Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Ronnie Lane ARMS Benefit Concert - 12/8/83

Concert of the Year indeed. Though, by the time these shows were happening 1983 was just about a done deal. The Ronnie Lane ARMS Benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in New York was the first real big concert I ever went to. I was 13. My cousins took me and it was a thrill to say the least. I owe my parents a big thanks for this too since I was running a terrible fever that day - over 100 to be sure. In spite of being sick as a dog they let me go anyway. I was dressed for cold December weather, but it was HOT inside the Garden! I was sweating so profusely that by the time the show was over, my fever broke and, since it was a Thursday night - I went to school the next day - a real rock and roll cure! Heh heh! I regret not getting one of the concert programs so I made sure I got the Rolling Stone issue with the "cast" on the front cover.

I didn't really have a clear idea who Ronnie Lane was at the time. His last high profile appearances in the United States were with the Faces, but he'd quit them back in '74 or so. While trying to crank up a respectable British-based solo career Ronnie came down with MS. By the late 70s, he was nearly broke and in pretty dire circumstances. The first benefit shows happened in England, but I certainly didn't know much about it. It was supposed to be a one-off at the Royal Albert Hall. Eventually a radio show of this event made the rounds on the King Biscuit Flower Hour (which I dutifully taped off the air). The idea to take the act to the states (New York and LA) sprung from how much fun it was for all involved - as well as Ronnie's need.

Supposedly, the money generated by the shows got screwed up in legalities. A bit of a shame, but it is worth noting that Ronnie Lane managed to live and thrive for many years afterward despite the debilitating nature of his disease. As it happens, the December 8th show was also the three year anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. If you watch the video of the show below and advance to about 53 minutes in, you can catch Jeff Beck's dedication of "People Get Ready" to Lennon. It was a pretty cool moment. Beck would later record this song on his next album with Rod Stewart on vocals. This didn't get released until 1985 but I was glad he decided to put it out since the memory of hearing it live was a strong one.

Beck wasn't the only guy to find a little inspiration from these shows. The December 8th show also marked the return, however tentative, of Jimmy Page to the American stage. I recall his appearance being highly anticipated and ultimately somewhat tempered by a loose-ish performance. Having Paul Rogers with him was a big help. I reckon Page thought the same since they would go on to form The Firm the following year.

Speaking of The Firm - although the song "Radioactive" was not the strongest thing in the world, it was still cool to see Page together with Paul Rogers doing something new. Many year later, I couldn't help notice how The Firm's drummer Chris Slade cut a striking resemblance to Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy in the cranial department - bald drummer! My suspicion was re-confirmed when I replayed the first track of The Firm's debut album - "Closer". Listen here:
Did you hear that distinctive guitar riff? Have a listen to where they got it from.........a 1968 Spirit track called "Poor Richard" from their Family That Plays Together album:














In any case, The Ronnie Lane Benefit was a great concert. Here's my ticket stub:
And now with the magic of youtube - we can see and hear most of that very show:
Enjoy!


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remember the RECORD SHOW?

I did something I haven’t done in a long time……went to a genuine RECORD SHOW this weekend. I had been hoping to get down to the great WFMU record fair this year, but Hurricane Sandy put the kabosh on that. Last time I went to the FMU show must have been a good 8 or 9 years ago. And it was sensory overload! Lots of dealers – tons of stuff to look through. Picking and choosing what to buy amidst all that great stuff can be a challenge on a limited budget. These days its getting a little easier since I’m slowly running out of room in the man cave area for extra platters!

Anyway, I had been to this particular record show many times over the past, I’d say 20 years or so. It’s pretty much the only one I know of that still happens monthly – the second Saturday of every month in Wayne, New Jersey. In recent years with the introduction of the MP3, I noticed a drop in dealers and buyers at this monthly show. Well, this past Saturday restored my faith in vinyl – the November record show in Wayne was EXCELLENT! Lots of dealers, tons of stuff to look through and (best of all) very reasonable prices even on some pretty collectable items! I had such a great time I vowed to start going more often (and with more money to spend – the dealers really had some great records out there!). Here’s the link to the website with all the info (plus a coupon for $1 off admission):

http://www.showsandexpos.com/rswayne.htm

What was also surprising was the variety in the ages of the dealers – some younger dudes are starting to fill in the ranks along with the old guard. I really enjoyed listening in on conversations among dealers and the collectors. It was heartwarming to see and hear some genuine passion and knowledge from some of the younger folks there. Some of whom missed even the tail end of the great record shows of yore………

So what did I buy? Well, I saw a lot of stuff I would have liked to buy. Usually with these events I get so distracted it’s hard to focus. Yet I end up with a similar strategy – look for some cheap stuff to fill out gaps in the collection (missing pieces of an artist’s catalog), keep an eye out for super crazy deals and take at least ONE CHANCE on something I’ve never seen or heard before (as long as it fits the budget and looks interesting). To satisfy the last concern I picked up this thing:
The name of the group (and album) is GAS MASK (as if you couldn’t tell from the image on the cover). Aside from the unusual name and cover photo on the front, two other things about this record piqued my interest:   A)  production credited to TEO MACERO    and  B) independent record release – TONSIL RECORDS?  Together with the really wacky cover image (not totally unlike the front cover of Trout Mask Replica) those were the big selling points – that and the $5 price tag. No matter what the music itself sounded like, the package was impressive enough to warrant taking a chance on. So…………what does this record sound like?
Oddly enough – a whole lot like Blood, Sweat and Tears! Even the lead vocalist cops a pretty good vocal vibe like David Clayton Thomas. Overall, the music is pretty commercial and enjoyable! Having a little clout behind the project like Teo Macero doesn’t hurt yet I had to wonder – if the music was more commercial than radical, why the freaky album cover? I happened to find the picture pretty funny, but it’s actually kinda creepy! Could very easily induce nightmares in small children (or flower children – heh heh). Don’t think there was ever a Gas Mask II album which is too bad since the band was pretty good.

As far as late 60s / early 70s horn bands go, Gas Mask played it kinda safe. Much safer than Chicago or even a lesser-known outfit called “IF”. My good friend Craig told me about IF a long time ago and I picked up their first album – a good cross between a horn and prog-rock band. Very enjoyable extended songs – good arrangements – good vocals and musical chops too. So far I only have the first two IF albums, but they’re all fair game…. Interestingly I didn’t see any IF records at the show………


Actually before getting to the show I hit up a Salvation Army I knew was on the way. I’ve had some good luck there too over the years and I chanced on a few good platters there too. As it happens, I got to indulge in what some folks call the “guilty pleasure” – I picked up the entire Pat Benatar catalog on LP for under $1 per record – all in mint shape (some LPs still in the shrink with promo stickers too)! In fact, there were MULTIPLE COPIES of every friggin’ album of hers there. If someone wanted to do a Pat Benatar LP mastering shootout (different pressings, stampers, etc…..) they could have had a field day. I settled for what looked to me like the cleanest copy available.

