Guns N’ Roses: New Song (To Me, At Least) From The Vaults – “Shadow Of Your Love”

Appetite For Destruction (Super Deluxe)

The messages started popping up on GNR related social media a week or so ago….”Destruction Is Coming.” I was assuming they were going to announce a plan to play Appetite For Destruction in it’s entirety on the seemingly endless (partial) reunion tour, reviewed previously on B&V (Concert Review: Guns n Roses, Kansas City, 29Jun16: The Power & The Glory). Secretly I was hoping it was an announcement that the original lineup of the band, who recorded Appetite, was reuniting – they were bringing back Izzy Stradlin on rhythm guitar and Steven Adler on drums. It turns out neither of my guesses was right. Instead, GNR are releasing a “Super Deluxe” edition of the album (as well as a skinny-ed down “Deluxe” version). So much for my prognostication skills.

It’s easy to forget, with the dissolution of the original band, the long lapses between albums, and the whole Chinese Democracy thing, that GNR were one of the greatest, most powerful bands of all time. When we speak of Appetite For Destruction we’re talking about the “Crown Jewels” of rock and roll. It’s the best selling debut album of any band, ever. It’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded in the medium of rock and roll, hard rock, or heavy metal. In plain words, it’s a fucking tour de force masterpiece. The chemistry of that original line up was lightning in a bottle. Steven Adler’s drumming had so much swing and elasticity it gave the music a dirty groove. Slash and Izzy Stradlin on lead and rhythm guitar rivals that of the Mick Taylor/Keith Richards era of the Stones. Duff McKagan brought the punk attitude and bottom end with his bass playing. And then there’s Axl Rose… how does one describe the power of those amazing vocals. Axl’s unique vocal style brought an unhinged vibe to this music that made it nothing short of breath taking.

The sound of GNR on that first album was dark, menacing and yes, dangerous. In the 80’s, there were a ton of hard rock/heavy metal hair bands who sang about chicks and partying and having a good time. While the themes of Guns N’ Roses’ music were similar, it never seemed like anybody was having that good of a time. It was the music of what happens when the party jumps the rails. It was harrowing shit, but yet enjoyable none the less. It was the most visceral music I’d heard up to that time. They combined the bombast of heavy metal, the attitude (and short song structure) of punk, the bloozey vibe of early Aerosmith and the swagger of a much more seasoned band. That’s a helluva lot to put into a debut album. The songs were about urban menace, “Welcome To the Jungle”; drinking or perhaps better said, alcoholism, “Nightrain”; and heroin, “Mr. Brownstone.” Holy shit was this stuff ground breaking in the late 80s. Tellingly, Guns N’ Roses were one of the few 80s hard rock bands to survive the Grunge takeover… They were just that great. Grunge couldn’t kill GNR, only Axl Rose could do that…

When Guns N’ Roses debut album came out in the summer of 1987, I was living in Boston working at the world famous Food Center Liquor Store. I didn’t hear a lot of music sitting in the back of the liquor store where my job was to refill the beer cooler and take the 5-cent per can deposit returns and sort them by brewer. Filthy work with dirty beer cans. After Boston, I went immediately into exile in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the town that rock and roll forgot. In the Fall of 87 and the spring of 88, I was completely cut off from most new music. My only source of new music, other than reading Rolling Stone magazine, was MTV… who actually still played videos in those days. I don’t know if I miss sitting and vegging-out in front of hours of endless videos or I’m better off because that doesn’t happen any more… I’ll let history be the judge.

Getting my music knowledge from MTV was a bit of a curse. I literally saw the band before I heard the music. I watched the video of “Welcome to the Jungle” and Axl had his hair blown up in that 80s-rock star way and it made me think they were just another cut/paste 80s metal band. I didn’t pay any attention to that landmark tune, which tells you how much background noise was going on in my life. Then I saw the video for “Sweet Child of Mine” and thought, nice riff, it’s an ok ballad, cool guitar player in the top hat… Back then ballads rarely pierced my consciousness. Finally, laying on the couch one day, probably nursing a hangover, I had my arm across my eyes, and the video for “Paradise City” came on. Instead of looking, I just listened… and I liked what I heard. I peaked out from under my arm to see that it was GNR. Axl didn’t have his hair all teased up… and these guys rawked! It was in that moment, Guns N’ Roses finally clicked for me. I went out and bought Appetite on cassette… I was dating a virtuous woman in Shreveport and I needed something dangerous to listen to on the five hour drive. I can’t hear “Think About You” and not think of Shreveport… I’ve been a life-long Guns N’ Roses fan ever since.

Now, all these years later, GNR are revisiting Appetite For Destruction with these “Super Deluxe”/”Deluxe” versions. It looks like the “Super Deluxe” version breaks out like this: Disc 1, the original album, remastered; Disc 2 is described as “B-sides and EPs” but its basically the EP GNR Lies, which had a faux live side, (originally released as Live Like a Suicide) coupled with an acoustic side. Luckily they omit the offensive “One In A Million,” and hopefully that tune is confined to the history of bad decisions; Disc 3 looks like an early version of Appetite recorded in 86 at Sound City; and finally, Disc 4 looks like a grab bag of Demo’s and leftovers.

