New Single: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Solara”: The Original (3/4 of it Anyway) Line-Up’s Rocking Return

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“I’m not everyone…” – “Solara,” The Smashing Pumpkins

Thanks to my buddy Doug, I was an early adopter of the Smashing Pumpkins. He was the one who gave me their breakthrough album, Siamese Dream as a birthday gift in early ’94. Ok, the album was almost a year old, but I live in Kansas City, not Chicago. I quickly picked up Gish at the used-record store. I was also one of the throng of people who showed up at the record store the day Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness came out – it was truly the band’s magnum opus at three vinyl LP’s or 2 CD’s length.

In the ’90s, “grunge” was such an overpowering force that many bands, including the Smashing Pumpkins, got lumped into that category. That era when the Pumpkins came out was when I first began to hear the term “alternative rock.” Kansas City even got a new alternative rock radio station. You wouldn’t hear Foghat on that station, but you would hear the Seattle bands – Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and of course, Nirvana. That is also where I started to hear the Smashing Pumpkins. They were so much more influenced by classic rock – layered guitars, epic songwriting, and big drums – than many of their alt rock compatriots who were more influenced by punk, especially the grunge bands. I agree with the label alternative rock, but certainly not grunge for the Pumpkins. The Smashing Pumpkins were like the midwest, more specifically, Chicago’s answer to the Seattle music scene.

By the time ’95’s Mellon Collie came out the Smashing Pumpkins – principal songwriter Billy Corgan on vocals/guitar (and almost all other instruments), James Iha on guitar, D’Arcy Wretzky on bass and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums – were one of the biggest bands on the planet. That was the first tour I got to see them on and they were amazing. But alas, at their zenith is where the worm began to turn. It was on that tour Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin (brother of Prince’s old side kick Wendy Melvoin) both O.D’d on heroin, fatally for Melvoin. Chamberlin survived, but the rest of the band, who’d been dealing with his heroin and alcohol addiction for almost a decade made the decision to move on without him.

They followed up with the heavily electronica influenced album, Adore in ’98 as a trio with Kenny Aronoff on drums for the tour. I loved that record. The title track is the Rock Chick’s absolute favorite Pumpkins tune. For the Pumpkins next outing, MACHINA/The Machines of Gods, a now clean and sober Chamberlin was invited to return to the band. Chamberlin and Corgan were roomies when they were out on the road in the early days, and I think that bond brought them back together. However, just as suddenly as the foursome were reunited, bassist D’Arcy left the band. Rumors of crack cocaine use were circulating about her. Melissa Auf der Maur formally of Hole came in to replace her. It was after that tour the Smashing Pumpkins disbanded.

Chamberlin and Corgan worked together in the “supergroup” Zwan, but that ended up being short lived. Corgan released a solo album and I believe a book of poetry. Eventually, however, Billy put out a full page ad in the Chicago newspapers, stating he wanted to reunite the band. Unfortunately, only Chamberlin showed up for 2007’s Zeitgeist, an album best glossed over…

After releasing two very strong albums under the Smashing Pumpkins moniker (Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy) with Corgan as the only original member left, the rumors of a full on reunion began. The Smashing Pumpkins had really become Corgan and a loose collection of other musicians. The only guy who seemed to “stick” in the band was guitarist Jeff Schroeder. I think it was 2 years ago that both Chamberlin and Iha had signed-on to return and join Corgan & Schoreder. I was delighted to hear that, but I am still hugely disappointed that D’Arcy and Corgan couldn’t bury the hatchet. I loved their chemistry on stage. My friends Matthew and Stormin saw them in Denver and D’Arcy threw her bass on the floor and stormed off during the encore – you can’t buy that kinda passion. I’ll have to put her on my list of musicians left out of high profile reunions, My Proposed Supergroup: Those Band Members Left Out of Big Time Reunions.

There were rumors the 3/4 reunited Pumpkins would put out an album. Then I heard it was going to be a series of EPs… Who knows? Corgan, who I consider a genius, is a hard guy to figure out… he certainly means it when he says, “I’m not everyone…” While I was busy doing all my Dave Matthews Band research, LP Review: Dave Matthews Band, The Atmospheric ‘Come Tomorrow’, the Smashing Pumpkins – now Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and Schroeder – released a new song, “Solara.” It’s our first tangible evidence of the reunion. I guess both or either Iha and Corgan played bass.

