Guns N’ Roses Drop Another “New” Song “Hard Skool”

Guns-N-Roses-Hard-Skool-1632488429

Now this is more like it…

Long time readers know of our love for Guns N Roses here at B&V. When Slash and Duff McKagan rejoined the band to go on tour a few years back we were hoping for new music. I saw them in 2016 and it seems like yesterday. It took a while but finally 2021 has seen the release of new GnR music. A few weeks ago they debuted a “new” song in concert named “Absurd.” Shortly after they played it live, the studio version was released to the public. It’s actually not a new song but a reworked Chinese Democracy outtake that was originally called “Silkworms.” Our reaction was… disappointment. It was an odd choice for their first track in 13 years. I couldn’t help but lament, this is what they came up with after being back together for five years?

I spent most my week listening to solo Lindsey Buckingham. My old college roommate, who I’ll call Walt (named changed to protect the guilty) would be proud… he was a big Buckingham fan. Walt is the only person I knew who owned Buckingham’s second solo disc, Go Insane. He played it in the room enough that I was the one who almost went insane. Lindsey recently released his latest solo, self-titled LP. Its the record that got him fired from Fleetwood Mac. I liked it but it’s too artsy for mass consumption. Lindsey plays all the instruments. The man needs to bring in some other musicians to play off of but I’m getting off topic. I wasn’t sure what, if anything I’d be writing about this weekend. This time of year, one must never underestimate new music Fridays. The rock gods smiled on us with the latest GnR track. Beautiful fall weather, football and now some “Hard Skool.”

Yesterday indeed saw the release of a second new GnR track, “Hard Skool.” Yet again this is a track who’s origins date back to yes, the Chinese Democracy days. It appears that instead of holing up during the pandemic and writing brand new material GnR are content to just rework leftover stuff from Axl’s vault. If that’s what we’re left with, I will say I’m relieved that at least “Hard Skool” is a kick ass song. While “Absurd” sounded like a bad Nine Inch Nails cover band, “Hard Skool” at least sounds like a Guns N Roses song. At their best GnR sounded dangerous, perhaps almost menacing and this track captures that alchemy. We are once again reminded that at one time, Guns N Roses were the greatest rock band on the planet.

The track opens with a great, rolling, Duff McKagan bass line. I don’t think Duff gets the credit he deserves as a bass player. He did some amazing work last year on Ozzy’s last LP, Ordinary Man. When the guitars kick in on “Hard Skool” there’s no mistaking that this greasy blues rock metal is Guns N Fuckin’ Roses, baby. While this is a Chinese Democracy outtake, it sounds like it could have been on one of the Use Your Illusions discs. It has that unhinged “Back Off Bitch” or “Right Next Door To Hell” vibe. I can not say enough about Slash’s lead guitar on this track. His solo is classic. There’s even a spacey, Led Zepplin-y bridge in the middle where everything slows down except for drums, Duff and Slash. Slash has such a distinctive tone when he plays. And let me say, kudos to Axl on the vocals. He sounds great. I don’t know if these are vocals from 13 years ago or not but he sounds like a man possessed. Nobody does pissed-off, scorned lover vocals like Axl. On this track, everybody shows up and does what they do best. It’s a great GnR track.

Here is the link to the new song, if you haven’t heard it you’ve gotta check it out:

If I have any complaint, I still wish these guys were collaborating on new music rather than just  being content with reworking Axl’s leftovers. After five years I would have expected that to have happened. Of course this could be an Axl ego thing, one never knows. He may be refusing to move forward with new stuff until he tidies up his music backlog. I hear they’re going to release an EP with the two new tracks (“Absurd,” “Hard Skool”) and several cover songs including, apparently, a version of Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets.” It kinda makes me feel like this is more of a touring exercise than full-fledged band reunion. Although for me, it can never be a real reunion without Izzy Stradlin but that’s another topic. For now we can just be happy with some new savage rock n roll…Nobody does it better than GnR.

Review: New Showtime Documentary: Bitchin’ – The Sound And Fury of Rick James

0_0_3474770_00h_1280x640

I am many things. I am not, however, funky. One merely has to casually glance at me and realize, there’s no funk there. I can rock but I just can’t roll. Believe me, in the old days, I certainly tried to be funky. But I’m not someone who should ever be seen on the dance floor. I’m the consummate wallflower. I have tried to get into funk music but it just never connected. I’ve purchased LPs by Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic (a group whose records my brother owned, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein) and various Motown acts like the Temptations. I could just never get into it. Little did I realize those acts were very strong influences on 70s/80s pop star, Rick James.

I came back from a trip a week or so ago and the Rock Chick smiled and said, “I’ve found a documentary I think you’d enjoy…” I was a tad surprised when I saw it was a new Showtime documentary about Rick James. The actual title was Bitchin’ – The Sound And Fury of Rick James, which I thought was a mouthful… however, now that I’ve seen the doc, it’s certainly fitting. I was surprised the Rock Chick thought I’d dig this documentary, although I’m quite pleased she did. Of course she knows how much I enjoyed Questlove’s Summer of Soul documentary… I’ve always thought of James as a funk artist and someone who is, if I’m being honest, a little outside of my wheelhouse. I didn’t really realize how many of his songs were “crossover” hits. A song was described as “crossover” when it crossed over from the Soul Charts (aka the Black Charts) to the mainstream Pop Charts. All that industry speak just means it was a song by a black artist that’s popular amongst a white audience, which seems like a badly outdated construct anymore. Rick James was out there making wildly popular hits in the late 70s/early 80s before Michael Jackson and Prince struck chart gold in the 80s. Rick James, in many ways, was the guy who blazed the trail for those other artists.

