Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Great Holiday Record Swap Tradition Revisited

I’m originally from New York City – Queens, more specifically. In the late 70s, my family packed up and moved to the outskirts. It was an adjustment for me since I loved being a city kid. For years I had plans to move back. As an adult I came to realize that was not a practical option (for several reasons). Now it’s more fun to visit once in awhile. As a kid I had plenty of opportunities to see family down there over the years. The periodic trips back to the city helped to feed an idealized perspective of city life that, to a degree, still persists for me. Most of those visits were to see my Aunt, Uncle, Grandmother and cousins – all of whom I was close to growing up. I don’t have any siblings, so my cousins were the closest thing I had to brothers and sisters. I was the “baby” of that bunch.

I looked up to my cousins. Especially the two oldest – brothers Jimmy and Steve. I was closer to my cousin Steve, he being the younger of the two. We shared an uncanny interest in music and records, along with an extremely trusting bond.  Over the years the holidays became opportunities to have extensive listening sessions (all the cousins got into that) and to exchange albums, books and tapes on loan until the next holiday get together. There are only a few select people I have ever had that kind of trust with. As a general rule, record freaks don’t normally loan out important parts of their collections. Steve and I knew that taking care of the records was a sacred duty to each other. Plus, it made for fun in between holidays to see what kinds of interesting finds we could dig up to pass along at the next meeting. We really had a bizarre sixth sense between us. Exchanging gifts one Christmas it was humorous to discover we bought each other the same album – The Jerry Garcia Band Live at Keystone Volume 2. Family members just shook their heads. Funny!

As we grew into adults, holiday meetings were sometimes augmented with going to see concerts together or doing some record hunting when our schedules allowed. My cousin had some challenges of the unseen variety, which derailed his chosen profession and unfortunately never improved. His illness got the better of him about seven years ago and he died unexpectedly. My cousin never married or had kids. He maintained few friendships. Although he was a kind of a hermit in his last years, he remained an important person in my life. I think about him often, especially in the context of our once shared music obsession. It took me a long time to even deal with the fact that he’d died. Folks with clinical depression are seriously fragile beings. His unexpected death was not an inevitability, but can be a very real possibility under similar circumstances. So, the loss for me was compounded. Not only do I miss my cousin, but I feel badly about all the exciting music he never got to appreciate. At the time of his death, among the more serious and appropriate thoughts, I couldn’t help thinking, “I can’t believe he missed out on the Moby Grape reissues!” This might sound crass, but in the context of what he liked – and how we related to each other – it made perfect sense.

So, as can be the case for those who are left behind, holidays can be challenging. And especially when holidays were such fun times for us. In some ways, this blog is an outlet for me – a way to cope with my grief. But it is also a way to continue the good vibrations that always happened when two music and record freaks met for a big pow-wow. So in the spirit of that friendship, here is a list of albums I would have loaned to my cousin had we met this Thanksgiving of 2013:

Donovan – Wear Your Love Like Heaven & Hurdy Gurdy Man – Sundazed mono reissues

These albums were released this year by Sundazed and are just beautiful pressings of great material in ultra-rare mono. The differences to the mono mixes are subtle though still engaging – perfect for close listening. Sundazed has always been a great reissue label, but they’ve really stepped up their game in recent years especially re-releasing rare mono LPs. Not to mention improved mastering and pressing quality for their vinyl. Music lovers have never it had it so good with this company!                        

Here's a direct link to the Sundazed site:


John Martyn - Solid Air

            I “discovered” John Martyn this year. This album is a known classic for good reasons. Creative, exciting – falling somewhere between acoustic folk, rock and jazz. Of course, Martyn himself was a scoundrel of a person. There are some whose antics drive me away from the art. Although his conduct was truly foul, the music is fascinating and compelling. A classic case study of “How can people like THAT make music like THIS?”

Bunky and Jake – s/t

         I got hipped to Bunky and Jake this year as well. An internet friend sent me a copy of their second album. I recently found this, their first LP, at the WFMU Record Fair. One online review claimed the string section accompaniment on some tracks to be in questionable taste. Bull! It’s a beautiful record from start to finish. Period. A lost folk-rock classic. Should have been a hit! Jake Jacobs is still rockin’ and I seriously need to get a copy of his new album which you can also find here:

Kathi McDonald – Insane Asylum

    This was another WFMU score. Kathi McDonald was Janis Joplin’s replacement (one of the better ones) in Big Brother and the Holding Company. In some ways, I like Kathi’s voice better! This was her only solo album from those days (in this case 1974). Lots of great guest musicians. Interesting arrangements too. I think she’d put out some newer CDs in recent years, but for the longest time this album was her only solo offering. She did have one hit in 1980, although that was a duet and only a hit in Australia. She certainly deserved more and of course she passed away last year. I had been listening to the Quicksilver Messenger Service album “Solid Silver” and she sings all over that thing making it from a merely good to great album in my opinion.

Joe Walsh – Barnstorm

      This past year I developed a deeper appreciation for all things Joe Walsh. Even though he’s had commercial success, somehow he gets overlooked when it comes to those contemplating the seriously talented artists of the rock era. His classic core albums from the James Gang days and beyond are all really good. This one could be the best. I’ve played it a lot this year and it rates quite a few notches above even the best of his output during this time. Joe Walsh is a straight up no BS talent who can keep company with the best of ‘em and yes I do mean the Paul McCartney’s and Brian Wilsons of our time. There, I said it! Deal with it! Ha!

John Fahey - America (2LP reissue version)

Tim Buckley – Blue Afternoon

      Now John Fahey merits a whole entry to himself here (which will be forthcoming in the new year). Suffice to say I caught the Fahey bug too. This America double LP comes from the somewhat inconsistent 4 Men With Beards reissue label. Luckily my copy of this record is nice and sounds great. Of course, the more-obsessed-than-me have pointed out the reissue differs from the original release (some music cut out – way more included – the original was a single LP). I don’t have an original yet, but someday I’m sure. John Fahey played steel-string solo acoustic guitar, made up a lot of stories, didn’t sing and sometimes dabbled in electronic music and avant garde stuff too. He called himself American Primitive (to differentiate himself from those on the “folk” music circuit with whom he was lumped for live festivals and such). But he did a lot more than that, even. Check out the great new film about Fahey. See here:  http://www.johnfaheyfilm.com/

        Tim Buckley is a controversial guitarist who also didn’t want to be lumped in the “folk” bag. He sang a lot and sounded like an “Irish Tenor” of sorts. But he had lots of different phases. Most of which I have yet to hear. This isn’t the only album of his I have, but it’s the one I’ve played more – and with surprising frequency too! It just has a groove of its own. Like getting pulled down the rabbit hole of some strange world, but in a good way. But you gotta like acoustic music otherwise you’re out of luck. Buckley led a tragically short life which was sadly repeated with his son Jeff years later in the 90s. I can’t say I know much about Jeff Buckley, but he certainly was a big deal before his also early death in the 90s. I’m sure I’ll get to his music down the line…….

Little Feat – Dixie Chicken
Little Feat – Feats Don’t Fail Me Now 

    I’ve had these albums for awhile. For some reason they both really clicked with me this year and I couldn’t stop playing them. I have other Little Feat records that I like, but these two are just so good to hear one after the other. There is a real lonesome quality to this music, not unlike the lonesome Americana sound of the first two albums by The Band. Lowell George was quite a talent – great singer, songwriter, guitar player, producer, bandleader……the works! These albums cover an interesting artistic ground that ranges from the roots of American music right through the times in which they were created straight into the future (or the projected future). I don’t know what it was – I just had a real emotional reaction to hearing this music to the point where I couldn’t deny the genius behind the art.

