HBO’s Documentary, ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher.’ The Artist Behind the Myth

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*Image from the Internet and is likely copyrighted. Also, it upsets the Rock Chick because the King had blue eyes…

“Everybody get ready, lift up your glasses and sing, I’m standing on the table, I’m proposing a drink to the King.” Bob Dylan, “Summer Nights”

No matter who you are, no matter where you live – North or South, no matter what your politics – right or left, no matter what your party – Republican or Democrat, no matter who you think the President should be, I think there is one thing that all Americans, nay, all humans on the planet can agree on. There is only one King… Elvis Aaron Presley. There was no one who came before him like him and there will never be another Elvis again. I spent my Sunday watching the new exceptional HBO documentary, ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ and I must say, I was extremely moved at this intimate look at the King. I won’t lie, after watching both Part 1 and Part 2, I felt very sorry for Elvis Presley. I will say, without reservation, this is the definitive documentary on the King.

The documentary is narrated by a number of Elvis’ friends, fellow musicians, associates, producers and collaborators. The narration was done by famous folks and not so famous folks. Amongst my favorites were Robbie Robertson (from the Band) and Bruce Springsteen. Although I must say, Springsteen’s comments were so overly intellectual at times they seem almost academic. He’s clearly thought a lot about Elvis. Better yet, Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife narrated a lot of the documentary and her narration allowed a more intimate view into what Elvis was thinking and feeling at different stages in his career, heartbreakingly so. I must say, my favorite of everyone involved was Tom Petty. Petty actually met Elvis on one of his movie sets in Florida when Petty was a kid and he was clearly a fan. Petty’s innate, for lack of a better word, Southern-ness provides unique insight into Elvis and how people thought about him. I love when Petty breaks down some of Elvis’s early vocals from a musician’s viewpoint and you can hear the awe in his voice as he describes Elvis sliding “up and down the scale vocally and having a blast while doing so.”

I fear it’s too easy, all these years down the road, to allow the myth of Elvis and the decline of his latter years with the drugs, the weight gain, the sequined jump suits to fog over what a enormous force Elvis was in rock and roll. It’s easy to forget what a true artist the man was. Sometimes that sad ending we all watched with our own eyes blocks out what we should be listening to with our ears. This documentary helps restore that picture, as Elvis as a singer and live performer. It’s divided into two parts.

The first part starts with Elvis’ birth and upbringing. Elvis’ rise was so seemingly meteoric, that a lot of people feel like he just appeared, fully formed. Nothing could be further from the truth. All during Elvis’ childhood, growing up poor, he was allowed to roam Memphis where he would seek out music – even in places white kids normally didn’t go, like black churches, black blues clubs on Beale Street. Memphis was a place where you could hear blues, R&B, soul music, but also country and bluegrass. Elvis spent all his time growing up acting as a musical sponge, but not only absorbing all those disparate sounds, but melding them together into something brand new. When he walked into Sun Studios, after driving by day after day, it was Elvis who was “looking for Sam Phillips, not Sam Phillips who was looking for Elvis.” Elvis had a musical vision, and Phillips helped him realize it.

After Elvis’ first few singles, which were almost instant hits regionally in the South, Elvis hit the road with his backing band from Sun, the amazing Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black slapping the stand-up bass, and DJ Fontana on drums. His backing band was so intuitive to what Elvis wanted… and Elvis seemed to funnel the music through his body and vocals… the band just sort of watched him and tried to follow along, both live and in the studio. They really had a great chemistry. It was those years on the road, in the south, that Elvis learned how to manipulate and control an audience. Watching the film of him in those early days is just spectacular.

Like all epic tragedies, be they Greek or Shakespeare, you need the hero and you need a villain. For every Othello there’s an Iago. In this story, that villain to Elvis’ hero is clearly Colonel Tom Parker, the Evil Dutchman. Colonel Tom knew how to merchandise stuff and sadly he ended up treating Elvis like “the merch.” We follow Elvis through leaving Sun Records and moving to RCA and making it big. He was always thankful to Colonel Tom for breaking him big, but the rest of the documentary, to me, really centers around the conflict of Elvis the artist vs Colonel Tom the money-guy. Elvis wanted to branch out musically, but Parker owned the publishing and made huge royalties off of Elvis. He rode Elvis up until the time Presley joined the army. John Lennon once said of Elvis, “He was done when he went into the Army.” I always wondered if the US Government drafted Elvis as an attempt to control him…Parker didn’t have Elvis tour or record while he was away, which dumbfounds me. When Elvis got out of the army, he wanted to be an actor, something akin to Marlon Brando. Colonel Parker pushed him toward lighter roles and continued to sign contracts for those fluffy, musical movies Elvis did. They made money, but as Petty says, “those movies were harmful to Elvis.” He was no longer the dangerous rebel, he was just that cheesy movie guy. While he was off in Hollywood from ’60 to ’69 music and the world itself changed. There’s a striking image of Coretta Scott King, marching after MLK’s assassination, passing a theater showing Elvis’ awful movie, ‘Go Away Joe.’ You can’t symbolize how out of touch culturally he was at that point…

As an aside, I did notice how, like Dylan with folk music and Hendrix with blues, when faced with tumultuous times, professional or personal, Elvis always returned to his “home,” and by that I mean Gospel music. Elvis doing “Peace In The Valley” brought back his memories of his mother and his childhood, singing in the church. It was the music that centered him… and nobody does it better. Even I, the biggest heathen you’re going to come across, was moved by the King doing Gospel, but I digress.

As the movies petered out, Elvis, in a rare show of independence lined up the 1968 Come Back Special. If you’ve never seen that show, you need to get the BluRay. Seeing the King shed his movie image, put on black leather and retake his crown is like watching Ali beat Frazier. The Comeback Special is really a lynchpin in the telling of this story. Afterwards, Elvis went into the studio and recorded one of his best albums, From Elvis In Memphis,. Instead of continuing to make music in that vein, Colonel Parker sent him off to Vegas for a residency. Elvis finally grew tired of that so Colonel Parker sent him out on a grueling, seemingly never ending tour because it made money. Elvis wanted to tour in Europe, but Parker, who wasn’t actually a US citizen couldn’t leave the States. So instead he put the insane pressure on Elvis of doing a world-wide, live by satellite broadcast of a concert from Hawaii. I still remember seeing that as a kid.