I was unaware, or had forgotten a lot of Rick James’ story. It’s a fascinating tale. Frankly when I think of James these days its usually in the context of the Dave Chappelle skit about him, “I’m Rick James, Bitch,” which is too bad because Rick had an amazing career. He hailed from Buffalo, New York. In the ’60s he joined the Army Reserve to avoid having to go to Vietnam. As his career as a multi-instrumentalist was taking off the Army life wasn’t to his liking so he deserted and moved to Canada. When in Canada he actually formed a band called the Mynah Birds with… rubs eyes and checks notes… Neil Young. I knew that but had forgotten all about it… I think Young had some Mynah Birds on his first Archive box. Rick and Neil had met on the thriving Toronto folk scene. Bruce Palmer was the bass player. They were signed by Motown and recorded a few singles… until someone dropped the dime on James for desertion. He ended up back in Buffalo in jail. Young and Palmer loaded up in Young’s hearse and drove to L.A. where they formed the Buffalo Springfield.

Once he was released, he and a friend named Greg Reeves traveled out to California. They both auditioned for bass player in the new Super-Group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Despite his relationship with Young, they chose Greg Reeves. It’s like James was living some sort of Forrest Gump existence. He was tricked into taking acid by Jim Morrison… He gave up on the folk-rock thing and moved back to Buffalo where he formed the Stone City Band. He was absorbing all sorts of influences – folk rock, Motown, the funk of Sly and George Clinton – but he was mixing in a little bit of a rock sensibility. They were signed by Motown. One of his early hits was “Mary Jane.” It was the first Rick James’ song I ever heard. I was in junior high and despite the fact that marijuana was merely a rumor – something the druggy  kids out behind the school were smoking or some of the older brothers of my friends were involved with – we all got a sly smile on our faces when we heard it… “Mary Jane is not a girl, the song is about pot!” Oh, we thought we were so cool and subversive. We mentioned James along with Bob Marley to prove were hip to the weed thing.

James went on to release the mega hit “Super Freak.” Everyone knew that track. It was one of the biggest crossover songs ever at the time. It gave him a ton of freedom and power. Motown tapped him to produce other artists including Smokey Robinson. He even formed a Girl-Band, The Mary Jane Girls and wrote their big hit, “In My House.” On his tour behind the Street Songs LP, opening act Prince must have been paying close attention as he would go on to repeat the formula to even greater success. It never dawned on me that Rick James was a big influence on Prince and other artists at the time. Hell, I even remember him producing Eddie Murphy’s only hit single, “Party All The Time.” I vividly recall watching the video for that song when I was in college… Eddie couldn’t sing but I thought it was cool when Rick James strolls out of the control booth and strides to the mic to sing with Murphy at the end.

But alas, all that success wouldn’t last. As usual it was a combination of hubris and well, drugs. Cocaine, and more specifically, crack cocaine were Rick James’ downfall. And women… there were a lot of women. There were problems with the law – as Dennis Quaid once said, “Drugs are fun, then fun with problems and finally, just problems.” Rick was arrested for holding a woman hostage and torturing her because he thought she stole his coke. He ended up doing time for that. As with so many stories, this was turns out to be a little sad. MC Hammer sampling “Super Freak” probably paid James more money than the original hit which is sad because MC Hammer is beyond lame. In the end Rick James passed at the tender age of 56. He never did overcome the demons of coke and booze.

Even with the somewhat sad ending, this was a great documentary on a fascinating character in the pantheon of rock n roll and pop music. Again, I think that Rick James’ career was trailblazing for a lot of Black artists who followed him. The guy may have been reduced to a punchline by Dave Chappelle but he even owned that. This is something any music fan would enjoy. I highly recommend checking this one out. As Rick would say, “It’s such a freaky scene.”

B&V’s Favorite “Comeback” LPs

0004975548

“Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years, rockin’ my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear” – LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”

Everybody loves the drama of a good comeback. If you think about Hollywood there’s really only two story lines. There’s the story where our hero struggles, but all good things come to him in the end. I don’t know about y’all but “happily ever after” doesn’t usually happen in real life, at least to me…with the exception of the Rock Chick of course. The other story line that Hollywood loves is the comeback. Our hero gains fame or fortune but somehow, usually through some personality flaw or the machinations of some villain, our hero falls. It’s how the hero handles that adversity that fuels the drama. He struggles and then finally rights the ship and makes, yes, the comeback. That’s certainly the formula they used for the Freddy Mercury and Queen movie, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ In that case, I’m not sure how historically accurate it was.

All of that said, there have been some great comebacks in rock n roll. There are many cases where a band or artist makes it big but then… loses it. Whether they succumb to drug abuse or the pressure of fame gets to them, the artist drifts creatively. The Rock Chick continually marvels at these bands/artists who work all their young lives to get famous and sell records, who finally “make it” only to lose their shit. I kinda understand that whole thing. I don’t think anybody has any conception of what real, big fame is like. The artist perhaps feels isolated, turns to drugs or some other self-destructive behavior. Or maybe just freaked out by their fame, the artist changes their musical approach or fires the band. Certainly hubris plays a big part in all of this… I’m thinking specifically of Axl Rose who thought he was Guns N Roses. Never underestimate band chemistry, Axl.

There are many cases of big stars who eventually faded. For some odd reason I’m thinking of Sly Stone when I type these words. But for every star who eventually faded, against all odds, there are artists who have made the improbable comeback. They have somehow been able to summon the creative fire of their early success and create an album or a series of LPs that solidify their legacy and place in the rock n roll pantheon. There are many of these “comeback” albums that I just love. As I was thinking about this concept, I thought I’d share our favorites with you. There’s something about an artist with their back against the wall who comes out swinging that I’ve always loved… but then I’ve always been the underdog.

