RIP Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul: Another Legend Gone

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Another day, another legend gone.

And make no mistake people, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul was a legend. She’s the first person outside of the Beatles (John, Paul, George, Ringo) who could be identified with only one name… Aretha. You didn’t need to include the Franklin, people knew.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been traveling a lot lately (Thoughts From The Traveling Salesman And A B&V Playlist: Hanging On The Telephone). I was in the airport on Monday, waiting for a plane, when I heard the news that Aretha was in hospice. “How could that be?” I asked myself. She was only 76, way too young to pass. My thoughts the rest of the week were centered on Aretha and her brilliant career. I was moving slowly through the labyrinth style security line at DIA on Thursday morning, yesterday, when I heard this scruffy kid with a really sorry excuse for a mustache, who looked thirteen, say “Aretha Franklin just died.” I spun around quickly…”When?” was all I could say. “Just now…” He went on to say, “I can’t really think of any of her songs…” I considered striking him and challenging him to a duel, but he was a TSA agent and I didn’t want to end up in a padded room in the basement of the airport. Instead, I walked in sad silence to my gate. The Queen of Soul was gone.

I couldn’t help yesterday, flashing back 41 years to the day, on a similarly sad August afternoon. I was in junior high school and I was piled into my football coach’s car, along with what seems like ten other players, all shoulder pads and helmets, on our way to football practice. The news came over the radio that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll had died. My coach, Coach Taylor, pulled his blue Mercury over to the side of the road and we all listened to the radio news report. “How could this be, the coach uttered, Elvis was my age?” Indeed, coach, how could this be?

Aretha Franklin was a titanic talent. She got her start, like many singers, in church. In this case, it was her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin’s church. Aretha could sing but she was also a self-taught pianist. Frankly, I’ve always felt, like Elton John said on social media yesterday, that she was an underrated pianist. Rev C.L. Franklin was actually a preacher of some renown and had a touring tent gospel show, preaching the word. Aretha would sing. Because of that renown, many other famous people would stop by the Franklin residence in Detroit. The Soul Stirrers featuring none other than Sam Cooke were friends and occasional visitors. Martin Luther King, Jr was also a guest in the Franklin home. I read somewhere, that when she was 12 years old, Aretha actually sang for the first time publicly for MLK. That moment, if that’s true, sort of crystallizes a lot of things that Aretha conjures in my mind- singer, gospel, and civil rights advocate. In 1968, she also sang at Reverend King’s funeral cementing her connection with the Civil Rights Movement.

It wasn’t long after beginning her singing career, inspired by Sam Cooke’s switch from gospel to secular, pop music, that Aretha was moved to do the same. She transplanted to New York and signed with Columbia Records. But it wasn’t until she moved to Atlantic Records, and teamed with Producer Jerry Wexler, that things clicked. And boy did they. My frame of reference and focus on Aretha’s catalog has always been the must-have albums, I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Loved You and Lady Soul. There are so many other great Aretha albums from that late-60s early 70s time period, that are essential soul: Aretha Now, Soul ’69, Spirit in the Dark, and Young, Gifted And Black. It was a criminal omission on my part, to not include her fabulous live album Live At The Fillmore West on my Essential Live LPs list (BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums). I advise everyone to dive deeply into this woman’s catalog. So many hits, so many great songs. My favorite might be “Baby, I Love You,” but it’s hard to name just one. She sold over 75 million albums in her career. That’s a ton of records. And like Elvis, Aretha would occasionally return to her gospel roots on records like Amazing Grace.

When you think about Aretha’s career, it all boils down that voice. What Wexler was so genius at in terms of producing was that he brought her gospel roots out in the soul music she performed. No matter what genre Aretha was interpreting, blues, soul, jazz, you could always hear the gospel in her voice. The Stones, both Mick and Keith, commented in their tributes yesterday, the same thing, that Aretha “took you to church.” My buddy Stormin’ once said that same thing to me about Aretha, years ago. I know what they all mean. She was one of the most brilliant interpreters of other people’s music, no matter who it was – Sam Cooke, B.B. King, or Otis Redding – Aretha would make the songs her own. And her mastery of the call and response with her back up singers is another thing she just owns for me.

