheart was frienemies with Frank Zappa and influenced Tom Waits. How boring. In most cases the people who wrote them know that because they read it on Wikipedia five minutes beforehand or borrowed from some one else’s blog post. It appears that that is largely the way Beefheart will be remembered–as the guy who struck a War-of-The-Roses kindship with Frank Zappa in the Mojave Desert and whelped a strangeling called Tom Waits.

But to confine the man’s influence on rock ‘n roll merely to his own era is to dishonor him. Listen to Joan Osborne’s “Right Hand Man” from her 1995 album Relish and you will hear the exact replica of the riff from Beefheart’s early 1970s gem “Clear Spot.” Listen to P.J. Harvey’s “I Think I’m A Mother” from her seminal LP To Bring You My Love and you will hear a half-sleeping and fiendish take on Beefeart’s “Dropout Boogie” from his uproarious debut with the Magic Band, Safe as Milk–perhaps the first “punk” record to ever hit the streets. It is no accident that “Right Hand Man” is likely the finest few minutes Joan Osborne has ever committed to tape, that the record on which Harvey paid her peculiar homage to the man is in all likelihood the one she’ll always be remembered for, that these disciples found inspiration in his work more than a decade after he left it in the dust following 1982’s swan song Ice Cream for Crow, almost never to be heard from again (Well, he did sing Happy Birthday to the Earth over the telephone for a benefit album produced by an environmental law firm in 2003).

No other group at the time even approximated the sounds that Beefheart and his band of crazies explored on Safe as Milk in 1967. Not the snotty riff that bites the pin off the grenade of “Plastic Factory” as Beefheart bathes it in some of the filthiest electric mouth harp you’ll hear this side of Little Walter, not the sweating acid trip that is “Zig Zag Wandeerer” or “Abba Zabba Zoom,” not those wickedly psychedelic licks of slide guitar that open the album on “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do.” Beefheart would never again cut a record as simultaneously accessible and defiant as Safe as Milk, and he would struggle to sell his brand of madcap fusion to consumers and critics alike over the years. But that’s how it is when you’re brilliant enough that your sculptures get featured on a TV show when you’re four years old and you earn a six-year full scholarship to study marble sculpture in Europe at age 13.

1969’s Trout Mask Replica is as famous today for nearly cracking the top 50 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time as it is for being gloriously unlistenable. It’s no starting place for novices but it’s a nightmare to savor over and over again when you’re ready to handle it.  A host of more accessible gems followed, some boasting song titles that make Ween albums sound like nursery rhymes–“Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee,” “I Wanna Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have to Go,” “Lick My Decals off, Baby,” “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby.”The Holy Grail of Beefheart’s oeuvre, though, is his Lick My Decals Off, Baby album of 1970, a record that saw a reissue in the early 1990s that flickered in and out of existence like a lit match flaming out in the rain and posts an asking price upwards of $100 on amazon.com. If you’ve got the dough, it’s worth every damned penny.

Beefheart’s final decades after lifting his middle finger to the music industry for good found him tending to the sculpture and painting with which his creative impulse began. Rumors of his impending demise swirled for years in the same way that rumors of Syd Barrett’s life after Floyd took on the credibility of whispers passed between school kids in an old fashioned game of telephone. But today, sadly, the most recent rumor turns out to be true, as Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, took his permanent leave. Here’s a taste of some of the magic he left behind . . .

 

Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm

30th November

 

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To open Jan Reid’s book Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm (U of Texas Press) is to stumble into a time warp where Bobby Womack is more famous for marrying the woman whom Sam Cooke widowed than he is for anything he’s done on record, where Doug Sahm’s name looms far larger in Texas than Willie Nelson’s, and where growing your hair a little longer than most other folks in town is still enough to earn you a mean shiner from a cop in the street.