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio

Beach Boys – Surfin’ Safari – mono Capitol green-label reissue LP
Okay you nitpickers - I couldn't find a picture of the green-label reissue so here's my original copy. Of course it has the EQ roll-off funk that is totally missing from the green-label reissue so in this case the original is not the best sounding copy but you already would have guessed that......
 The most recent new Beach Boys release and the first! The new album is actually very enjoyable – it might not be Pet Sounds, but what is? It certainly sounds miles better than the last time The Beach Boys had Brian Wilson’s full involvement on a whole LP record. That was in 1985 for the self-titled release “The Beach Boys”. The biggest offender on that ill-fated album was the production which was all 80s gated drums and synth effects – totally inappropriate for who The Beach Boys are.  While the songs there were decent enough, the over-zapped 80s production really ruined the whole thing.

    Although, as a fan I really miss the presence of Carl Wilson on the new album it really does hold its own and is easily the best thing the core members have done together since, what…..Sunflower maybe? That’s Why God Made the Radio is a wholly enjoyable record with no cringe-inducing moments, not even from Mike Love!

    Contrasting the new one with the FIRST Beach Boys album – it took me a long time to find this green-label Captiol reissue of the “Surfin’ Safari” LP! What makes this issue worthwhile to seek out is the fact that it is only the second time it was ever issued in TRUE MONO sound. The first pressings were mono, of course. Then, every other reissue Capitol put out from the late 60s to the early 80s featured the crappy Duophonic (fake stereo) mix. I even got hoodwinked into buying one of those 70s orange-label Capitol reissues thinking it contained the mono mix. Nope. The downside to the green-label issue is that it is missing two tracks from the original release. The Beach Boys core catalog reissues from this time shaved off a few tracks per release – I think there was some weird contractual thing going on here – many of which appeared on a standalone release from this time titled “Be True to Your School”. I really don’t get the logic behind this wacky butchering of the original Beach Boys catalog at this point, but it sure is confusing!

    Adding to the confusion is that this arrangement only seemed to effect the US reissues. I have a Canadian green-label reissue LP of the “Little Deuce Coupe” album which, according to the cover notes is missing a few tracks as per my description above. The record however features ALL the tracks that appeared on the original release. So Canadian copies of this batch of reissues are worth seeking out to get all the tracks where they belong. Of course now I want to find a Canadian green-label reissue of the mono “Surfin’ Safari” album. (Which, by the way, is primitive as hell with goofy songs like “Cukoo Clock” and “You’re My Miss America” – really silly stuff, but it reflects the presumed innocence of pre-JFK assassination America in a way you can’t hear anywhere else. These guys were really BOYS when they cut this album!)

    Didja get all that? See – this is the kind of stuff Steve and I would spend many fascinating hours talking about. The inner workings of the various issues of classic albums that we loved. I'll be posting more of the research we both did over the years here in the future. In the meantime, keep spinning those platters and, above all, lets all enjoy the music while we're still here. Keep a light in the window for those we'll be missing these holidays. Thanks for stopping by as usual and here's to bright moments in the new year for us all! Amen!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Richie Havens - Let Freedom Ring!

Aside from the fact that I consider myself a loyal, if not rabid, fan of Richie Havens I’d have to admit I’m probably the least ably-equipped to write a eulogy about him in the wake of his recent passing. I don’t own all of his albums. Only saw him perform twice and certainly not at Woodstock. He lived right in my neck of the woods too. Buddies of mine jammed with him – one even toured with him for many years. I never met him. Supposedly he was the voice of the Folgers Coffee commercial song. Could be true, but that will hardly be his legacy.

Even as much as I enjoy the albums I have of his catalog I can’t say he was best represented on the plastic platter (though all of his records have great moments – and at least one is a stone classic, but more on that later). Like probably most of humanity I first saw / heard Richie Havens via the Woodstock Movie. Now, talk about a defining performance! If his star was slowly rising at the moment when he walked on stage in the heat of that August day in 1969, he walked off of it as the father of the Woodstock Nation, for better or worse. He kicked the festival off in such a profoundly powerful way – simply iconic. Especially cemented by the film. In fact, the rest of the musical performances pretty much go downhill from there with a few exceptions. Richie Havens was arguably the BEST thing about that whole festival, musically speaking.
So before I had any of his records I went to see him live. He opened up for Arlo Guthrie at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie -  I think it was around 1986 or so. Arlo’s set was fun and enjoyable, but once again – the best thing about the concert was the opening act – Richie Havens! I can’t remember if he did the Motherless Child / Freedom thing. Funny to think that since it was the only song I knew of his at the time. But I do have some vivid memories of the rest of the performance which is a not too frequent occurrence for me at concerts – usually I get swept away and that’s all folks! Gone in the sands of time.

But Richie Havens was different. First of all I don’t think I’d ever seen a person with nothing but an acoustic guitar hold an audience spellbound before. His delivery was powerful, yet he projected an immensely friendly vibe. I remember him singing this interesting, intricate song only to realize halfway through he was doing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” – a song I knew well, just like everybody else – yet I didn’t recognize it at first because Richie did it HIS way, yet it was still AWESOME! That blew my mind. Also – he told some crazy story about a guy who he learned a song from that he knew from the Village scene in the early 60s. Then he did this song  - called “What About Me”. I’d never heard this song before, but in its original incarnation it was a semi-wistful hippie ballad from Quicksilver Messenger Service (from the pen of Dino Valenti). Richie’s performance the night I saw him was like full-on raging fury and indignation at injustice culminating in the line “If you’re prepared to stand up for what you do believe be PREPARED TO BE SHOT DOWN!!”

When he hit that point in the song you could have shoved a banner in my hand and I would have been ready to march from Poughkeepsie to San Diego in protest of ……..just about anything! Never before or since have I heard a singer rouse an audience quite like Richie Havens did that night. RIVETING! Immediately after the applause died down he clutched what looked like a roll of rough, brown paper towels – like the kind they use in school cafeterias – tore off a slice and proceeded to blow his nose onstage! He apologized for having a cold that night (never would have guessed) and, when looking somewhat dismayed about what to do with a handful of snot-covered industrial rough brown paper-toweling onstage in front of hundreds of people, he did the only logical thing: shoved the lot of it inside the hole of his acoustic guitar saying, “Well, you know – sometimes guitars have to eat too!” And right onto the next tune…………I just about died! Arlo Guthrie could have whistled the Star-Spangled Banner from his nose, standing on his head and spitting pennies and wouldn’t have caused as much of a sensation.

Years later in the early 90s I won tickets to see Richie Havens perform at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. This time he had a full band with him which included the great Hudson Valley guitar sensation Bill Perry. Bill has also since left us, but he was Richie’s main second guitar foil for many years. Many local blues musicians looked up to Bill Perry – he was a great talent. It sure was cool to see him onstage with Richie that night. Yet, the performance was kind of subdued. Still great and inspiring of course, but something happened that night in Lincoln Center that really stayed with me and got me thinking. At some point during the show, Richie Havens was ready to perform a John Lennon song (I think it was “Imagine”) and he prefaced the tune with a little introduction about Lennon’s dedication to world peace – really holding Lennon’s memory in high esteem and interestingly the audience that night gave very tentative applause for the sentiment. In the intervening years since Lennon’s tragic murder a lot of information had come out to reveal his very human nature and problems. I got the sense that the audience just wasn’t really willing to go along with Richie in elevating John Lennon’s memory in quite the way he was hoping they would. Actually, I felt then and I feel now that, if anything, Richie Havens embodied the sentiments of the 60s better than John Lennon ever did.

Anyway, I kept looking for a recording of Ritchie doing “What About Me”. I eventually found a CD - The Richie Havens Collection on Rykodisc. This was a compilation of tracks from his solo albums of the early 70s – none of which I had. “What About Me” was on there, but it was – amazingly – kinda smooth, mellow and slick-sounding in a studio production kind of way. Shucks. I liked it raw and acoustic. The rest of the disc had some good moments, but nothing as energized as that 1986 performance. So I kind of shied away from buying any of his more recent releases. And, stupidly, I missed opportunities to see him one more time. I really thought he would live forever since he was so profoundly energized and full of life and generally inspiring in his art!