The most famous song she did, was Otis Redding’s “Respect.” When Otis heard the Aretha’s version of the song, he muttered, “Damn, that girl just stole my song.” He knew it wasn’t his any more. “Respect” indeed became Aretha’s “signature song,” much the same way “Satisfaction” is for the Stones. It was the perfect song for Aretha. She fought her whole life as a black woman for civil rights but also for women’s rights. It was such a strong statement in her voice, demanding respect as a proud, black woman. That’s why Aretha is such a legend, she transcends music and soul. She was the voice of America, not just musically but culturally. It’s a shame so many of the issues she fought for remain problems to this very day… but I digress. I could literally listen to this woman sing all day. In fact, the last two days, that’s what I’ve done.

It’s going to be a very soulful weekend here at the B&V labs, sipping dark, murky fluids and listening to the Queen of Soul into the early morning hours. I do like to think, if there is a “Heaven,” that the King of Rock n Roll and the Queen of Soul are reunited today… singing a great, great gospel song. That’s a service that even I’d attend…

RIP Aretha Franklin! Long live the Queen!

 

 

 

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HBO’s Documentary, ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,’ Tearjerker

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I laughed, I cried, I was moved…

When I became a teenager in the ’70s, comedians were as important to me as rock stars. It was truly a golden age of comedy. David Letterman, Steve Martin, the original cast of Saturday Night Live (Belushi, Aakroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray), Gary Shandling, Elaine Boosler, Jerry Seinfeld were all exploding on TV (on Carson, SNL, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ shows) and at the movies. Steve Martin was probably my first comedy crush but the guy who was the white-hot sun in this universe of stars was Robin Williams.

In the late ’60s and all through the ’70s comedians would release albums. That was how they made most of their money. Bill Cosby was never a big hit at the box office, he built his quaalude empire by selling comedy albums from concerts he’d recorded. George Carlin, Cheech and Chong and many others were introduced to us the way rock and roll was, by dropping a needle on a vinyl album on the stereo. The apex of the comedy album was probably the late 70’s. Steve Martin had two monster albums, 1977’s Let’s Get Small and 1978’s A Wild And Crazy Guy. I’d seen Martin on SNL and loved him. Before my first proper album, Some Girls by the Stones, my actual first vinyl album purchase was Wild And Crazy Guy. I saw Steve Martin as my first concert at Kemper Arena, a 15,000 seat stadium. My friend, Stormin said that everybody in his high school, and he is from a tiny little village out on the plains of Kansas, would listen to that album, memorize the lines and do the bits at school for the chicks. All of us in the suburbs of Kansas City were doing the same goddamm thing. “And she had the best pussy….” If you weren’t athletically gifted, but you could be funny, a girl might actually turn her head toward you…

One of my early, early album purchases was Robin Williams’ first album, 1979’s Reality…What a Concept. It remains a cherished item in my collection. We were all Williams’ fans from his sitcom, ‘Mork and Mindy,’ but with his first comedy album, he was allowed to step away from the role of Mork and unleash his wild, comedic id. On side two of the album he improvises a fake Shakespearean play based on suggestions from the crowd. At one point, during a soliloquy he’s trying to make a decision and the crowd is yelling suggestions… and he cries out in mock despair, “Assholes do vex me…” It’s a line I use to this day, especially at work. It was sheer genius, his ability to create characters and put them in hilarious scenarios. The man’s brain worked on a warp speed most of us can’t get to.

After ‘Mork and Mindy’ Williams did a number of comedy specials through the ’80s, which were released on tape and later DVD, I recommend all of them. Eventually he transitioned to the movies. There were so many great ones, ‘Dead Poet Society,’ ‘Good Morning Vietnam,’ and of course later ‘Good Will Hunting.’ Eventually the movie thing started to sputter. He returned to television to do a series again, ‘The Crazy Ones,’ a sitcom that apparently only I liked. And then three years ago came the heartbreaking news that he’d committed suicide. He had Parkinson’s disease, which none of us knew.