Reid set out to write a book about an American legend for whom he clearly harbors a great deal of affection, and he begins his tale with a note of modesty that belies his subject, explaining that he hopes not to write a comprehensive biography but merely “to convey some sense of the antic swath that for decades he cut through many communities in many countries, to call up some voices of the people who got to know him well . . . and to demonstrate the sheer knowing of his music.” What he ends up accomplishing instead, though, is much more: a great book about Doug Sahm that also happens to be a great book about American music itself.

Reid breathes life into a moment in American culture that can neither be recaptured nor replicated. The stories he tells–and the unreal cast of characters that move through them–comprise a wildly entertaining romp so vivid that you can hear Doug Sahm chuckling at himself somewhere between the lines. On page after page, you can see the Texas dust that Doug kicks up on his way to thrill yet another town just as clearly as you can smell the several tons of ganja he roasted along the way.

 

There he is in a rare moment of domestic bliss before his insatiable pursuit of the next hit single and the town he’ll play it in wrenched him away from his wife Violet, demanding that his children keep from opening presents on Christmas morning until “he came out with his pipe and big jar of pot.” And there he is on the road with his bandits of the beat–some of them are part-time barbers, some make doughnuts for a living, others have done time “in the sweltering fields of Angola” for pot possession. Augie Meyers, who played the meanest Vox organ anyone on earth has ever heard and brandished a “pickled ear” to perpetuate the myth that his ear was sliced off in a knife fight; Freddie Fender, who did those mean years at Angola only to hit the road with Doug and the boys once again and, with his slick talent on electric guitar and a hairdo that looked like a mushroom cloud, solidify his reputation as “the Mexican Elvis”; Huey Meaux, the “crazy cajun” who did several stints in the clink himself and once earned a full pardon from Jimmy Carter for one of the convictions that put him there.

The sum of all these inimitable parts was a musical stew that ranged from psychedelia to Tex-Mex, from Bob Wills to Jerry Garcia and all points in between. Sahm’s greatest notoriety came with his 1965 hit “She’s About a Mover” with the Sir Douglas Quintet. As Reid likes to note throughout the book, Doug went on to enjoy the rare distinction of a musician who never once had to hold a day job. The creative restlessness that Sahm exhibited from then on resembled that of Neil Young, always finding himself with a different crew of sidemen to back him up in the studio for yet another record, some as inordinately famous as Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia; others anonymous sidemen he picked up somewhere in Texas. By Reid’s count Sahm laid down no less than “140 records in the United States, Europe and Canada,” bringing Scandanavia to its knees with a gorgeous number called “Meet Me in Stockholm” that earned him eternal superstar status in that country, and firing off other Tex-Mex beauties back home like the chart hit “Mendocino” or the sublime “At the Crossroads.”

Reid’s book is full of forgotten treasures and the kind of rock ‘n roll trivia that you either never knew or had heard from a friend once and forgotten–that Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play harmonica, that Freddie Fender is the reason Austin’s own Roky Erickson graced the world with his brilliant “Starry Eyes” and “Two-Headed Dog” even as he struggled with the ravaged psyche of a traumatic pot bust recounted in detail here, or simply that Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo’s Cadillac is one hell of a record.

The book’s generous collection of photos is equally revelatory. Stunningly intimate in a way that makes you feel as though you’ve been invited to the man’s house to thumb through his family albums, the photos tell almost as much of American music’s story as Reid does. Many of them are provided by Sahm’s son Shawn Sahm, who today plays and tours with his father’s old bandmates. There is Doug accompanied by a seemingly teenage Stevie Ray Vaughn on page  80; and there are Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Leon Russel backing up Doug in a show at the Armadillo in 1972.

Doug never did quite recapture the stardom he attained with “She’s About a Mover,” but he never stopped recording and he did score a Grammy with the Texas Tornados in 1990, a group comprised of old cohorts Meyers and Fender along with Flaco Jiminez. The now-legendary alt-country group Uncle Tupelo afforded him a little cross-generation love when Sahm contributed “Give me Back the Key to My Heart” for their 1993 album, Anodyne. Today, though, Sahm’s music enjoys more air-time on barroom juke boxes in Europe than it does on radio stations in the Texas he called home for most of his life, where he contributed more to Austin’s emergence as the music mecca it has become than he’s given credit for.

