LP Review: Tom Petty, ‘An American Treasure’ – A Different Path Through a Brilliant Career

51N0AG4CavL._SS500

“And may my love travel with you, everywhere” – Tom Petty, “Have Love, Will Travel”

As chance would have it, the day my copy of Tom Petty’s new box set, An American Treasure arrived at the house, September 28th (I’d pre-ordered it), I had to jump in the car to head out to points west to take my wife and daughter to see my KC Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. It was tough duty to hold that box set in my hands and leave it behind… Family comes first. After a great, long weekend in Denver, the Rock Chick slid behind the wheel as we headed back home… I realized it was October 2nd, the one year anniversary of Tom’s sad passing… I commemorated the date in a way I’d hope would make Tom smile, out on the open road, cruising down the highway at top speed, blasting the Tom Petty playlist the Rock Chick put together a year ago to honor the man. That quickly led me to my playlist of my favorite deep tracks, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks, now posted on Spotify.

While my driving, binge-listening to Petty was a nice memorial, I found a much more fitting tribute when I returned home to An American Treasure. This is a superb box set. It was lovingly curated by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and Petty’s wife Dana and daughter Adria. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Ryan Ulyate, whose remastering of these tracks is nothing short of genius. Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first box set, Playback in 1995 and one might wonder, “another box?” Playback was a six disc box. The first three discs were a wonderful career retrospective of greatest hits and “best of” kind of tracks. The last three discs were b-sides and unreleased tracks. It’s an exceptional listen.

An American Treasure is simply put, a different journey through this artist’s or this band’s career. It reminds me somewhat of Bruce Springsteen’s epic box set Tracks, that Bruce described as a different road than what his journey had taken him on. If you’re more of a greatest hits type fan, this box will take you into some deeper cuts from Petty and flesh out the man’s artistry. Campbell, Tench and company actively tried to stay away from the greatest hits or anything that was previously released on Playback here. You won’t find “Free Fallin'” on this box. The familiar tracks are either live or released in an alternative version, which (while cliche) is a window into Petty and the Heartbreakers’ creative process. The goal on An American Treasure was to bring you inside the studio with the Heartbreakers to get a glimpse of their genius. I was surprised what a cohesive listen this was from start to finish. To me, what this box highlights, is Petty’s amazing and oft overlooked ability as a lyricist. He remained through out his career an “Everyman” who could tell stories and paint pictures with just a modicum of words and whole lot of emotion. What he’s able to convey with such an economy of words is amazing and perhaps something I should learn from. When you do listen to this set all the way through (at four hours it’s a commitment) you start to realize the cinematic scope of Petty’s writing. His songs, for me, evoke images in my head. I can see what’s happening in the song.

If you will indulge me in a metaphoric detour, I would compare An American Treasure to my old days, driving up to college. Between my hometown and my college, there is a 4-lane, interstate highway, part of which is a toll road. It was the fastest way to get there… hit the on ramp, pay the toll, speed to college. But there were many of us, mostly to avoid the 75-cent toll, who would skip the interstate and take back roads… It was slower on the two-lane black top roads but the ride was much more interesting. You had to slow down at every little village and hamlet on the way, but you saw a lot more of the country side. There was even a bar or two one might stop at, if you were so inclined. If I was at one of those places now, I’d be highly motivated to put this box set on the stereo… “a round for everyone, I’m here for a little while” to quote Petty himself… An American Treasure is that slower journey down that road less traveled.

There really is something on this box for everyone, no matter what kind of fan of Petty’s you are. If you’re only into the greatest hits, there are deep/album cuts here that will deepen your understanding of Petty’s work. From “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the first album to “Crawling Back To You” from Wildflowers, there are a bunch of tracks that you won’t find on a Greatest Hits compilation but are of such a high quality one must wonder, “why wasn’t this a single?”

Stepping in a little deeper, there are a lot of unreleased live versions of songs here. While Petty released a big multi-disc live set, Live Anthology the live versions of tracks you find here are revelatory. You get to hear the band develop as a live act. Especially of interest to me was a live version of “Breakdown” that was recorded live for a special radio broadcast at Capitol Studios, in front of a very small audience. That version of “Breakdown” was the only version of that song played on my local radio station, KY/102. This is the first official release of the song and it’s about time! When I bought their first eponymously titled album, I was disappointed when I realized the version of “Breakdown” was a studio version. It’s nice to finally hear this released in a clean copy. There are great live versions of tracks, including ones by Mudcrutch that are worth exploring. The Heartbreakers, Campbell on guitar, Tench on keyboards and either Ron Blair or Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone on drums, and utility infielder Scott Thurston on, well, almost everything, were one of the tightest bands around.