I have read that his more recent albums are quite good and I must make the effort to track them down. But one of his old albums has a “desert-island disc” status for me:

 This is not just Richie Havens’ masterpiece, but it is simply one of my all-time favorite records – period! I would not want to be without this album. Most of the two LP album is studio stuff, but it was the “live” side four that sent me out to track it down. A local college radio station played pretty much that whole side of the record on the air which included a fun little piece of audience participation via Richie’s cover of the Beatles song “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Hearing that concert performance reminded me of what I saw and heard so I went looking.

I did eventually find what amounted to a re-issue on the MGM label. But it was clean and sounded good (and it remains the only copy I’ve had – pretty much satisfied!). I was happy to hear the live stuff I heard on the radio again, but as I gradually dug into the other three sides I began to realize this was a really solid and excellent double album!

Side One commences with a pretty rockin’ cut – “Stop Pulling and Pushing Me” is a quick, insistent psych-folk-rock song with some fairly manic drumming from Skip Prokop. After such a jarring leadoff track, the next song is quite the opposite. “For Haven’s Sake” is a long, meditative song that eventually evaporates in thin air (as opposed to fading out).  The next track is a very good cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Richie would eventually have his own hit single with “Here Comes the Sun” and in both of these cases (and many more) he manages to prove that he can sing other people’s material and not just do it justice, but in some cases rival the original. Although it may be a bit much to take that position on his Beatles covers he does manage to make their songs sound as much like HIM as it will always be THEM. The same is true of his Bob Dylan covers and especially his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Priests”. I really like how Richie does this song on the album and I’m not a Leonard Cohen fan!

I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to participate in Richie’s farewell at the Bethel site last month. He wanted his ashes to be scattered over the original festival grounds and his wishes were honored. Although there are a lot of great talents that keep leaving us here on planet earth, I will really miss not having the opportunity to be inspired by another one of Richie Havens’ live performances. In these jaded and cynical post-industrial days of madness, the ability of an artist to slice through the many built up layers of BS to reach right into the hearts of an audience is a truly magical thing. To get the chance to experience and re-experience that is what keeps us going to shows hoping to get connected to THE BIG NOTE one more time.

RIP Richie and thanks for passing on those great vibrations………..

Monday, July 29, 2013

One good Sonny deserves another.........

I'm still listening to Sonny Rollins, but I recently came across this outrageous drum solo by the great Count Basie drummer SONNY PAYNE. It takes him a little bit to get cooking - the best part is the finale. Definitely worth watching until the very end! Don't miss this entertaining and uplifting drum solo.
The great Sonny Payne!
 I'm just checking in for a quick minute here..........more to come down the line. In the meantime, here's some more wisdom from Sonny Rollins (and some great music too). Enjoy!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Revisions and Re-evaluations – Part One:

It is a real tragedy that Lester Bangs, the great music writer, died as young as he did. According to wiki-land, he was only 33 years old (was he destined not to live beyond “LP” speed?). As I was looking up this factoid I stumbled upon a brief obituary he wrote for John Lennon in the LA Times in that fateful month of December in 1980. I’ll bet it ruffled a few feathers since he refused to pander to sentimentality or myth-building. Check it out here:   Lester's Lennon Obit

What really strikes me about that obituary was how little time Lester had left on the planet when he wrote that piece. He would be gone in only a few more years himself. It is downright odd for me to realize I have outlived both of these men whose work I admire. They will always be “older” than me in my mind.

Of the many qualities I admire about Lester Bangs’ writing, the most fascinating to me is his willingness to put his first impressions on the line about any given topic only to eventually re-evaluate and sometimes totally abandon those initial convictions for new ones. This quality is investigated at length in a nifty essay about Lester recently published in the New Yorker by Maria Bustillos – see here for a great article:  Lester

She writes of Lester’s skepticism as “the best kind of skepticism: the skepticism that turns back on the author himself”. Lester liked to disagree with himself in print. One famous example is how he trashed the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street in a scathing review (in 1972) only to write a total about-face review years later.

It seems to me that folks are less willing to put their opinions “out there” – to go out on a limb to tell how they REALLY feel about music these days. Which is a shame since one of the more profound experiences I’ve had in my music-appreciation endeavors is when I suddenly “get” an album, a song, a composer that I never “got” before – or worse yet, totally dismissed. Those “eureka moments” are precious to me. Less impressive is when a piece of music you once admired ends up sounding tired and dated many years down the road. I’ve been there too.

I know I’ve taken a particular stand about certain albums, musicians, etc……here on this blog. But it crossed my mind to revisit some of my posts to see if my opinions have changed or become more sophisticated or less complicated over time. What follows are a few examples of my own musical revisions……..for better or worse!

First of all – in my enthusiasm for all things Judy Henske, I perhaps went a little overboard in my criticism of the original Jefferson Airplane girl-singer Signe Anderson.
True, she may have been influenced by Henske’s version of “High Flying Bird”, but Signe had a distinctive style all her own. This was brought home to me when I found a cool archive release from Signe’s last Jefferson Airplane show at the Fillmore Auditorium on October 15, 1966. The CD is titled “Signe’s Farewell” and it’s really great stuff! Highly recommended for Airplane fans.
I also found a terrific phone interview with Signe conducted by a local radio station in celebration of the CD’s release three years ago. She certainly has been through many challenges in life since the Airplane days, but she sounds like the coolest lady in the world! Check her out here: Signe interview

I have no idea if her vocals ever graced another record – if not that would be a shame. I’ll be on the lookout for more from Signe!

Now, from the cyber-complaint bag there have been two exciting artist revisions announced, whether or not due to my kvetching here I can’t say. We’ll start with the one that is currently available……

My most popular entry here on the blog has been the one I did about Terry Manning. The man himself stopped on by to extend well-wishes which was awesome enough. In that entry, I expressed my dissatisfaction with the current ZZ Top catalog on CD – how it’s been remixed to sound more modern and snazzy (while sacrificing the “funk” of the original mixes). Well kids – kvetching pays off! Behold – the entire ZZ Top catalog with the original, greasy-wonderment of the ORIGINAL MIXES – on compact disc for the first time ever.
And the price is right too – a cool $40 gets you everything. Get the 10 CD box right here: ZZ Top Box

Also exciting is what’s in store for August………….another popular entry I did here awhile ago traced the complicated history of the Fleetwood Mac / Peter Green classic “Then Play On”. For many years, fans of this great album have kvetched – “Why isn’t there a Deluxe Edition of this important record?” Yes, kids – here it is at last – what we’ve been waiting for……the Deluxe “Then Play On”!
You can pre-order it here:  Then Play On Deluxe

Still, once in awhile – ask and ye shall receive!

But what about all the great revisions on my part? Well, here’s one more that I owe to my good keyboard-playing pal Jeremy………..
I finally “got” Keith Jarrett! It took me listening to the great, classic Köln Concert album. I initially was turned off by the vocalizing Jarrett is known for, but somehow I was able to tune that out and the music flowed on into effortless unknown universes…..to the point where I’ve picked up a few more of his many albums. He is one prolific dude!

To bring this back to Lester Bangs……one of his most famous essays was a beautiful piece he did about Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album. I remember reading that many years ago, rushing out to buy a copy and……I didn’t get it.
In fact, I STILL don’t get it. Yet, I haven’t ditched the album. And every so often I give it another chance. I’m not giving up yet. Although I wonder if anyone will ever get “Astral Weeks” like Lester did. It’s amazing what we hear and experience in music…..but always good to keep the ears and mind open. Happy listening!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus of the Universe!