Now, I’m not some Pat Benatar freak or something, but I will admit to enjoying her hit songs when they were on the radio. I certainly wouldn’t change the station if her tunes came on. She put out some great material in the early 80s! Plus she’s yet another great Polish gal from Greenpoint…….
Being at a record show for the first time in a long time I couldn’t help notice some buyer behaviors you’ll only see at these events. First of all there is ALWAYS a few guys roaming around with portable, battery-powered record players with a set of headphones hooked up to listen to records (mostly 45s) before buying them! I had one of those things as a kid. It was a Panasonic – pretty cool stuff! I used to play my Beatles and Kiss records on that thing. I remember going with my father to the store to get it when we lived in Woodhaven, Queens. The guy at the shop said I could pick out a free record to go with the player (it was for my birthday – thanks Dad!). Somehow my eye caught the Candymen LP and that’s what I brought home. Somehow I lost that album along the way and eventually got a replacement at…….a local RECORD SHOW!
Anyway – another buyer behavior I noticed was dudes walking around with little record bags for the loot they scored. I realized that was a good idea since carrying purchases under my arm around the showroom floor was kinda awkward after awhile. As luck would have it, I chanced upon a nice solution to that problem at a local thrift store today. Behold, the vintage Record Carrier:

I actually got a second, smaller one too that’s got a dark grey-speckled covering on it – not as nifty as this one, but still useful! Let’s see who’s popping out of there now……..

It’s the Big Bopper! Well, I’ve had that record for awhile and it’s a surprisingly modern reissue. But the cover art is intact from the late 50s and it looks like it belongs in the retro record box (dig that crazy inside paper pattern!). Well, who woulda thunk that even Colonel Sanders might get his own record out on the market. He doesn’t sing on this (all instrumental), but I guess it was Kentucky Fried approved!
Seriously, the world of vinyl records can be a lot of fun – even on the cheap! If anybody is lookin’ for a great record show to see where all the great vinyl has been hiding – check out the monthly show in Wayne, NJ. You might just see me lugging that crazy record box around and haggling with the dealers – great fun!!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What do ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, Led Zeppelin III and an obscure group called CARGOE have in common?

…….I’ll cut to the chase: engineer Terry Manning and Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Now, to be fair, only parts of Led Zeppelin III were recorded at Ardent – the other parts were cut with Andy Johns at (I’m guessing) Olympic in London. Although most folks already know the Zep and ZZ Top albums, most have never heard the CARGOE album. I stumbled upon Cargoe in a thrift store dollar bin this summer and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since! I bought it since I liked the cover and knew their record label – the Ardent imprint distributed through Stax – was the same label Alex Chilton’s Big Star was on in the early 70s. So I figured, “this could be good.” And I was right!

Cargoe sounds like a great hybrid of Badfinger and early, Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac! Fabulous harmonies, solid and creative playing, top-notch songs and really, really excellent production. CARGOE is a winner on so many levels. One of the few credits on the back cover lists Terry Manning as producer. Googling his name turned up the fact that he has since worked on a good amount of popular music over the years, but somehow, until the Cargoe album, I never noticed his name before. He tends to name-check Cargoe as the best record he ever worked on that almost nobody’s ever heard! Seems that Ardent was poised to follow parent-company Stax into Chapter 11 not long after Cargoe’s release. With the whole company being sold off to Fantasy Records, the master tapes for Cargoe went with the sale, the band long since broken up and a re-release never to be (the tapes are still locked in the Fantasy vault to this very day). The only way to hear the record is to find an old one – which I did against pretty stiff odds I reckon. There aren’t a whole lot of copies listed on ebay either. Honestly, if anybody wants to hear this record – send me a message through the blog and I’ll see what I can do. This album really deserves to be heard and re-discovered. I bet Terry Manning would agree!

So I’ve become a pretty big Cargoe fan in the meantime while tucking Terry Manning’s name in the back of my mind………

Just yesterday I really wanted to hear ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres album for some reason.  I became a bigger fan of this record after hearing the Quadraphonic mix – talk about INTENSE! But I opted for my old London Records LP. Spinning the platter on the upstairs system after work I glanced at the credits on the back cover (as I’m likely to do) and lo! Recorded at Ardent Studios by Terry Manning. 1973. One year after the Cargoe album. Wow! I sure like hearing the old ZZ Top stuff in its original form. I think re-releases of the old ZZ Top catalog on CD features some re-recorded and certainly re-mixed elements – to make it sound more modern! Phooey on that nasty practice! And that’s coming from someone who likes the modern ZZ Top stuff too! Why can’t these bands leave their old catalog well enough alone? Does everything have to sound like a big, compressed, distorted mess in the name of progress? One earful of the quad mix would put an end to any critics of this great record and whether or not it ought to be “modernized”. I like my ZZ Top funky and greasy like the food pictured on the inside cover:

So that was yesterday. Today, I’m home from work and thinking to myself, “Today reminded me of Led Zeppelin III. I want to hear that record.” Instead of pulling my well-worn LP copy off the shelf, I picked up my original CD issue instead. I was wondering if this was one of the original batch mastered to CD by the great mastering engineer Barry Diament (which it was) and right above Barry’s mastering credit – fercryinoutloud……Terry Manning at Ardent Studios? People, you can’t make this stuff up. What are the odds of me picking two random albums one day after the other, both having been recorded by this Terry Manning guy? I guess the same kind of odds as me finding the Cargoe album in the first place. (Why can’t I have this kind of luck with something more lucrative like…….lottery tickets? Would that be asking too much?)
I was already thinking about writing a little deal on Led Zeppelin III before  I noticed the Terry Manning connection. Zep III is one of my favorite Zeppelin albums if only because it wasn’t played to death on classic rock radio (Immigrant Song notwithstanding). The esoteric nature of the material on Zeppelin III was such a stylistic curveball compared to the blues-rock fixation on the first two records. Goodness knows why the band took such an unusual path so early in their rise to fame – quite a gutsy move, especially by today’s standards. I know when I got my LP copy as a young lad (with the cool picture wheel built into the front album cover – what a great concept!) – I didn’t know what to think of it at first.
The whole record struck me as whacked-out as the cover art. Everything is a little off-kilter and not what you’d expect with maybe the one exception being “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. That’s the one link to the early sound of the first two albums. The polar opposite would have to be “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. I can appreciate “Harper” these days, but it sure threw me for a loop when I was younger. Roy Harper himself is a pretty accomplished guitarist and has the unlikely distinction of being mistaken for Roger Waters – Harper supplied the lead vocal on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” from Wish You Were Here. Most casual rock fans probably never knew the difference (I certainly didn’t for many years myself!).

As for Terry Manning, he’s still around and has worked with everybody from Bobby Fuller (when he was alive, of course) to Shania Twain. Here’s a wiki-link for Manning:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Manning

Just goes to show, if you think you already know everything there is to know about the golden era of rock music, there's most likely a story you just haven't discovered yet. Cheers to Terry Manning for all the great work he's done over the years. Certainly one of the less-heralded "behind the scenes" guys I've encountered, yet so many people have heard his work on many classic recordings. As always......... Happy Listening!

Monday, August 20, 2012

50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong!

I don’t know what my recent fascination with so-called “folk music” is lately. I’m not so much into folk music in it’s stereotypical format. I think John Belushi’s critique of “traditional” folk music is spot on, don’t you?
What I find really fascinating are those artists who start out as folkies and end up making some kind of break into other forms. For some reason, experiments in stretching the boundaries of “folk” music can often yield some interesting results. Even if the results aren’t always successful commercially or even artistically, there’s some really interesting stuff to be found lurking on records sometimes shoved into the “folk” bins.