Sahm’s lifelong heart murmur culminated in a heart attack that took him from this world much too soon in 1999 at age 58, but the beautifully sloppy cache of music he left behind is worthy of significant critical reconsideration–records like Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, or Texas Rock for Country Rollers. And even in death, the legend that was Doug Sahm lived on, as buddies hunched over his body after the funeral service to roll a few last twists of weed and dump them in–just in case he ever felt the urge to light up as he took his final rest. In Texas Tornado, Reid has written a book that essentially amounts to a 200-page-love letter to the younger days that Doug Sahm colored with great music, good times, and, of course, what Reid refers to as “the good herb.” The ride he’ll take you on as he inches toward the end of Sahm’s uniquely American tale will linger with you long after you’ve put the book down.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Bruce Springsteen: He’s Bringing Darkness Back

26th November

 

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It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything genuinely “dark” from the artist not always known as “The Boss.” Back before his working man’s hero act became as kitschy as a Phil Levine poem with factory smoke in it (or, for that matter, a Rick Springfield song), he explored a totally believable and sincere American mythos that hadn’t yet washed away in the saccharin production of Born in the USA or his last two albums, Magic and Working on a Dream–possibly the weakest one-two punch of releases in the man’s career. Even the brilliant Tunnel of Love LP in 1987, which he wrote while digging himself out of the smoldering ruin of a marriage gone bad, sported claws that were sharp to the eye but clipped occasionally by his preference for sonic excess over the spare,  bleeding wound of the “NY Sessions” of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, for example, where there’s no band and it’s just Dylan spitting at the world and the woman who razed it as the buttons of his coat audibly rap his acoustic guitar while he plays. (Even today Dylan can’t help but backstroke through his disappointment in, well, everything, singing “dreams never did anything for me anyway / even when they did come true” on his 2009 album Together Through Life.)

It’s precisely that sort of disappointment and resignation in which Springsteen found such an articulate voice that his songs became the working-class narcotic of a generation. You’ll hear it once again on The Promise–outtakes from the sessions that brought us the masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978–and really for the first time since tracks like “Downbound Train” or “One Step Up” from his ’80s prime (although moments on the excellent comeback albums Devils and Dust and The Rising come close). But if these are the explorations that culminated in Darkness, they were recorded somewhere inside the blazing sunrise that preceded it. Disc one opens with an absolutely bombastic take on “Racing in the Street,” where Roy Bittan’s fluttering piano work cheers up the distant organ riffs that approximate the version we know so well by now. But then somebody starts blowing the guts out of a mouth harp, Max Weinberg starts beating the balls off his drums and Bruce gradually builds toward the unhinged howl he lets loose on tracks like “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Something in the Night.” Violins sneak into the mix like a Facebook message from a good buddy you haven’t heard from since high school, and ultimately you end up with the unthinkable possibility that the sum of all this is actually superior to the standard version we’ve been listening to for the past 32 years. Unthinkable, yes—until you hear it for yourself.

And that’s just the first track of a double disc package with 21 songs on it. If you’re already exhausted, you’re starting to understand what it’s like to listen to what Springsteen calls “the music that got left behind.”

Six-and-a-half minutes into “Racing,” the whole beautiful mess slow-fades into a stunning little track called “Gotta Get That Feeling” whose production has Little Stevie’s fingerprints all over it. Van Zandt’s adoration for Wall-of-Sound-era Doo-wop is no secret to anyone that has listened to his “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” radio show for more than five minutes. The arrangement sounds like Phil Spector gets into a head-on collision with a mariachi band and, miraculously, both parties survive. The horn section is haunted by the ghost of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” while Bittan’s bright piano once again drives a backbone through the song.