There’s the wind, the rain, the sunshine……and there’s Sonny Rollins. Phrases like “force of nature” are so shopworn and hackneyed it really is a pity when a situation comes along when it’s actually appropriate to use them and it just falls so short of the intention. What a disciplined, spontaneous-playing musician does in a jazz setting can be frustratingly difficult for writers to accurately convey with the emotionally-removed written word. Jazz music, indeed the very use of the word “jazz”, is an attempt by sentient beings to intellectually grapple with an art form whose characterizing qualities flow from…..THE FLOW itself. The flow of thought, feeling….being. “Jazz” has been identified as a box into which a distinctively American art form can be funneled into for marketing purposes and/or discussion purposes. Using the word “jazz” can ensure a musician has an audience. Nothing wrong with that, since musicians need to have audiences. The intellectuals can spend their time debating what is or isn’t jazz. Not surprisingly, more than a few prosperous musicians have expressed a reluctance to engage their time in pursuing those arguments when they could just be doing what they love to do – CREATING.

Yet, if there is any one singular instrument that, by its very existence communicates the concept of “jazz” it is the tenor saxophone. Without getting into a whole history of this instrument suffice to say that saxophones in general are a fairly new invention in the grand scheme of the history of western music. Suffice also to say that there have been no shortages of great tenor sax players before the arrival of Sonny Rollins and along the pathway of his long career into the present times. Yet, Sonny Rollins may very well be the greatest living exponent of this instrument within the jazz genre today. Especially if one considers how much of jazz music history he has personally witnessed and participated in (and continues to do so!). As he heads into his 80s, Sonny Rollins is still a working, performing and developing musician. Yes – a “force of nature”!

As could be expected I do eagerly offer up my confession to being a Sonny Rollins listener / fan / admirer / vibration sponge.  And there is plenty to absorb – many recordings and videos to bask in. It is with regret that I also must confess that I have yet to witness Sonny Rollins live in concert – a situation I hope to rectify soon! Even still – I will call myself a fan. Despite the fact that I don’t own all of his recordings and not even some of the “classic” ones – I don’t have “The Bridge” yet (heresy, I know). But Sonny Rollins as the performing and recording artist is only one piece of the puzzle. For me, his contributions as a composer account for my initial enthusiasm for his art.

My Sonny Rollins fandom really began when I heard the Miles Davis Quintet recording of Sonny’s composition “Airegin” on the radio. It was the version on the “Cookin’” album. Thank goodness the DJ announced where the song came from because I would have been searching high and low for this exciting recording. As luck would have it, my local record shop had a vinyl copy of this album in stock when I went looking and I was enthralled with this exciting piece of music. Yet, the first time I heard Sonny Rollins as the sax player must have been (along with a fair chunk of music fans) when the Rolling Stones hired him to add tenor sax to their minor early 80s hit song “Waiting on a Friend”. Very classy move on the Stones’ part. Not to mention very appropriate, even on a socio-geographic level. The Stones song was rumored to be a somewhat veiled tribute to John Lennon, who was living in Manhattan when he was cruelly murdered in front of his apartment building on that fateful night in December 1980. What better way to honor Lennon’s love for New York City than to feature a true New York artist like Sonny Rollins? Yes, Sonny was born in New York although he strikes me as being the least provincial New Yorker to reach an international level of fame. Although his “New Yorkness” is somewhat subdued I still like to think of him as a fellow Empire State resident to look up to. In fact, his other main residence besides Manhattan is only a few miles up the Hudson River from me. Not that I’ve ever bumped into him shopping or anything….heh heh! Among the great contributions New York has made to music, I’d have to place Sonny Rollins very to near to, if not at the peak of, the TOP.

In fact, my next Sonny Rollins knockout moment is further rooted in New York experiences. When attending a New York State college I took a great jazz history course. The professor was a talented older gentleman who had played oboe with Charlie Parker’s strings / orchestra performances. In class one day he played a live recording of Sonny Rollins – totally solo! – at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The recording was issued as “The Solo Album” and it blew my circuits! It was 45 minutes of Sonny Rollins un-accompanied – totally inspired, engaging and entertaining. I still love this record, or should I say CD? I ran down to the local record store in my college town and the only copy they had of this was an expensive Japanese import CD which I dutifully snapped up with never a moment of regret (the exact price of which has long since evaporated from my consciousness). It remains one of my favorite albums from any genre / artist / etc………a desert island disc for sure.
This began a long process of picking up any random Sonny Rollins albums I found along the way – usually the offbeat releases like “East Broadway Run Down”. Each record I brought home challenged my perceptions about jazz and prompted re-evaluation of what I thought I knew about this music. And it seems that re-evaluation is a central theme to Sonny Rollins as an artist. His famous sabbaticals – once in the early 60s and again in the late 60s – served as an interesting blueprint for what lengths an artist, even of his stature, may find it necessary to do in the name of re-uniting with a (possibly) wayward muse. Here’s a great clip of Sonny explaining in quite plain and direct terms what the philosophy behind these re-evaluation periods was and still is.
Each of the two sabbaticals would yield similar results. Upon his first re-entry into musical orbit in the early 60s, Sonny would align himself with a major record company (RCA) and put out some of his most successful recordings. He then jumped over to the hip Impulse label for a few more records that gave him a chance to stretch out a bit with the newer, free-er jazz. Yet, by 1966 he would bow out again until about 1971. When he returned in full force this time, it was for the long haul – which continues to the present times! He signed on with a smaller record label (Milestone Records) and proceeded to put out yearly LP releases which favored accessibility over experimentation, much to the chagrin of hipper-than-thou critics. I don’t own all of these albums, but I’m working on it! Commercial-sounding as some of these records might be, Sonny Rollins as the artist is never swallowed up in whatever sonic carnival he’s in the middle of. He’s still Sonny and that’s part of his artistry.

Whether he’s alone in a museum or with a full band – whether he’s playing some extended “out” stuff or familiar melodies from showtunes – it’s ALL him. His musical voice cuts through it all. Here’s my BIG Sonny Rollins theory……….It’s about environments. The landscape can change, the backdrop could be anything – any sonic environment you like……when Sonny Rollins starts blowing he is in tune with his world yet simultaneously retains his individual identity. If other players want to play with him, that’s cool. If not, he’s still swinging in his own groove and worth listening to. Not many artists are able to achieve that kind of confidence and one-ness with whatever environment they happen to be in at any given moment. Sonny Rollins sounds at ease EVERYWHERE. If ever there was an ultimate example of “Citizen of the Universe” – Sonny Rollins is it. I can’t think of anything cooler than that.

    Sonny Rollins’ output for Milestone spanned the period between 1972 and 2001. One noteworthy sidestep from this commitment is Sonny Rollins in Japan – a live album recorded and released only in Japan! I couldn’t find a legitimate domestic release of this thing so……..I ordered a used LP from Japan! I’d heard track off the album and once again – I had to have it! Here’s that cut – an extended piece called “Powai”.
Maybe even more intense – video from a mid-80s live performance in Saugerties, NY. If you like this, it comes from a high quality film now on dvd called “Saxophone Colossus”.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d recommend spending a little time listening to the man himself in a very thoughtful, reflective and inspiring extended recent interview here:
Is there anyone cooler than Sonny Rollins? Not in my opinion, squire!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Freewheelin’ = 50 Years Old

Man! It’s hard to believe that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is officially a 50 year old record as of today – 5/28/13. That’s half a century! The world sure has changed in those years – the music biz as well. All the hopes and fears and paranoia-trips found on those grooves……..sound today like, as in the words of the great Robert Calvert song – “Only the dead dreams of the Cold War kid……….”

But – Bob Dylan. Really? AS IF somebody else needs to spew forth more blather about Bob Dylan, right? Now, I have just about every legitimate Dylan record ever released, saw him a couple of times in concert and I really enjoy what he’s done over the many stages of his career. But I am no AJ Weberman. If I saw Bob walking down the street I’d leave him alone. I mean, unless he stopped me to ask what time it was or something. I’m not into any star trip crap. The guy’s had enough accolades from everybody under the sun – he’s just another person to me. But I like his work. And I like how he’s handled his professional career. Aside from his influence on music, I’d have to say that is one of his great contributions to modern civilization.