“Folk” is such a catch-all category to begin with. I forget who said it, but someone made the comment that “it’s ALL folk music” – unless we’re talking about music created for machines to enjoy, right? That’s kind of how I look at it. Yet, there once was a “folk music” craze in the early 1960s. Perhaps typified by The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary and maybe even Harry Belafonte. Heck, even Muddy Waters got roped into trying to pass himself off as a “folk-blues” act for a few minutes there. Any old way to sell  records I suppose. One of the wackiest uses of the word “folk”, in terms of trying to categorize the unclassifiable, came from Charles Mingus who insisted on having his album “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” stamped with the legend: File Under – Ethnic, Folk-Dance Music. Now, really Mingus’s music was conceived of as a ballet. I wonder if he thought by including the word “folk” he might somehow lure people into checking out his album? Well, it is ALL folk music anyway, right?

A few entries ago I mentioned how I spent an evening viewing a recent documentary about Phil Ochs streaming from PBS online. I had heard some of Phil Ochs’ music before – the classic “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” certainly ranks up there with “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a sixties folk anthem if we can admit to there being such a thing. Maybe they’re just good songs that evoke the times they come from. No denying the acoustic guitar singer format though.

Like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs ended up being more than a guy with an acoustic guitar, the New York Times and a point of view. Unlike Dylan, however, Phil Ochs could really  SING! Having proved the worth of his art on three acoustic-based records for Elektra Records, Ochs sailed on to A&M Records in 1967 where he would break free of the stereotypical “folksinger” image. Although Ochs would eventually be confronted with an uncomprehending audience just like Dylan was, he didn’t jump headfirst into the rock and roll pond. Ochs took a decidedly more mature approach, at least in terms of the sound of the music on the records. The albums on A&M were groundbreaking, yet quite polished in comparison to Dylan’s “wild, thin mercury” sound.

Yet, Ochs was hardly selling out to a new audience. It seems to me that the body of work he did for A&M was designed for a more sophisticated audience. Ochs was moving his art into some highly esoteric waters despite the professional-sounding production. The results sound like socially-informed, adult pop music. I am thinking especially of his A&M debut disc “Pleasures of the Harbor”.
This record is such a quantum leap from what Ochs was doing on the other albums it isn’t funny. And yet, I wonder who the intended audience was. The music isn’t radical, crazy protest music like The Fugs. But it isn’t sanitized to the point of Judy Collins either. In fact, there’s a wacky sense of humor found on this album that reaches greater heights later on in his catalog. Here’s what I mean – by the time of his fourth (and last) studio album for A&M, the elusive hit song failed to materialize so, Ochs put out a new album’s worth of material that looked like this:
Phil Ochs “Greatest Hits” album is at once a spoof of AND an aspiration to the heights of popular music, typified by the Elvis image. Now, it’s funny enough to see the King of the Folk Protest Song decked out in gold lame on the album cover, but it didn’t stop there. Ochs took to none other than the Carnegie Hall stage wearing the same suit, totally Elvis-ing it up and essentially causing a near-riot and revolt not unlike Dylan’s infamous “going electric” at Newport five years earlier. There was even a record released from this debacle though I have yet to hear it.

Why did he do it? I think it was part poking fun at himself, the music industry in general and an overall feeling of frustration. What Ochs really needed was one major, catchy-as-hell hit song in his new style at A&M. And, dang it, it never materialized. Well, the events of 1968 also seemed to take a personal toll on Ochs. It is interesting to note what the album cover before the “Greatest Hits” album looked like. Here’s the image that graced his previous album in 1969, ominously titled “Rehearsals for Retirement”:
Yikes. Was the “gold lame” image supposed to represent a “rebirth” of Ochs in new, more commercial form? This toying with alternate personas took a more severe turn as Ochs’ personal demons started to overtake him in the mid-1970s. For a time, he literally took to calling himself by another name though this was not for professional reasons. Ochs had long been suffering the effects of bipolar disorder without being properly treated. He continued to perform in spite of some severe personal misfortunes though his illness eventually got the better of him – Ochs took his own life in the early spring of 1976. His legacy as one of the finest socially-conscious musicians of the twentieth century cannot be denied. Yet, I also hear a brave pioneering spirit in his A&M output.

I’ve been on the lookout for Phil Ochs LPs ever since I saw the documentary. Interestingly enough – finding Ochs on vinyl has proved to be a challenge. Which is funny considering he had the good fortune of being associated with two record companies who kept his albums in print even long after his decline and death! I got lucky last weekend when I scored four LPs – all but one of them being reissues. That leaves only four LPs left of his main catalog for me to track down. Actually, I saw original copies of his first two Elektra albums in Princeton and, tellingly, they were well-loved by previous owners – I’m talkin’ PLAYED, man. Phil Ochs inspires some serious loyalty and it’s no wonder. I’ll bet not just a few people clung to his songs for dear life in those tumultuous days.

I have to be honest, though. I’m just not a lyric person. It can take me a long time to latch onto the words of any song. Seriously. What really interests me is the whole sound, the music, the abstract nature of the art. Phil Ochs was a hell of a songwriter, but the craft would have been a whole lot less compelling were it not for that fabulous voice. There are a handful of singers who’ve made me think to myself, “If I could sing like that, I’d never shut up!” Phil Ochs is one of those singers. I suppose his tragic demise casts a bit of a shadow over the possibilities his music has of being heard more often. Or maybe his politics? Or a combination of both. Which is a shame, either way.

I’ll bet as people discover Phil Ochs down the line, they’ll wonder like me – “Why haven’t I heard this guy before?” His life may have ended tragically, but Phil Ochs left a great body of music behind as well as a legacy of true passion for the betterment of his country. Whether you agreed with his point of view or not, his contribution as an American Original will continue to be appreciated for generations to come.


Here's the link to watch the great documentary about Phil Ochs - "There But For Fortune" - streaming from PBS.org:    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/phil-ochs-there-but-for-fortune/watch-the-full-documentary/1962/



Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ye Olde Mix Tape………

Alright – I will ‘fess up. I am a format junkie. What does this mean? I have come to the realization that my music obsession includes a powerful component – I get a kick out of listening to music from different technological formats. I am somewhat bummed that the reel-to-reel deck I’ve had since the early ebay days has bitten the dust. Reel to reel tape decks may well be THE single most inconvenient music playback device ever, but cracking open a “new-old-stock” sealed reel tape and loading it up to watch the reels turn away with great music pouring out just gives me the (good) heebie jeebies! Yes I own and enjoy 8 tracks too (especially if they’re QUADRAPHONIC – muuuwhaaahahaaa!!). Anyone out there who loves the first Steely Dan album (Can’t Buy a Thrill) as much as I do and has never heard it in beautiful quadraphonic surround sound – you just don’t know what you’re missing. I get goose-bumps. I get misty-eyed. I shed tears. I’m pathetic, I know!!
Just today I stumbled upon a bunch of “new-old-stock” blank cassettes (still sealed!) in a thrift store. Anyone remember when these suckers were new on the shelves?
Try “early 1980s”, dude. This particular brand of tape has a special significance for me. When I was a young lad in the early 80s, my older cousin Jimmy made a mixed tape of songs he had been listening to and sent it to me in the mail. The blank tape he used was exactly like the one pictured above. It blew my mind to find a bunch of these still sealed so I had to buy a few. My cousins, whom I looked up to as if they were my older siblings (I had none, biologically), were my idols. The idea that my cousin took the time to put together a bunch of songs from his collection he thought I would enjoy was really amazing to me. Without dragging that tape out of storage I seem to recall what prompted the whole thing was me hearing The Yardbirds’ song “Lost Woman” at their house when I was visiting (for a holiday most likely – they lived in New York City and my family had moved to the ‘burbs). What I particularly loved about that track was – the bass line. It still strikes me as one of the coolest bass lines ever! What do you think?
Anyway – that particular track was only available on an import LP at that time. I just didn’t want to live without that song and it would actually be a few years before I got my mitts on a genuine LP copy. What a great album cover – I love it!