  • Elvis Presley, From Elvis In Memphis – The greatest comeback ever belongs to the King. His evil manager Colonel Tom Parker had Elvis stuck on a treadmill of making basically the same movie over and over again. The King wasn’t even doing concerts anymore. The Colonel had rendered the King irrelevant. The one time in his career Elvis bucked the Colonel was when he decided to do a television special at the end of ’68. Longtime fans were nervous… did Elvis still “have it?” Indeed he did. He mesmerized on the Comeback Special. But how to follow it up? Elvis went back home to Memphis and recorded one of his strongest albums, From Elvis In Memphis. “Stranger In My Own Home Town” still brings chills up and down my spine. Had he not come out with a strong LP after the TV show the comeback would have fizzled… The Memphis album as it came to be known solidified the comeback… Alas Colonel Parker took over again and put Elvis on the Vegas concert treadmill but that’s another story.
  • Muddy Waters, Hard AgainThe 70s saw a bunch of new musical trends and they all led away from the blues and blues rock that had dominated in the late 60s, early 70s. Muddy kept putting out LPs in the early 70s with diminishing returns. One might describe his 70s output as disappointing. Muddy acolyte, blues master Johnny Winter approached Muddy about producing an LP. Muddy agreed. They assembled a topnotch backing band and the alchemy struck gold. The version of “Mannish Boy” on this album is definitive for me…
  • Johnny Cash, American Recordings – Johnny Cash was washed up and left for dead by the Country Music establishment. He was doing dinner clubs with an ensemble of musicians. Uber producer Rick Rubin attended one of those dinner club shows and approached the Man In Black about doing a stripped down album. American Recordings, his first of several LPs with Rubin, was stark and fierce. The liner notes were a copy of something Johnny wrote on lined notebook paper. It was a staggeringly successful return. “Delia’s Gone” was my favorite but there’s a lot to like. He does everybody from Nick Lowe to Danzig. It was the beginning of one of Johnny’s most fertile periods.
  • Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind – Even a diehard Dylan fan like me had given up on Bob by the late ’90s. The last LP I’d bought of his was Oh Mercy! almost a decade prior. Dylan had holed up and done a couple of albums of folk covers. I ignored them at the time – although I love them now – but those records recharged something in Dylan. Time Out of Mind feels like mortality itself reaching out to deliver a message It’s a late career masterpiece. It led to a series of great LPs in what can only be called a late career renaissance.
  • Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie – McCartney’s late 80s/early 90s losing streak was the thing of legend. I don’t think anybody was paying attention to him any more. It verged on being embarrassing. After he collaborated with the remaining Beatles on the Anthology Series, McCartney was able to reconnect with his creative spark. Flaming Pie was an amazing record and McCartney has been on a winning streak ever since, culminating in McCartney III last year.
  • George Harrison, Cloud Nine – Odd that there are a couple of ex-Beatles on this list… After his early solo success with All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s career had stagnated. The last thing I expected in the late 80s, driving around Ft Smith, Arkansas was to hear a great Harrison song, “Got My Mind Set On You.” Harrison had brought in Jeff Lynn of ELO fame to produce. Clapton and Ringo show up to help out. Cloud Nine led to the Traveling Wilburys and nice little late career surge for George, an underrated Beatle.
  • Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene – Zevon had so many career collapses and comebacks I struggled to pick just one record here… I picked Sentimental Hygiene because it’s one of his greatest records. The title track features a blistering Neil Young guitar solo – recorded in one or maybe two takes. Everyone should be listening to Warren Zevon and for God’s sake if any of you have any pull – get him into the Rock Hall of Fame, please.
  • Neil Young, Freedom – Speaking of Neil Young… the 80s were a terrible decade for him. He was actually sued by his record company for “Purposely making uncommercial music.” Sigh. While many of the songs on Freedom had been around for a while, the album hung together as a whole. “Rockin’ In the Free World” in both its acoustic and electric versions is an iconic Young tune. It was a real return to form and set Neil up for a very creative decade in the 90s. Neil’s always got something left in the tank.
  • The Allman Brothers, Seven Turns – You could perhaps describe this as a reunion album more so than a comeback album, but I love it and it was so good to hear the Allman Brothers make new music in 1990. They had a great three or four LP run after this. “Good Clean Fun” and the title track remain amongst my favorites.
  • Aerosmith, Permanent Vacation – I had loved 70s Aerosmith but then they just fizzled into a morass of heroin and stupidity. I thought Done With Mirrors was a better album but it was this LP that brought Aerosmith back to center stage. While “Angel” bothers me, I loved “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” and “Ragdoll” with his greasy slide guitar. The world is always better off when Aerosmith is rocking.
  • Metallica, Death Magnetic – The Load and Reload albums sold well for Metallica but man, they left me cold. St Anger was to these ears, unlistenable. But then in 2008 Metallica dropped this gem of a record and everything clicked for me in terms of Metallica. This comeback LP got me on their bandwagon for good… I went back and purchased all their first four LPs and they are amazing.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication – In the video for the first single from this album, the amazing “Scar Tissue,” the Chilis look like someone beat the shit out of them. They’d certainly had a rough go of it. Lead guitarist John Frusciante had quit. Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame had joined and left. They were considering doing an electronica based record. But Flea reached out to Frusciante who was fresh out of rehab – his heroin addiction can only be described as harrowing – and John decided to return to the fold. The results were proof Frusciante is the only person who should be playing lead guitar for the RHCPs. I saw this tour, still a very dark vibe from these guys but it was a great show. They went on to even greater heights until Frusciante quit again after Stadium Arcadium… only to return again. Fingers crossed for a new album from these guys.
  • Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, The Rising – Bruce had disbanded the E Street Band, his longstanding back up band and wandered in the wilderness through the 90s. He’d gotten them back together for a reunion tour but wasn’t sure he could still write rock songs. When the tragic events of 911 unfolded, Springsteen was inspired. He was walking down the street and a fan had yelled to him, “We need you now, man.” He responded with one of his greatest sets of songs ever. The Rising was a measured and inspired response to a horrible tragedy. It’s truly one of his finest hours.