As part of all of this, GNR released a single, entitled “Shadow Of Your Love.” Apparently a few versions of this song have been released as B-sides. I had never heard it before and so immediately snatched it up. I’m not sure I’m down for the whole box set, but I love this track. It’s just so great to hear something from this era of the band, it hits you immediately. It’s a fast and hard tune. Axl sounds awesome. At different points he’s singing and others it feels like he’s screaming at you… ah, that good old school Axl.  The guitar work is fast and stellar. Slash’s soloing is as melodic as ever. You’re not going to find an unearthed “Paradise City” in a box set like this, nobody is going to leave a stone-cold-classic in the can for thirty years, but this is a great compliment to the Appetite LP. And let’s face it, it doesn’t look like any new music is going to come out of GNR. I heard rumors that Axl is working Angus Young on an AC/DC album, but that’s a different post.

I don’t know if there’ll be enough interesting music to get me to buy the entire box set, but this nice little blast from the past was enough to make me curious enough to at least check it out.

Rawk on!

 

 

Advertisements

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’

MI0004412743

Heart of Gold – This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” – Neil Young, from the liner notes of his superb greatest hits LP, Decade.

I’d like to tell you that I was born with a fully formed musical identity. Sadly, that’s not true. Everybody’s taste in music changes and evolves, especially if you’re a music spelunker like us here at B&V. I remember reading a long time ago that whatever you’re listening to in junior high school/high school is likely the music you’ll listen to the rest of your life. Thank God some kick ass music came out in the 70s/early 80s. For me, a lot of my musical gestation took place in college. I was lucky my freshman year to meet one of my future roommates, Drew. Drew helped shape my musical tastes as much as anybody I can think of, give credit to or perhaps better said, blame.

I was a basic Stones/Springsteen fan and Drew was a Who/Billy Joel fan. Clearly we each had something to teach each other. The countless hours we spent together in our college town’s lone record store are amongst some of my most cherished memories from that time. I learned a hell of a lot from Drew back then. There was also a girlfriend in there who was a lot of fun who I learned a lot from too, but I’m married now and those records are sealed. One of the key artists that Drew turned me onto, that he knew extensively but was a blindspot for me was Neil Young. I don’t know why I’d never listened to Neil. “Heart of Gold” was about the only tune I knew and I thought it was ok. I thought of him as being like the Eagles, sort of country rock… little did I know. I hope I wasn’t one of those “I don’t like his vocals” people. I already loved Bob Dylan by that time, so I don’t think that was it. Young doesn’t sing like Steve Perry, but the emotion and passion he puts into his vocals are incredibly moving. His songwriting can be dream-like, bizarre, spot-on and deeply affecting all at the same time.

By the time Drew turned me onto Neil Young, Neil had so much music out there, I thought I’d never catch up. I didn’t have that kind of bankroll. So I did what I often did as a poor student, I bought his greatest hits album, Decade. Decade was a bit of a landmark “greatest hits” package. It was a full three albums long, which was a hefty price tag. I used to blanch at the thought of buying double albums, let alone triple albums. It also encapsulated Neil’s entire career from 1966 to 1976 (hence, the name) – there were tracks from the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, solo and a track from the Stills/Young Band. There were hits but there were also deep cuts and a few songs he’d never released before. I suspect it may have been the model that Bob Dylan’s box set Biograph  was built on. It was truly a superb package and a great place to start your Neil Young collection. Although Neil’s Archive, Vol 1 box set probably supersedes it now. In the liner notes, quoted above, Neil mentioned taking his career “into the ditch” where he met “more interesting people.” And with that one line, hand written in the liner notes of a greatest hits package, Neil was able to actually provide a name to a trio of albums that make up the period of his career from 1973 to 1974 that have henceforth been known as, The Ditch Trilogy.

The Ditch Trilogy consists of three of my all time favorite Neil Young albums: Time Fades Away (1973), On The Beach (1974) and Tonight’s The Night (1975). Tonight’s the Night was actually recorded after Time Fades Away and before On The Beach but the record company sat on the record for two years. They didn’t want to release it because they thought it was too bleak. Neil has cited Time Fades Away as his least favorite record and for years it was out of print. I couldn’t find it anywhere… the only person I knew who owned it was, yes… wait for it… my old roommate Drew. Finally it was released last year (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Now that I’ve heard all three of the Ditch Trilogy albums, its my opinion, if you’re going to spend an afternoon listening to all three with a nice sour mash – and everybody should – you should listen to the records in the order they were recorded vs the order they were released (i.e, Time Fades, Tonight’s The Night, Beach). The albums make more sense that way.

To truly understand the Ditch Trilogy, one needs to look at Neil’s career up to that point to give it some context. 1970 was a huge year for Neil Young. He’d joined CSNY and they released Deja Vu. In the same year Neil had released the album that made him a star, After the Gold Rush. The CSNY momentum continued with the amazing live album, 4-Way Street (1971). I can still remember walking through the living room at my college place and hearing Drew listening to 4-Way Street… the music at that place was always kick ass thanks to Drew, but I digress. By 1972 there was a lot of pent-up demand for another Neil solo record. He delivered the biggest selling album of 1972, his masterpiece, Harvest. Suddenly Young was a superstar and he did not handle it well but who does? (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame) The hit song “Heart of Gold” was enormous. It was so big it pissed Bob Dylan off… he thought it was actually one of his songs when he first heard it. He thought he’d been ripped off… Supposedly his response was “Forever Young” a hidden jab at Neil. Who knows if that’s true or not…

To support Harvest, Young convened a group of session musicians in New York to prep for a tour. The pressure on Young was immense. The musicians all demanded $100,000 each for the tour, an unheard of sum back then, which supremely pissed Young off. He was touring on the pastoral, mellow grooves of Harvest with an openly hostile relationship with his backing band. To help balance things, he invited his friend from Crazy Horse, guitarist Danny Whitten to join the tour as rhythm guitarist. Unfortunately Whitten’s substance abuse problems, booze and heroin got in the way. Neil was quoted as saying, “he just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember any of the songs.” So Neil did what he had to do, the show must go on. He fired Whitten. I had always heard he’d given Whitten $50 and a plane ticket back to L.A. and that Whitten had OD’d on $50 worth of heroin. Actually, he’d mixed booze and valium into a lethal combo. Literally, this happened the night after Neil Young had fired him. Now added to the pressure of having the biggest record in the world and a hostile band environment was an enormous sense of guilt. I don’t know how Young continued on tour. Oh, yes perhaps I do… he discovered and started drinking tequila. I try to avoid tequila… I used to say, they knew which drug to legalize, tequila. If I drink that stuff I’m either going to fight you or try to fuck you… maybe both at the same time… but enough about me.