For those of you who own all the albums, many of the familiar tracks are here in “alternate” versions. “Here Comes My Girl” is the same track as originally released, but rather than fade out you get to hear the band jam a bit at the end. “Fooled Again” from the second album was sped up when it was originally released, and I like this slightly slower version. There’s something new to discover in these different versions. Special kudos to Ulyate for his work on bringing out features and sounds on these alternate versions that you might have missed on the first go around. Many of the alternate versions were earlier versions or have different arrangements or lyrics. There are enough differences in the alternate versions that kept me highly interested. The redone version of “Rebels” with a different drum track (without that 80s echo) is perhaps definitive here.

Finally, for me, the intense collector, there are a host of previously unreleased tracks. It’s an American treasure trove. I’d heard a few of these before, in different versions, “Surrender” (here a first take) and “Keeping Me Alive” (a Long After Dark leftover). There’s a great, funky little, Leon Russell-like track from Mudcrutch, “Lost In Your Eyes,” that makes me wonder, why’d they hide this amazing song so long. Of course, the first single, “Keep A Little Soul,” also an out take from Long After Dark, remains one of my favorites Tom Petty: New Single From The Upcoming Box-set, “Keep A Little Soul”. “Walkin’ From the Fire” is an excellent track from the Southern Accents that should have been on the album. There are just so many great tracks – “Gainesville,” Chuck Berry-style rave up “Lonesome Dave” or the jam “Two Men Talking” – everyone needs to hear these songs.

An American Treasure, which is a term we all use to describe Tom Petty, is an aptly named, wonderful tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ career. This is a must hear for all fans. Lock the door, turn off your phone and spend the evening with an old friend, Tom Petty, and may his “love travel with you, always.”

Cheers!

 

Advertisements

LP Review: Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ – All Aboard For The Album Of the Year

MI0004480231

Well, it took all the way to September, but I think finally – spoiler alert! – we have the B&V Album of the year in Paul McCartney’s epic new record Egypt Station. I reserve the right to change my mind should something stunning come out between now and New Year’s Eve… but I highly doubt anything like this will. We have to remember people, when the former Beatle puts an album out, it’s a pretty big fucking deal. McCartney’s late career renaissance continues. I’m still recovering from my Florida trip, but I have to say, this album really grabbed me. I’ve been thinking a lot since seeing Robert Plant on Monday night about artists who have to grapple with past glories but remain creative today (Concert Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, KC 9/10/18). While Plant has headed off in different directions from Zeppelin, McCartney just continues to hone his gifts and create new melodic pop/rock.

The world was such a different place when the Beatles broke up. The world was devastated and as usual in break ups, everyone was looking for someone to blame. Many blamed Yoko, which is bullshit, we always seem to blame the girlfriend. Since McCartney was the one who announced it, he was widely blamed especially in the rock press. He quietly just released a series of great albums, which at the time were only moderately appreciated by critics, but are now widely lauded. From McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run through the mellow London Town McCartney remained popular with the fans. He was a hit-single machine. No wonder he has so many Greatest Hits packages. You have to wonder if Lennon and McCartney’s rivalry in those days might have been like Hemingway and Fitzgerald – Hemingway always admired Fitzgerald’s writing style and Fitzgerald always envied Hemingway’s sales numbers. I’ll let you guess who is who in that analogy… but I’m off on a tangent.

Things had already started to cool off for McCartney when in 1980 John Lennon was tragically assassinated. I remember walking into a record store in ’82 and the clerk had slipped Tug Of War on the turntable. I wasn’t there to buy that record, but I ended up doing so. That was such a brilliant album, well except for those Stevie Wonder duets. Many of those tracks were directly about John. After that McCartney’s career started to stall. The magic seemed to be gone. He’d have a great song every now and then like “No More Lonely Nights” or “Spies Like Us” but his music became more convoluted and impenetrable. I always wondered if Lennon’s absence unmoored him a bit. They always brought out the best in each other – McCartney sweetened Lennon and Lennon toughened up McCartney. Even though they weren’t working together anymore you wonder if the loss shook McCartney more than even he realized. People play up the feud, but at the heart of that relationship was friendship.

I had written McCartney off in terms of buying his records, but I always kept one eye, or perhaps more correctly, one ear on what he was doing. I even bought Press To Play, which in retrospect was ill advised. There was always an interesting single that would pierce my indifference. Then in 1995-1996 McCartney immersed himself in the wonderful Beatles Anthology series of albums and documentary. By returning to that early music I think he rediscovered the magic of simplicity and melody.