A couple tracks later the gorgeous “Someday (We’ll Be Together”) opens with a jangle of mall-Santa bells and a sluggish drum beat that sounds like the Ronettes got piss drunk and recorded a midnight version of “Be My Baby” at the speed of sleep. The song sweats with the kind of desperate desire that only a 20-something kid from Jersey still groping for the dreams he followed out of Asbury Park can convey.  It is emotionally riveting, impactful stuff.

Springsteen’s take on “Because the Night,” though, is the diamond in the mine of disc one. Inevitably eclipsed by Patti Smith’s downright vicious interpretation that made the track famous the same year that Darkness was released–with Bruce’s version of the song left to gather dust until now (although he did include a live version on his huge live offering, Live 1975-1985) —Springsteen’s take burns to life with the youthful radiance that makes his clumsy 1973 debut record and its follow-up so much fun to listen to. It’s hard to hear the song through Patti’s signature version, but if you can somehow tune Patti out for the length of the song and listen to Bruce’s version on its own terms–admittedly not easy; that woman has a voice that bellows from the center of the earth—the track bears a gush of fruit to reward you for the effort.

Disc two gets off to a remarkably coy start against the explosion with which Disc one begins, as a pretty forgettable rock-ballad called “Save My Love” sounds as tossed-off as the title. But things quickly turn around with the jumpy “Ain’t Good Enough For You” that brings to mind the brilliant “Spirit in the Night” from Greetings from Asbury Park, with an instantly catchy piano riff cushioned in the fabric of so many deep-voiced backup singers. Then everybody starts whistling, applauding and laughing like they just happen to be celebrating Bruce’s birthday as they lay down the track. 1970s-era Bruce never quite figured out how to put together the kind of taut, radio-ready single he mastered in the ensuing decade, but “Ain’t Good Enough for You” suggests that he already had it in him–he just didn’t yet care to go there.

“It’s a Shame” crackles with life from first moment to last, knee-deep in a gritty guitar riff that turns the track into possibly the most accessible rock song Springsteen ever put to tape in the 1970s, while “The Promise” and “City of Night” rein in the enthusiasm with gray-skied ballads that thrust the lives of the forgotten under the unforgiving glare of Springsteen’s America. A penniless scamp is taking a taxi to see his sugar baby somewhere on 12th & Vine in the middle of the night, someone’s cashing in his dreams out on Route 9, and everybody carries on despite a gnawing feeling that they left their lives behind them somewhere.

Even the best of Bruce’s more recent output makes clear that in the twilight of his career he can only hope to approximate the desperate streets he wandered in song decades ago, but that’s why The Promise is such a welcome gift. The package as a whole has its flaws—some of the tracks should have stayed where Springsteen left them—but as a whole these 21 songs bring back to life the soiled rags and busted dreams of the America he used to sing about. It’s the America where there is work to be found in Darlington County if you know where to look for it, the America where “Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown,” and when they get home they rinse the grime from their faces and go out racing in the streets with their ’32 Fords.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

The Promise: The Spill from Around the Web

Pitchfork: “Still, despite the lack of consistency, the 22 new songs (there are 21 tracks, but “The Way” is a hidden bonus track at the end) are mostly very good and occasionally great. None feel like they should have been on Darkness, but almost all of them holds up to repeat plays and stand on their own as very good Springsteen– easily on the level of mid-level stuff on The River, say.”

Chicago Tribune: “What’s less appreciated about the era chronicled on “Promise” is the large volume of exceptional music that didn’t make the final cut, left to languish unheard except for a few live performances and covers by other artists — until now.”

SoundCheck:  “Of the new songs, longtime fans will be familiar with most, yet the material has never been released with such solid in-studio treatment. “Rendezvous,” for example, has made occasional concert appearances over the years, but to hear it so alive and fresh is a revelation.”

The Guardian: “Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise, stuff that didn’t make it on to his 1978 LP Darkness On The Edge Of Town, is an astounding artefact in its own right; most artists would cheerfully claim these studio-floor sweepings as their magnum opus.”