To add to all of this mayhem, Neil brought along a mobile recording studio to capture it all on tape. Instead of a folky, country-rock evening the fans were expecting they got the electric Neil. Blaring, blasting guitars like it was an armed assault instead of a concert. To add to that, he performed a bunch of newly written songs that nobody had heard. It’s tough to attend a concert when you don’t recognize the music. When you know and are familiar with the songs, it multiplies the enjoyment exponentially. God knows what the audiences thought, but the resulting album, Time Fades Away is brilliant. After the tour, one of his roadies (and CSNY’s roadie) Bruce Berry succumbed to drugs and OD’d on a lethal mix of cocaine and heroin. Man, what a shitty year.

After the tour, Neil holed up in his studio with a band he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers which consisted of Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) both from Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren on guitar (and in a surprise move, Neil had him play piano, an instrument he had previously never played) and Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar. As mentioned above, the album was pretty grim. Its basically the recording of a man exorcising his demons. It’s not often that an artist can lay himself and his emotions so nakedly bare in front of the world. I can only compare it to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. The two versions of the title track which bookend the album both reference the late Bruce Berry who “was a working man, he used to drive that Econoline van…” The performances are ragged and messy. They all sound like a first take, where the band is just watching Neil and trying to follow along. And I will say, it’s a very druggy album. There are a lot of drug references and Neil sounds fucked up half the time. There may be no hits on this record, but there’s not a Young fan who doesn’t consider it a masterpiece.

Last week Young released another superb entry in his wonderful Vault Series. Apparently, even though the record company refused to release Tonight’s The Night Young decided to play some live dates at the Roxy in Los Angeles in September of 1974 and play the unreleased album. And, as usual, he recorded the concerts resulting in this great live, vault release, Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live. While the performance still starts and ends with the song “Tonight’s the Night” he doesn’t just play the album in it’s running order. He also omits a couple of songs, the Danny Whitten sung “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” and “Borrowed Time.” He also adds as an encore, “Walk On,” that Neil introduces as an old song, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be released until a year later on On The Beach.

I might be slightly overstating this when I say this was a bit of a bracing listen. I don’t mean that in a bad way… it’s just a surprise. I’ve heard the original LP so many times, it’s etched in my mind, it’s part of the canon. So to hear Neil get up and be joking on stage – he starts by saying the first topless woman to jump on stage wins a prize of some sort… it was the 70s, way before Me Too, so let’s not get upset – is kind of shocking. In terms of the music, it’s played with more precision than on the original album. Obviously the band was much more familiar with the music by the time of these performances and everybody plays at a high level. The cloud of grief that hangs over Tonight’s The Night seems to dissipate here quite a bit, not that this is joyful music. “Roll Another Number (For The Road) swings so much it sounds like something Hank Williams might have done. The songs are still tough and gritty, but Neil is engaged and seems to be enjoying playing them. I love the way he bears down on his guitar when starts playing the title track to begin the show. Everybody plays so well here. I wonder how the crowd remains as enthusiastic as they do since no one in the room, who isn’t on stage, knew the material.

For me, and I admit, I’m a completist (guilty as charged), this is an essential companion piece to Tonight’s The Night. The lighthearted manner in which Young plays these tunes is evidence that the grief he was feeling was slowly lifting. I think this live album is a key link between Tonight’s and the follow up, On The Beach. I actually went out and listened to this on Neil’s archive web page, which I highly recommend to anybody, neilyoungarchives.com which is free for now. I will warn you… if you’re a Neil fan, you can get lost in there. I pulled it up one Friday in February and the next thing I knew it was Monday… At the very least everyone should go out to the Archive website and listen to this phenomenal historical document. Tonight’s the Night really comes alive in this performance… and don’t forget to put on the entire Ditch Trilogy with a nice tumbler of sour mash… you can thank me later.

 

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

51OJvuZLFOL

*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!

 

 

 

LP Review: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Both Sides of the Sky,’ The Vaults Runneth Over…

171207_hendrix-bsots_525px

The Hendrix vaults, like my cup, runneth over… I can’t believe this long after Jimi Hendrix’s tragic, early demise that there are still recordings of this high quality that haven’t already been released yet. Of course, my friend Matthew will tell you there’s probably a second guitarist on the grassy knoll – there isn’t one Matt… These are, for the most part, fully realized, in-studio tracks that I’ve never heard before. Full disclosure, unlike Dylan, I’ve never been a Hendrix completist. I own a lot of his music, but no bootlegs whatsoever. Kudos to Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s engineer back in the day, for pulling this together and making it sound so exceptional. I’m sure there are pasty guys in New York with goatees and grizzled visages who have book cases full of reel-to-reel tapes that they only handle when wearing white gloves, who have heard these songs bootlegged before… but for me most of the tracks on the newly released Both Sides of the Sky are new revelations. This album completes what I consider a loose trilogy of albums full of unreleased Hendrix tracks: Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels being the other two albums… All of which are essential for any Hendrix fan or fans of electric guitar in general.