When he re-emerged from the Anthology thing with 1997’s Flaming Pie it was a comeback as seismic as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind comeback.To prep for this I listened to that record again and it’s one of his best ever. Thus began the McCartney renaissance. If you’ve been ignoring him, it’s at your own peril. His late career albums are the type of records this blog is built on. Run Devil Run recorded and released a year after he tragically lost his wife Linda, was a return to the music of McCartney’s youth, namely, old school rock and roll. It was joyful and cathartic. From there he’s been on fire – Driving Rain (a more experimental but great McCartney album), Chaos and Creation (a mellow grower of a record) were both great records. As great as all of those records are, they were each very distinctive, ie, the songs on those albums were all of the same sound. Flaming was built on acoustic guitars. Devil was straight up rock  (kudos to David Gilmour on guitar). Driving Rain was trippy. They each had a coherency and showed off a singular strength of McCartney, of which there are many.

By 2005, I think McCartney decided, to hell with it, I do a lot of things well and I’m going to do it all on each record. His melody writing and penchant for hooks have not diminished over the years. Memory Almost Full was brilliant. It even had a mini-suit of songs toward the end that hark back to side two of Abbey Road. He followed that up with New that saw McCartney stretching out even farther. Ballads, rockers and “Queenie Eye” a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields” single… If you like the Beatles New is the record for you.

A few months ago on social media I began seeing McCartney posting black and white photos of instruments. A guitar leaning on an amp. Piano keys… Something was afoot. Indeed it was. He has returned after a five year absence with Egypt Station, a record he’s described as a “concept album.” I think that’s a conceit, as the concept is the listener boards a musical train at “Egypt Station” and each song is a stop along the line. It’s an odd concept, but it works in that it allows McCartney to go in any direction his creativity and melodies take him. There are ballads, rockers, even political songs on this album. Despite the variety of the material on the record, it hangs together very well. It was produced by Greg Kurstin who has worked with, gasp, Adele. Don’t let that scare you, this isn’t a mellow record. Kurstin puts a modern sheen on McCartney’s classic style. The record sounds current and yet timeless at the same time.The best moments on this album evoke past glories without wallowing in any nostalgia.

The first single, “Come On To Me” was a great crunchy rocker about sex. It’s catchy as hell. “Who Cares” starts with guitar feedback and deals with haters, “who cares what the idiots say?” “Caesar Rocks” (read that She’s a Rock) is another randy song about sex. For a guy 76 years old, this cat is horny still. We should all be so lucky. The only rocker that left me cold was the vulgar “Fuh You” (read Fuck You). It’s not the vulgarity, hell I cuss all the time, it’s that it’s a great riff and song but the lyric is kinda stupid.

There are great ballads in here as well. “I Don’t Know” starts the record with a beautiful, melancholy piano. It may still be my favorite song on the record (Paul McCartney: Two New Songs From The Upcoming ‘Egypt Station’). McCartney has a reputation as being Mr. Sunshine, but there are sadder elements just under the surface here. “Do It Now” is another sweet, but slightly sad ballad where someone seems to be saying goodbye. “Happy With You” is a stunning acoustic guitar driven song about the joys of domestic bliss. McCartney sings, “I liked to get wasted, but these days I don’t, ’cause I’m happy with you.” Somehow, with a name like BourbonAndVinyl, I can relate to that. The Rock Chick saved my life, but that’s another blog post. “Hand In Hand” is another piano driven track that’s just straight up about love. The one song that also jumped out at me from the mellower end of things was “Confidante.” I don’t know if he’s singing to an ex-lover, John Lennon, or both. It’s a great track. There are so many layers to this music.

I was glad to see McCartney, an old hippy, take up the topic of politics. “People Want Peace” is a big anthem of a track. You wonder if McCartney has been hanging with Ringo, Mr. Peace & Love. It’s a short track but effective. “Dominoes” is another catchy rocker with distorted guitars and nice drums and seems to be a call for unity when he sings, “Soon we’ll see that you and me, we’re really friends.” “Come Together” people… right now! The heart of this record for me, was the brilliant political allegory, “Despite Repeated Warnings,” about a ship being piloted by a crazy captain. The line, “how can we stop him, grab the keys and lock him up,” tells you all you need to know. At almost seven minutes long, it’s pretty epic.

The only track that lost me here was “Back In Brazil.” Even a genius can throw a curve ball at you. The chorus of “Ichi Ban” being repeated over and over made me think somebody should have pushed back on that one… The album ends with an old-style Red Rose Speedway medley, “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link.” The “Hunt You Down” portion rocks. “C-Link” is some tasty guitar solo’ing.

Egypt Station finds McCartney in fine voice. His instrument has not diminished at all. I think he plays all the musical instruments too. It’s a sprawling epic McCartney’s been doing since the “White Album,” although, it’s only one guy so that comparison may be hyperbolic on my part. This is a highly recommended album to all fans of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and great rock everywhere. It’s a shame music like this can’t find a place on modern radio…

Enjoy this one, it’s a treasure!

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

MI0000015324

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!

 

 

 

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

12_robin

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

BruceBorn1984

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

anthonybourdain

*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

cq5dam.web.1200.675

*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.”