If you’re feeling like a little rock n roll comeback drama, I highly recommend every LP on this list. I’ve been cranking Cloud Nine all day. I do so love the title track. Hopefully rock n roll drama is the only thing you’re facing out there today and everything is going well. Take care of each other out there!

Cheers!

Eddie Vedder: New Song, “Long Way” From The Upcoming Solo LP, ‘Earthling’

eddie-vedder-long-way-1631039035

“Her love was but a haunting, she left but never went away…” – Eddie Vedder, “Long Way”

I have a vague memory of the first time I saw Eddie Vedder. I think – and I could be wrong, I often am – it was his cameo in the Temple of the Dog video for (and song actually) “Hunger Strike.” In the video, he was lurking in the tall, weedy overgrowth at the edge of a beach like some menacing highway bandit. As I recall as he sang his parts, he seemed slightly unhinged, like he was tearing the words out of his soul. Other than that I only saw grainy, concert footage with him swinging around the lighting rigs, up above the stage, like an unhinged grunge Tarzan. I was dating a woman at the time who turned me onto Pearl Jam’s seminal first LP, Ten, something which I’m sure I never appropriately thanked her for. Between those two LPs, Temple of the Dog and Ten, I knew I’d forever be on this guy’s bandwagon. I don’t think I’d ever seen a man with the intensity of his vocal delivery. My “fandom” was only solidified when I saw Pearl Jam live at Red Rocks outside of Denver on the Vitalogy tour in 1995.

Pearl Jam may have had its commercial ups and downs but I stuck with those guys through it all. I was there for Binaural and Riot Act – the Riot Act tour was the only time I’ve seen Pearl Jam with the Rock Chick, still incendiary despite the downpour – and those two albums were probably their commercial nadir. I think everything they’ve done since 2006’s self-titled LP has been exceptional rock n roll. And, while I was slow to warm to Gigaton that LP grows in my estimation with every repeated spin. The thing about Pearl Jam is even on their darkest, least commercially oriented records there was always those one or two tracks that are transcendent for me in the way their early LPs were for all of us. Typically that’s a result of either Eddie Vedder’s songwriting or his singing. He may be one of the last of the great front men…

While many of his peers struck out to go solo, Vedder never seemed to want to make a big splash on his own. Most of the solo tracks of Vedder’s that I had in my collection were songs from either soundtracks or tribute albums. He did “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” on that I Am Sam Beatles-centric soundtrack. I seem to remember he rocked out on a solo performance of “I Believe In Miracles” on a Ramones’ tribute LP. In 2007 Vedder did the entire soundtrack for the film Into the Wild and at the time it was considered his solo “debut” album. The Rock Chick gave me that record as a surprise gift that year. Vedder said he modeled Into The Wild after Pete Townshend’s early solo recordings, Who Came Next. I really liked the song “Hard Sun.” After that Vedder released an LP that may have been strange to some – Ukulele Songs – that I actually enjoyed. It was what a solo record used to mean in the way back machine – something idiosyncratic and completely different from your day job.

As far as I knew, sitting here today Vedder had no plans for anything major on the solo front. He’s released some tracks, including a great cover of Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” that he recorded at his home studio in Hawaii during Corona. Vedder lives in Hawaii with his former model wife and family where he records what he wants when he wants and then every half a decade or so goes on a boys-weekend excursion with his pals in Pearl Jam. Can we all just admit right now that Eddie Vedder “won” grunge. Anyway, this Wednesday, Vedder released a surprise, new single “Long Way” with an announcement that his next solo record Earthling will be coming out at some undetermined point in the future.

New Eddie Vedder, sign me up, yes please. I was intrigued and immediately sought the song out. “Long Way” and the rest of this impending solo album were produced by Andrew Watt… who I may have to start referring to as Uber-producer since he blew me away producing last year’s Ozzy Osbourne record, Ordinary Man. “Long Way” features not only Watt on guitar/keyboards but Josh Klinghoffer formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar and Chad Smith currently still in the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums. I hope that wasn’t awkward. Watt called in Chad Smith to play drums on that Ozzy LP I mentioned before, they seem to be pals. Also on the track on the Hammond B-3 is Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers and I don’t know if it’s his presence here but a lot of people are describing this track as sounding like Wildflowers-era Petty.

To describe this song as sounding like a Wildflowers excerpt is not an exaggeration. I hear it most in the chorus which sounds almost slightly auto-tuned, which would stun me if it is. It begins all acoustic strumming with easy but insistent drums. It chugs along… like someone on the freeway. Actually Vedder sings the chorus, “She took the long way, on the freeway” and perhaps that intonation of “free,” in long, drawn out notes is what conjures the Petty vibe. The song has a great two-part guitar solo in the middle. The song is so evocative of driving down the highway, headed toward something or as was usually my case in the old days, away from something. The lyrics are all about a failed relationship that leaves the protagonist haunted. How familiar is this lyric: “He’d taken more than his share, trying hard not to awaken the voice of regret in his ear.” Yeah, been there… “wishing the past would disappear.” Vedder’s voice is in one of those transcendent places I spoke about earlier in the post. This is a beautiful, haunting, midtempo track that really sticks with me.