After spending the weekend with this album and the other two I mention, I have to say, with all apologies to Eddie Van Halen (who I recently wrote about) and Jimmy Page (whose playing I adore), Jimi Hendrix is simply the greatest guitarist who ever lived. It’s not even close. I’m sure there are people out there who will want to fight me on this… I can remember when I was in junior high, sitting at the back of the school bus heading home one day. I alway sat in the back of the bus with the stoners. They were high but they were generally smarter people than the jocks up front. These two guys sitting in the rows in front of me got into an actual fist fight because they were arguing about what musical direction Hendrix would have taken if he’d lived. One of them made the mistake of saying Hendrix would have gone into jazz. The next thing I knew, punches are being thrown. I gotta say, those stoners were dedicated music fans.

Since Hendrix built and owned Electric Lady Studios, I like to think he’d have made a fortune from other artists recording there… I’d like to think, had he lived, Hendrix would be living in a condo above the studio, the reclusive ex-guitar God, who nobody sees or hears from unless he comes down on the street to score some weed. Maybe every once in a while he’d grant an interview where he’d say a few pro-Peace things, a few anti-Trump barbs and maybe drop the words “groovy” and “dig it” into his conversation. He’d refer to everyone as “Dude.” Eventually he’d have made the inevitable Rick Rubin produced comeback album – in Hendrix’s case it would have probably been an all acoustic, Blind Lemon Jefferson covers album. It’d probably win a Grammy. After a rambling speech accepting his Grammy, he’d return to his reclusive ways, where he’d only be seen occasionally wandering through the studio in a kaftan, headed out on the street to buy more weed. But then again, my imagination may be getting away from me on this…

The recordings that make up Both Sides of the Sky, from what I can ascertain, come from roughly 1968 to 1970. Since Hendrix owned a studio he spent almost all of his time when he wasn’t touring, recording what was to be the follow-up to Electric Ladyland. I think besides Electric Lady, he also spent a lot of time at New York’s Record Plant where some of these tracks were recorded. The line up of musicians on these tracks changes by track. Some of these songs feature the Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. Others feature the guys who were in the Band of Gypsies, Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass.

There are different versions of songs here that have appeared elsewhere. Each of the the three albums I mentioned above has a version of the blues tune, “Hear My Train a Comin’.” That may make you shy away from a compilation like this, but I can literally listen to each version and find something different in each one. Hendrix is like a painter, like say, Cezanne, who would paint the same water lilies repeatedly, but using different colors, different perspective, different arrangement of the subject. Like that, Hendrix approaches the song and the solos differently on each track. Hendrix was, at heart a blues guy. Like Dylan with folk music, Hendrix, no matter how far he strayed into psychedelia, would return to the blues. I get the feeling that “Hear My Train a Comin'” was his in-studio warm up jam. He gets the band together, the microphones get set up and to heat up the room, the band naturally goes to it’s comfort zone and they play the blues. The solo on this version is ferocious.

There are other titles you’ll recognize, but these are different versions of the songs. I’ve heard “Lover Man” on live albums, but this is the first studio version I’ve heard. I’d also heard “Power of Soul” on the live album, Band of Gypsies, but this is the first studio version for me. There’s what sounds like an earlier version of “Stepping Stone,” which appeared on the album First Rays of the New Rising Sun. All of these, if you’ve heard the other versions, gives you a glimpse into Hendrix’s creative process. They show how he’d often recut and rerecord his guitar parts endlessly until he got something that was revelatory to him. It’s great stuff.

He has a number of collaborations here. Stephen Stills shows up on two tracks. There’s what must have been an earlier version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” on this record, before CSNY did it, where Stills plays organ and Hendrix plays bass. While I like that, Stills does a song “$20 Fine” where he sings and plays organ and Hendrix plays guitar that is fantastic. I can’t believe Stills never returned to that song. I knew these guys were friends, almost every other solo Stills plays now he adds in the liner notes, “Guitar solo inspired by James Marshall Hendrix.” I don’t know why he can’t just say Jimi. Sometimes, though talented, I get the feeling Stills is a bit of an asshole. The other collaborations, and they’re both “knock you out” awesome, are Hendrix with Johnny Winter doing “Things That I Used to Do” a track I first heard in the capable hands of Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s as bluesy as hell. It’s fun to hear Hendrix and Winter, master blues guys, trading riffs. The second collaboration is Hendrix with his old friend, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and they do this fabulous tune “Georgia Blues.” I can’t believe this track wasn’t released. Lonnie sings on the song and it amazes me that Hendrix can step back, out of the spotlight and yet still stand out. All those years as a side-man on the “Chitlin Circuit” taught him well.

On unreleased compilations like this, there are usually instrumental tracks, stuff the band laid down but didn’t get back to in order to record lyrics/vocals. There are a few of those here. There’s an atmospheric thing called “Jungle” that just builds and builds. There’s an early version of the song “Angel,” here without the vocals called “Sweet Angel.” The best of the instrumental stuff here is “Cherokee Mist.” Hendrix is playing a sitar as well as guitar on that one. It starts off with a tribal sort of drum thing and then the band kicks in. It’s one of the best tracks here.