Music Radar:  “That’s clearly evident among the 21 tracks we get to hear for the first time on the second and third discs of this release; a dizzying ride through American popular music, liberally borrowing instantly familiar motifs. The 10 tracks that comprised Darkness’ on its release in 1978 were carefully chosen to reaffirm Springsteen’s literate singer-songwriter reputation, but the music here is less concerned with cementing a specific identity.”

The Quietus: “Well, the first disc is where all the goodies are. There are songs here that could (and would) be massive hits. The dark, brooding version of ‘Because the Night’, later to become a hit when Patti Smith recorded it, is impressive. It oozes a menacing aspect that’s sometimes lost in translation.”

L.A. Times:  “As a set, the previously unreleased material feels experimental, not in tone but in spirit. Some songs, like the brooding hymn “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight)”, are the seeds of others on “Darkness.” Others could stand on any Springsteen album, relating familiar tales of freedom or peril on the highway, or love in dark tenement corridors, within arrangements that lack the sharpness of the “Darkness” material but often have more warmth.”

SoundSpike:  “No song on “The Promise” belongs on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The 21 songs, many of them unknown except to the most avid of bootleg collectors, are imbued with the ambition of “Born to Run,” the influence of the Jersey shore — aka “home” — and traditional Springsteen themes, like the search for sanctuary and redemption.”

PopMatters:  “There are alternate takes of tracks, and the best of them is “Racing in the Streets”. A bit dustier than its album version, this one feels more like a stomping full band than the spacious, piano-y cut that made Darkness, and the buzzing intensity here might actually outdo the original. Elsewhere, “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” is an early take on “Factory” with wholly different lyrics. The feel, however, remains pretty much the same with discussion of men walking around “with death in their eyes”, and people headed to a party down the road to escape, if for a night.”

Tom Petty: Live in Ft. Lauderdale

19th July

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Not more than two seconds into a thunderous opener of “You Wreck Me,” a knock-out whiff of Moroccan hash blooms from somewhere a few rows back, and most people around me lift their noses to the air and sniff like cats in a fish market, hoping to elicit a mild high. And as soon as Tom Petty spreads his arms like some lost eagle on stage, slowly meandering through the band with a mildly disturbing aimlessness as they play with these “oh, here goes Tom again” looks on their faces, I understand that the dudes behind me aren’t the only ones who are stoned. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be–this is a Tom Petty show, where people go to feel good, forget all the bullshit of their daily lives for a couple of hours, and cheer on the songs that sneaked their way, somehow, into some of their most vivid memories.

I wonder which memory revisits the couple in front of me, as they openly embrace immediately upon hearing the first few strokes of “Free Falling” yawn from Petty’s guitar, a vaguely florescent cloud of weed smoke cloaking their silhouettes in the dark arena–maybe it’s the song that accompanied a first kiss in a parked car under the bridge, maybe it’s the song that reminds her boyfriend of all the horrible tramps he survived to find the woman he’s with, maybe it’s nothing anyone else in this writhing crowd could possibly imagine–yes, probably that–not even our closest friends and relatives are aware of even a fraction of the personal mysteries we take to our graves, after all.


Tom Petty: “Listen to her Heart,” Live in Gainsville (2006)

Few bands deliver as steady an onslaught of syrupy riffs and hooks as Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, a monumentally underappreciated talent that cynical Emo wannabes dismiss in their desperate pursuit of an identity their friends will approve of. A public distaste for the likes of Tom Petty is as much a rite of passage among that crowd as a good ol’ fashioned paddling at the frat house; and it’s a damned shame, because the human saga that unfolds at one of these shows is as humbling as it is inspiring. Take the beer-bellied dad with a backwards Marlins cap squeezing his huge, balding head up front, for instance, clutching the gates that close him into the first row seats he probably won by calling into a local radio show one day, hoping to score a pair of seats for himself and his kid, maybe to give him a taste of what “pop music” sounded like back before it meant more than a pair of porcelain boobs and a tongue kiss at the Grammies. The lights that scroll the crowd catch him in their glare for a second–he’s belting out every line of “Listen to Her Heart” with a series of convulsive heaves, every one of which takes maybe another ounce of the world’s weight off his shoulders, if only for one night.