As a fan of the harder rock end of the spectrum, I like this song. It’s quite a layered, 3-guitar attack with Corgan/Schroeder/Iha all pounding out a giant riff. Chamberlin’s drumming, as always is fierce. The song actually starts with the beat of his drum. I will say, with all those guitars in the room, I didn’t hear a discernible solo. On his last few albums, the aforementioned superb Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy, Corgan’s singing has been sweeter and almost wistful. His nasally snarl is back for this track. And while “I’m not everyone,” may not be as menacing as “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage,” it’s nice to hear Corgan’s vocals have that old bite again. As guitar driven rock continues to seemingly disappear, I gotta say, I’m glad to hear a track like this. We need more rock n roll. It’s not on the level of that classic Pumpkins stuff, like, say, “Cherub Rock,” or “Today” but it’s a damn good Pumpkins’ song.

I urge everyone to check this out. Rumor has it there’ll be a tour soon. I’m just hoping whatever they’ve been doing in the studio will see the light of day… Corgan can be… mercurial.

 

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LP Review: Dave Matthews Band, The Atmospheric ‘Come Tomorrow’

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I can’t believe it’s been almost 25 years since the Dave Matthews Band’s major label debut, Under The Table And Dreaming came out. Dylan was right folks, “time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.” That album was so mid-90s it features a harmonica solo from that awful Blues Traveler guy, John Popper. Back in ’94 I was an early fan of the DMB. I loved “Ants Marching” and “Satellite.” That album was actually gifted to me by a sociopath, er, I mean a woman I was dating at the time. The sound was different from anything I’d heard before. A jam band who actually wrote hooks. Even the lineup was odd: Dave Matthews was on acoustic guitar/vocals, Carter Beauford on drums, Stefan Lessard on the biggest bass I’d ever seen, Boyd Tinsley on violin (violin?), and taciturn LeRoi Moore on horns. Not your typical 2 guitars, bass and drums lineup. The rhythm section jumped out at me, their sound had a rich, full bottom.

By 1996 when their second album, Crash came out, we all ran to the record store to buy it the day it came out. I actually gifted that album to a different sociopath I was dating at the time. The DMB was the soundtrack to every romantic disaster I encountered in the 90s…this one was a rebound from the first sociopath…it’s a wonder I still can listen to that album. I actually got to see the DMB live on that tour with my friend Judy’s husband and her two step kids, one of whom told me I had a big, pointy nose. Lovely kid. I prefer to think of it as a Roman nose…. Anyway, seeing these guys live was mind blowing. They did their cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” and I spent months looking for that on CD. By 98’s Before These Crowded Streets DMB was on my exclusive list of favorites. And yes, by 98, I was dating someone different, a nice woman, who actually bought the album for me. “Don’t drink the water, there’s blood in the water…” That early DMB stuff was quite a 3 album run.

But then suddenly the hot streak ended. The DMB went through a mid-career crisis. They released the awful, Glen Ballard produced Everyday. It was glossy and slick and he’d removed all their rough edges. I took the Rock Chick to see that tour and she broke up with me a week later… the DMB and my romantic flame-outs continued working in tandem. (It was the last time I saw the DMB live, it’s too hard to get tickets since everybody loves these guys.) They rebounded with one of their best records, one everyone should own, Busted Stuff, most of which had been written and shelved in favor of the material that became Everyday. Matthews put out a solo album, Some Devil which was also better than Everyday, but didn’t grab me like the early albums or Busted Stuff did. When the DMB regrouped and released another clunker, Stand Up, I got off the bandwagon. I loved the first single, “American Baby” but there was little else to recommend the album. I walked away from the DMB.

It was my friend Judy, with the cruel stepson, who after seeing the DMB at the New Orleans Jazzfest, gave me their 2009 album, Big Whiskey And the GrooGrux King. It seems I rarely actually buy one of their albums. The band, never a stranger to tragedy, had been struck by the dark forces again when their horn player, the great LeRoi Moore died after an ATV accident. They replaced him with a horn section, two guys, Jeff Coffin on sax and Rashaun Ross on trumpet… Moore’s were big shoes to fill. Tim Reynolds, who had played acoustic and electric guitar on some of the early albums, and who toured as a duo with Matthews, finally formally joined the band. It was this new configuration that recorded Big Whiskey, which was a tribute to Moore. It was a fantastic album. I remember thinking at the time, they must have been inspired by their loss.