I took the news hard. I think the reason I loved Robin Williams as much as I did, was because no matter how manic the comedy or how serious the drama he was acting in, hiding behind any performance was this big, giant heart. You could see it in his eyes. There was a quality, maybe it was sadness, maybe it was a longing to connect, that lingered behind those big blue eyes. He could make me laugh while making me want to put my arm around him at the same time. I still find it hard to believe he’s gone.

Last night, fittingly on the eve of what would have been Robin’s 67th birthday, I got home from a week of keeping Austin Weird, and finally got the chance to sit down and watch HBO’s superb ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.’ That line, “come inside my mind,” was from that first comedy album I purchased, Reality…What a Concept, during a bit where Williams would invite the audience into the mind of the comedian, into what he was thinking. At the end of the bit he screams, “fuck you, what do you want from me anyway?” Look it up, it’s fucking funny.

I laughed my ass off during the first few minutes of the documentary. It starts with an excerpt from his hysterical performance on ‘Inside The Actors Studio’ (another must see), and cut to a few other performances. But oddly, and maybe I’m just getting sentimental, I found myself tearing up during much of the two hours. The documentary takes you through his whole life, from his lonely childhood and intense relationship with his mother to Julliard, to stand up and then stardom with ‘Mork and Mindy.’ For a man who made so much of us laugh, he was, as the Rock Chick noted last night, a very troubled man. He actually was briefly with Belushi at the Chateau Marmont the night Belushi died. The late 70s, early 80s were a hard partying time. Part of me wishes I’d been old enough to party with these guys and part of me is relieved I never did.

There are cameos from many of Robin’s friends who happened to be comedy geniuses. Billy Crystal, David Letterman and Elaine Boosler are all part of the documentary. I love what Letterman says, “I was just standing on stage hanging onto the microphone for dear life, and here’s Robin wandering out into the crowd.” It’s obvious how close a friendship Billy Crystal and Robin had. I think the most heartbreaking interview sequences are the ones with Pam Dawber, who played Mindy. I had always heard that the two didn’t get along. It’s obvious that was totally wrong. She teared up a couple of times… and so did I.

This is the second superb HBO documentary I’ve seen this year about a comedian. Unlike the one about Gary Shandling (HBO Documentary: The Must-See, Moving Tribute, ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’) that I found fascinating because I knew so little about the man, this Robin Williams documentary literally moved me to tears. I don’t know why, I just have a special place in my heart for Robin. The comedy universe is a little less bright with him gone. I recommend any fan of comedy or Robin Williams to see this documentary immediately… You might want to bring a handkerchief.

It’s a dark ride folks, laugh as much as you can.

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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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!

 

 

Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records

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“Well the blues had a baby and they named the baby ‘Rock and Roll'” – Muddy Waters, “The Blues Had a Baby”

I was a fan of the blues before I even knew what the blues were. I can still remember in the movie The Jerk, when Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, is asked by his brother if he’d like to come out on the porch and sing the blues… Martin deadpans, “No, there’s just something about that music that depresses me.” That was my only impression of the blues. I grew up in the suburbs of a small, midwestern, American town and the blues were not something you heard on the radio. My parents weren’t exactly musical people and that didn’t help. So I really didn’t know anything about the blues except this vague impression that it was “downer” music. The only blues song I’d probably ever heard at that point was the amazing B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and that’s a pretty sad song. I used to like to put that on mix tapes when I broke up with someone, but those records are sealed.