To fill up the rest of the tape, my cousin put on some Queen songs, some Jethro Tull stuff - all tracks I had never heard before and weren't on the radio (deep cuts). I was really into that tape! It started a dialog that continues to the present times – with my cousin and many friends. For many years I really got into making tapes for friends (and they for me – all of which I still have). And I got pretty good at creating “moods” with music on a 60 or 90 minute tape – sometimes with music from quite different genres. Now that cassette has given way to digital files, I kinda miss unwrapping a new blank tape and trolling through my record collection to piece together a collection of some favorites du jour to pass onto my pals.

So a few weeks ago, I did something I haven’t done in a long time – I dragged out my funky old cassette deck, cracked open a C-90 and set about making a mix tape of tunes that grabbed my fancy as I went along. Originally I wanted a 60 minute tape – 30 minutes per side. 90 minutes can be a long time to fill. 60 minutes is more of a challenge to put together a bunch of tunes that somehow hang together – maybe creating or reflecting a particular mood. I sure made some legendary tapes in the past. But that’s where cassette tapes have been relegated to – the past.

But in the not-so-distant past the cassette tape was the preferred format for music lovers on the go. Long before the ipod there was the Walkman and the boom-box. See this thing, kids? THIS was your 80s status symbol. No X-Box, no Playstation. This was it, dude
 The cassette was a pretty durable, if not exactly hi-fi, format. Sure, tapes could get eaten once in awhile, but considering how easy it was to make a copy of even a pre-recorded cassette – you could easily make a near-perfect copy of the original and store that away if you were inclined to take care of your stuff. And consumer tape decks were considered a bit of a threat to the music industry, or so it seemed at the time. Remember these funny little “public service announcements” on the inner sleeves of LP records like this?
(Many years later I was utterly shocked when the technology of CD-burning became available. Why on earth was this allowed? I, for one, saw the handwriting on the wall – perfect digital copies you can make yourself.? Whoah boy! Game changer for sure!)

Even though the sound quality was never stellar on cassette, things did improve over time. I have a really early pre-recorded, massed produced cassette of the Procol Harum “Home” album that is just dreadful. It looks to me like an original 1970 issue and the signal to noise ratio is pitiful – there’s just not enough signal coming off that thing to make it worth the bother of listening to! But by the late 70s and early 80s problems of that sort were resolved enough to make the cassette the logical replacement to the just as portable, yet infinitely more problematic 8-track tape (ever try to repair one of those suckers?).

The best place for cassettes was THE CAR. Since I did a fair amount of travelling as a young man I made tons of tapes for car rides. Many of them are still in boxes in my attic (some have unique music on them…..ah….I suppose I will eventually attract the attention of the “Hoarders” show…….such is life….). The radio – then as now – could not always be counted on to suit one’s mood. Nowadays there’s all these satellite radio channels playing deep cuts, but they’re all segregated into different genres – some of which don’t make ANY sense. Like, what is this Northern Soul shit? Talk about the biggest record collector scam ever. Of all the Northern Soul stuff I’ve bothered to listen to I have to say only about .5% of it was worth a second glance. The vast majority of what collectors are paying mondo bucks for is, musically speaking……shite. Sorry – it’s true. Anyway, I like to hear all kinds of music sometimes totally thrown together in unusual combinations. I don’t have a satellite radio, but I have heard it before and it can be cool, Northern Soul notwithstanding.

So what craziness wound up on my little C90? Hmmmm….

Side A:
The Core – Eric Clapton
She’s Long and She’s Lean – Mallard
Take it or Leave It – Rolling Stones
Blue Form – MU
Powaii – Sonny Rollins (live in Japan)
Babylon Sisters – Steely Dan
Lonesome – Big Bill Broonzy & Washboard Sam

Side B:
TVC-15 – David Bowie
Rock and Roll Stew – Traffic
Carney and Beggard Place  - Rahsaan Roland Kirk
It’s Your Thing – Isley Brothers
Killing an Arab – The Cure
Slip Kid – The Who
Reno Nevada – Fairport Convention
The Dolphins – Fred Neil
One More Chance – Sandy Denny
As Strong As Sampson – Procol Harum

Doesn’t seem like a lot of songs, does it? Yeah, I know – your ipod as GAZILLION songs on it. Everything from Celine Dion to the Butthole Surfers. Okay. I have a little MP3 player too and when I want to hear a shuffle with Three Dog Night, The Flaming Lips, Tiny Tim, Fela Kuti and Louis Armstrong in rapid succession I know where to go. But what about a purposeful juxtaposition of tracks from just as far-flung corners of the musical spheres that hang together in such a way that feels like you’re hearing them for the first time – or, at least, from a different point of view?

Alright – if you’ve never heard The Dolpins by Fred Neil – check it out:
What happens when you hear The Clash right after Aldo Nova? Does it make you want to hear Charles Mingus? Or Maurice Ravel? Or maybe Maurice Gibb? Or Rolf Harris? Or Keith Relf? Where does your musical mind travel to? When was the last time you put together a mix tape of songs you love in a particular order for one of the people you cared most about in your life? What would those musical vibrations say?

As Lou Reed once said, “those were different times……..”




Friday, July 20, 2012

Zappa, Rahsaan, NRBQ and Genre-Smashing

It’s been said “there’s a first time for everything” and this morning marked a “first” for me. Today was the first time I ever started my day by listening to the music of Edgard Varèse . More specifically: side one of the infamous Complete Works of Edgard Varèse EMS 401 – the very same LP that propelled Frank Zappa headfirst into a life as a composer of challenging music.
Varèse is not exactly what I would call “morning music”. But I wanted to hear this record again since I installed a conical stylus on my trusty SONY turntable (conical-shaped needles are more forgiving with old mono records like EMS 401). Anyone familiar with Zappa’s orchestral works will immediately hear familiar noises when spinning a Varèse composition for the first time. Led Zeppelin borrowed from Willie Dixon; Zappa borrowed from Varèse.

Yet, if dissonant orchestral workouts were all we heard from Frank Zappa it is unlikely that either his or Varèse’s music would have become as widely known as they are today. There is only one musician I know of who credited the influence of Varèse in his music before The Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out” appeared – Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk put out a record in 1965 called “Rip, Rig and Panic” (“Freak Out” was released in the summer of 1966).
In the liner notes, Kirk identified the works of Varèse as an influence on his decision to use electronic sounds to enhance what was essentially a “jazz” record. Rahsaan was every bit the musical maverick that Zappa was and took as much pleasure in busting down barriers between different genres. There was at least one time these two giants of the 20th Century shared a stage together - Boston 1969:

Now I would be mighty shocked if there isn’t an audio tape (at least) of this encounter somewhere – in the Zappa vault maybe? The mind’s ear boggles!