What am I talking about here….? Dylan gave a pretty good example of what a real human being does through life if they’re in it for the long haul. His first records are tentative…….his approach to his art changes from acoustic to electric……he hits a peak and strikes a chord in the mid-60s then retreats. Have you seen the No Direction Home film? Right at the end of that where Dylan is babbling like a strung out idiot in Italy at the end of his European ’66 tour….there……THERE is the reason. If that doesn’t look like a guy having a nervous breakdown on camera I’d have to say that was the best acting job I’ve seen Dylan or anyone else perform in the last 100 years of cinema. Watch that guy in the clip closely.

Now, find some pictures of Dylan in the late 60s. Short hair. Domestic-looking. Swamped with kids and his young wife. Put on a little weight. Looks like some young professional who likes to spend his spare time reading the Wall Street Journal, doing the New York Times crossword everyday and singing in the church choir on Sunday religiously. WHAT HAPPENED to this guy??? Real easy answer – he stopped living the hype and started living for his family. He says as much in his Chronicles Vol. 1 book. In recent years he has also owned up to making bad records on purpose to shake his image of a counterculture icon. Certainly his post-Blonde on Blonde output reflects a desire to break with pop culture……..the spare folk sound on John Wesley Harding, the overt country twang of Nashville Skyline and the bizarre crooning of Self Portrait. Not that he stopped writing hit songs (Quinn the Eskimo), he just stopped being a popular performer.

For a time, anyway. Starting round about 1990 or so, The Bobness commenced the Never Ending Tour as a way of life that’s pretty much kept on trucking in one form or another ever since. And he’s been putting out great records again. And radio shows (none of which I’ve heard, sad to say) for satellite radio. And a book too. And movies about him and not about him. Bob isn’t taking the easy road. Seems to me the only artist who is out-doing Bob in the ubiquitous-ness sweepstakes is Neil Young and I’ve long given up on trying to keep up with HIM. And, for that matter, I’ve missed a few Bob releases here and there (the Christmas Album, some Bootleg Series releases and even the new Tempest album).

    Aw, but so what? Well, amidst all the swirling Dylan hoopla I have a real simple recommendation for you. It’s called BOB DYLAN’S GREATEST HITS. Yeah, the single-LP release from 1967 put out when Bob was supposed to be recovering from his motorcycle accident somewhere between Woodstock and Middletown, New York. Vinyl copies had a cool poster included, even well into the 1970s (musta printed a crap-load of those things…..). Quite an iconic image indeed. One I became familiar with as a child since my older cousins proudly displayed their copy on the wall of their shared bedroom where we all used to gather to spin records during family visits.

But my recommendation is not just any common release. Before you dismiss this great LP as being obsolete, grab a limited-edition gold compact disc from Audio Fidelity. Mastering engineer genius Steve Hoffman has created the ultimate version by using many first-generation masters of these songs. The result showcases Dylan’s vocals – you could swear he’s in the room right in front of you. Spooky-realistic! Hoffman’s version is definitive – period.
My first copy of this album was a used LP I bought from a flea market – without even the outer cover! But it was not my first Dylan experience. That honor goes to Side Five of The Concert for Bangladesh – I had saved up to buy that classic 3 LP set when I was 12 years old. That was the first time I really heard Dylan and it made an impression. So I found a loose copy of the Greatest Hits album at a flea market for a quarter not long after. Listening to the gold CD tonight it brought me back to listening to my old beat up LP which had a quick skip during the intro to “Rainy Day Women” leading off the record.  Any time I hear this song I expect to hear the skip just as I’d heard it on my crappy old LP – isn’t it amazing how first impressions, especially childhood first impressions, can stay with us many years down the line?

 Listening to the tracks included on Greatest Hits as they flowed from one to the next -  I found myself especially impressed with the song “Positively 4th Street”. This song does away with the standard verse-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-verse and out formula. In fact, there’s no chorus at all. And none of the verses rhyme. But the melody is the glue and it’s rather strong stuff at that! A good example of how Dylan balanced the challenging nature of the lyrics with a catchy, feel-good backing music track. This song is one among a handful of Dylan songs that break from the standard lyric mold he used most frequently and to perhaps greatest success with “Blowin’ in the Wind”: verse after verse followed by the title as the couplet ending each verse – like this:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Read more: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/blowin-wind#ixzz2Ud4394RV

My cousin Jimmy hipped me to the Secret Bob Dylan lyric progression formula many years ago and now I’m passing it onto you. Anyway, “Positively 4th Street” doesn’t fit this mold – you can play the Bob Dylan game of discovering which tunes feature the formula and which deviate. That’s if you can stand to listen to Bob Dylan at all.

I’m sure some of my close comrades are aghast at my admission to being a Dylan fan. I’m just as surprised these days myself. I’m not really much of a lyric guy and I prefer people who can really sing, generally. Yet, Dylan did keep his music within the basic parameters of American roots-based stuff and some of his imagery in the lyrics is funny and interesting. Plus he did manage to put into song the kind of sentiments that many people may have thought or felt, but never would sing about in a public way before. Even so – when it comes right down to it, you either like him or hate him.

Well, even if you don’t like Bob’s music, you have to admit he had a funny way with words – like in this very revealing clip:

Anyway – Dylan managed to catapult himself into that MYTH territory pretty early on in his career. Through bad and good albums, with years of inspiration and lack of it, if you could hang your hat on the Dylan myth – even just a piece of it – he’s given his audience a lot to think about with some pretty good background music along the way.

Along with the aforementioned Greatest Hits, I’d have to give a big thumbs up to the Basement Tapes album (with the Band) along with his more recent “Love and Theft” as really essential Bob (and including, of course, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”).
For worst Bob album – I won’t even vote the obvious “Self Portrait” for this category. I’m picking the ’75 quasi-comeback-attempt album “Desire”. Critics love this album – I can’t stand it. Sloppy, plodding music with a severely under-rehearsed band (they’d finally catch their groove on the Rolling Thunder Tour the same year – better to seek out live stuff from this edition of the Dylan band).
Sorry - I really hate this Dylan record. Sucks big time!
 For the “it has no right to be as good as it is” category – “Street Legal”. Seriously. It’s Bob full of piss and vinegar and weird abstract angst venting spleen about some unknown……whateverthehellyankedhiscrankthatyear. Bob is really at his finest when he’s insulting somebody who’s done him wrong in the most oblique ways that not even the target of his rage has a clue what he’s singing about. “Street Legal” definitely hits that mark, intentional or not.

Don’t forget to burn your bird, return your dog and clip your cigarette……….and keep it rolling, Bob.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Canadian Roundup Part Three - The Guess Who, Lenny Breau and THE BAND!

I decided to round off my spotlight on Great Canadians by reflecting on two groups and one significant musician from the Great White North – all of whom are linked, however circuitously. Thanks must go to my good friend Ken for the suggestion and loan of his rare CD of The Guess Who – Let’s Go. This is an awesome release from Randy Bachman’s archives. Let’s Go was, in fact, the title of a television program the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced to showcase musical talent – mainly of the popular variety – specifically in and around Winnepeg in the late 60s. Other regions had their own shows, but this one featured The Guess Who as the official house band. What the BBC radio shows did for The Beatles’ career in the UK, the CBC television network would do for The Guess Who – provide priceless national exposure.

The collection is fascinating since the group performs cover versions of current hits – as The Beatles did on their BBC shows. Some covers work better than others – their take on “Along Comes Mary” is pretty rockin’ while their version of “Hey Jude”, however ambitious, sounds unconvincing. But it sure is wild to hear them covering Cream’s “White Room” (they don’t exactly manage to pull off the 7/4 introduction, but it still rocks!). Where the group really shines is with their original material. In the liner notes, it is mentioned how the TV show’s producer encouraged the group to develop their own songs – probably the best advice and encouragement they ever got! The disc contains some of their later hits (“These Eyes”) in embryonic form. Aside from spotlighting the great guitar work of Bachman, the other pleasant surprise is how Burton Cummings navigates his way through all kinds of different vocal styles and delivers the goods!