However, without even knowing it, I was already a fan of the blues. Every band I liked played blues-based music or as it was known, “blues rock.” My first love, the Rolling Stones, were basically a blues cover band for the first five years of their career and still play the blues today (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle). Led Zeppelin’s music was steeped in the blues so much they were sued for copyright infringement. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Faces, Foghat, AC/DC, Humble Pie, the list goes on and on, were all either blues rock or at the very least performing blues covers. People think of the young Bob Dylan as a folkie, but I hear as much Robert Johnson in his early music as Woody Guthrie… I had no idea “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was a blues cover… I thought it was just a Foghat song. Oh, the ignorance of youth… It wasn’t until I purchased, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, the Blues Brother’s live album, Briefcase Full of Blues that I realized the blues were more than just sad, acoustic based songs. The blues were powerful and joyful and simply amazing all at the same time. God bless John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. A lot of criticism was leveled at the Blues Brothers, but that was an amazing band – Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and an amazing horn section… Sure Belushi was no Sam Cooke on vocals, but he was committed. I love it when he says, “I suggest you buy all the blues albums you can,” in between songs. Sage advice, indeed.

It’s easy I suppose, especially when you’re young, to hear a band and not realize they were influenced heavily by other artists, the artists that came before them. It’s easy to hear Van Morrison’s band Them doing their version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” (perhaps the definitive rock version of that song) and not realize how heavily influenced he was by Muddy Waters’ version. As a young kid I heard Cream’s version of “Rollin’ and Tumbling'” and thought it was their song. After hearing the Blues Brothers I began to explore the roots of all this rock and roll music I was listening to, and started reading liner notes and writing credits, and realized there was a world of blues artists I hadn’t realized existed. Searching and seeking out the blues was really the root of my life long obsession with musical spelunking.

There were names that my Rock Star heroes were dropping in interviews, the names of their heroes. There were the Three Kings – B.B., Freddie, and Albert. Albert Collins was another guy I heard a lot about. Then I discovered the legend of Robert Johnson, which is a whole other blog post. All of these men were Titans of the Blues. But there were others – names that conjured awe and fear all at the same time… Who was this Howlin Wolf person? That’s a pretty scary moniker… and then I heard that otherworldly voice. But the one name that always caught my ear, that made me feel we were talking about someone special, was Muddy… Muddy Waters. That name conjures up the very Delta where the blues sprang from. It was as if this Muddy Waters was the personification of the blues. His name was spoken of in such reverential tones you just knew he was important. I assumed, wrongly, that this was a person who had lived and sang the blues and died decades before I was born, like Robert Johnson. I didn’t even realize that Muddy was still alive when I was in high school while all of this musical spelunking was going on. Muddy didn’t pass until 1983. I didn’t even know it was Muddy’s version of “Mannish Boy” that was used so effectively in the movie Risky Business. “All I’m saying is, walk like a man…”

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters was born in the Missisippi Delta. By the time he was in his teens he was playing guitar, harmonica and singing with the authority of a man much older. He was actually recorded by Alan Lomax on his famous recordings for the Library of Congress. Eventually, like the music of the blues itself, Muddy migrated north to Chicago. Muddy was one of the bedrock foundations of what was known as “Chicago Blues.” He played mostly acoustic blues on record, but in the clubs at night he had a full-on electric band. With Muddy and the legendary Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano and Little Walter on harmonica (or as it’s known in blues, the harp) Muddy’s band was probably the greatest blues outfit ever assembled. Muddy was the King of Chicago blues from the late 40’s through the mid-50s. I can close my eyes and see Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield hanging out in southside Chicago clubs hoping to get up and jam with Muddy…

While his fortunes may have waned by the dawn of the 60s, Muddy had toured England and in doing so turned-on a generation of white, English blues musicians from Steve Winwood and Van Morrison to Mick Jagger and Alexis Koerner to his brand of blues. His seminal live album, 1960s At Newport spurred on a whole new wave of popularity and boosted Muddy’s career. That was the first album of Muddy’s I ever heard and man… that voice gave me chills. He’s probably my favorite blues singer. The deep resonance of that voice rumbling around that broad chest… Simply amazing. Muddy’s career continued in a series of ebbs and flows well into the 70s. It was in the latter half of the 70s that a huge fan and follower of Muddy’s, blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winters, approached Muddy to produce an album for him…Muddy’s career had ebbed a bit at that point… he’d just signed a new contract with Blue Sky Records… I don’t think anybody saw anything coming as forceful and joyful as Hard Again. 