Oddly, I totally missed their next album, Away From the World. In my research on their new album, Come Tomorrow, I backtracked and spent some time with Away From the World, and I must say, it was another impressive outing. Both those albums, Big Whiskey and Away were the kind of records that caused me to start this blog. Great, later period albums in a band’s career. I would have never expected this Dave Matthews renaissance. Bands that have been around this long, who have such a huge live following, can settle in and just tour to make money. I was happy these guys still had the creative chops.

All of this leads me to the new album, Come Tomorrow. This is a dark, atmospheric little record. It reminds me, attitudinally, not sound-wise or style-wise, of Lenny Kravitz’s album Circus. There’s an undercurrent of sadness under a lot this music. That mood may be influenced by the band’s firing of longtime violinist, Boyd Tinsley under the cloud of a sexual harassment suit, bad juju indeed. All of that aside, this is a strong DMB album. It starts with a song I can only describe as hymn-like, “Samurai Cop (Oh, Joy Begin).” It’s quite an affecting tune, a cry to the heavens. That track drew me into the album almost immediately.

The emotional heart of this album for me were the two songs “Virginia In The Rain” and “Again and Again.” Those two tracks are stone-cold, classic, DMB songs. Atmospheric, brooding and catchy as hell. With a band of this skill and a songwriter as strong as Dave Matthews, there are always going to be gems like these on any album they do. There’s a lot to like here. “Can’t Stop” is a funky little number that proves Carter Beauford is an epic drummer. He never gets his due. He should be on everyone’s “best of” drummer lists.

There are two “Crash”-like ballads, “Here On Out” and my favorite, “Black & Blue Bird.” Beautiful, little, quiet ballads. The album also ends on a ballad, an almost sad, “When I’m Weary,” a piano driven track that oddly calls to my mind Simon and Garfunkel for no rational reason I can explain. The DMB can go from those quiet ballads to an almost metal-ish track like “She,” where Tim Reynolds gets to show off his chops. That song almost sounds like Green Day. These guys can do so much. “Idea of You” has a horn section that the E Street Band of the 70s would envy. “Come On Come On” is a beautiful wash of acoustic guitar, that calls to mind a flowing river, that allows the vocals to just flow over you. There are the typical Matthews’ excesses, like the track “That Girl Is You” where Dave’s high pitched vocals sound almost unhinged.

I would recommend this album, along with Big Whiskey and Away From the World. Come Tomorrow is a strong continuation of a great creative period for the DMB, outdone only by their first three albums. And luckily, when the DMB releases an album these days, as a married guy, there’s no relationship drama anymore, thank God… I am surprised that I’m not hearing more about this album in the mainstream rock press. When an important band puts out an album, it’s a big fucking deal…. It’s taking them longer to get these gems out, it’d been 6 years since the last release, so cherish this one folks. I’d like to say I’m going to see these guys live, but the Rock Chick doesn’t dig the “jam band” ethos… which is a little like saying you don’t want to see Springsteen because you don’t like car songs…marriage is compromise…

Cheers!

 

Album Lookback: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ June 4, 1984

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There aren’t many exact dates in my life where I can tell you where I was. Hell, I’m not sure where I was last Tuesday, let alone a random day in the 80s. When I was a kid I can remember my mom telling me she could remember where she was the day John Kennedy was shot… for the record, she was pregnant with me, ironing in her living room and watching ‘Days Of Our Lives’ when the network broke in to announce the sad news. I don’t have any of those momentous geopolitical days in my life where I remember where I was… I do vaguely remember I got up late and came downstairs to find that the Challenger had exploded…but I don’t remember much other than that. All that said, I know exactly where I was on June 4th, 1984.

It was summer time and I was home on break from college. In the summer, us folks who grew up in “olden times” had to find a summer job. I did a lot of different jobs, from temp work to bus boy to light construction. The summer of ’84 was a happier summer for me than the summer of ’83. In ’83 I’d gone through an embarrassing breakup and spent the summer as a man of leisure or more appropriately a man about town…the ladies of Kansas City were helping me grieve, with my eternal gratitude. By ’84 I was well past all that heartbreak and was desperately in need of money to fuel my beer and vinyl habits. My oldest and dearest friend Doug had a line on work… his father owned a small company that installed scoreboards and more importantly, built tennis courts. I was hired to help on the tennis court construction. Utterly difficult, filthy work in the hot sun, but it was an honest day’s work, unlike what I do now, and at the end of the day you didn’t really worry about the job, again unlike what I do now… Like the Cure, I submitted my unanswered prayers for rain every day… Every night after work I had to soak in hot tub to get all the grainy, hardened tennis court surface to slowly melt from the hair on my legs… it was that or pull out all of the hair on my leg with the tennis court goop. I’m a guy so I found that too painful… hats off to you ladies who pluck, shave and otherwise eradicate hair… but I digress. I was, in all senses of the word, a working stiff.