Everyone should check this track out, if only to hear Vedder sing in such a committed way. This is a beautiful song. I don’t know what this portends for Earthling, his new album but it’s a great start. This is one of those great, musical surprises I was hoping that 2021 would bring. I knew musicians were squirreled way in their studios making splendid noise. Enjoy this one folks!

Cheers!

George Harrison’s Magnum Opus ‘All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary’ Edition

image

“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day. Seems my love is up and left you with no warning, its not always going to be this grey…” – George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass”

Since its been a whole month since this new 50th anniversary version of All Things Must Pass came out on August 6th I’ll have to admit to you, it’s taken me a while to get this piece written. Other things kept popping up from Plant/Krauss to Metallica that prevented me from getting this done. The original LP/vinyl version of George Harrison’s first (official) solo album All Things Must Pass was three albums long – already a magnum opus – the 50th anniversary edition is 5 CDs. That’s a lot to digest. I had been shying away from sharing my thoughts on big editions like this that are focused on one album. Well, I’ve been shying away from anything like this by anybody but Prince. Prince’s “deluxe editions” are always packed with an enormous amount of unreleased material. John Lennon did a 50th anniversary edition of Imagine and I didn’t even check it out. I figured it would be all roughed out demos and “alternate takes.” Only the true collectors could delve into those waters. The box set that changed my opinion on this was CSNY’s Deja Vu – 50th Anniversary. That set blew me away. And admittedly I’ve been in a heavy celebration of all the great music of 1971 all year long…

I remember when the sitcom Seinfeld was on television. Seinfeld was a huge Superman fan. It reignited a debate from when I was a kid. The question always was, are you a Batman fan or a Superman fan? We like to create rivalries on all things it seems. Supposedly, which side you fall on in this debate tells us something about your personality. For the record, I’m a Batman fan. He was darker… his origin story was more violent and horrible. Anyway, there was a similar debate when I started listening to music – are you a Beatles guy or a Stones guy? In the late 70s when I first started listening to music, I was 100% a Stones guy. Not surprisingly, my brother who usually tends to line up on the opposite side from me, was a Beatles fan. Frankly, all these years later I believe it’s possible to be a fan of both… the Stones and the Beatles, not Superman and Batman… you have to make a choice on the latter. For Beatles fans, it wasn’t enough to be a Beatles fan, you had to declare a “favorite Beatle.” Purists, what are you going to do? I think, and I would never dare to speak for him, my brother was a George fan. George was the quiet Beatle. I think George was considered the quiet Beatle because he could never get a word in edgewise with McCartney and Lennon hogging the spotlight. I always thought of him as more the sullen, frustrated Beatle. He wrote songs like “Taxman,” or “You Like Me Too Much.”

When the Beatles finally disintegrated in acrimony, they all went on to solo careers. For years Harrison had been stockpiling songs. Lennon and especially McCartney prevented his songs from making the released Beatles albums. His contributions to the Beatles’ last LP, Abbey Road, couldn’t be ignored however. The songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” were the best songs on the album. Sinatra once covered “Something” in concert and announced it as the best song Lennon/McCartney ever wrote… probably too much bourbon for Frank. There was some thought that McCartney was threatened by Harrison’s amazing development as a songwriter and that was another contributing factor in the Beatles break up. McCartney’s penchant for doing dozens and dozens of takes on trifles like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” couldn’t have helped. Lennon used to refer to those types of songs as McCartney’s “granny-style” music.

Harrison really had developed as a songwriter and with Lennon/McCartney keeping his songs off the Beatles records he had this incredible number of great songs he was sitting on. Uber-producer Phil Spector had worked with the Beatles on what would become Let It Be and had worked with John Lennon on his early solo stuff. Harrison decided to bring him in for All Things Must Pass. Spector’s “wall of sound” was considered the perfect background for Harrison’s “reedy” voice. I’ve always liked his voice, I’m not sure where that assessment comes from. The burst of creativity that is All Things Must Pass is nothing short of breathtaking. It was a statement to the world, George Harrison would be silenced no longer. It was a double album with a third LP sub-titled Apple Jams all packaged in a small box. Three LPs was almost unheard of in the 70s. I remember going into my brothers room and marveling at the enormity of it all. He had that box and the Concert For The People of Bangladesh which was also a triple- LP packaged in a large box. Those are probably worth some money these days. I don’t know where my brother got all this bread to buy these giant box sets but clearly his allowance was larger than mine.

To me, All Things Must Pass is the greatest solo LP from any Beatle. Ok, I could probably do without the Apple Jams third album. Like most people who discovered rock n roll in the 70s I started off as a big McCartney fan. Then by college I’d shifted to being a Lennon guy. I love their solo work but nothing compares to All Things Must Pass. The sheer volume of top shelf material here is astounding. Harrison has spent the end of ’69 up at Woodstock with Dylan and the Band and his obsession with the sitar ended and he rediscovered playing guitar. That experience supposedly inspired “Run of the Mill,” a track that ends the first album. He also covers Dylan’s “If Not For You.” “My Sweet Lord” was the first single, one of Harrison’s signature songs. So many great tracks: “Wah Wah” about the guitar, a farewell to his former bandmates in the title track, “Let It Down,” “Beware of Darkness,” and so many more. Every track on the first two albums could have been a hit. Maybe if Harrison had held back some of these tracks he could have solidified his solo career in the early days. There’s rock and roll, folk influences, gospel chords and of course, Eastern religion plays heavily here. It was an explosion of creativity that signified everything Harrison was into and everything he was about. It’s enormous yet a very personal statement. “Awaiting On You All” has been running through my brain non-stop all month. I’m a non believer and I’m singing, “the lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.” I’m not sure that’s true but what a great song and sentiment. 