Of the two men, Zappa would enjoy more commercial success. Kirk would suffer a series of strokes hastening his demise at the far too young age of 42 in 1977. A terrible loss to the music world. Kirk would have been a welcome antidote to the more conservative “mainstream jazz” that has followed in the wake of his death. But as we all know, if jazz was ever a popular music it certainly hasn’t been in the last 30 or so years. Therefore, the work of anyone in jazz today who might be inclined to stretch the boundaries of music in general would not manage to find a wider audience because there just isn’t such an audience anymore. (Could this have been part of the subtext of Zappa’s “Yo Cats”?)

The idea of melding the so-called classical (composed?) tradition with the jazz (improvised?) tradition had been lurking in the background ever since, well, probably Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton’s time at least. Efforts that leaned towards more “serious” concert-hall fare eventually got tagged with the label “Third Stream”. Lots of folks went swimming in the “third stream” – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller, The MJQ – even Ornette Coleman. Frank Zappa’s brilliant contribution to this tradition came out as “The Grand Wazoo”: through-composed music for a swinging jazz big-band.
 Yet even if Zappa had limited his output to modern classical and third-stream music a-la The Grand Wazoo, we’d still be left with limited impact on the larger picture of the music listening public. It’s hard to consider, but there was a time before “Yellow Snow”  in Zappa’s life. What was he doing before the goofy novelty song propelled his popularity to new heights in 1974? Playing rock guitar and sharpening his media-savvy marketing skills and image projection chops. That droopy moustache and oversized soul patch wound up being one of the best trademark visuals of the 20th century. A natural calling-card for weird musical hilarity.

That and the ability to be an outspoken and willing participant in the heated public discourse of his times distinguished Zappa from his peers and rocketed his image into the forefront of not just alternative, but even mainstream media outlets. The only other figure in popular music at the time who displayed a shrewdness in the handling of the media was John Lennon. Not even Bob Dylan was as good as Lennon and Zappa were.

What further distinguishes the musical leaders of yore, like Lennon and Zappa, from their current counterparts (Lady Gaga?) is how willing the earlier guys were to give credit to their musical (and otherwise) influences. It is remarkable to read all the names listed on the inside panel of “Freak Out” – investigating every name on that list alone could take a lifetime, if done properly. No doubt The Beatles took this idea to the visual level with the Sgt. Pepper front cover. Could we imagine a world where Lady Gaga would encourage her fans to listen to Stravinsky, Ravi Shankar or even Stockhausen? I know…….I know…..
While Zappa and Lennon used their personalities to promote more challenging music to the masses, others were equally hard at work breaking down the walls separating musical genres. In spite of strong songwriting, excellent musical ability and a tireless work ethic, NRBQ never quite caught the break all groups hope for: the HIT SONG. In the meantime, their live performances became the stuff of legend – careening heedlessly from 50s-styled rock and roll to Sun Ra-inspired free jazz to crazed polka-beat workouts.

Fans could drop requests in “The Magic Box” and the group would pick a request randomly and play the song – whether they knew it or not! Or you might see ventriloquist dummies appear – that looked remarkably like the guys in the band! Or “Cabbage Patch” dolls. Group members would swap instruments. But before things might devolve into utter chaos, the Q could turn on a dime and whip out a stompin’ blues shuffle to get folks up and dancing or a wistful Beatle-esque ballad that’d make a believer out of even the most cynical Grinch in the house. There’s going to come a time when future generations are going to look at this and just stare in disbelief:

NRBQ made a career out of dragging their audiences along wherever Terry Adams (still the great key-banger and leader) decided to take them. Just as Zappa spread the gospel according to Varese and Stravinsky, NRBQ spread the super-sonic vibes of Theolonious Monk, Sun Ra and Boozoo Chavis to the unsuspecting throngs that kept showing up at those clubs and bars all over the US in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Probably their biggest audience came in 1999 when the Q was featured at the end of a Simpsons episode playing the theme music over the closing credits -–the only live-action clip ever to grace the otherwise all-animated show in its long, successful run on tv.

Zappa left us in 1993. Lennon thirteen years earlier. There’s still a Terry Adams-led version of NRBQ out there (and absolutely worth seeing), but I wonder how much poorer we’ll be as a culture when this caliber of musical leadership has departed from us for good? I hope some brave spirits get the courage to pick up the banner to rail against the artificial compartmentalization of music – this segregated mentality that seems to be creeping upon us like the dreaded homogenized meatball The Fugs warned us about all those years ago. Think of all the fun we could have if we challenge ourselves to listen “outside of the box”. I’ll let Rahsaan have the last word here (with a little help from John Cage) – in the key of “W”, baby!!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Just another blogger on the blog-o-sphere………


I’ve noticed how traffic has picked up on this little spot since I began over a year ago and, in the great Lester Bangs tradition of re-evaluation and reflection, I wanted to take a station identification break to put a few salient points across………..just in case people are actually reading this blog......hey, you never know!

First of all, I’m just some guy with a stereo and a music collection who likes to write in his spare time instead of watching TV. Not everything I write makes sense and neither are my declarations definitive. I can notice mistakes and misinterpretations in my pieces – sometimes merely days after publishing them. But I’m inclined to leave those entries alone with the door open to disagree with myself later on down the road.

The raw material for my rants is derived from multiple sources – books, articles, record sleeves, internet discussion sites, etc… Some of these sources contain accurate information; some are dubious in nature. I do my best to cobble together a cohesive position on topics that mean something to me using whatever sources appear most legitimate. If I end up perpetuating a myth in the process, most of the time it’s unintentional or, at least, inconsequential.

Mostly the goal here is to spread the word a little about music that I like. Since I lean toward the position that artists should be compensated for their work I won’t post links to free downloads here. For illustrative purposes I might post a u-toob link, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Music is worth a financial investment because it can improve the quality of life for someone who places value on good music. And having a great-sounding copy of a piece of music you like can be an ear-opening experience.

To give you all an idea of what I might be hearing from a particular record, CD or tape I’d like to reveal a little about my listening hardware. This is not to brag about what great gear I have – on the contrary, my main listening hardware is quite modest. But I feel that some of my assertions and conclusions are the result of certain equipment choices that I ought to make obvious. My main listening rig looks something like this:

Turntable:  Project X-Pression  - this is the fanciest piece of equipment I have. Even still, I bought a used floor model several years ago that I had to replace the motor on (inexpensive and easy thank God!) so it isn’t that fancy, but it sure sounds great with…….
Cartridge:  Audio Technica 440 Mla  (a bit pricey nowadays, but still great bang for the buck)


Receiver:  Lafayette LR-5000. Although this is far from audiophile, it is known for being a great little 4-channel amp with a decent SQ matrix decoder built into it (for my quadraphonic record addiction). Since my listening area is pretty small it puts out plenty of signal for me in either 4 or 2 speaker mode. Most of my listening is done with the front left and front right speakers (with the rears silent unless I’m in surround mode) – my main speakers since 2009 have been………

Speakers:   KLH 38s. 2-way, acoustic-suspension, Henry Kloss-designed, 10” woofers, pretty neutral sound, really balanced speakers. The bass isn’t earthshaking, but there’s enough oophm for me. These speakers look like hell and sound great.
CD Player:  NAD 5340 – early 90s vintage player I got from a Goodwill for $12. Most of the time it works fine and sounds good. Needs a little work, but I’m happy for now.

I have a few other pieces of equipment, but the above units are the first string players on the team. So, I’m only enough of an audiophile as my bank account will allow, but I think my stuff isn’t that bad and gives me a decent ear-view into the music I enjoy.