I already reviewed his take on Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’). It’s Muddy’s lyrics set to a rolling riff that explodes with guitar fury at the end. Another great headphones listen. The only track that jumped out to me as a “in studio creation” is “Send My Love to Linda.” It starts off as solo Hendrix voice/guitar and midway through they splice it with a band version of the song. The splice is pretty jarring. It couldn’t have been worse if they’d recorded Kramer pulling the scotch tape off the roll and slapping it on the magnetic tape. Still, the guitar work at the end is pretty amazing. I’d call that song a nice to have, not a have to have.

It’s been a wonderful weekend spending time with the master of all things guitar, Jimi Hendrix. I love this album, it may be my favorite of the trilogy of unreleased stuff. I advise anybody who loves Hendrix to pick this up. This certainly wouldn’t be where I’d start my Hendrix collection – pick up the albums he released in his life time – and then work your way through some of the live stuff. But when you end up here, at the unreleased stuff, his playing will change the way you think about guitar.

Cheers!

 

Album Lookback: B. B. King’s ‘One Kind Favor,’ His Final Studio Album

MI0000812177

“There’s two white horses in a line…” – “See That My Grave Kept Clean,” B.B. King

As frequent readers know, I recently wrote about blues legend Muddy Waters’ late career  albums produced by Johnny Winter (Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records). I received an interesting question from Moulty58, a follower of B&V and a superb blogger in his own right (see his blog on 70s British rock, The Future is Past, at https://thefutureispast.co.uk). Moulty58, after lauding Muddy’s landmark “comeback” album Hard Again asked me if I had any other “nominations” for a great blues album that aren’t just a “collection of songs.” Many blues guys, like the rock acts of the 50s (Chuck Berry, Elvis), were focused on singles not albums. It wasn’t until the 60s that artists began to think of the album as more than just a loose collection of songs. It was probably the Beatles who really elevated the album to an actual statement. So it’s hard to find an album like Hard Again, that’s a complete work of art from start to finish from the classic blues guys.

Off the top of my head, when I read the question in the comments section, I answered with John Mayall’s album with Eric Clapton or either of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band records. Since Moulty58 had mentioned the Stones recent LP, Blue And Lonesome (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle), I also suggested one of their early albums, from when they were basically a blues cover band, 12×5. I could have thrown out Eric Clapton’s superb late career blues album, From The Cradle, but for some reason, it didn’t spring to mind. None of those acts were from the classic blues guys though and that bothered me. To be completely honest with you, I take all questions and comments very seriously and I have to a admit this question stuck with me. I didn’t feel like I’d given a definitive answer. I found my mind drifting back to the question when I was walking in the park or driving in my car. If I weren’t on a bourbon fast, I’d have likely pondered this question over a tumbler of dark and murky fluids during the wee small hours. When the answer finally presented itself to me, it was so obvious, I was stunned it hadn’t come to me quicker. The answer, in a name, was B.B. King.

I have always put B.B. King up there with Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf as the Mount Rushmore of Blues Gods. All the music I love, springs from the blues… While Muddy and the Wolf always conjure Chicago blues for me, B.B. always evoked the Delta and specifically Memphis to me. The man had a long and storied career and life, all 89 years of it. I have a number of B.B.’s old blues albums and consider Live At the Regal not only to be one of the best live albums, or one of the best blues albums, but simply one of the best albums of all time. B.B. didn’t really have anything to parallel Muddy’s late career triumvirate of albums working with Winter but I did buy a few of them.

B.B.’s late career was a bit of a grab bag. He had some live albums and the dreaded Christmas album. He did a great album of old standards, Reflections in 2003 but since they were standards, I hardly mark that as a blues album. He also did an album in tribute of the music of Louis Jordan in ’99 that was intriguing. B.B., like Frank Sinatra before him (who B.B. loved, Frank got him into the big rooms in Vegas, the Chairman was colorblind before everyone else), did a few duets albums. The first was all the way back in 1997 entitled Deuces Are Wild. He did a second one on his 80th birthday in 2005 entitled, creatively 80. Like Sinatra’s duets albums, B.B.’s attempted to cast a wide net commercially instead of creatively which only hurt the projects in my mind. There were R&B, blues, rock and roll and even country and hip hop stars who were paraded in to sing with B.B. I recommended Deuces to my friend Ron and he sent me a bill… he wanted his money back.

I understood Ron’s feelings. Mixing Heavy D with B.B. was one of those mistakes none of us will ever recover from, but if you edit the album, you can actually find some gems there and make it listenable. Van Morrison does an amazing job on his tune. It’s a true stand out track on Deuces. Naturally Bonnie Raitt’s duet is fabulous complete with her slide guitar. She always shows up when a bluesman calls. The guy who surprised me on the album was Joe Cocker, whose duet on “Dangerous Mood” conjures some real menace from B.B. on guitar. The act that made that first duets album worth the price of admission for me was the Stones doing “Paying The Cost To Be The Boss.” That one smokes, people, buy that song alone.

80 was much in the same vein. It had that one egregious mistake, in this case Gloria Estefan. Oh my god is that song horrible. But again, with some judicious cuts, the album does have some great moments. It’s fun to hear Glenn Frey, Elton John and Roger Daltrey tear into the blues. Sheryl Crow even acquits herself well, and that’s not something I’d have ever expected. The duets albums were fun, but it was more like going to a family reunion and seeing some folks you hadn’t seen for a while. The albums were kind of disjointed, loud, brassy affairs. B.B. sounded relaxed, almost too relaxed in some cases. They were an enjoyable listen, but nothing earth shattering.