After that, Elvis just sort of surrendered or more appropriately, gave up. The central question of ‘Elvis Presley – The Searcher’ for me, is what Tom Petty asks early in the 2nd half of the documentary – “Why would Elvis continue to humiliate himself (in the movies) for this man (Colonel Parker)? What was this control Parker had on Elvis?” I get that Elvis was grateful for Parker “breaking him” world wide and making him the biggest star on the planet. My question is why would he allow Parker to snuff out almost every creative instinct Presley had afterward. Why continue doing the movies? Why continue to fuel the kitschy merchandise machine. Presley was a true pioneer, he was plowing in uncharted territory… I just wish he’d been able to break free of such horrid management.

In the end, as I said, Elvis just gave up. He was taking pills to get up for the show and then downers to sleep afterwards. His marriage to Priscilla crumbled. He became more and more isolated… which is what the Colonel wanted… it’s like Presley was an abused spouse. His weight ballooned. The Memphis Mafia was only too happy to enable Presley… The dead look in Presley’s eyes from his latter days will always haunt me. The fire, the joy was all gone. It’s easy to blame Parker, and let’s face it, I’m passionate about Elvis, but even I realize that the King had some culpability here. He could have stopped the merry-go-round at any time. But he didn’t… and we’ll never know why. I hate to think of Elvis as the “Porcelain Monkey” of Warren Zevon’s song.

This is a rich, detailed, fascinating look at Elvis the man and Elvis the artist. It gets beyond the myth and the legend and really focuses on the music. They should be showing this movie in high school music classes as required curriculum.

And while Elvis’ life ended tragically, (I can remember hearing the news in the backseat of my football coach’s car, driving to football practice with my three teammates), tonight, I’ll be standing on a table and “raising a glass to the King.”

 

 

 

 

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Playlist: U.S. Tax Day Blues?

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“With my mind on my money and my money on my mind” – Snoop Dogg, “Gin And Juice”

I can’t believe the Ides of April are already upon us. I guess it beats the Ides of March, not to get all Julius Caesar and Shakespeare on you… It’s mid-April and here in the American midwest, it’s snowed twice this month. This schizophrenic weather is killing me. This isn’t how April is supposed to go down. Two days ago it was 80 degrees. Today it’s in the 30s. I don’t know whether to put on shorts with my favorite concert t-shirt and head to my favorite patio bar for a margarita or whether to bundle up…. Where did I put my scarf? Usually by mid-April I’ve started work on my tan, which usually ends up with me turning a slightly rusty color all summer…what can I say, I’m fair-skinned. But even I have to admit, the world just looks better with a tan.

We’re almost a full third into the year and the music scene this year has really sucked. Jack White’s Boarding House Reach disappointed me (LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’) as much as Beck’s Colors did last year and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ The Getaway did the year before that. It’s painful when artists of that caliber miss the mark so widely… they only put out albums every three or four years so I’m stuck waiting. Maybe I’m not spelunking deep enough? Thank God Jimi Hendrix’s vault continues to release such great music… LP Review: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Both Sides of the Sky,’ The Vaults Runneth Over…. And to top it all, Lindsey Buckingham was fired from Fleetwood Mac and I read in the Washington Post, Lindsey may be a bigger asshole than we all realized.

My friend, drummer Blake informed that Coachella is happening this weekend. When I asked the Rock Chick what Coachella is, she said, “It’s Woodstock for rich, white, pretty kids.” It sounds awful. Blake says it’s an arts and music festival but the music is Hip Hop and EDM… with maybe a rock act thrown in just for fun. I’m sorry, there’s not enough Ecstasy in the world to make that music tolerable. Every picture I’ve seen of the fans at Coachella are the same… tall, willowy, emaciated chicks with vacuous, dehydrated eyes and dirty feet. Hydrate, ladies, hydrate…and buy some rock and roll. Greta Van Fleet are the only band worth seeing at Coachella this year… Pearl Jam are out there on the road somewhere… maybe they’ll come back to the States. Thank God I’ve got Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul tickets next month with my friends Doug and Drew. Depeche Mode is returning and everybody should try and see them.

I think the thing that has me in this early Spring, or perhaps more accurately, Second Winter funk these days is that Tax Day in the United States is this weekend. Every year in the United States income taxes are due on April 15th. Well, this year it’s April 17th but same difference. I can remember when I was a kid, working summer jobs doing light construction, tax day was good news. It usually meant a refund. Now every year, I’m writing a check. It wouldn’t bother me except I’m guessing the check I’m writing is probably bigger than Warren Buffett’s or the Koch Brothers’ and those guys could buy and sell me with plenty of cash left over… The rich get richer.

Income taxes in the U.S. actually started in 1861 as a way to pay for the Civil War. It was codified by the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. By the time Eisenhower was President in the 1950’s the top tax bracket in the U.S. for the richest 10% was 90%, which seems high but lets remember, Eisenhower built the Interstate Highways. We don’t build anything here any more… One of the older guys who were doing some construction here last summer said to me, “I can still remember Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s evil manager), saying that it was his job to keep Elvis in the 90% tax bracket…”

So every year as I move money around to cover the tax burden, in an almost comical three-card monty game, it always takes me to the same place that Snoop Dogg was in on “Gin And Juice.” I walk around all day with “My mind on money and my money on my mind.” The only thing I could think of to take my mind off that was, of course, rock and roll. Well, bourbon doesn’t hurt either but I do have to hold down a job. Moderation people… With all that said, I came up with this Tax Day Playlist. I tried to keep it rocking and upbeat. It certainly helps sooth my Tax Day Blues. I hope it helps yours!