Although I’d heard The Guess Who’s hits for years, it was only recently that I heard the full “American Woman” album – in this case a quadraphonic 8-track tape. The whole record is solid overall, showing that the group could offer more beyond the hit single. In fact, quite a few of their many albums saw release as quadraphonic records or tapes. Considering how much I enjoyed American Woman, I’m definitely on the lookout for more from The Guess Who – especially QUAD versions!

Randy Bachman eventually left The Guess Who to form Bachman Turner Overdrive. Considering how he was gifted with two hit-making groups one right after the other, he is one lucky dude for sure! In recent years, he’s been digging in his archives to release material not just from The Guess Who, but even from a guy he grew up with who later became a major jazz guitar figure of the 20th Century – Lenny Breau……….

I would never have heard of Lenny Breau if it weren’t for my friendship with Murali Coryell. We went to college together and had a nice little rocking teenage combo for a few years. Murali loved Lenny Breau and he passed that onto me though a great CD – “Five O’clock Bells”. Lenny Breau was a child prodigy and developed a technique where he could sound like two guitar players at once. I’m still on the lookout for more of his music, but “Five O’Clock Bells” is a whole lot of magical vibrations to deal with. Here’s a link to a cool interview with Randy Bachman who tells what it was like to grow up being friends with Lenny Breau:


Now, I don’t know all of Breau’s story, but there is mystery surrounding his death in the mid-80s. Somehow related to not having totally conquered his demons. Dang shame. A bunch of years back I was driving along down a local highway and was picking up a jazz program on a nearby college radio station. There was some pretty tasty electric guitar stuff on, with a basic yet swinging backing from bass and drums. After several cuts went by, the DJ got on the air to announce the artists. He announced the guitar player as Lenny Breau – wow….nice! Seems this was an early recording that had just been released after being pulled out of an obscure archive. But when the drummer and bass player were announced I nearly drove off the road…………….Levon Helm and Rick Danko? Say WHAT!?

Now, I’m talkin’ straight ahead jazz. Nothing fancy, but absolutely in the pocket and in the style. I thought the DJ made a mistake until I looked it up – indeed the release is called “The Hallmark Sessions” and features what was then the rhythm section of Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks – later to become THE BAND. Seems that Levon and Rick were known to Lenny and he asked them to back him up on his first professional recording. Here’s what the CD cover looks like:
This, of course, leads to the next collection of great Canadians – The Band! Now, to be fair – most of The Band was from Canada with the exception of Levon who hailed from Arkansas and wound up in the Great White North courtesy of his then-boss Ronnie Hawkins. I have to admit it took me a little while to fully appreciate The Band. I’d had a copy of The Last Waltz since I was a teenager, but not any of the classic albums. I kept reading about how influential “Music From Big Pink” was and borrowed a copy from a friend just to hear it. At first it sounded to me like a bunch of woozy, bearded mountain men yodelling out of tune about God-knows-what to God-knows-who.

Then, years later I chanced upon an original US Capitol pressing – with the rainbow colorband Capitol label – at a flea market. It was in nice shape and for three bucks – well, why not? Took it home, started playing it and gradually I started growing a beard. I started taking long, meaningful walks in the woods. Communing with nature – listening to the leaves turn brown and orange and gold. I woke up in an abandoned blueberry patch with the sun in my eyes and the cool autumn breeze in my hair. I built my own log cabin in the middle of the Catskills, sowed my seeds and harvested my crops and lived to be 97.5 years old – spending my last days reminiscing about the minstrel shows that used to come through town and pitch a big tent on the outskirts where the moonshiners would rustle up some fun with the locals throwing dice and roasting chestnuts and pork and beans over the campfire using a crimped cup tin can for coffee and………and………

…..excuse me! “Big Pink” isn’t an album. It’s an echo of a long-lost time with flying saucers in the foreground. It’s the sound of Robbie the Robot bashing on a ukulele and Grandpa Jones playing his spoons on the head of a nuclear missile. Really, “Big Pink” is all about context. In the context of the times – 1968 – there was no popular music quite like it. Rootsy Americana-esque with a slight futuristic twinkle in its eye. Full of mystery and weirdness – legends and folktales told by Neil Armstrong’s drinking buddies.

My vinyl copy is an early pressing and has all the funk you can expect to find on a Capitol LP of the era – muffled, EQ-mud and all. When I eventually got my hands on the MFSL gold disc, I swore up and down it was a remix since it sounded so different. But, no – I reckon the MFSL is just a cleaner mastering (which one sounds like the master tape is up for grabs – couldn’t tell you). Happy to have it, but it sure is different from the LP – depending on my mood it could be one or the other.

No entry on The Band would be complete without mention of THE BAND (aka “The Brown Album”). This was their second, and arguably, best album. If “Big Pink” was the mystery disc of 1968, THE BAND was the mystery revealed with still enough of the magical haze lingering to evoke other realities and dimensions, yet in an oddly commercially appealing wrapper. Great music – classic stuff – harvest time in full combine mode. This album really deserves its own entry. I have three copies of this.
An original US pressing (green Captiol target label) mastered by Bob Ludwig (note the “RL” in the deadwax). This is not in the best of shape – and not exactly a wonderful pressing despite the “RL” – the mastering is top notch, the pressing quality typical of that good old late 60s / early 70s Capitol re-ground vinyl.

Thank goodness Audio Fidelity put out a nice gold CD – mastered from the original master tapes – that sounds AWESOME. It might be getting a bit pricey now, but still well worth the bucks if you love this record.
The third copy I have was an expensive UK vinyl reissue from 1997 or so – cut from a tape a few generations away from the master and not bad, but no better than the above two. Served me well until the gold CD came out.

Now, there are other Band LPs – some high points here and there. Yet they never returned to the glory of those first two albums. The best place to find out why is covered in Levon Helm’s great book “This Wheel’s On Fire”. It’s a great read – full of funny and heartbreaking stories. I’m sorry I never got to see Levon – never bumped into him either. I did meet Rick Danko once, but maybe that story is best for another time. How these Canadian guys became superstars is quite an amazing tale. Other famous Canadians would follow, but for me – Neil, Joni, Randy, Lenny and the Band crew are the real deal. O – Canada! Thanks for the vibrations!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Joni Mitchell

Nope - sorry! That's not Taylor Swift. This is a great picture of the original acoustic-wielding blonde Joni Mitchell. Taylor Swift could do well to consider what musical genius is really all about and spend some time with the great body of work Joni has left for us to hear!

I don’t know what prompted this. I was thinking the other day about how Joni Mitchell re-connected with her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption before her career took off in the late 60s. This was in 1997 or so – quite awhile ago now. I think I was looking for some clips of Joni on youtube from recent times. She is always interesting to listen to – musically or philosophically. Now, I don’t have all of her stuff. But I have a good chunk of it. Some of her more recent efforts have slipped by me – although I did manage to keep up in the 90s (the 80s were a bit tough to get into – I’ll probably rediscover that stuff eventually). Then I stumbled upon some footage of Joni re-uniting with her daughter. Gadzooks – talk about a transformation. In some of those clips it’s obvious how literally overjoyed Joni Mitchell is. Heartwarming indeed.

Contrast with another clip of Joni Mitchell performing in what looks to me like the Bitter End club in New York City. The video claims the date to be about 1967 and I have a hunch that’s correct (witness the Blues Project bass drum head on the kit behind her). The song she is singing would not be released commercially until her fourth LP – Blue – in 1971. Yet, the song – Little Green – was complete in this early clip which predates her signing with Reprise Records (her first LP came out in ’68 I believe).