BourbonAndVinyl has always attempted to shed light on the latter careers of great artists like Bob Dylan or David Bowie. New music by older artists has always been my focus. When Johnny Winters entered the picture for Muddy Waters, and produced three studio albums (and one live album, but I’m only focusing on the studio stuff here), Muddy entered a golden, twilight period in his career. It was certainly one of my favorite periods in Muddy’s career. I could write and write and write about Muddy’s whole, long and storied history, but in the B&V tradition, I’m just focusing today on the Blue Sky Records, Johnny Winters period. If you’re a fan of anybody from Hendrix, who just released a cover of “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’) to Greta Van Fleet, the music of Muddy Waters is the root of that music. I urge everyone to seek out the three Johnny Winters’ produced albums of Muddy’s post haste…

Hard Again, 1977

The first thing you hear belting out of the speakers on this record is Muddy’s voice as he begins “Mannish Boy.” “Oooooh, yeah, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…” It’s one of the iconic moments in the blues. This music is loud, brash and so, well, joyful. You can tell everybody involved is having a great time, when you hear the band shout back at Muddy in the call and response of the song. Muddy and Johnny are on guitar along with Bob Margolin. Legends Pine Top Perkins is on piano and James Cotton on the harp (alas Little Walter had passed years prior). Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is pounding the skins and Charles Calmege is on bass. This is big, old-school Chicago blues. There is not a bad moment here. Muddy revisits some of his older, iconic tracks here, like “Mannish Boy,” and also “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (A rare acoustic blues moment here) and “I Want To Be Loved.” They also do some new stuff, the epic “Bus Driver” and “Deep Down In Florida.” This is simply one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It sounds like these guys cut the whole thing live in the studio. Heralded as a “comeback” it proved Muddy still had the power and glory.

I’m Ready, 1978

By happenstance, Muddy was reunited on this album by a member of his classic, late 40s/early 50s band, Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Hard Again gets all the attention, but I almost like I’m Ready better. The way Muddy and Jimmy weave together their guitars, much like Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood do, is mesmerizing. Margolin jumped over to bass. You throw in Johnny Winters on guitar and it’s a pretty amazing trio of axes. The title track opens things up and it’s a great version of a Muddy classic. Muddy not only wrote his own stuff, but he sang a bunch of Willie Dixon’s songs with the great “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” included here in a rousing version. “33 Years” is another stand out blues track. That good time, happy vibe continued over from the first album. These guys had found blues gold and they kept it rolling on this second album of the trio. Another must have blues album from Muddy.

King Bee, 1981

After a live album (which is definitely worth checking out), the team reconvened in the studio for the third and alas the final installment of this trio of superb records. By this time, Muddy’s health had begin to fail and he was forced more often than not to cancel his live performances. His great touring band made most their money from concerts… if a show was canceled, they didn’t get paid. This caused a schism between Muddy and his manager and the rest of the band. The big party sound of the first two albums is gone and Muddy sounds like he’s settled into a sadder, bluesier mood here. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a farewell vibe. They only managed to bang out part of the album and had to augment it with outtakes from the Hard Again sessions. It’s too bad that money always seems to get in the way. I still think this record is essential listening. The title track is still great and I love this version of “Champagne and Reefer,” later covered by Buddy Guy and the Stones, live. Muddy’s favorite drink was champagne, why not sing about it, I mean, there are worse pastimes. On the extended version, the last track, “Clouds In My Heart” was the perfect capper on what was an amazing three record run.

For me, these three albums are a great place to start your Muddy Waters collection. For his early work, a nice place to start is the excellent Muddy Waters: The Anthology which collects over 50 of Muddy’s earliest recordings from 1945 to 1953. You can start at the beginning with Anthology or start at the end with the Johnny Winters’ produced albums, but I urge all of you to start somewhere on adding Muddy Waters to your collection.

Listen to these records and you know, deep down, “that everything, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…”