But on Monday, June 4th in 1984, and I don’t recall why, we weren’t out on a job. For some reason our foreman, I’ll call him Norman, had us working in the warehouse yard. We were moving large 55 gallon barrels of sludge around so they looked to be in some semblance of order. For some reason Norman put me in the giant one-ton truck and had me go pick up sand at a local quarry. I was instructed to hurry back and then he’d let me go to lunch. I can remember being in the cab of the one-ton, driving down Pflumm, headed back to the warehouse when the DJ on our local radio station, KY102 came on and said, “We just got the new Springsteen album and we’re going to put it on now…” This was huge to me… I’d been anticipating this record for weeks, since the single “Dancing In The Dark” had come out… I knew somewhere in Wichita, my college roomie Drew was equally anticipating this moment. When the first song “Born In The USA” came over the tinny speakers in that truck I got goose bumps and tears welled up in my eyes. The anguished cries of a Vietnam vet, who never turned his back on his country, although it seemed his country had turned its back on him, was one of those, music-hits-my-lower-brain-stem moments that bring me back to the turntable. After work, as filthy as I was, I drove straight to the nearest record store and bought the album. It was a big day.

The album by the same name, Born In The U.S.A was Springsteen’s biggest selling album. It’s the record where everything changed. The album spun off at least 7 singles, and sold a kajillion copies. This was where those of us who were in the relatively small (especially in Kansas) clique of people who liked Springsteen had to share him with the rest of the world. This album was Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau’s greatest dream. Making Springsteen a name that was uttered along with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Me, I liked Springsteen already, this was just gravy. Springsteen managed to merge a modern sound, complete with synths, into his core sound seamlessly, a thing a lot of 70s acts had struggled with. Many believe that’s why the album was as popular as it was. Naturally I have a different theory. To understand why this album was so popular, you have to step back and look at Springsteen’s career up to that point.

When Springsteen released Born To Run he was christened the new Dylan, the savior or the “future of rock and roll.” He was on the cover of both ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’ the same week. The hype was almost too much. But then he ended up in a legal battle with his manager Mike Appel that drug on and on. He toured incessantly through 1976 and 1977 on tours dubbed “The Chicken Scratch Tour” and “The Paying the Rent Tour.” One has to wonder why there wasn’t a “Paying the Legal Fees” tour but I wasn’t there to consult with. Finally Springsteen made what was considered a come back in 1978 with Darkness On The Edge of Town an album that had harnessed his anger and frustration about his legal battles with the energy and feel of punk rock to great success. It had very little to do sonically with Born To Run, but it succeeded.

In order to publicize his return in 78, Springsteen allowed several radio stations in LA, NY, San Fran, and elsewhere to broadcast his concerts over the radio. These concerts were widely bootlegged and helped build Springsteen’s legend as a live act. Springsteen returned relatively quickly in 1980 with a double album, The River, which while uneven, to me was always the rightful successor of Born To Run. With all the hype of the bootlegged 78 concerts, they say that more people slept out for tickets on The River tour than actually saw him in 78. My friend Brewster was apparently on the bandwagon and bought 2 tickets but never asked me to go… It’s my belief that Shakespearean betrayal  is what caused his family to move to Houston, in shame. It was the only honorable thing to do short of cutting off a finger. By the time The River tour concluded Springsteen was huge… he was on the cusp of superstardom. So what’s he do… he releases, in 1982, the spartan, demo-sounding, acoustic record Nebraska. There might be more dour, depressing music out there, but one would have to go to some hippy coffee shop to find it. It was a shock. I get it, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not an album you put on at a party.