  1. The Beatles, “Taxman” – Well, I think we all knew this would be here. One of George Harrison’s best riffs. Tom Petty did a nice cover of this one too…
  2. The Who, “Man With Money” – I wish I was the titular character here…
  3. Ozzy Osbourne, “The Almighty Dollar” – Ozzy gets heavy both musically and lyrically about the evils of capitalism. Ozzy’s deeper than you realize.
  4. Robert Plant, “All The Money In the World” – From the sublime album, The Mighty Rearranger. 
  5. The Beatles, “Money (That’s What I Want)” – I could certainly use some right now.
  6. Montrose, “Paper Money” – Sammy Hagar’s first band. These guys rock.
  7. Scorpions, “Money And Fame” – From another great Scorp’s album, Crazy World. 
  8. Steve Miller Band, “Take the Money And Run” – Great song from the Gangster of Love.
  9. Bruce Springsteen, “Easy Money” – Great, late period Springsteen.
  10. Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Shake Your Money Maker” – The Butterfield Band doing Elmore James. Yes!
  11. Van Morrison, “Blue Money” – “Say, when this is over,  you’ll be in clover, We’ll go out and spend all a your money (blue money).”
  12. The Black Keys, “Money Maker” – Great Keys tune…
  13. AC/DC, “Down Payment Blues” – One of Bon Scott’s more menacing tunes. “I’ve got holes in my shoes…”
  14. Bulletboys, “Money, Money, Money” – A Rock Chick favorite from the 80s.
  15. Bob Seger, “Ain’t Got No Money” – A fairly accurate description of my current financial situation.
  16. Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing” – Congrats to Dire Straits on this weekend’s Hall of Fame induction.
  17. AC/DC, “Money Made” – I considered “Money Talks” but I like this one better.
  18. Pink Floyd, “Money” – “I notice they’re giving none away, away…away.”
  19. Rush, “The Big Money” – “Goes around the world…”
  20. Motley Crue, “Keep Your Eye On The Money” – Sage advice.
  21. B.B. King (with The Rolling Stones), “Paying The Cost To Be the Boss” – A great old B.B. song, I just love this version with the Stones as Mick really gives his all on vocals.
  22. David Crosby and Graham Nash (Crosby, Nash), “Take The Money And Run” – Superb song from these guys working as a duo. I may do a post on the best CSNY solo/duo records.
  23. Don Henley, “If Dirt Were Dollars” – “If dirt were dollars, I wouldn’t worry any more.” I can only wish this were true, that I wouldn’t worry anymore.
  24. Bob Dylan, “Pay In Blood” – I love this dark, menacing track from Dylan’s last album featuring stuff he wrote, Tempest. 
  25. Cheap Trick, “Taxman, Mr. Thief” – Basically Cheap Trick re-doing the Beatles song with some extra spiteful lyrics added in for good measure.
  26. Billy Joel, “Easy Money” – I didn’t like An Innocent Man but I like this track which was on the soundtrack of the Rodney Dangerfield movie of the same name.
  27. Patti Smith, “Free Money” – From her landmark masterpiece, Horses. 
  28. Fitz And The Tantrums, “Moneygrabber” – Another Rock Chick favorite, written about a manager who screwed them.

As usual, I’ve probably missed a track or two about the green master, the cash, the dough, the cheese, the scratch, the m-o-n-e-y. If you have a track that you feel would fit, please add it in the comments section.

Cheers!

 

Bummer News: Fleetwood Mac Tells Lindsey Buckingham To Go His Own Way

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*Picture taken from the Rumors record sleeve and is probably copyrighted

I know there’s nothing to say, someone’s taken my place…” Fleetwood Mac, “Second Hand News” composed by Lindsey Buckingham

“I heard the news today, oh boy,” that Lindsey Buckingham, lead guitarist, songwriter, producer and vocalist for Fleetwood Mac was fired by the band in early April. He’s apparently being replaced by guitarist and former Heartbreaker Mike Campbell who played on some of Stevie Nicks’ solo albums and has a connection with her, which is nice I guess. I’m glad Mike has found a job, he’s too talented to sit at home. Also named as a replacement for Buckingham was Neil Finn of Crowded House fame. He sings and plays a little guitar. This isn’t the first time Buckingham has left Fleetwood Mac. He quit in 1987 right before the tour in support of Tango In The Night. At that time he was replaced by Rick Vito (guitarist) and Billy Burnette (vocals/guitar). When he quit in ’87 I remember my friend Stormin’, who was as dejected by the news as I was, saying, “Not only did the fucker quit, the band made him look good by replacing him with not one guy but two.” It appears they’ve done the same thing again… Stormin’s wisdom rings true today.

I am bummed to hear this news. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all get along?” Joe Strummer always said, “never underestimate the chemistry of those particular (five) people in a room…” Lindsey was so much more than a guitarist/vocalist in the Mac. He did more to shape the sound of Fleetwood Mac than anybody else. Like any great player he seemed to elevate the folks around him. I remember when he left the first time. He said after breaking up with Stevie Nicks, his job was to come in and produce her songs, to make them better, and it wasn’t something he was particularly inclined to do after their acrimonious split. Oh, well. Tom Petty once said that only Buckingham can get Nicks’ songs to sound the way she wants them to. Many people think of Fleetwood Mac as being “mellow.” I prefer to think of them the way Buckingham does… that they were more melodic than most bands, but they still rocked. Hell, even my college roommate Matthew, whose entire record collection at the time consisted solely of heavy metal records (I’d never seen that much Kiss) had a few Fleetwood Mac albums.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the news. Even in the photos above, from the Rumours record sleeve, he’s standing apart from the band in half the pics. Of course, the same could be said for Mick Fleetwood, who as drummer has been one of the few constants in the band, so I might be reading into this. Lindsey always comes across in interviews as somewhat arrogant (which is probably earned) and pissy (probably not earned). I have to keep reminding myself, that this is a band who have had as many line-up changes as Yes. In the mid 70’s there was even a “fake” Fleetwood Mac out on tour. Lawsuits were filed. If you think about it, this has been a band whose music is largely about love, heartbreak and breaking up… and they’re a band that has kind of been perpetually breaking up their entire career.