What I never knew about this song is that it is a direct telling of Joni’s decision to give up her daughter for adoption – which only happened two years before this performance (possibly less). Holy Christalmighty I cannot imagine what’s going on inside her mind during this performance. Her fateful decision was a carefully guarded secret for most of her adult life. Very few, if ANY, people knew just how personal this song was until the 1990s. In an age where everything hits the internet as soon as it happens these days – it’s amazing how long some secrets could be protected by even the most public figures.

Joni Mitchell is a great singer, songwriter and indeed – guitar player! She’s got a great technique – one of the most interesting right-hand techniques I’ve ever seen. Take a look at this clip of her in 1979 – the song is “Amelia” from the Shadows and Light tour with the great jazzbos (Jaco, etc…..) backing her up. Yet this is a solo performance. She’s got those long fingernails and uses them nimbly on that big box electric. Besides technique – I saw the Shadows and Light film a bunch of years back when I bought it on DVD. When the video got to this song – which I hadn’t been familiar with at the time – it stopped me cold. It’s the emotional high point of the film. I was going through a particularly rough point in my life and, although the lyrics to the song are oblique – the emotional theme is clearly all about DEVASTATING LOSS. Joni Mitchell has a bunch of those kinds of songs in her catalog – of course it’s well known now where that emotion springs from……….

Funny though. I’d been a Joni Mitchell fan since I first heard “Big Yellow Taxi” on the radio – her version (no snazzy cover versions existed in those days). It was such a catchy song – I was real buzzed to find it on the “Ladies of the Canyon” album. I got that along with her first record – “Song to a Seagull”. Over the years I kept adding LPs. I think I picked up the “Blue” album because Big Al Anderson from NRBQ name-checked it as a favorite record of his (I’m NOT making this up – seriously! I read this once!). Pretty early on I also picked up a lesser-known LP – “For the Roses”. I have to admit – it’s not one of my favorite Joni LPs, but it does have some nice moments on it. “For the Roses” was her first LP on Asylum Records, but it had the misfortune of being the LP released between “Blue” – her last for Reprise for quite a while – and the classic “Court and Spark”. But there was a fairly provocative picture of Joni on the inside flap of the “For the Roses” album……………..

Basically – she’s nude with her back to the camera and her front facing the crashing waves of the ocean. Very picturesque, back to nature and peace-n-love – not meant to be anything more than what it is. Now, this is where my story gets a little awkward. Having observed womens’ bodies over the course of my time on the planet – mostly clothed, but still – it really appeared to me that what I was looking at ………… look, when women have children their bodies can change and it can be obvious if one is inclined to notice. Not that this is at all bad – certainly not. But I couldn’t help thinking – there’s something to the way she looks here. Yet I hadn’t read up to that point anything about Joni Mitchell having children. I really thought this all through long before the story came out about her daughter. Seriously!

Well, I’d have to admit there certainly was / is something about Joni Mitchell’s looks I appreciated – she’s certainly distinctive, but I like her! Yeah! In fact – I had a girlfriend years ago who was a dead-ringer for Joni Mitchell (and an exceptionally great gal too – fond memories). In fact, she reminded me a LOT of Joni Mitchell – independent spirit and all. Uncanny, in fact.

I hate to admit this – I don’t yet have her 2007 release – “Shine”. I really must amend this situation. I’d been keeping up with Joni pretty decently through her “Taming the Tiger” album in 1998. After that there seemed to be these endless “Greatest Hits” packages – she effectively retired from the music biz until “Shine” appeared. I was especially smitten with her 1991 LP “Night Ride Home”. Great record that was! And phooey on all those knuckleheads who want to criticize the change to her voice in recent years – I think it’s still beautiful, even though its different – dark and dusky. I can dig it. I also terribly regret not seeing her perform in 1994 at the old Woodstock site in Bethel, NY. That summer there was a concert held called “A Day in the Garden” and Joni performed – an increasingly rare event in those days and – sad to say – a nigh impossibility now. Dangit. I knew I should have gone.

Since then – there have been tributes – Herbie Hancock had a Grammy-winning CD out with Joni’s music on it a few years back. Well deserved. She was a pioneering spirit – and a real advocate for authentic American music (American as in all of the Americas, really). Like I said……I don’t know what brought all this on. I really just admire her talent and spirit – her ability to turn heartache into art – and the magic of time to heal old wounds. She’s got quite a life story there. Lets hope some exceptional writer does her story justice in a nice biography some day. Until then – STILL LISTENING!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Neil Young's Ditch Trilogy and the return of The Rascals

You know, I was a kid in the 70s. For the most part I have to admit to having had a pretty happy childhood overall. Some weirdness here and there, some typical growing up stuff, some a-typical growing up stuff – par for the course I’d reckon. I’ll say this though- what a weird decade to have been born into. America in the 70s was a mixture of real gut-churning frustrations (Watergate?) countered with plucky American-style resolve (1976 – the Bicentennial year optimism). One of my early childhood memories is being in New York City on the Fourth of July watching fireworks on the Bicentennial – the sheer masses of people out on a warm summer night, the blinding flashes of fireworks, the noise, the smoke from the charges seemingly going off all around me. It was surreal and exhilarating. I loved the celebratory mood of the summer of 1976. I can close my eyes and recall the sights, sounds, smells……….

Yet, my 70s childhood would not be complete without connections to the burgeoning mass culture created by television. The constant parade of characters, images, rhetoric and general surrealism dished out by television formed the sonic and visual backdrop to lots of formative experiences for me, as I’m sure it did for many in my age group. For example, when I was growing up, my folks reminded me of Archie and Edith Bunker (okay so my mother also had a Brooklyn accent – that certainly sped the comparison along for me). This two-dimensional view would eventually give way to a more realistic and three-dimensional complexity when I discovered, “Hey – they’re just human after all!” many years later. Yet I was inevitably part of the TV generation – television characters provided interesting foils to measure my real-world characters against. To this day my father still reminds me of Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek – loyal, dependable and heroic with a touch of wackiness just to keep everyone a little off kilter. I have no idea how the older generations processed the world around them growing up, but TV was this constant window to a decidedly bizarro version of the so-called “real world”.  Or so it seemed to my young, impressionable mind.

What does any of this have to do with Neil Young? Maybe nothing directly. Except maybe to illustrate why the 70s strike me as an odd decade to grow up in. Though, I suppose life always has its ups and downs with the 70s being no exception, but I think Neil had a good finger on the pulse of the times in which he lived. And the ups and downs of the 70s certainly provided a rich backdrop for some of his most enduring art. I can’t say if the ebb and flow of optimism and pessimism motivated his art, but there is a fascinating synergy between the times and the tunes.