If you take Nebraska out of the equation, it was actually a full 4 years between studio albums for Springsteen, much like the lapse between Born To Run and Darkness. The reason Born In The U.S.A. was such a smash, was the simplest reason – pent up demand. Yes, it’s a kick ass album, but the guy had been away for four-fucking years. That was an eternity back then. Especially for guys my age, who were too young to see the Darkness tour, we just had to settle for the bootlegs. Some of us had sadly missed The River tour – thanks Brewster. We were dying for new music from the Boss… we were dying to actually see this myth, this legend in concert. Which, we all did on this tour, I might add.

The album itself is amazing. Although I will admit I’ve always had a problem with the sequencing. The title track, which starts the record, is one of the greatest things Bruce has ever recorded. Max Weinberg’s drumming is monumental. He keeps the whole thing together. That leads us into another single, the great “Cover Me.” The next two songs, however, “Darlington County” and “Working On The Highway” both tell the same story. Both are about a guy working construction who gets busted for messing with underage girls. Although “Working On the Highway” was a great rockabilly song vs “Darlington County”‘s anthemic approach. The first ballad, and the second best song on the album, “Down Bound Train” also ends with the protagonist in jail. The 80s were a dark time… But again, the next song, which concluded side one is another ballad, ‘I’m On Fire.” Spread it out Bruce….

Side two starts with two songs about Little Steven. The recording of Born In The U.S.A. was fraught with it’s own Shakespearean drama… Springsteen’s side kick, Little Steven who always advocated for the music was pitted against, Iago, er I mean Landau who was advocating for a big, commercial record. Eventually Little Steven split for a solo career. Springsteen obviously wrote “No Surrender” and the next track, “Bobby Jean” about his dearest friend, Little Steven, who had left the band. The rest of the side 2, is a little better sequenced, finally ending on the beautiful ballad “My Hometown.”

Born In The U.S.A ended up being the titanic album that Landau and, it would appear, Springsteen wanted. The enormous fame and attention dwarfed anything Springsteen had experienced before… one might argue the success changed the trajectory of his career… but for this working stiff, on a hot June Monday, it was a game changer, so much so, I know where I was that day. It really is one of the greatest albums of all time.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Inspiration, Kindred Spirit, Chef, Writer, TV Star, Anthony Bourdain, Dead At 61

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*Images taken from the internet and likely subject to copyright

I woke up groggy this morning… I’d been on the road all week. Traveling for work isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. I was trying to figure out what I was going to put on. I was in the closet, half-asleep and confused (which could be the title of my autobiography) when the Rock Chick tearfully burst through the closet door… “Anthony Bourdain has committed suicide.” Tragedy has struck again, darkness scores another triumph. “Ah, fuck…” was my anguished first response. My friend Al texted shortly after, “Horrible to hear about Anthony Bourdain. Sorry.” Al knows what a fan of Bourdain’s I am…

This blog is about the joys of sipping bourbon while listening to rock and roll music so it may seem odd that I’m posting about the loss of Anthony Bourdain. But, as with all blogs, it’s first and foremost a writing enterprise. I have so much love and respect for Anthony as a writer. I don’t tell many people this, I have occasionally mentioned it in these pages, I once wrote a novel. It wasn’t a very good one, but it was cathartic. I don’t know if I’d ever have even tried to write anything if it weren’t for Bourdain.

I first became aware of Bourdain the way most people did, through his TV show. I never saw his FoodNetwork show, but I did see his work on the Travel Channel on No Reservations. His ability to travel to far flung places and weave a story around the food and the culture that produced it were fascinating. He was a bad boy on the road, drinking and eating in small huts. He even went to places outside the American wheel-house like Iran and Vietnam. He seemed to particularly love Vietnam. Later he left FoodNetwork and joined the CNN team with a show called Parts Unknown. I always thought it made sense that he’d be on CNN – his show was about so much more than just food or travel. He gave us glimpses of the world we might not have otherwise seen. He made the world seem smaller and closer knit through his cultural and culinary observations.

Somewhere along the line, years ago, I finally sought out Bourdain’s first book, the one that made him famous, Kitchen Confidential. His wide eyed, utterly honest portrait of the restaurant industry was not only a big hit, it was a great read. All of us at some point, at least in our youth, have worked in a restaurant. At least we used to… I was a bus boy a life time ago. I always thought it was one big rolling, insane party behind the scenes. Bourdain’s book confirmed that for me. I saw him interviewed one time and while speaking about writing the book he said, when he woke up, he’d light a cigarette and before he’d finished his coffee he’d managed to bang out 8 to 10 pages. The writing, the wonderful use of language just came naturally to him. He was also wickedly funny. He had an ability to weave cultural references together with an ease that must turn Dennis Miller green with envy.