The band was originally formed in the late 1960s by former John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ guitarist Peter Green. I’m kind of hopeful that the inclusion of Mike Campbell in the new line-up means they might actually return to some of those older blues tracks on the upcoming tour. It’d be a great way to spotlight Campbell’s virtuoso guitar work. Green only lasted in the band around three years before he left due to mental illness. It’s said he has schizophrenia. Later, one of the other guitarists in the band, Jeremy Spencer left to go out and get a magazine and never came back which sounds like an uncle of mine. They found out a few days later he’d joined a religious cult. You can’t make this shit up. They had to fire another guitarist, Danny Kirwan because of alcoholism. If you’re in a band with John McVie and you drink so much you get fired, you’re drinking too much. And this is a site half-named for Kentucky whiskey. Bob Welch, who’d help steer them into some small bit of mainstream popularity with songs like “Sentimental Lady” and “Hypnotized” left to pursue a solo career. Keyboardist Christine Perfect had to marry John McVie just to get into the band…

It was after all that turmoil, while the band was looking for a new producer, a new studio to record in and a new guitarist that producer Keith Olsen played them the Buckingham Nicks album. They immediately tried to hire Buckingham as their new guitarist/vocalist and he agreed on the condition they include his then girlfriend Stevie Nicks in the band. The rest, as they say, is history. The Fleetwood Mac album from 1975 was the Mac’s biggest seller to date. The follow up, 1977’s Rumours, their masterpiece, is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It was so amazing they relegated one of the best tracks, “Silver Springs” to a b-side. The chemistry of Buckingham, Nicks, John and Christine McVie, with Mick Fleetwood was undeniable, lightning-in-a-bottle. Along with the Eagles they defined the late-70s California sound.

During those heady days, the two romantic relationships in the band, the McVie’s and Buckingham/Nicks broke up. Drummer Mick Fleetwood ended up getting divorced from his wife and had an affair with Nicks. Ah, the ’70s. I’ve heard Fleetwood Mac’s music described as the recording of an orgy, but I’ve never been to an orgy and can’t really say. Surprisingly, all of that romantic turmoil didn’t break up the band. What almost broke up the band was the pressure to repeat the success of Rumours. 

Heavily influenced by what was happening in punk rock, and perhaps as a way to confound the expectations, Buckingham took control of the recording of the follow-up, the double LP Tusk. He recorded some of the tracks at home in his bathroom, he liked the echo. It was a sprawling experimental mess and I love it. It sold four million copies, which is pretty good for a double-LP, but when compared to their previous success it was considered a failure. Mick Fleetwood drove out to Buckingham’s house and said, “Well, I guess you blew it.” I know the 70’s were a crazy, druggy time, but how many bands had the brass balls to release a lead single featuring a marching band (“Tusk”). Nicks’ and Christine McVie’s songs were more traditionally “Mac-ish” but I love all the left turns Buckingham took with his songs on Tusk.

After that everybody, including Fleetwood, decamped to do solo albums. Lindsey’s first solo album, Law And Order continued the experimental side he showed on Tusk and was recorded in a matter of days. Stevie Nicks’ solo work had the most success. They finally reconvened in 1982 for the more pedestrian Mirage. That album was seen as a “play-it-safe” move for them but it was a huge success, selling three million copies (which was less than Tusk, but expectations had finally come down). After that everybody went back to their solo careers. I thought that was it for the Mac at the time. They were victims of their own success. Buckingham was particularly unhappy with Mirage, he felt they’d played it too safe. He didn’t want that to be the last statement of that incarnation of the band. He pulled everybody back together for 1987’s Tango In The Night but bailed before the tour, as mentioned above.

Fleetwood Mac petered out after that… It was’t until 1997’s live record, The Dance, that the five members from their heyday got back together. Alas, it was short-lived when Christine McVie bowed out due to an intense fear of flying. She retired to the English countryside to garden. The band continued as a foursome and released the strong, but overlooked and overly long Say You Will in 2003. Christine McVie rejoined the band in 2014 with a bag full of new songs to record but neither she or Lindsey could coax Stevie to come into the studio with them… She said being in a room for a year, arguing with these people didn’t sound like much fun. Stevie preferred to focus on her solo career. Finally, tired of waiting for her to come around, Buckingham and McVie released a new album as a duo but John McVie and Fleetwood were the rhythm section. (Reviewed here, LP Review: Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie; By Any Other Name, Still Fleetwood Mac).

And so now, this month, they’ve fired Buckingham. They got an award from MusiCares just a few months ago and he was with them. I guess that’s Fleetwood Mac for you… here today, fired tomorrow. Rumor has it they were disagreeing on the details of the new tour – Mick Fleetwood wanted to revisit some of their older stuff and some of the Buckingham Nicks tracks, versus doing a “greatest hits” tour. I’m sure the story will eventually emerge. I guess now they’re going to tour with these new guys. I’m excited to see how they utilize Mike Campbell but I’m a little thrown by the Neil Finn part of the equation. I don’t know much about Crowded House, they’re outside my musical experience. I can’t see them ever recording in this incarnation especially considering Stevie’s attitude toward recording. While I’m sad to be writing this mini-obit for this incarnation of the band, thank God it isn’t an actual obit for one of the members.

If we’ve learned anything from Fleetwood Mac’s long and tumultuous history, there’s a good chance we’ll see Buckingham patch things up with the band in a few years and return to the fold. At least I hope so…

Cheers!

 

 

 

Album Lookback: The Godfather’s ‘Birth, School, Work, Death’ – How’d I Miss This?

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“And I been high and I been low, and I don’t know where to go, birth, school, work, death…” -“Birth, School, Work, Death,” The Godfathers

The late 80s have always been a bit of a musical void for me. In 1987, much to family’s joy, I graduated from college and took employment with a multi-national corporation. When I interviewed with them in May, they agreed to hire me but they didn’t need me until September 1st… A summer off, perfect. Oh, and then they added rather quickly, you’ll be stationed in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. They told me if I wanted to go down to “check it out,” they’d pay for me to drive down and scout around. All I heard was “you’re hired” and “summer off.” I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was taking a job at one of the most remote outposts this company had. It was a disaster.