The band backing him on this album is also quite extraordinary. Clapton brought all the guys he’d met while on tour with Blind Faith from the opening band, Delaney and Bonnie inlcuding Jim Gordon (drums) and Carl Radle (bass). Those guys went on to form Derek and the Dominos. Ringo shows up as well as John and Yoko on a track. Tellingly, only McCartney is absent. If you dig deep enough it’s a who’s who of British rock. Ginger Baker from Cream plays drums on a track. Klaus Voorman, bassist friend of the Beatles is here. Peter Frampton is on acoustic guitar. Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock show up on keyboards. Dave Mason, guitarist of Traffic is on the LP. Alan White, later of Yes shows up on drums. Spector’s “wall of sound” approach usually included multiple drummers, guitars and backing singers on all songs. One could imagine him saying, “More guitars and drums and you two in the back, pick up those tubas and play something… horns, more horns.” The sound is all encompassing and powerful. It’s really incredible.

All of that said, I really dig the bonus material here and believe me, with three discs of it, there is plenty. Disc 3 on the CD version of the box is probably my favorite. It’s Harrison laying down demos of the tracks for Spector. It’s just Harrison, typically on acoustic guitar with Ringo on drums and Klaus Voorman on bass. That’s a similar line up of who recorded Lennon’s Plastic Ono album. Just Lennon and that same rhythm section. I think Spector’s decision to add all the backing musicians and turn it up to 11 was the right decision but I like these quiet, stripped down versions. They’re all (for the most part) fully realized songs. It makes for a much more personal statement from Harrison. The focus is more clearly on the lyrics. It feels like you’re sitting around the campfire jamming. They aren’t all acoustic tracks, “What Is LIfe” is still a rollicking rocker in this stripped down form. These early takes are so different from the released LP I found them fascinating. There are a few unreleased tracks here too. “Going Down to Golders Green” is a track he gave to another artist. There are two Eastern themed songs, “Om Hare Om” and one I really dug, “Dehra Dun.” Considering the unreleased stuff, he could have done three LPs without the jam LP. “Sour Milk Sea” was another acoustic track that would have translated well to an electric, full-band version. “Awaiting On You All” has different lyrics which include a swipe at the Pope which I thought was funny.

Disc 4 continues the demos theme. It’s mostly acoustic but this time just George alone with an acoustic guitar. I like “Everybody/Nobody” which was not included on the LP. “Beautiful Girl” is a track that eventually saw the light of day on the album Thirty Three & 1/3. “Tell Me What Happened To You” was an interesting outtake as is “Nowhere to Go,” which finds George alone on electric. “Cosmic Empire” is a track that I thought could have been a hit with a band. It’s a great little ditty. “Mother Divine” is another track I wish he’d pursued. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the acoustic versions of these songs presented here but it does hint at the fact there was so much more here.

The final disc, disc 5, has outtakes featuring the whole band backing him up. “Hear Me Lord” sounds like a jam that could have been a Derek and the Dominos outtake. What a great, big rock n roll tune that one is. George and the band do a funny rendition of “Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Gang of Mine.” The lyrics of this version of “Isn’t It A Pity” start off with “Isn’t it so shitty, we do so many takes, now we’re doing it again.” I wonder if that is a swipe at McCartney or Spector? They even include a version of the Beatles’ “Get Back” that is a sloppy delight. I like the bluesy “Down to the River (Rocking Chair Blues).” The bluesy, acoustic “Woman Don’t Your Cry For Me” is completely different than the version released on Extra Texture. The musicians he has in the studio with him really were extraordinary.

There is so much to like in these unreleased demos and outtakes. It does remind me of the recent 50th anniversary edition of CSNY’s Deja Vu. The quality of the unreleased stuff is on par with what was finally released. It just underscores what a huge, freeing, creative burst this album was for Harrison. I’ve come to appreciate a lot of George’s solo work over the years but this box really reconnected me to his masterwork. It’s well worth the investment of time.

Cheers!

 

Review: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Return With New Song “Can’t Let Go” From Upcoming LP ‘Raise The Roof’

Robert Plant has had a storied career. He began – or became famous anyway – as the lead singer of the legendary, hard-rock band Led Zeppelin. There were two bands that were worshiped like deities in the 70s when I was in junior high school: Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Of course I may think that because most my friends were stoners and stoners tend to gravitate to those bands. Maybe it was all that velvet, black-light art work… We weren’t listening to punk in the Midwest, we were listening to classic rock. After the tragic, preventable death of Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, Zeppelin decided to disband. Bonham would have been hard to replace. And in all honesty I think Zeppelin had watched the Who try to replace Keith Moon with former Faces’ drummer Kenny Jones and realized it might be a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I still dug the Who and Face Dances is one of those LPs only I love… but the Who were fundamentally different without Moon on the kit.

Almost from the moment Zeppelin broke up – on December 4th 1980 – people have been clamoring for a Zeppelin reunion. Early on there were rumors that Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were going to dump bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and form a “super group” with the former rhythm section of Yes, Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums). I’m still not sure where those rumors came from. I think the four had jammed one afternoon. I think the rumor took root because the proposed name of the new band was catchy. They were going to be called XYZ… for Ex-Yes and Zeppelin. Which I have to admit is a pretty cool name. But, confounding the adoring, broken-hearted fans Plant put out his first solo record a year and half later, in June of 1982, entitled Pictures At Eleven. I absolutely loved that album despite Phil Collins playing drums… well, he’s actually a great drummer, but I digress. “Burning Down One Side” is one of my all time favorite songs.