One could look at Bourdain’s career as a Chef as less than spectacular, until he cleaned up from his heroin addiction and took over Les Halles in New York. Yet, he was still able to sit down and write a book that made him more famous than many of the Chefs he admired and eventually did shows about. There’s something about that – the ne’er do well whose talent finally burst through in a late blooming moment – that just appealed to me. I loved that this rebel made good in the end. He will forever be intertwined in my mind with the city of New York, like the Empire State Building or Lou Reed… he’s just a part of that city for me.

And since this is a rock and roll blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Anthony had kick ass taste in rock and roll. He wore his love of punk rock on his sleeve. His show with Iggy Pop, who it was clear he idolized, was one of his best. Even his theme song for No Reservations was all big guitar cords. I followed Bourdain on Insta-gram and whenever he posted a video, usually a panorama of where he was, it was always highlighted with some rock and roll playing in the background.

Sadly, last night in a Paris hotel room it appears Anthony Bourdain took his own life. His dear friend, Eric Ripert is said to have found him. I’m sad for both of them. I’m sad that the darkness closed over Bourdain and took him from us, at the young age of 61. I’m also sad that his good friend was the one who found him. I can’t fathom what that must feel like. I’ve had my own brushes with the dark side. I’m glad I was able to push through them to find the Rock Chick, my stepdaughter and a world of joy waiting on the other side.

For those of you out there in pain, reach out to someone. There’s help to be had. For Anthony Bourdain’s friends and loved-ones, my heart goes out to you. RIP Anthony Bourdain. You will be missed, sir. You certainly enriched my life.

It’s a dark ride folks, take care of each other out there.

 

Artist Lookback: Crosby, Stills, Or Nash – The Essential Solo and Duo Albums

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Crosby, Stills & Nash coming together in 1968 were arguably one of the first “super groups” ever formed. David Crosby had recently been fired from the Byrds by Roger McGuinn for submitting the song “Triad” about a threesome…scandalous! The song was later recorded and released by the Jefferson Airplane…scandalous! These days every other song is about a threesome, and why not, it’s like “discovering plutonium.” Stephen Stills had just recently emerged from the second and this time final break up of the Buffalo Springfield. They were at a party at the house of Mama Cass (aka Cass Elliott) of the Mamas and the Papas, of all people, when they started singing together. Graham Nash, late of the English band, the Hollies, happened to be at the party and when he joined in, they realized they were onto something. Their debut eponymously titled album was a smash hit. The harmonies and topical lyrics made them one of the world’s top and most important bands. These guys’ second concert was Woodstock. Pretty amazing start.

By the time that Woodstock concert came around, mercurial genius Neil Young had joined the band at the suggestion of Atlantic Records’ head Ahmet Ertegun. He liked the chemistry that Stills and Young had together. As an aside, one of my wife’s friends moved in with us, a lovely young lady who used to babysit our daughter. She was like another daughter to my wife and I and she’d had a bad roommate experience. I was having a bad roommate experience myself at the time… my stepdaughter despised me. I was considered the Evil Stepdad (Humor: Bob Marley’s “Legend” and the Confessions of the Evil Stepdad). I remember saying to Penny, the young lady in question, “This is going to be good, it’ll change the chemistry of the household like when Neil Young joined Crosby, Stills, Nash… they were just a different band.” She stared at me questioningly and I could tell she was wondering…who are you talking about… it’s hard to be confined to rock and roll metaphors in real life… but I digress. Anyway, Ertegun thought Neil Young’s joining, after CSN had had their smash hit debut album, would supercharge the results of the band. He thought the guitar pyrotechnics of Young and Stills would bring a harder rocking result… Neil Young showed up with the mellowest song of all time, “Helpless.” Oh well, Ahmet, you tried.

After that the CSNY combination of the band tended to overshadow the CSN era of the band. The chemistry was indeed changed. Unfortunately the magic that had made the combination one of the biggest acts of the late 60s and early 70s began to fray pretty quickly. By ’71 each member had a solo record out. Neil was already a solo act when he joined and he made no secret he was going to continue that career. It was really after CSNY’s album Deja Vu that Young’s career really took off. He recorded two smash solo albums, After The Gold Rush and of course, Harvest both of which featured cameos from Crosby and Nash to sing harmonies. Suddenly Neil was a superstar, which is great, but it sort of overshadowed the other guys.