In 1301 Dante Alighieri, mostly just known, like Prince, by his first name, was exiled from his beloved Florence, Italy. Dante was never to set foot in his home town again. Florence’s politics and his exile from there is one of the major themes in his beautiful, epic poem The Divine Comedy. Now, I’m not Dante and Kansas City is no Florence but I felt as badly about living in Fort Smith, which I unaffectionately called Fort Hell, as Dante did about living in Verona. Hell, Fort Smith wasn’t even Verona… I consider those years in Arkansas to be my years in exile. It was a grueling, awful three years.

One of the worst things about that town was that they had no rock and roll radio station. They had one, maybe two (if memory serves me) pop stations. MTV still played a few music videos but the ascendence of pop music had taken over their programming as well. So my memories of that era, 1987 to 1990 are a bit tilted toward pop. Madonna, Michael Jackson (especially Michael Jackson) and gads, Paula Abdul were the only kind of music I heard on the radio. Hip Hop was starting to conquer the world but I’ve just never developed a taste for that music outside of Jay-Z or Dr Dre who wouldn’t come along until years later. I have this vague memory that there were also a lot of hair bands around – Bon Jovi’s New Jersey or Poison’s Open Up and Say Ahh… seemed to get a lot of airplay. I also have a vague memory of synthesized, mopey alternative rock like say, Morrissey or the Pet Shop Boys. I remember a lot of drum machines. Needless to say, these memories make me feel like that was a really shitty time for music. I spent a lot of time making cassettes from my vinyl to play in the car so I wouldn’t be caught having to listen to the local radio. Yes, the dreaded “mix-tapes” got me through the barren years.

Although, in retrospect, I’m not sure that’s really a fair assessment of that era, that it was all awful. I’m the first to admit the Ft Smith pop-music lens has distorted my view of things. Metallica came out with …And Justice For All in 1988, so there was good metal coming out. U2’s underrated Rattle And Hum came out that year as well. Many of the bands who would later find success in the 90s were putting out their early records in that time frame, like say Jane’s Addiction. And yet all I can seem to think about is Steve Winwood’s creative nadir Roll With It. In my defense, living out in the middle of nowhere, I just never heard the good stuff that was coming out. Even though I usually spent every weekend away from Arkansas, I still never kept current (in 1988, of 52 potential weekends I only spent 2 in Ft Smith, and 1 of those weekends I had my wisdom teeth out).

My muse, the Rock Chick, strolled into the B&V labs a couple of weeks ago and said, “I bought a new album, you’ll probably remember it…” The next thing I know, this fabulous punk anthem, “Birth, School, Work, Death” is blasting over the speakers. I wanted to throw a chair, in a good way! I was dumbfounded. I’d never heard this song. When it was over, I had to ask, “Honey, who was that and when did you get into punk music?” I’ve tried to turn her on to the Sex Pistols a few times to no avail… Lo and behold, it was a band I’d never heard of, The Godfathers. And to my greater astonishment, the album Birth, School, Work, Death had come out in 1988, over a decade after the zenith of punk rock. When I heard the album came out during my exile years, it all began to make sense to me… why I knew nothing about these guys. The more I poked around, the more I realized, I’m not sure anybody knew who these guys were.

The Godfathers were formed in London in 1985 by brothers Peter Coyne (vocals) and Chris Coyne (bass). Joining them were Mike Gibson and Kris Dollimore on guitars and George Mazur on drums. Apparently, to go with the “mobster” name, the band would dress like they were members of Al Capone’s Chicago crime gang on stage. I’ve seen the pics, they were all slicked back hair, double-breasted suits and ties. That must have been something to see on stage… That look, along with the sound of this music, must have been slightly out of place out in the real world in 1988. (How would I know, I was exiled to Arkansas).

Birth, School, Work, Death is just a kick ass album full of crunching guitars, urgent drumming and desperate singing. The lyrics are snarling and borderline nihilistic. The title track is my new anthem when I think about how my career has gone but thats another story. “If I Only Had Time,” “Obsession,” “Tell Me Why” are all great, punky, riff-y rock songs. While the songs have a punk vibe and some great guitar playing they also have big, sing-along choruses (which, yes I know, is not very punk) and hooks galore. I find myself humming these tracks to myself. I love the way “Tell Me Why” ends – the lead singer says, “I told her I love her more than myself… and that’s saying something…” followed by a ferocious guitar solo. What a great track. “Cause I Said So” captures the angry young man vibe in a quintessential manner. It’s one of the harder, rockier tracks here.

“When I Coming Down” is a harrowing, almost psychedelic song about a drug trip gone terribly wrong. When the singer breaks into a spoken word passage near the end, I almost want to call for an ambulance. It reminds me of a story I heard about some friends of mine in college who did shrooms for Thanksgiving. One of them said he just curled up in a ball, staring at his digital clock hoping the numbers would turn and it would all be over. Another just wandered around all night saying, “Phyllis knows…” Phyllis was the elderly landlady who lived in the basement flat. This song could be the soundtrack to that evening. Thank God I stick to dark, murky fluids. “The Strangest Boy” is another song that’s guitar fueled, with a psychedelic vibe, although I might be getting that feeling from the bizarre, high pitched backing vocals. It’s just another sonically nuanced track that shows these guys could do more than three-chords and a chorus.

The only hint I get this music was from the 80s is the keyboards on the mid-tempo “It’s So Hard.” It gives the track a slightly New Wave vibe. Don’t get me wrong, there are still guitars, more understated here, and it’s still a great song. The lone tune I would call a ballad also boats a New Wave feel, “Just Like You” which is a brilliant love song. “I want to spend the day with a girl who looks just like you…” I’m just stunned this album wasn’t an enormous seller back in the 80s. These guys show they can do almost anything… On “STB” they sound like the Stones doing Chuck Berry’s guitar sound… they even work in the line (from the Stones “Star Star”) “make you scream all night.” The guitar work on “STB” sounds like something Keith and Ronnie would have done on Some Girls. 