From there Plant’s solo career has really been a journey. He’s explored the vast regions of roots-centric rock ever since. Every few LPs he’d change his band or change his sound. He experimented with what was new and current but always kept a foot in the bluesy, folky stuff that he sang in his early days. I’m not suggesting much of what he’s done solo is “Zeppelin-esque” but it does have some of the same qualities. As he’s gotten older Plant went from the banshee wail of those early Zep albums to becoming a fuller singer with a richer voice. I have absolutely loved the sound of his voice on his last few solo records like his last LP, Carry Fire. His late period solo career from Dreamland onward has been the stuff that B&V was founded on. I have seen Plant solo (and with Jimmy Page in Plant-Page) several times and the last concert of his I attended might have been the best yet.

Despite all the success and wonderful music Plant has put out over the years there are still those who would love to see a Led Zeppelin reunion. I think the show they did in London at the O2 Arena (memorialized on the live LP and Blu-Ray, Celebration Day) will be the last we see of Zeppelin. I think Plant likes to be relaxed. He doesn’t like the pressure that a reunion LP and tour would put on him… the pressure to match the heights that Zeppelin soared to in the 70s would indeed be daunting. I saw Plant at the venerable Uptown Theater with the Rock Chick years ago and after the main set, when Plant came out for the encore, he strolled out on stage with a cold Red Stripe beer in his hand. He looked as chill as they come. I certainly envied him the cold Jamaican beer. I think that’s the vibe Plant wants in his life. Who needs the hassles of expectations?

I think the pressure of high expectations is also what has kept Plant from doing a second duets LP with Alison Krauss. I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years since the wonderful Raising Sand. That album was a runaway success. I can remember hearing about it coming out and going to the CD store to pick it up… I brought it home and rushed it down to my “man-cave,” the rock and roll basement. The Rock Chick and I sat smiling and marveling at the wonderful harmonizing Krauss and Plant were doing. It was a laid back, rootsy affair. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “This is going to be huge.” And indeed it was. We saw them in concert on the ensuing tour and it was wonderful. They brought that harmonizing alive that night. There were rumors that they were going to record a follow up with producer T Bone Burnett back at the helm but it never came. The rumors seemed to indicate they were going to actually write new, original songs for the follow-up. But the bigger Raising Sand became the bigger those pesky expectations became. And I think Plant felt that pressure and decided to grab a Red Stripe and head the other direction…

We finally have a reunion involving Plant – perhaps not the reunion all the Zeppelin fans have clamored for – but a reunion I’m excited about. Plant and Krauss finally got together, with producer T Bone Burnett (also on guitar) for a new LP, Raise The Roof. I don’t know what is up with the use of the word “Raise” in both titles but hey, it worked last time. From what I’ve seen there are no original songs on this LP. It appears they’re sticking to the formula that worked so well with Raising Sand and the new LP will be another album of all cover songs. They’ve released the first single, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ great tune “Can’t Let Go.” Its a song from her masterpiece, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. I can’t think of a better song selection for their roots-driven vibe than this Lucinda Williams tune.

Once again we have those two fabulous voices, weaving together like a finely knitted sweater. They sing over what has to be T Bone Burnett’s spidery guitar and (I’m assuming) the subtle drumming of Jay Bellerose. Plant’s voice is a little more dominant but Krauss is right there with him. They compliment each other in much the same way the Everly Brothers used to. They really kill it on this track. The Rock Chick exclaimed, when I played the track for her, “They’re just so damn good together!” They capture the spirit of Lucinda’s original but make it their own. This is a great kick off to what promises to be a fantastic LP… Here’s the link to the song:

While it’s been a tough week here at B&V with the loss of Charlie Watts, this great little roots rocker is helping pull me through. It’s strong enough it got me to stop obsessively listening to the Stones…(“the drummer thinks that he is dynamite”). I hope it gets you down the road to where you’re going… maybe grab a Red Stripe while you listen to this one and kick back. Its what Robert Plant would do.

Cheers!

 

Review: New Song From Billy Idol, “Bitter Taste” From the Upcoming EP ‘The Roadside’

BFI_The Roadside-CD Wallet FNL

I’m not a big social media guy. I got on Instagram so I could follow the Stones. Now I follow a number of bands. I got on Twitter for much the same reason. Bands seem to announce new music, new albums or a new tour on social media. I didn’t want to move from vinyl to CDs in the 90s but record companies forced my hand. I didn’t want to get on social media, but again, rock n roll forced my hand. I am not on Facebook and I will remain that way forever. My friend drummer Blake tells me it would help my readership if I did get on Facebook but I’m simply not interested.

I got on one of the social media sites this week and was scrolling through in my usual absent minded way. I follow Billy Idol and saw he’d posted what looked like a video of him driving. I had the thing muted as I was listening to David Crosby’s new LP, For Free…rather obsessively I might add. I’ve been all over the place musically of late going from Jackson Browne to Metallica to Guns N’ Roses then to David Crosby. One foot on the gas, one foot on the brake as I’ve always been fond of saying. Anyway, I scrolled right past the Billy Idol post. Don’t get me wrong, I love Billy Idol. The Rock Chick and I saw him at the Uptown Theater a few years ago and he and his guitarist Steve Stevens, who I’m also a huge fan of, were on fire that night! But for some reason – despite getting on social media to be alerted to new music – I wasn’t paying attention and completely missed Billy’s new tune.

The Rock Chick came up to my home office, which is a cubby hole in the attic, and said “Have you heard this new awesome Billy Idol song?” Because I’m brain dead, I had to say no. There’s a Bad Company song entitled “She Brings Me Love,” but in my case with the Rock Chick, she brings me music. She immediately pulled Idol’s new song up on YouTube – I’ve shared the accompanying video below – and I was blown away. The new track is called “Bitter Taste.” Oh, my god, this is the best thing Billy Idol has done since Charmed Life. Apparently Idol is releasing a four song EP, The Roadside and “Bitter Taste” is the first single. This is not only a great song, it’s one of Idol’s best tracks ever. I was completely entranced by this track.