Better was the entire album of duets he cut with Eric Clapton and Eric’s band, Ridin With the King in 2000. That’s an album I can recommend. Clapton and B.B. just have a natural rapport. Clapton was deferential to his elder and B.B. responded. They did old blues tunes and a couple of standards. The title track, written by John Hiatt, is just fun. Clapton had members of his band write a couple of tunes. It’s a real solid blues album from a man paying respect to one of his inspirations.

None of all of that – the duets albums, the album with Clapton, the Louis Jordan thing, the standards record – prepared me for what I what I would behold on what would turn out to be B.B.’s final studio album, One Kind Favor. And yes, Moulty58, the answer to your question, which should have been so obvious to me, is this album. I had heard that big-time producer, T. Bone Burnett had lured B.B. King into the studio to record an album. I had been intrigued. T. Bone had just come off the huge success of the Robert Plant, Alison Krauss project, Raising Sand. I loved that album, and the way it was produced. T. Bone, like Daniel Lanois has a murky, backroom sound to his productions that I love. He went on to do a marvelous album for Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues. 

This is B.B. doing classic blues for what ended up being the last time. You look at the cover art, and it almost looks like it’s B.B. standing on the shore of the river Styx, waiting for Charon, the Ferryman, to come and take him across. B.B. has Lucille with him, so it appears he’s going to play his fare across the river to the promised land. The title, “One Kind Favor” is taken from the old blues tune, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” which opens the album in a hushed shuffle. It’s not until midway through the song that B.B.’s guitar notes puncture the gloom. While this isn’t wrapped in mortality like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, it’s certainly in that neighborhood.

The backing band is sensational. On drums you have both famous session guy Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose (who works with T Bone quite a bit). Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, is here on piano. Nathan East, who played with Clapton and I think Phil Collins, is here on bass. Neil Larsen is on the organ. There are horns on this album, like most B.B. albums, but they’re more muted in most cases. The focus is on B.B.’s voice and guitar and the rhythm section. On his late work B.B. had a propensity to sing big and sound almost joyful… if not joyful, at least one might describe his late singing as redemptive. He’s singing the blues like it’s 1945 on this album, there’s little joy to be found. He brings the blues in a classic way. Kudos to T. Bone for pulling this performance out of B.B. when he was well into his 80s.

The song selection is inspired. There are several songs by B.B.’s hero, Lonnie Johnson, “My Love is Down,” and “Tomorrow Night.” It’s interesting to me, as a side note, that Bob Dylan did “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his debut album and “Sitting On Top of the World,” “World Gone Wrong” (both songs performed by B.B. here) on his late 90s folk albums. It’s absolute proof of how connected folk and blues or if you will, folk-blues are. It’s all connected, people. King’s guitar on “I Get Weary” is something ferocious. He rips into that song. “Get These Blues Out of Me” conjures up the opening riffs of “The Thrill Is Gone,” King’s best known song. Most of these songs are tunes that B.B. had done before but here he imbues the songs with a weathered, knowing wisdom. “Blues Before Sunrise” is magic in B.B. King’s hands here…

I am just so delighted that B.B. King, blues master, once again stripped away the commerciality, the duets and all the glitz and made a down and dirty, gritty blues album. It’s the perfect send off for the man, the myth, the legend. Pick this one up if you love the blues or if you love blues guitar. It’s essential listening for all fans.

Cheers!

 

 

Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40

Van_Halen_album

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. It’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in the world, especially considering how much is actually going on. All of that aside, I saw last month that on February 10th, Van Halen’s self-titled, debut album turned 40 years old. I was thirteen when that album came out and while that seems like a lifetime ago, I didn’t think it had been forty years, or an actual lifetime. As Dylan sang, “Time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.” I saw several of the rock websites and magazines give mention or even full articles to the anniversary, but I couldn’t help but think back to my own experience with this landmark album.

As I’ve often mentioned in the pages of B&V, the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls was the first album I ever purchased with my own money. It was money my Sainted Grandmother had given me for Xmas. She didn’t want to be the one to buy me Some Girls because the back cover was an old-time add for woman’s bras. Grandma was concerned those images might corrupt my young mind… oh, little did she know, that cat was out of the bag. My actual first album ever, which was a gift that Christmas, was Steve Martin’s Wild And Crazy Guy. Comedy albums used to be, as we say, a big fucking deal. Everybody had a copy of that album and would perform the bits in school to make the girls laugh, but that’s another post.

What I don’t often talk about, are the albums I bought after Some Girls. I had been a bit of late bloomer when it came to music. If my brother hadn’t insisted that my mother turn the radio to the rock station in KC, KY/102, while I was in the car, I never would have heard “Shattered” and gotten on this whole rock n roll train. Well, I probably would have, but it would have taken a lot longer. After hearing the Stones that fall, I started tuning into KY/102 regularly. Previously I had only turned on the radio to listen to sports. My God, I was missing out. After hearing the Stones, the world of rock and roll was rapidly opening up to me. Well, as much as it could in the midwest.

While I bought Some Girls over Christmas break of ’79 (again, I was late to the party), buying more albums came slower. To purchase an album you had to have almost $10, a major investment in those times. The second album I ever purchased, was the classic debut album, Van Halen. It had been almost the constant soundtrack of my early rock and roll experience, how could it not be my second ever album? Hearing that band, at that time, you had to own Van Halen’s debut or you had absolutely no street “cred.” We were young, experimenting with beer and other things, and girls were taking up more and more of our mental capacity… Van Halen captured all of that energy in one album.