What my choices reveal is an obvious leaning toward vinyl records. I do enjoy CDs and digital music as well, but something keeps me from stepping up to that two-thousand dollar CD player (they are out there, folks!). My $12 NAD does the job very nicely thank you. But vinyl can be a very different story. Here’s a recent experience to illustrate……..

A few entries ago I did a whole deal on “Farewell Aldebaran” by Judy Henske and Jerry Yester. Great album. Yet my whole understanding of the record was based upon tracks I listened to off u-toob. Reading back on what I wrote, although I enjoyed the record, some of my comments sound too critical in retrospect. I decided to dig a little deeper and bagged an original LP copy from THAT AUCTION SITE. People, here is a great example of how an original LP played on halfway decent equipment can TOTALLY ALTER YOUR PERCEPTIONS about music you know and love. Played on the Pro-Ject table with the AT Mla 440, the original pressing of “Farewell Aldebaran” was so vastly superior to what I had been hearing – I was blown away!!! There was an immense depth to the music that was totally absent from the u-toob rips (which were quite clean, actually). If I had assigned the record to the “cult classic” bin in my mind, hearing the original pressing elevated the record to “masterpiece” status in pretty short order. I’m sure my turntable / cartridge setup helped matters, but in this case the source material made the difference.
ORIGINAL COPIES WILL BLOW YOUR MIND!!
Not to say that all first pressings are superior to re-cuts or reissues. It can be a case-by-case basis unfortunately. But, when things come together like they did here – HOLY SMOKES! It’s best to do some research. For instance – original US Capitol Records pressings of Beach Boys and Beatles albums are not superior to later 80s recuts. In the case of Capitol US, the mastering and pressing practices only got better from the 60s to the 80s.

Now, collectors tend to be less enthusiastic about reissues than listeners. Collectors are willing to pay big bucks for original sealed copies of Pet Sounds simply because it is an original pressing. Listeners know that the 1980s green-label Capitol reissue of Pet Sounds is sonically superior to the original – and they are happy to discover pristine copies of this issue for about $10 at the local used record shop.
LOOKS COOL - SOUNDS YUCKY!
LOOKS DOOFY - SOUNDS SPECTACULAR!!



































It's all about the mastering and pressing practices of any given company at any point in time. Sometimes they get it right the first time, sometimes the best pressing is the most recent. With so many options available to music lovers these days there's a pretty good chance that somewhere out there is a great sounding copy of music you like. Part of the fun is figuring out what's what. The same can be said for CDs - soon enough I'll spend a little time on the format everyone loves to hate these days - and what a pity! The CD era was quite exiting - and it still is if you know what to look for. Until then - HAPPY LISTENING!!!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charles Mingus - American Treasure

     Charles Mingus. Even if you own just one of the many great albums Charles Mingus released in his long and varied career it is very likely it contains music thoroughly infused with the potent and heady flavor that can only be described as MINGUS FLAVOR. But it’s not like a flavor of ice cream that has only one taste to it. Or like an actor such as John Wayne who can only play one type of character – himself. This is the way it is with music – how sound can be imprinted with such a strong personality that no matter if it’s a ballad or up-tempo number – the identity of its creator is INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE. Can we put it down to the church-y bluesiness? The call and response? The vocalizing? The trombones? Heavy riffing? Or just sheer force of will on unsuspecting air molecules?

    I don’t know what to put it down to, but every so often I put on a Mingus album and I am confronted with THE BEST MUSIC I’VE HEARD THAT WEEK. Different albums. Different sidemen (though usually always featuring the wonderful, woefully under-recognized Dannie Richmond on drums). What I love most about Dannie Richmond is his swinging flexibility – the way he telepathically moves along with Mingus through all the complex arrangements – those two were psychically fused – two men, ONE BRAIN! Maybe the only reasonable explanation for how he successfully navigated those diabolically unpredictable tempo and rhythm changes Mingus loved to incorporate into his many compositions. Here’s a great photo of Dannie Richmond:
And that, to me, is what Mingus will be remembered for – great compositions (and recordings of those compositions). His music has stood the test of time and, I am convinced, will continue to do so. For some reason I was thinking of Charles Mingus as amongst the great American Composers – right up there will Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin and Charles Ives. Miles Davis may have put out great albums like Kind of Blue, but Mingus one-ups him in terms of great compositions.

Although Mingus was not happy with the interpretation, the first I heard of Mingus’s music was on the Jeff Beck album “Wired” where the standard “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was a featured cover tune. It really is a soulful interpretation, though part of Mingus’s complaint had to do with some missing chord changes on Jeff Beck’s record. I reckon Mingus didn’t mind the royalty payments from the album though. Yet, as truly wonderful as his music is – there aren’t very many folks looking to cover Mingus tunes. Ray Davies went out of his way to rectify this situation with a film and album in the early 90s done as a tribute to Mingus the composer – a joint venture with the great Hal Wilner called “Weird Nightmare” after that most puzzling Mingus song. Here’s the documentary which includes folks like Elvis Costello, Vernon Reid and a few Rolling Stones laying down some tracks in honor of the great man himself. I love how the neighborhood of the recording studio forms the backdrop of the documentary – Astoria in Queens, New York City. This is nearby my roots and its fascinating for me to see some of my musical heroes hanging around a part of the city that looks very much like my childhood stomping grounds (with the elevated trains and whatnot).

There is NO WAY just one blog entry will accurately convey the sheer awesome-ness of Mingus. There are a couple of biographies available which I have read. The more recent one, Myself When I am Real by Gene Santoro is an exploration into Mingus the man and to his credit, Santoro does manage to humanize the man behind the talent. But Santoro’s writing style tends to grate on the nerves after awhile (I have never encountered a single work by any writer that over-uses the term “Zeitgeist” more than Santoro does in this book and it’s FREAKING ANNOYING, dude. Sorry – I just had to put it out there.) Another book I read focuses more on the music than the man:  Mingus – A Critical Biography by Brian Priestley. While this books is much less hysterical in its prose than Santoro’s book, the reluctance of the writer to delve a little deeper below the surface of this fascinating subject results in a work that is perhaps too academic. I would love to read a more sophisticated analysis of Charles Mingus and his music someday…….

Soulful, sophisticated, funny, earthy, transcendent, roots-oriented while simultaneously future-oriented. Mingus music has it all. Another early encounter with Charles Mingus for me was this 2-LP set I borrowed from the local library (when they had LPs) – a collection of Mingus albums he did for the Prestige label in the mid-1950s.
The updated cover art is sooooooo deceptive though. Here, Mingus looks like some jolly, jovial Buddha-esque character. Riiiiiiiiight! Of course, he had his share of troubles – both internal and external. But even though his decline was long and protracted, there remains such a legacy of inspiration, seeking and general enthusiasm for life in his work – it cannot be denied.

Already this entry on Charles Mingus has taken up so much space and yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the great memories I have of his music and what it means to me. So I’ll warn you now  -  Mingus will make a comeback here in the near future. In the meantime, feel free to purchase any one of the following Mingus albums that are guaranteed to BLOW YOUR BLUES RIGHT OUT OF YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS. Howza ‘bout…….

1. Mingus Ah Um…….
2. Tijuana Moods
3. Mingus At Antibes
4. Mingus in Wonderland

Any of the above titles are sure to get your juices flowing. And here’s another great documentary about Mingus called “Triumph of the Underdog”. Really, this is all just a beginning……….