I did listen to their second album, 1989’s More Songs About Love And Hate and while it was good, it was a complete stylistic left-turn. Gone was the punk attitude and the crunching guitars. It’s not a bad album but it sort of sounds like a sophomore-slump. I just like the loud squall of the first record better. On the third album, 1991’s Unreal World they return to the sound of the debut album and I thought it was also worth a listen. After that third album, they went through a number of line up changes, break ups and reunions. I think they’re still out there touring… I hope I get a chance to see these guys. I just want to stand on a bar stool and yell, “Birth, school, work, death!” at the top of my lungs while I’m spilling beer all over myself!

I strongly recommend all you rock and rollers out there to check this one out!! It’s worth doing the musical spelunking! Cheers!

 

 

 

LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’

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“It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success…” – “The Fly,” U2

Creativity has always been a fascinating thing to me. I’ve always been impressed by artists, not just rock and roll musicians, but all great artist’s ability to tap into some unlimited font of ideas. Whether it’s Hemingway digging deep for The Old Man And The Sea later in his career or Picasso mining his sorrow in World War II to come up with La Guernica it all fills me with awe (I do love that when asked by a fascist if he painted La Guernica Picasso was witty enough to say, “No, you did.”). Ideas seem to come to the masters from all sources. Johnny Carson famously said to another comedian, “You use everything you have for a laugh.” I’ve never been blessed with that wild creative gene. Yes, your intrepid B&V blogger did spend about a year once writing a novel. It was a great experience and very cathartic and I’m proud I finished it, but it wasn’t a very compelling read. However, I really enjoyed the process of creating. If I had more time and any decent ideas, I’d try again… but to repeat, I don’t have that great of an imagination.

When I look to rock and roll, there are so many examples of bands or artists who took creative risks or at the very least, creative left turns. For the most part, I can sit and listen to a majority of the bands I like and there seems to be a linear growth in the way they created their music. Musician’s playing and writing skills evolve in a fairly similar, straightforward way. But then you look at bands like the Beatles. You could argue their development was linear, but when you realize the same band who did “I Want To Hold Your Hand” also did “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” merely four years later, it’s hard to call that growth “linear.” The Beatles developed and explored different sounds in an exponential way or perhaps it’s better described as an exploding sun, in every direction all at once. David Bowie is another example of an artist who consistently defied creative expectations and changed his sound… his theme song was “Changes,” for God’s sake. The guy went from Glam Rock (dressed as a sexually-ambiguous alien) to doing Philly Soul (with Luther Vandross on backing vocals, no less) to German ambient rock with Eno. Oddly for Bowie and the Beatles all these creative twists and turns just… worked. Wherever these ideas were coming from, they were all great. Ok maybe Bowie should have opted out of the duet with Jagger on “Dancing In The Streets.” The video still haunts me.

I have always subscribed to the “‘Great Man” theory of rock and roll, that there are certain great men or great artists who influence and shape the very genre of rock and roll. I have always considered Jack White to be one of those “greats.” White is a real dichotomy to me. On one hand, he’s an anachronism, which Webster defines as a person or thing that is chronologically out of place. His music has always been extremely rooted in the past. He is, in my mind, first and foremost a Bluesman. He ranks up there with Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Son House and Robert Johnson. His guitar playing and his whole ethos is bluesy. He also managed to embrace rock (like Hendrix) and a punk energy that singularly defined him as a “great” artist. His hobby is re-upholstering for God’s sake… who does that nowadays? I sometimes wonder if some day we’ll discover a photograph, similar to the shot of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, shot 50 years prior, of Jack White standing next Charley Patton… his pale white face framed with black hair, looking exactly the same as he does now, only in 1925.

On the other hand, opposite the anachronistic nature, is a quality in Jack White that can only be described as so futuristic that it causes me to occasionally wonder if he’s a space alien. The monochromatic, red/white theme he employed for the White Stripes was as futuristic as it was old-time. Is the upholstery hobby retro or possibly a sign he’s from another planet? For the most part in his career, White has followed  his muse more toward looking back to the blues or country for inspiration. Not so on Boarding House Reach. White’s new album is nothing short of a Martian Dance Party. He throws everything AND the kitchen sink into each song… And this leads me back to creativity. I applaud any artist’s willingness and ability to challenge himself and to take a creative left turn. The courage and the imagination should be applauded. Jack took four years off between records, to spend more time with his young children and clearly he wanted to do something grand on his return to recording. I am sad to say, it just didn’t work.

For the most part, White takes the typical structure of songs, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and throws that out the window. There are a few spoken word pieces that don’t jell at all, like “Abulia and Akrasia.” There’s a song that sounds like an angry White is screaming into a megaphone…”Everything You’ve Ever Learned” that is the most puzzling thing the man has ever done. Towards the beginning of the album there’s a trio of songs, “Corporation,” “Hypermisophonic,” and “Ice Station Zebra” where so many sounds are colliding and firing in different directions, the songs are rendered unlistenable. “Corporation” sounds like a bad demo of Prince and the New Power Generation. In “Hypermisophonic,” the chorus “when you’re robbing a bank,” keeps getting repeated until you’re ready for the cops to show up and arrest the robbers. “Ice Station Zebra” has a jazzy feel but it’s a jazz that might get played by that bar band in the cantina scene from the original Star Wars. 

“Get In The Mind Shaft” has a robotic-vocal effect that makes me wonder if Jack will release a video of himself actually dancing “the Robot.” “Esmerelda Steals the Show” is an acoustic number that turns out to be an “anti-cell phone at the show” number… It’s message was clear, it’s music was not. “Respect Commander” and “Over and Over and Over” at least have a decent guitar riff… well, at least to start off with. Both songs take weird, alien keyboard twists.