Neil Young also managed to carve out for himself a unique position in rock music culture – the loner as the popular hero. He blazed a path to popularity in the early 70s with the “Harvest” album only to run the gravy train of success right into the ditch – on purpose – just to show everybody they had him all wrong- especially if they thought the guy with the shaky voice who sang “Heart of Gold” was the same guy who sang “A Horse With No Name”. The demythologizing process began about as quickly as the myth-building process had begun. The tour to support the “Harvest” album quickly devolved into a disillusioned mess, brilliantly documented on the Time Fades Away album (brilliant yes, but it still must be a sore memory for Neil since he has yet to sanction it’s re-issue on CD). This record is known as the first album in what fans have come to label Neil’s 70s triptych of misery: The Ditch Trilogy. Time Fades Away clearly shows the loner hero unraveling onstage in front of uncomprehending fans. There’s still some good music on that record so hopefully Neil will make peace with it someday to bless its re-release. For the moment, Time Fades Away is a missing piece of the official Neil Young story – or at least a shadowy piece.
The second album in the revered Ditch Trilogy to see its way to the marketplace was On The Beach. It too was MIA on compact disc until about 2003. While Time Fades Away is raw in a shocking way, On the Beach is raw in a charming way. This album is probably my favorite Neil Young platter of all time. It sounds like Neil coming to grips with the debacle of his popular appeal, but it’s a chillout session in more ways than one. Although it was the next LP release after Time Fades Away, it’s recording was preceded by another project that Neil had spent a lot of time on – including a pretty theatrical series of live shows developing a bunch of songs he recorded and shelved just before starting sessions for On the Beach. Neil wasn’t sure if he ought to release the project and was prodded into it by several interested parties including producer David Briggs and Rick Danko of The Band. So, slightly out of order, the third part of the “ditch trilogy” came out in 1975 – almost two years after its completion. Although the chronology was skewed, Tonight’s the Night represented the sonic BOTTOM of the ditch with nowhere to go but up. I really wonder if Neil considered how the mood in the country was poised to improve with the impending Bicentennial in ’76 and figured he’d better toss his most tortured creation out on the scene before people got too happy to really relate to it…….
Why tortured? Tonight’s the Night was Neil Young’s answer to the deaths of two close associates – his bandmate in Crazy Horse Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry – both OD’s from heroin abuse. Danny Whitten was the great second guitar foil for Neil in Crazy Horse. Bruce Berry was, among other things, the brother to legendary (and tragic) Jan Berry from Jan and Dean fame. Both deaths hit Neil Young hard and Tonight’s the Night became what one critic described as the “Irish Wake”. Perhaps not a very politically correct statement, but emphasis on tossing back a few in honor of the departed took on a near-obsessive aesthetic for Tonight’s the Night. This record must stand alone as the first – if not ONLY – major release by a major artist who is audibly PICKLED IN ALCOHOL for at least 85% of the proceedings. Neil Young is not buzzed or high on this record – he is without question BLIND DRUNK and sounds it. Yet, somehow – the character he morphs into for this project manages to deliver such a powerful performance of the material it would be hard to imagine hearing him try to sing it sober. The whole album is a ragged, slovenly, smelly mess. People are bumping into microphones – nobody cares. Neil can’t even be bothered with writing his own melody for one of the songs, for crying out loud – so he steals one from the Rolling Stones and admits it right in the lyrics of the song! Agonizingly pathetic and wallowing in pain, pity and pathos. Tonight’s the Night is the work of a wounded animal whimpering in its lair and refusing to come out because it doesn’t trust the outside world right now. Or ever. Did I mention this album is DARK?
In fact, it is literally BLACK – even the record label. The original album cover material was this thick, dark blotter paper -  prone to crumbling – like my copy that I found used at a yard sale for 50 cents a bunch of years ago. This was the last of the ditch trilogy albums I heard and, to tell the truth, I was not enamored with this record on first listen. I was in a pretty happy place in my life, in spite of suffering some tough losses that I was only beginning to process properly. I lost two close family members under pretty harrowing circumstances within a year of each other. Luckily my support system (family / friends) had been pulling me through (and they still are). Maybe I just didn’t want to look into the deep, dark pool Neil Young was showing me at that point.

Then about a week ago – it hit me. I started playing Tonight’s the Night a few times a night. Once wouldn’t cut it. I could feel the sorrow, the frustration, the angst and bitterness of the unfairness of death upon the unsuspecting. The suffering of those left behind in the wake of terrible loss. But I also heard the humor – am I twisted to find myself laughing out loud as Neil Young admits he’s unable to get the keys in his ignition (probably saved his life and others’ too that he couldn’t!)? Tonight’s the Night is dark AND funny. And full of good advice – please take my advice, please take my advice – open up the tired eyes……….open up the tired eyes. Like a mantra. Like a drunken person saying the same thing over and over in some vain attempt to emphasize a point already made. Just so you KNOW what they mean. Do you know what I mean? Tonight’s the Night is that drunken idiot friend you know who got plastered with you because they didn’t want to see you doing that alone and they’re leaning on your shoulder and being smelly and way too close for comfort, but you know their heart is in the right place ‘cause they’re telling you – get it together. Yep – life sure isn’t fair. It can be downright sucky. But it’s better to have some kind of faith for a better day because a better day just might come along when you least expect it and, quite frankly, wouldn’t it be nicer if you were there to greet it and claim it as your reward for toughing out the bad times?

You don’t have to take my advice. Or Neil’s. Yet, it might be worth putting a copy of Tonight’s the Night in your collection for safe keeping. Could come in handy. For those times when you’re drunken idiot friend isn’t around to give you beer-aroma advice to keep fighting the good fight and to hell with THOSE A-HOLES. Yeah. We know who THEY are. Yeah. Only your true friends will tell ya’ when you’re just pissing in the wind. Just like the old guy at the farmer’s market in Neil’s song on side two of On the Beach.

Neil would emerge from the fog on the next album – ZUMA. Tellingly, that album cover is all white with a black ink illustration on it – the opposite of its predecessor. There’s a renewed sense of being happy to have survived the bad times to witness a new day on that album. Now, not everybody likes Neil Young and that’s normal. But those that don’t are kinda missing out on some useful art – good for what ails ya’. Anyway, life can toss some wicked curveballs and most folks can relate to that no matter what their status might be. Sometimes its just days, sometimes weeks – heaven help us when its months and years. Nobody escapes having their mettle tested. But there are things worth having some faith for……….
About a month ago I got the chance to see a dream happen for real. I went to see The (not so young, but authentic) RASCALS in a wonderful reunion show at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. When it comes to The Rascals, I am a frothing-at-the-mouth obnoxious BELIEVER of the worst kind. To me, The Rascals represent HOPE MUSIC. I grew up hearing their songs on the radio as a kid – it was just a part of the sounds still echoing through the 70s from the 60s. Plus – they were from my neck of the woods – maybe Little Steven likes to say they were from New Joisey, but I know Felix was from New York and they’re just as much of a NEW YAWK band to me. When I bought The Rascals Greatest Hits as a teenager – hearing that music was like going home  - it made me feel good! I obsessed over tracking down all the records – mono & stereo LPs, 45s and even some 8-tracks. And don’t even get me started on Dino Danelli. What a MONSTER drummer, man. I still don’t really understand why these guys did not achieve the same heights of fame as the Beatles, etc…..

To me – The Rascals are music I can hear anytime and if I’m feeling down – they pull me through. Now, when I learned about all the funky vibes between band members over the years since their breakup it broke my heart to consider that   A)  these guys were so awesome at one time     B) they’re all still alive and healthy   and  (worst of all)    C)  there was so much bad blood, you can pretty much cross them off the “reunion” list for good. Then…..a miracle. Heard through the net that a one-off reunion show was being broadcast live on the Sirius radio thingy from a club in New York. A benefit concert. Gadzooks! I hadn’t been so excited to listen to a radio broadcast in SO LOOONG! I even taped it on cassette (just like the old days). As great as they were, I understood this was a special event and not likely to turn into something else…………even interviews with the band members were tentative at best and evasive (as usual) at worst. Then…………
Two years later – the announcement comes: THE REUNION SHOWS at the Capitol Theater – December 2012. OHMYFRIGGINGODDDDD! I am so happy I lived long enough to see that day – actually I ended up going twice. If I had the scratch I would have gone every night. These guys represented everything I ever respected about music and they got me through many, many hard times. Little Steven put together an amazing show for the group and the fans. I hope they keep it going as long as they can (next scheduled performances during Memorial Day weekend in sunny Florida).  But even if they fizzle out (and I hope they don’t), I was given a great gift to see a living, musical miracle happen right in front of my very eyes and ears. And I got the T-Shirt to prove it. Heh!
Music can be powerful. Sometimes the sad songs hit the spot – other times those positive vibrations are the best medicine. I still have some musical dreams – and other dreams – I’d love to see happen. I have seen some very unlikely musical miracles come to pass so far on my earthly journey and I’m keeping my eye on the horizon to spot more. If you’ve taken this journey with me so far……thanks for sticking around! I’ll keep reporting the good stuff from the crow’s nest up here. Steady as she goes………………..and a very Happy New Year!