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sandy Denny - "One More Chance" and Transcendent Moments

I was putting together a new piece based on the merits of the blank C-90 cassette tape which I’ll post later on down the line here. But in the middle of that I got totally blindsided by a single song by Sandy Denny. Y’know – I listen to a LOT of music. And I’m not always affected by lyrics – more often by the composition as a whole – the whole record – melody, chords, tambre, production – the big picture. But I think I finally discovered the most profound, heart-wrenching, devastating recorded piece of music / performance / composition of (at least) the 20th Century…………

I throw my hat into the ring for…………..One More Chance by Sandy Denny on the Gold Dust CD - recorded (basically) live at the final show of the last tour she ever did before her untimely, sad death at the tender age of 31.

“Is it too late………to change the way.…….we’re bound to go……is it too late……….surely one of us must know…..”

The drama of the song and performance here is already pretty high, but leave it to (the great) drummer Dave Mattacks to ratchet up the stakes higher still with one of the single best performances of any drummer backing up a singer who is transcending the moment on an already staggeringly sophisticated level – pushing the proceedings to further heights of drama that most likely neither one could have ever imagined.

 I’m a drummer myself and although there are many drummers whose work and technique I admire, I have to admit there is only one drum sound I have ever LUSTED after and that is the drum sound / approach / fluidity / sympathy exhibited by Dave Mattacks on this recording and on several other recordings of this era of the mid-to-late 1970s. There is some kind of major drum set / tuning / miking / mixing / atmospheric pressure / whatever he was eating that year / other arcane variable MOJO going on with Dave Mattacks in this time period that is just ……… staggering to my ears.

The song itself has a built-in drama. There are two competing elements that alternate throughout the song and to greatest effect during the guitar solo sections: a brooding minor-chord progression reminiscent of dark clouds threatening from above contrasted with a bright and sunny major-chord progression that sounds like the sun trying to break through the storm clouds chasing the gloom away…..even if only temporarily.

“Is it too late………to change the way.…….we’re bound to go……is it too late……….surely one of us must know…..”

The fatalistic refrain follows the guitar solos. Sandy Denny’s fate was cruelly tragic. At the time of the recording she was just returning to live performance after a two-year hiatus during which she had recently given birth to her only child. Her marriage was shaky, but there was a hopeful eye to a renewed career. The recording issued proved to be her last, however. Only 31 years old, Sandy Denny suffered a fatal fall down a flight of stairs, fell into a coma and passed away.

Years ago I read a biography about her. Such promise and talent cut down too soon. Most rock music fans might only recognize her name connected with Led Zeppelin IV. She performed the duet with Robert Plant on the song just before “Stairway to Heaven” – the often overlooked “Battle of Evermore”. Though it is arguably Sandy Denny’s most high-profile performance, it is not exactly her best or most-representative of her talents. How she came to the attention of the Zep guys had to do with her membership in that chameleon-like British folk-rock institution Fairport Convention.

The Fairports had put out a record in 1969 with Sandy Denny in the lineup that has since become a legendary piece of modern music – the album “Liege and Leif”. The concept was to re-work traditional British ballads with modern rock music arrangements. Surprise! It worked. What The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” did for the resurgence of American roots music, “Liege and Leif” did for a revival of interest in Celtic and traditional English folk music. The impact was not lost on the rock community at the time. New to the group on that record was the wonderful drummer Dave Mattacks, who would continue on through a few different permutations of the Fairport Convention as well as working with both guitarist Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny on solo projects when both of them would depart from the Fairport nest.

But even before Sandy was part of Fairport she had written a song which turned into a hit for Judy Collins called “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. In fact, I always thought of Sandy Denny’s voice as being like Judy Collins’ but WARM and inviting as opposed to cold and detached. The effect, for me, of hearing Sandy Denny sing is straight-up SWOON CITY. Some performances of hers just get me all misty-eyed and defenseless. What the sound of the violin did to Frankenstein – Sandy Denny’s voice does to me. With her finer moments I am reduced to a glassy-eyed, pathetic creature – and unashamedly so!

Anyway – this song just absolutely flattens me. Heart-wrenching drama – beautifully sung, passionately performed, excitingly drummed to – this track has it all, folks. About ten years ago I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alone for my birthday. I was newly broken-up from a relationship gone bad and I wanted to do something rewarding on my own. It was a good trip and I spent a lot of fun time checking out various exhibits as well as a record show being hosted there that weekend. But one of the really transcendent moments I had involved a little area with a TV and a video clip of Janis Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. You could push a button and the clip would play on demand. I stood in front of that stupid thing in the middle of a sea of strangers watching that video a good three or four times and I can tell you there may have been a tear shed in that moment.

 I learned then that any singer, musician, performer has the possibility of experiencing a TRANSCENDENT MOMENT where time stops for their art, their moment. For me, Janis Joplin never was better than on that Monterey stage – a truly spellbinding moment. Some singers can do that more than once. Sandy Denny hits that mark for me in many of the recordings I have of her. But none are more stunning than “One More Chance” recorded at her final performance.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some GREAT talents amongst female musicians and singers. But, if push came to shove – I’d put Sandy Denny at the top of my heap.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Lovin' Spoonful, Judy Henske and Farewell Aldebaran

If we allow ourselves to follow the development of what became known as “folk-rock” from Bob Dylan to the Byrds to the Jefferson Airplane, this progression creates a neat historical outline we can hang our hats on. Yet this is all hindsight. Maybe these three acts represent the three major changes in the genre -  Dylan making the sea-change from “pure folkie” to “electric” ; The Byrds adapting to current pop trends (Beatles) ; The Jefferson Airplane then carrying the folk-pop football into full-blown psychedelic madness. A reasonable passing of the musical torch from one innovation to the next – from traditional to commercial to esoteric.

Yet there were many interesting off-shoots and pathways along the development of this genre-shift in the1960s. As far as I’m concerned, the only major act to give The Byrds any serious competition in the folk-rock world, in terms of sheer quality of material, was The Lovin’ Spoonful. Though, technically, they called their music “electric jug band music” and did not try to compete with the morose subject matter then prevailing in the lyrics of the folk-rock genre (epitomized by “Eve of Destruction” – what a bummer that record was, eh?). Besides  - they all dressed differently with loud striped shirts and wrote upbeat, catchy tunes. And they sure had chemistry onstage – check out this great clip from the TNT Show:
Alongside their hit singles and great LPs (best heard in mono), the Spoonful worked on films. In fact, one of my favorite songs of theirs is the theme to a Woody Allen film (What’s Up Tiger Lily?) called “Pow”. A real wacky classic – listen here:
They were riding high – well, maybe a little too high. Of all things, guitarist Zalman Yanovsky got busted for the green leafy stuff and, since he was Canadian and facing deportation, cooperated with the authorities a little too much for the burgeoning counter-culture scene to handle. The credibility of the group took a blow and Zally was forced to depart from the band. Scandal! The Spoonful continued on with a replacement – Jerry Yester. But it wasn’t the same. The chemistry was gone and after a few more albums The Spoonful packed it in. Interestingly, Yanovsky remained active in the music business for a few more years before moving back to Canada to become a successful restaurant owner up to his untimely passing at the too-young age of 57. Yet, he did put out one gloriously wacky solo album and a pretty good single – listen here:
But he was more active on the production end of things before bailing out of the music biz for good. Of all people to partner with as a record producer, his replacement in the Spoonful, Jerry Yester, was the guy. No hard feelings apparently! It just so happened that Yester was married to a woman who also had roots to the folk scene of the early 1960s (though she never fit comfortably in that scene either and she missed the boat to folk-rock land when it sailed………):