The opening track, “Connected By Love,” reviewed earlier on B&V (Review: Jack White’s Two New Songs) is probably, while different, the most accessible song here. He also does a nice country weeper, “What’s Done Is Done” towards the end. The other song I enjoyed was “Humoresque,” an odd, acoustic lullaby that closes things down. Other than those three tracks, I’m not sure I can find anything to connect with on this album. Gone are the great guitar solos or even the great guitar riffs. I like Jack on keyboards, but here he mostly employs synths and weird, computer sounding keys. There’s very little on this record that sounds organic, something I’ve always found on White’s previous work.

White decided to record this album with an all new backing band. In many cases he went to the studio musicians who’d been used by various hip-hop artists. I applaud the idea, but for whatever reason it just didn’t come together. Every time I put this album on the Rock Chick runs from the room. It’s hard to tell a genius like Jack White, hey man, you made a bad album. I rarely write anything negative, there are enough haters out there. If I don’t like an album, I just stay mum about it… I try to shed light on good things people should go check out… White is such an important artist, in my mind anyway, I felt I had to weigh in here. I followed Jack from The White Stripes to The Raconteurs to The Dead Weather to his solo work. I imagine I will continue to follow his creative forays, whatever direction they take him for as long as he keeps going. I just can’t, in good conscience, recommend this album. This is clearly a case where an artist’s creative grasp exceeded his reach… maybe I’m not smart enough, but I just don’t get it…

I think I speak for everyone when I say, sincerely… Meg White… wherever you are… Please come back!

 

HBO Documentary: The Must-See, Moving Tribute, ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’

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*Image taken from the internet and is likely copyrighted

It’s not very often that I see or hear something on a school night (or a work night as the case may be) that keeps me up this late writing about it. However, I just finished the 2nd straight night of watching the moving, in-depth documentary on HBO, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. The documentary was lovingly prepared by Shandling’s close friend and Hollywood “big shot” Judd Apatow who is not only a stand-up in his own right (I saw him skewer Bill Cosby in a fantastic routine), but also a director, producer, and writer of great renown. Apatow was not only a friend of Shandling’s but was mentored by Shandling from the time Apatow interviewed Shandling when the former was in high school. Apatow has unprecedented access to all of Shandling’s notes, diaries and archives and it makes for a compelling story.

It might seem odd that a classic rock/drinking blog like B&V would pause from it’s usual fare and take the time to discuss a comedy legend. But for us down here at B&V humor and comedians are almost as important as rock and roll. In the 70s one could argue the real rock stars were comedians. What a generation of comics… Robin Williams, Steve Martin (who I saw live at Kemper Arena, yes a stadium), David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, almost the entire original cast of SNL (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aakroyd, Bill Murray) and of course, Garry Shandling. That generation of comics took up the mantle of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and took comedy to new heights. The epicenter of all that humor was The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. What a scene that must have been.

The 2-part documentary isn’t all laughs. Shandling was a truly tortured soul. His life was really framed by the loss of his brother when he was only ten. His mother didn’t even let young Garry go to the funeral because “she didn’t want him to see her cry.” He got no closure, no chance to grieve. To describe his mother as “doting” with Garry after the loss of his brother is a polite way to describe her smothering behavior. No wonder he never married or had kids… After college at the University of Arizona, where he studied engineering, Shandling began writing. He moved to Hollywood and very quickly ended up writing episodes for Sanford and Sons and Welcome Back, Kotter. Shandling’s vision of comedy as art was too broad to be confined by the formulas necessary in sitcom television and after being hit by a car and almost dying, he made the decision to go into stand up comedy. The rest as they say is history…

His career kept gathering momentum until he finally made his first Tonight Show With Johnny Carson appearance, which was the brass ring for any comic at the time. It’s clear how much Carson thought of Shandling when you watch the clips. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it was to impress Carson. After that Shandling’s stand-up career took off. Along with Leno he was named co-guest host for Carson but eventually bowed out of the gig as he found nightly comedy too confining. By then he was already working on his own show, the groundbreaking It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He eventually also turned down replacing David Letterman when Dave moved to CBS to compete with Leno. After a five year run on his first show, Garry went on to do a second historic show, The Larry Sanders Show set backstage at a fake talk show. And since this is a rock and roll blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention I saw both Tom Petty and Warren Zevon on that show… In the documentary he’s also pictured with Ryan Adams, which surprised me. Shandling’s record collection must have been a lot like mine…

What is so special about this documentary is that it centers on Garry Shandling the man, not just the comic. Yes there are funny clips, but you see how important Zen and his spirituality was to Shandling. He saw comedy as a way to explore the truth of who he was. He brought an intelligence and thoughtfulness to his comedy that you don’t see/hear every day. The man was extraordinarily generous with his time and mentored so many people – Apatow, Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman. He truly was what Buddhism calls a bodhisattva. He held pick-up basketball games at his house every Sunday with comics and show biz types that were the stuff of legend. He was obviously beloved by his friends which surprisingly to me included David Duchovny.

That’s the fascinating thing about this documentary. Shandling was such a dichotomy of a person – at the same time, a comic/artist bent on applause and success and in parallel a spiritual searcher looking for the Zen ideal of calm, peacefulness. Those things seem so incongruous to me… Many of the shots start with hand written notes Shandling made to himself – “be yourself,” “let go,” and several other Buddhist themes run through his journaling. While he was a friend and mentor to many, he was also a mercurial artist, who had a lot of conflict in his life. Being a perfectionist is it’s own kind of torture… trust me, I married one. It’s all such an amazing portrait of a complete person struggling to make sense of life, career and love. You come away regretting not only his loss, but it’s hard not to wish you’d known the man. He was a special talent.

I loved this documentary. We should all have a friend like Judd Apatow, who does an amazing job with an obviously beloved subject. And lets be honest, I’ve never heard so many great dick jokes… Beyond that, I was moved to tears toward the end of the nearly four and a half hours. It’s really worth the time commitment. If you’re a fan of comedy or Garry Shandling, this is a must-see documentary.

Cheers!