When Mike Campbell busts out the 12-string on “Free Fallin'” or lifts his guitar chest-high and beats another searing solo out of the thing, I almost start to believe he’s one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock ‘n roll. But that’s before Steve Winwood takes the stage to join the band for a killer take on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and it immediately becomes apparent that Campbell, however accomplished as he may be, is one small trout in a sea of aging but wily sharks. Winwood’s fingers flutter over the guitar he straps on and strums in a single smooth motion–one he’s performed for nearly half a century now–a fact that’s evident in his effortless aplomb as he saunters over the the organ for a surprise from his Spencer David Group days, the enduring miracle of his voice overcoming the band’s noticeably rigid interpretation of “Gimme Some Lovin'”–though the crowd’s relatively indifferent response suggests it’s not an entirely welcome one, with lines to the pisser or the beer stand assembling in the aisles.

Something seems to sour on stage in the aftermath of Winwood’s cameo, as the Heartbreakers stumble out of their cover-by-the-numbers take on “Gimme Some Lovin'” with a frenetic delivery of “Saving Grace,” a newer track from Petty’s admittedly uneven but no-less underrated solo album, 2007’s Highway Companion. The band is obviously insecure in its newer material, as they overreach to turn the tune into a raving rocker with a clutter of misguided noise that ruins what is, in its original form, a blistering and bluesy rocker. For a band that is always remarkably true to each song’s original recording on stage, it’s an especially jarring moment that feels like an eternity.


Tom Petty: “Saving Grace,” Highway Companion (2007)

But a second wind of anthems follows, and you realize, with a modest touch of awe, just how relevant these guys have managed to remain throughout four decades now, tricking high schoolers into a love of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit “Something in the Air” when Petty slapped it onto his greatest hits package in 1994, discovering a polished echo of grunge’s grit on the mischievous staple “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”–a song which, the second Petty unleashes it on stage here in Ft. Lauderdale, is met with the entire crowd’s instantaneous delirium, as if they’ve gone blue in the face holding their breath for this very moment since they took their seats at 8.

Petty and the band hopsctoch in and out of the four decades they swept through–the ’70s (Refugee, American Girl); the ’80s (End of the Line, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Don’t Come Around Here No More); the ’90s (Learning to Fly, Honey Bee, Won’t Back Down). But the true testament to just how many diamonds this band has mined over the years is the crowd of kids who fumble through the lot under the peach glow of parking lot lights after the show, singing their best rendition of “The Waiting,” yet another anthem which, somehow, just couldn’t be crammed into the 150-minutes of rock ‘n roll we witnessed under the dome of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bank Atlantic Center, one of many corporate civic centers cropping up around the country that look every bit as impersonal as their names suggest–a crudeness overshadowed only by the music of those folks who, as Rocky Frisco puts it, “write from the heart, not the wallet.”

Well, Petty’s wallet is doing just fine, but there’s something about the genuinely emotional response his music evokes–that couple embracing before me, the pot-bellied dad screaming the band’s songs back at them with his mesmerized son at his side–that proves beyond any doubt that Petty is one of the heroes Frisco had in mind–an authentic pioneer the likes of whom become fewer and farther between with each passing year.

Ft. Lauderdale Set List 7-15-08

You Wreck Me

Listen to Her Heart

Won’t Back Down

Even The Losers

Free Fallin’

Mary Jane’s Last Dance

End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys)

Can’t Find My Way Home (w/Steve Windwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (w/Steve Winwood)

Saving Grace

Breakdown

Honey Bee

Learning To Fly

Don’t Come Around Here No More

Refugee

Encore:

Runnin’ Down A Dream

Bo Didley’s A Gunslinger/Mystic Eyes

American Girl