Judy Henske
“Chanteuse for the Apocalypse” is just one of the many interesting monikers used to describe the astonishing vocal abilities of Judy Henske. I’d read her name for years before I heard her voice. And the first place I did hear her was a pretty unusual record – a collaboration with her then-husband Jerry Yester titled “Farewell Aldebaran” which was co-produced by……Zal Yanovsky! Now, I don’t have a physical copy of this – yet. I only ever heard the tracks from u-toob, but this is one record Frank Zappa should have released on the Bizarre imprint instead of the Straight one. Actually  - the record had zero input from Frank, Henske and Zappa shared the same manager – Herb Cohen (who was Zappa’s business partner for Bizarre/Straight). In recent interviews Henske has spoken highly of Zal Yanovsky – echoing many fans opinions of him that, although John Sebastian is a great songwriter and singer, Yanovsky was THE GUY in the Spoonful – the mystery ingredient. Henske ought to know a thing or two about mystery since she’s got heaps of it hiding behind every nook and crannie of her vocal talent. And her impact on popular music cannot be denied. Ever hear the first Jefferson Airplane album – the one before Grace Slick joined? The Airplane’s original singer – Signe Anderson – was, for all intents and purposes, a Judy Henske wannabe clone. Take a listen to Henske’s version of “High Flyin’ Bird” (released three years before the Airplane’s) here:
The Airplane took this arrangement directly from Henske lock, stock and beatnik. I’ve read at least one writer who called Henske the “female Fred Neil” who was also an influence on the Jefferson Airplane (though my ears tell me I can’t really get with that comparison exactly).
“Farewell Aldebaran”, as it turns out, was actually nearing the end of the first chapter of Judy Henske’s career. Her previous records were more in the folk vein, so this release was quite a departure. It walks a fine line between dual ambitions of being a finely-crafted psych-folk classic while at the same time seeking to update and enhance Henske’s appeal in the marketplace (such as it was then). Yet putting an ambitious psych-folk album out on Frank Zappa’s record label may have been too far out. I am certain this is where most rock fans heard her voice for the first time just as I did and were probably as confused as I was. Trying to unravel Judy Henske’s mysterious identity is not easy when you start off with this record. Is she a rock singer? Folk singer? Jazz singer? Pop singer? Well, she covers all that territory here, only in the context of a pretty ambitious production. In fact, Yester’s production isn’t psychedelic in the stereotypical sense. This album must be one of the earliest (successful) uses of proto-synthesizers. The resulting record is at once folk, rock, psych and PROG. Oh, and there’s this mysterious woman singing on it………….now that I think of it – I’d be mighty surprised if Kate Bush had never heard this record in her formative years. Not that the vocal style sounds like Kate Bush, but the way Henske uses the different shadings of her voice to create moods and characters is utterly groundbreaking in the way that Kate Bush would be in the late 70s and early 80s.

“Farewell Aldebaran” came to my attention through the Zappa connection. It was recently given a little profile on a DVD dedicated to celebrating the Bizarre / Straight label (which included such diverse acts as Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, Alice Cooper and The Persuasions). It’s a great DVD. And writer Richie Unterberger, through his passionate advocacy of this record, convinced me to give it another listen. Why did I need some extra prodding? Simply put, “Farewell Aldebaran” ranks as one of the most disorienting albums I have ever heard. I literally couldn’t make it past the first four songs without feeling sonically overwhelmed. There’s so much going on in the first 12 minutes of this record it can take time to digest. The overall production is psychedelic, but Henske’s vocal delivery is psychedelic enough without the extra effects!

Here’s a breakdown of the opening four songs with links to hear them….
Snowblind – starts out normally enough, but quickly takes a sharp turn to…….godalmighty! Heavy Metal? The backing music is near-atonal wreckage unconvincingly masquerading as rock and roll. The slapback effect on the vocal chorus just adds to the anarchic cacophony. Henske’s vocal delivery here is so over the top in a way that makes Janis Joplin sound like Nico! I guess this is what one critic described as a “voice that can shatter windshields”.
Horses on a Stick – right away I can’t help but notice the keyboard sound that Zappa used on “Little House I Used to Live In” – the one that sounds like a ringing doorbell. So this is a song about a Merry-Go-Round. Very cheerful pop production with Henske’s voice in a much more sweet and innocent tone. Fits the music perfectly, but …… is this the same singer we heard on the first track? Huh…..alright….two totally different styles right off the bat on the first two tracks of the album. Not unheard of for this era….but still hard to reconcile as coming from one person….hmmm…..

(Can't get the link for "Lullaby" to post here - try clicking the link below to hear it!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzOu65EZGG0&feature=relmfu

Lullaby – harpsichord…..slow…..tinkling intro with piano. Henske’s voice is a haunted, quivering, spooky – no, …………CREEPY and breathy creature here. Nightmarish lullaby indeed….unsettling…..DISTURBING! Yet, somehow hauntingly beautiful…….now is this THE SAME singer we heard on the previous two songs?? What’s really emerging as a psychedelic motif is the drastic mood-swing vocalizing on just the first three songs alone…chameleon-like. Shape-shifting. Unfixed. Who IS this Judy Henske? I can’t for the life of me come to consensus yet as to what kind of singer covers all this artistic ground in such a short amount of album space…

St. Nicholas Hall – uuhhhh……I’m really dumbfounded with this one. A commentary about how congregational life can become so pre-occupied with mundane concerns that the larger, loftier goals of belief can get drowned out…….set to a parody church choir complete with a very early and creative use of a synthesizer / keyboard effect that is made to sound like a human voice (I don’t know the name of this thing – it’s the same sound Marvin Gaye later used on the “What’s Going On” album – you KNOW that sound….). The effect has this weird creepiness about it – the “inhuman” human-voice keyboard thing just sends it over the edge. Yet this track is one of the high points of the record. It is such a sophisticated performance that hits an admittedly obscure topic so smack on the head it’s unsettling. The result is tragi-comic. It’s funny and weird all at once.

There are many other great moments that follow through the rest of the album, but I’ll let you explore the remainder on your own. In fact, the album culminates on the title track – saved for last – end of side two. “Farewell Aldebaran”, the song, is so outrageously bizarre I won’t spoil the fun. A masterful, albiet creepy and weird, ending to a cult classic of the highest order.

Jerry and Judy would eventually part company as husband and wife in the early 70s, but this record proved that their union, aside from producing the child pictured with them on the front cover, produced a folk-rock classic of such singular artistic merit as to be impossible to follow. “Farewell Aldebaran” is readily available, though in somewhat grey-market conditions as a result of a complicated legal issue that holds other Bizarre/Straight titles in limbo. Perhaps the estate of Herb Cohen will manage to settle whatever outstanding concerns exist so there can be a more proper reissue of this record. It’s not an easy listen, but certainly worth the effort. Here’s a link to a really excellent interview with Jerry Yester about the events leading up to and surrounding the recording of this album – there are some great and surprising twists to the tale.

Who knew how far out folk rock could get? No farther than this, my friends! Unless you consider Sun Ra “folk-jazz”. Next stop, Mars!