I can still remember the spring of ’79, eager to show off my new stereo, after riding our bikes around the neighborhood one weekend (pretending we were a motorcycle gang), where there may have been some herbal remedies invoked and drinking a stolen 40 ounce beer between four of us, we made our way back to my room. I unveiled my turntable/radio/cassette unit and two big speakers to my friends. I had just made a major investment on this new album and played Van Halen’s debut three or four times. I decided to show off my depth of music and put my only other album, Some Girls on the stereo. I can still remember my friend (who to protect the guilty, I’ll call) Paul saying, “Dude, put the fucking Van Halen back on.” That’s how huge that record was for us. We listened to it constantly.

1978 was a weird time. The energy and fury of punk was slowly evolving into “new wave” best represented by the music of say, the Cars. Disco was still a poisonous and potent force, especially with my mother, sadly. The legendary rock stars of old had gotten slow… The Stones had sort of captured and absorbed the punk thing on Some Girls. Punk seemed to wake Pete Townshend out of his torpor and he at least came up with a response on “Who Are You?” Springsteen took a huge stylistic left turn from Born to Run and turned up the anger and the guitars (or perhaps the angry guitars?) and put out Darkness On The Edge of Town. Less successful at dealing with punk were Led Zeppelin who just added synths (although that might have been because Jimmy Page was in a heroin cocoon) or Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham with his experiments on Tusk. 

Hard rock was somewhat lost. Kiss was really big at the time, even with some of my comrades. I never got that. I didn’t like Kiss… Aerosmith were at their peak, but they never had the commercial reach of some of the older bands. Judas Priest and the new British metal were doing great things, but you didn’t hear a lot of that out in KC, or at least I didn’t get into that until much later in high school. We were too young to even realize the gravity that rock and roll, hard rock or heavy metal was in such peril. Enter Van Halen.

Their debut wasn’t without controversy. Many critics panned it and the band, especially for their lyrics. They thanked Gene Simmons on the album cover (he’d recorded some demos for them) and the biggest, most nefarious rumor, to my friends and I, was that Van Halen was actually Kiss without their make up. I remember a group of my friends staring at the inside sleeve picture of Michael Anthony, Van Halen’s bass player and harmony vocalist, and thinking, “Hmm, that might be Gene Simmons with his hair dyed.” I laugh now at what a big deal that was to we, the rock purists, a group I had only newly joined.

But my God, the music on this album. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. It’s always hard to understand the magnitude of something that is so vastly influential that it colors everything that comes after it. The riffs that Eddie Van Halen played had no precedence in the Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, blues-based riffs we’d all heard before. Aerosmith, while good, didn’t really break any new ground. They were heavier, perhaps. You could draw a line from Chicago Blues to the Stones/the Yardbirds to The Jeff Beck Group to Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith. You couldn’t draw a line from anything to Van Halen. It was like Eddie was a space alien who had landed with his guitar to teach the world to shred. Nobody played like him. It wasn’t until I saw video of him playing up the neck of the guitar that I realized how he was doing some of this stuff. In the early days of Van Halen, Eddie played with his back to the crowd so other guitarists couldn’t rip him off. The song “Eruption” was the most amazing thing we’d ever heard. It was more influenced by classical music than anything I’d heard in the blues rock dominated scene of the time. There would have been no Randy Rhodes without Eddie Van Halen.

Looking at the inner sleeve of the record, and the pictures that had been taken at The Whiskey after a gig, these guys looked like the coolest people on earth. David Lee Roth, the lead singer, was THE MAN! Clearly these guys had discovered what Jeff Beck said when he recruited Rod Stewart to be his front man. The dudes come to see the guitarist, the chicks come for the big, blonde, good looking guy on vocals. There was a menace to the music of Van Halen, but Roth gave it a smirking wink. On the track, “I’m the One,” a great rocker, there’s a barbershop quartet breakdown right in the middle. Out of nowhere. Only someone as cocksure as Roth could have pulled that off. “Bop Bop Shoobie Doo Wah…”? What? Roth and Eddie’s yin/yang thing was magic. Every front man who came after him in the 80s, and many of them sucked, were emulating Roth… Don’t blame him for the pale imitations. Roth was, and in some respects remains, the ultimate teenage boy, full of lusty innuendos and drug references.

The first track I ever heard on the radio was their definitive take on “You Really Got Me,” a Kinks cover. I had to be told by a friend that it was a Kink’s cover. In Van Halen’s hands, they made it their own. The song that drove me to my piggy bank and then to the mall was the epic “Runnin’ With the Devil,” a song that still scares my mother. Although once Valerie Bertinelli married Eddie, she said, “Well, he must be a nice boy after all…” Jesus, mom. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” was another epic, menacing rocker. I read somewhere that to record that track, Roth had been fasting from pot and booze and bad food. When he just couldn’t get the vocal right, he called for a cheeseburger, coke and a joint. After consuming all three, he stepped in and nailed the vocal in 1 take.

“Jamie’s Crying” was as close to this album came to a ballad. It takes the viewpoint of a young girl besieged by horny men after only one thing… “Atomic Punk” is a riff that still is so epic and so original that 40 years in, I’m still not over it. It makes me stand up every time I hear it. The most Roth song here is the only other cover, “Ice Cream Man.” Roth is at his comic best on this one. He starts off with “Dedicate one to the ladies…” In his day he was both cool and funny.

I listen to this album and even at the ripe age of forty it still sounds fresh and original. I wish these guys could have held it together after the wild success of 1984. At this point I’d settle for another reunion album, although this time, I’d like to hear Michael Anthony on bass and harmony vocals. I think that, like Pink Floyd, this is a band we’ll never hear from again. But I urge everyone who is a fan of rock’n’roll and hard rock to purchase this album. It’s essential to any collection.

Cheers!