I thought it important to look back at Crosby, Stills and Nash as solo artists and the work they did without Neil Young. I’ve written enough about Neil, it occurred to me to look at his erstwhile band mates. Crosby, Stills and Nash carried that same mix of topical songs and personal songs into their solo work and they made some pretty great music that may  be overlooked. Not only did they record as solo artists, there were “subsets” of the quartet that got together as duo acts and the results in those cases were also pretty amazing. Together or separately these guys sort of dominated the years 1971 to 1975. And while this post isn’t about Neil Young, he’ll certainly make a few cameos. Here are my thoughts on the essential solo and duo albums.

Stephen Stills

Stills is an interesting case. I think he’s a super talented singer and guitarist but he’s never seemed to have the respect of his once and future friend Neil Young. Critics have always seemed to despise him. I once read Keith Richards kicked him out of his hotel suite in Denver because Stills wouldn’t share his coke. Lesson learned, don’t bogart your drugs when Keef is around. I can’t help but think that Stills, despite being very talented, might be an asshole. I don’t know why I have that impression but I do. He was pals with Jimi Hendrix and for whatever reason he feels compelled to put in his liner notes every now and then, “Guitar solo inspired by James Marshall Hendrix.” Yeah, we know, you were friends with Jimi, just call him Jimi. All that said, Stills has done some amazing work…

  1. Super Sessions, (Al Kooper, Michael Bloomfield, Stephen Stills) – It’s easy to forget about Stills’ contribution to this classic record. Contrary to the title, Bloomfield and Stills never played together. Each one appears on a different side with Kooper being the consistent player on both sides. Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper had played together on some of Dylan’s early electric works (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited) and in 1968, Kooper booked some studio time for he and Bloomfield to jam. They spend the first day jamming on what would become side one of the album. Bloomfield’s blues played with a jazz approach was so monumental it was years before I turned the record over. I had always read that on the second day, Kooper found a note from Bloomfield that read, “I could’t sleep, I’m going home,” and with that Mike was gone. With a day of studio time remaining, Kooper called Stills, fresh from the Buffalo Springfield’s split who came in and helped record side 2 of the record. Stills’ guitar on side 2 is so different from Bloomfield’s side as to be somewhat jarring. But that doesn’t mean it was bad – Stills guitar on “Season of the Witch” and Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry” are pretty epic as well. This is just one of the great blues/rock albums of all time.
  2. Stephen Stills – Stills’ first proper solo album is probably his greatest solo achievement. Stills played so many instruments on the Crosby, Stills, Nash debut album Nash nicknamed him “Captain Many Hands.” He certainly lives up to that here. He plays almost every instrument. Well, except lead electric guitar – he farmed that out to no less than Eric Clapton on the bluesy jam “Go Back Home” and James Marshall, er I mean Jimi Hendrix on “Old Times Good Times.” It was the last music Jimi recorded before his death. Those two tracks are worth the price of admission but you’ll also find Stills’ biggest solo track, “Love The One Your With” here. The album is jammy and in some cases I almost get a gospel vibe, like “Church (Part of Someone)” or “Do Unto Others.” On the acoustic blues song “Black Queen” about a car, Stills plucks the strings so hard the notes feel like they could cut you.
  3. Manassas (Manassas) – Manassas was actually Stills’ second “supergroup.” Formed with former Byrd Chris Hillman (vocals/guitar), Al Perkins (pedal steel), Paul Harris (keyboards), Dallas Taylor (drums), Fuzzy Samuels (bass), and Joe Lala (percussion) it was a short lived but productive affair. The debut eponymous LP is a sprawling masterpiece. It’s really Stills’ White Album. Stills wrote a majority of the songs. These guys do everything – folk, country, rock and roll, latin, blues. The four sides of the original vinyl double album were said to be organized stylistically. “Song of Love” is just a great rock song that starts the set off. By the time you’ve gotten to “Blues Man” you’ve just traversed a travelogue of American music with a dash of Latin music to boot. The hit song “Johnny’s Garden” is here as well. This is a must have.