New Single: Chris Cornell’s Haunting Johnny Cash Penned “You Never Knew My Mind”

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*Image stolen from Wikipedia and is probably copyrighted

When I was a kid, I had to share a room with my brother until we were like, ten and seven respectively. It was not, as they say, an ideal situation. Somewhere over the years I inherited a small, black-and-white, rabbit ears-antenna television set. My brother on the other hand had Santa bring him a record player. He was always quietly smarter than me.  The reason my brother had asked for a record player was that he’d discovered my father had a bunch of old 50s era singles. These were small records, no bigger than 7 inches around, known as 45s because that was the RPM (revolutions per minute, I think) of the record. These 45s had a giant hole in the center and usually to play the records you had to have a round plastic adapter that you’d put in the middle of the turn table.

My father, in his youth, had amassed a collection of several dozen of these singles. They didn’t even have the paper sleeve that 45s had “in my day,” they were just naked pieces of 7 inch vinyl stuck in a wire rack, like you’d find dishes drying in the sink. These tiny discs were a virtual “History of Rock And Roll.” My brother treated that rack of records like it was the Holy Grail or the Rosetta Stone. There were songs by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Dion, Buddy Holly (if memory serves me, and it usually doesn’t), there were even a few Beatles songs. My brother played the crap out of those old songs. When I wasn’t watching Kojak reruns in black-and-white, I would listen with him. One of my favorite artists in that stack was always the Man In Black… Johnny Cash. I can still remember hearing “Folsom Prison Blues” out of the tinny speaker on my brother’s dime store record player… that voice was haunting and almost scary for little 10 year old me.

As the years unfurled, Johnny’s career went up and down. By the mid-90s his career was pretty much in decline, he was playing supper clubs and Nashville had largely turned their backs on him. On my part, I’d completely lost track of Johnny save for fond memories of listening to him when I was a kid. Enter producer extraordinaire, Rick Rubin. In 1994 Rubin hooked up with Johnny Cash and convinced him to do an album. It was mostly stark, acoustic tracks with just Johnny’s voice and his guitar. I was dating a woman at the time, in what was a classic “on-again, off-again” relationship. Looking back I’m not sure who was torturing who there…best not analyze that one. During one of our spats, as a peace offering this generous woman showed up with Johnny’s Rick Rubin produced album, American Recordings and it knocked me out! That haunting voice from my childhood was back and rather than scare me, it was exhilarating to hear.

As an encore, Cash and Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as their studio backing-band and recorded the superb follow-up, Unchained. It might not have had the same impact as the stunning American Recordings but it was still a great record. Emboldened by the success of the first record, Cash and Rubin broadened their musical palette and recorded songs I hadn’t thought would fit Cash. For me, as a Soundgarden fan, the best track on that record was the cover of “Rusty Cage.” It’s hard to describe what it was like to hear Johnny Cash tear into a Soundgarden song for the first time. The sheer audacity of it was jaw-dropping back then. Year’s later, I made them mistake of telling the Rock Chick that Johnny’s version of the song was definitive. As a die-hard Soundgarden fan, her reaction was…explosive… Regardless of which version you prefer, Cash does a phenomenal job on that song. Not to say Soundgarden’s original isn’t equally impactful… marriage is compromise…

I remember thinking at the time, I wonder what Chris Cornell thinks about Johnny Cash singing one of his tunes. The thought faded with the years until we were a decade into the new millennium. Soundgarden had broken up, Cornell had worked solo, with up and down results and had also been part of the great Audioslave. It was around that time, say 2011, I heard that Cornell was going on a solo acoustic tour. I heard him interviewed and he talked about Cash doing “Rusty Cage” and how much he’d liked it. He said that many fans had approached him and told him that the acoustic-based version Cash did was the first time they’d actually understood the lyrics. I don’t know if that’s what gave Cornell the idea to do an acoustic tour, but I don’t think it hurt the idea. You can find the results of that tour on the great live album, Songbook. 

It appears we have come full circle. Johnny Cash over the years would jot down poetry or unrecorded lyrical ideas (if you’d rather). His son has compiled a number of those unpublished, unrecorded lyrics in a book. To commemorate that, he also recruited a number of recording artists to set those words to music. The resulting album is called Johnny Cash: Forever Words, The Music. This sort of thing is not unprecedented. There was the mini-super group The New Basement Tapes who recorded a batch of songs with unused Bob Dylan lyrics from the actual Basement Tapes era. Billy Bragg and Wilco got together and did an album of Woody Gutherie songs, Mermaid Avenue, using some old unpublished lyrics of Woody’s.

While the album, Forever Words hasn’t been released yet, there are a few tracks that have been released. It’s a real mix of artists… From Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp to Carlene Carter and Alison Krauss. There are also some newer country artists which I will avoid like the plague… Compilations are always dicey. But the artist whose name jumped out at me, and caused my earlier “full circle” remark, was the late Chris Cornell. I think this was one of the last things he recorded and I believe it marks his first posthumously released song since his untimely death (I Awoke To The Devastating News: Chris Cornell Has Passed Away, RIP). I’m still not quite over his loss… amongst others.

The song is entitled “You Never Knew My Mind,” and it is just a beautiful song. The Cash lyric is wonderful. Like Johnny doing an acoustic based “Rusty Cage,” this is an acoustic based song. It’s Cornell’s wonderful voice, acoustic guitar and some strings. Toward the end there’s some atmospheric electric guitar, quiet drums and some nice, understated backing vocals. The song builds and builds until it ends where it began with just Cornell’s voice and an acoustic guitar. The song takes me back to a word I’ve used a lot in this post… haunting. I had a person I knew, who passed away suddenly, who left me a voicemail a few days before passing. I’ve never deleted the message. It’s like holding on to a small part of that person… For some odd reason, this song reminds me of that voicemail… It’s like a hearing Chris Cornell’s voice fools me for that brief second into thinking maybe he is still here.

I don’t know how the rest of this record will be… I mean, Brad Paisley does a song… no thank you. But this song is certainly a gem worth checking out.

Enjoy!