 

 

Eric Clapton: Showtime’s Exceptional Documentary, ‘Life In 12 Bars’

Unknown

One of the few joys of this brittle and brutal winter is that the Winter Olympics are taking place. I was never a huge fan of the Olympics, but the Rock Chick watches these things religiously. Naturally, when we got married she pulled me into watching them with her. Every time I leave the B&V lab and go downstairs she’s got the Games on… I’m beginning to think she’s got money on the Curling event… I told her, when in doubt always bet on Norway. With a nickname like ‘The Fighting Vikings’ you can’t possibly go wrong.

Unfortunately my wife’s Winter Olympics Obsession has prevented me from screening the Showtime Documentary on Eric Clapton, ‘Life In 12 Bars.’ Finally, after meeting my old friend Tomas out for a few drinks last night, with my wife asleep, I was able to pull up the rockumentary. I’ve always been a huge fan of Clapton’s music. However, I have to admit, his latter career has puzzled me a bit. I haven’t found anything I can really get into since Me And Mr. Johnson his tribute to Robert Johnson. And if I’m being honest, that one disappointed me when compared to his brilliant blues album, From The Cradle. I posited a theory about the latter stages of Clapton’s career before on B&V, Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?. I think my frustration with Clapton’s late career stems from reading his autobiography. He’s one of the few people who I’ve read an autobiography by and thought less of the person afterward. However, seeing this documentary has completely turned me around. I think this arresting look at Clapton does a lot to help give the man’s life more context than his writing did. Oh, Eric, I just can’t stay mad at you.

In the first hour of the documentary alone, he goes from illegitimate child (like Jack Nicholson, he thought his grandma was his mother and that his mom was his sister) to the Yardbirds, to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream to hanging with Hendrix and recording with the Beatles on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And again that’s just the first hour of this two hour-fifteen minute film. That’s a pretty wild ride. I’ve always felt that rock and roll sprang from the fertile roots of the blues and blossomed out in all sorts of different ways. Eric Clapton just may be the living embodiment of that theory.

He began his career as a blues purist and left the Yardbirds after he felt they’d turned “too commercial” or “too pop-sounding.” After joining, leaving and rejoining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he recorded one of the most influential blues albums of all time, Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton only to leave and form Cream. Cream is where Clapton really broke into America. When he arrived in America, there’s a scene where they ask him what he’s listening to and he immediately shines a light on Jimi Hendrix and the Experience who hadn’t broken over here yet. Then he quickly added a list of black American bluesmen. Clapton and some of his other compatriots in the British Invasion brought black blues music back to America. It’s really cool to see Muddy Waters and B.B. King interviewed and hear them talk about how much those “English kids” did to help them. Thank God they did.

The documentary then follows Clapton through the brief career and collapse of Blind Faith, his band with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Clapton retreated to his home in the English country-side where he was joined by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. In the span of one year, 1970, these guys recorded Clapton’s solo debut (Eric Clapton), George Harrison’s landmark debut solo album All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla…And Other Assorted Love Songs. That’s one hell of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever been that productive, that’s for sure. The build-up to the writing and recording of Clapton’s signature tune, “Layla” was a bit overwrought. I get it, it’s a great song, but there’s a lot more to Clapton than just that song. And I think everybody knows about his affair with Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s then wife. During those recording sessions in that momentous year of 1970 is when the heroin snuck in. Man, is that an insidious drug.

And this is where the documentary turns dark. They cover Clapton’s dissolution into heroin addiction and his retirement to seclusion. He was gone, out of sight for four years. When he finally kicked smack he emerged as an alcoholic. And when I say alcoholic, I mean the biggest asshole drunk I’ve ever seen. I described this documentary as unflinching mostly for the way it handles this portion of Clapton’s career. Clapton stood up on stage and made some horrid racist statements because he was drunk off his ass. Here’s a man who had carried the banner for black musicians in the 60s, spouting racist bullshit from the stage in the 70s. It just goes to show you how lost he really was.

It’s an important part of the story, his addiction and alcoholism, but they really blow past his solo music. He recorded some really great music in the 70s and 80s, 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand just to name a few but the documentary just focuses on the alcoholism and the personal problems he faced. I guess I never realized how bad things got. Again, it’s important in understanding Clapton the artist to go through all this harrowing stuff but I felt the music of his solo career got short shrift. This is no happy tale. The man, like Gregg Allman, lived the blues. Naturally the last part of the documentary focuses on the tragic loss of his son, Conor. It finally ends on a lighter note when it highlights Clapton’s rehab clinic in Antigua. B.B. King gives a nice toast to Eric at the Crossroads Music Festival that is worth the price of admission.

I think everyone who is interested in music, the blues and Clapton will find this vital viewing. There are a lot of interviews, photos and film footage that I’ve never seen. I might also say, after watching the documentary, I was reminded of spending a whole afternoon back in my single days, just listening to Clapton’s monumental box set, Crossroads, which I think is the perfect sound track to listen to after you’ve seen the movie. Or, if you’re OCD like me, you’ll end up listening to the Yardbirds, Mayall, and now I’m in the middle of Cream headed to Blind Faith and on my way to Derek and the Dominos… I’ve got a lot of music to listen to between lady’s downhill races…

P.S. – At the beginning of the documentary Clapton appears to be on Skype. He gives a heartfelt speech about the passing of the legend B.B. King. In the midst of that he recommends a record by B.B., Live At The Regal. Clapton, in this case, is spot on – it’s one of the greatest live albums and one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It’s wonderful to listen to B.B. and his audience and the amazing rapport they had. It’s essential B&V listening.

Enjoy!