Graham Nash

Graham Nash, to me has always been better as part of an ensemble. His beautiful voice was made for harmony and backing vocals. I always considered his songs in CSN or CSNY to be a bit saccharine. “Our House” and “Teach Your Children” are probably his best known song within the group. That said, I love his 1971 debut album…

  1. Songs For Beginners – Nash had just ended his longterm relationship with Joni Mitchell, who had inspired “Our House.” I don’t know if it’s the break up but Nash just sounds tougher on this album. While this is his break up record, it’s not sad, the tone is defiant and hopeful. He’s also topical, on songs like “Military Madness,” (still sadly relevant today) and “Chicago/We Can Change The World” (his reflections on the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago). While Nash could be characterized as my least favorite of the CSN family, this may be my favorite album on this list.

David Crosby

Crosby is, for me, the original hippy. This guy’s music is spacey and philosophical all at the same time. He’s always concerned with big questions. He also seems like that friend we all have – always the most fucked up guy at the party. Actually he might by the guy who was so fucked up he missed the party. Although you have to admit his subsequent recovery and career come back are nothing short of inspiring. And you simply can’t argue with that voice, he’s a beautiful singer. He also plays a nice guitar and he’s fabulous on Twitter.

  1. If I Could Only Remember My Name – Uh, it’s David or Dave or Mr. Crosby if you’re into that formal thing… Don’t let the weird title scare you away here. This is a great, albeit ramshackle record. There are a number of songs with wordless singing, merely Crosby’s voice as an additional instrument. Even songs that seem like sketches like, “Music Is Love” work here. The emotional center of this record is the epic “Cowboy Movie” that features Jerry Garcia and Neil Young on guitar.
  2. Sky Trails – This is the only record you’ll find here from this millennium. Actually it was recorded last year and it’s the type of record B&V was founded for. I reviewed this record, LP Review: David Crosby, The Beautiful ‘Sky Trails’ so I won’t go into too much detail here. Crosby has been on a late career renaissance and this record and the prior Lighthouse are both worth checking out. His old hippy, protest spirit is alive and well.

Crosby, Nash

In the early 70s, unable to convene the entire foursome of CSNY, Crosby and Nash who were arguably the closest friends in the band decided to unite and record a duo album. These guy’s chemistry is amazing. Crosby makes Nash tougher and Nash makes Crosby more focused. They work together as well as Lennon and McCartney. They went on to record a couple of albums that everyone should own.

  1. David Crosby Graham Nash – This album probably competes with Nash’s Songs For Beginners as my favorite on the list. “Southbound Train” is a rocking song that opens the set and I can’t figure out why it wasn’t a hit. I actually lean toward the Nash songs here but Crosby’s “Whole Cloth” is a stand out track.
  2. Wind On The Water – Recorded after the financially disastrous CSNY 1974 tour, these guys proved the winning formula was still in place. There is so much to like here. “Carry Me” the opening track penned by Crosby was the first single and it’s a great track, one of Crosby’s best. “Mama Lion” was Nash writing about Joni Mitchell who it appears remains his muse. “Take the Money And Run” is a swipe at all the promoters, drug dealers and manager types who profited greatly from the ’74 tour while the band took home a minor share.

The Stills-Young Band

As I mentioned when I started this post, I want to focus on the Crosby-Stills-Nash part of CSNY but Young was going to make a few cameos. Since Crosby and Nash had been so successful, the other half of the band, with the two former Buffalo Springfield members decided to give it a go…

  1. Long May You Run – Like Ahmet Ertegun once thought, I always assumed with Young and Stills in a band together it’d really rock. There’d be guitar duals and endless solos. That is not the case here. Critics didn’t really love this record, but I do. However, I’ll be the first to admit, these guys mellow each other out. Although in their defense, this laid back, Buffet-esque album was recorded in Miami. How could drinking rum, smoking pot and sitting in the sun not mellow you out. I’d be willing to bet they recorded the slightly more upbeat side 2 songs first, and then slid into a Miami mellow vibe that is side 1. I should have included this on my Summer Albums list (Memorial Day Kicks Off Summer: Go-To Summer LPs (Beach Boys Need Not Apply)). The title track is the only classic here but there’s a lot like, Young’s “Midnight On The Bay” and “Let It Shine” are nice mellow songs. Stills’ “12/8 Blues (All The Same)” and “Guardian Angel” about scuba diving are good if not great tracks. Put this on by the pool and tell me it’s not a strong record… you might pour some rum too, that always helps.

Sample as many of these as you can. I think you’ll find a lot of treasure buried in these hills, as the saying goes. Enjoy and as always, Cheers!