I’ll admit in the 80s I was a slow adopter on Idol. The haircut, the videos, the snarl, and the whole punk rock thing put me off. I was busy in the 80s listening to music from the 60s and 70s. But once I started listening to the songs on Rebel Yell I started to get interested. Videos didn’t help everybody back in the day. I still had to hear the music on a stereo to get into something. I dug the song “Rebel Yell” but it was “Eyes Without A Face” that made me an Idol fan. I taped my roommates’ copy of the Rebel Yell album and to this day I don’t know why “Blue Highway” wasn’t a bigger song. The first LP of his I bought was Whiplash Smile which was an uneven record but “Forgot To Be A Lover” remains a personal favorite. I actually re-bought that album on vinyl right before the pandemic. Although, even I’ll admit I didn’t connect with his last couple of records. That cold streak ends with “Bitter Taste.” The Rock Chick played the song several times last night while DJ’ing a rock mix while we, er, she prepped dinner… she’s a talented person. It’s definitely in high rotation here at the house.

“Bitter Taste” starts off with the strumming of an acoustic guitar. It takes me back to Idol’s song “Prodigal Blues.” The lyrics portray a man who has lived hard and is unapologetic about doing so. “You should have left me way back, by the roadside.” I think those of us who have lived life on the harder edge can relate. I’ve made a lot of wrong decisions in my life but at least they were my decisions. “Hello, goodbye, I was staring in the Devil’s Eye.” I’m not a huge video guy, but here’s the link. I’ll even admit I think it’s pretty cool too.

I love Steve Stevens’ spectral electric guitar that is ever present but never overwhelms the track. It floats in the background until the very end then bursts forward like tears held back too long. When Stevens intertwines the acoustic guitar with the electric, it’s money. Shading the light with the dark, it’s the perfect balance. I feel like Stevens is one of those guitar greats who never gets the credit he deserves. He and Idol are a fabulous combination.

I believe Idol is going out on tour… I’m vaccinated and I hope he comes somewhere near here. Hearing “Bitter Taste” will be worth the price of admission. As I read today on the dreaded social media, “Vaccines are the gateway drug to concerts.” Stay tuned for more on the upcoming EP The Roadside. We’ll definitely be keeping an ear out for that one.

Cheers!

Review: Guns N Roses First New Song In 13 Years, The Aptly Titled “Absurd”

M_gnrabsurd_8621

Leave it to Guns N’ Roses to sneak up on me…

Last week was the first week in a long, long time that I’ve taken a “vacation” from music. Mind you – it wasn’t by choice. My corporate masters called me to New York for a series of meetings that chewed up most my week. Typically my job allows me to have some music on in the background when I’m toiling away on a spreadsheet or a written report. It comes as no surprise to B&V readers that I like to listen to music while I’m writing stuff. In between Webex meetings I’ve usually got tunes on. I don’t think I’m unique in that habit. But when I’m traveling to meetings like the New York session I’m typically sitting in conference rooms surrounded by people. At night I’m usually out at dinner with colleagues making small talk (“So what do you do Hank?”) and by the time I get back to the hotel, it’s lights out. I didn’t even get to listen to any tunes on the flights I was on getting to and from New York. Flight time is thinking time… which really means nap time.

When I got back home on Thursday night, the Rock Chick had her usual plethora of things we “need” to get done. I typically have music on at all times in my personal life, but the Rock Chick kept me busy… well, her and the Olympics kept me occupied. It was the first week in a long time I hadn’t posted anything on B&V. But having spent the week in the relative silence of a rock n roll void, I didn’t even think about posting. I did see however, that G’n’R had performed a “brand new song” called “Absurd” at Fenway Park in Boston. I lived in Boston for a summer and Fenway would be an awesome venue to see Guns N’ Roses. Eventually I pulled the track up and listened to the live performance. I thought perhaps they were messing with us and this was some kind of joke. To quote the Rock Chick who I played the song for, “That’s fucking terrible.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m on record as a huge Guns N’ Roses fan. I think had Axl been able to avoid his LSD (Lead Singer Disease) and the original line-up held together these guys would rank up there with the Stones or Zeppelin. I have to admit, after Axl took over the band and was the last original member standing, then took fifteen years to record an album, they lost me a bit. And, I will admit I found Chinese Democracy to be a huge disappointment. In retrospect, if you set aside all my enormous expectations, it wasn’t a horrible LP. It just wasn’t that great dirty blues metal that I’d come to love and cherish from GnR. Axl clearly has a Nine Inch Nails fetish. They veered into an almost Industrial Rock thing.

I was very encouraged and delighted when original lead guitarist Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan returned to the fold for the “Not In This Life Time Tour.” I saw their Kansas City show at Arrowhead Stadium in 2016. Other than last year’s pandemic shutdown, they’ve been touring almost constantly ever since. For those us hard core fans out here, that was great but I think I speak for the “GnR Universe” when I say we all wanted to hear new music from these guys. Although I have to admit, I was a little leery of their creative process without founding member, rhythm guitarist and foremost Axl songwriting partner Izzy Stradlin. It’s a shame that he’s not included in this reunion, but that’s another post.

I just realized on Monday that they’d released the studio version of “Absurd” on Friday… I’m usually on top of these new music releases but hey, I was still jet lagged. New York is my kinda town. I have to say, upon hearing the studio version of “Absurd” I was stunned… by how absurdly bad it is. I try to stay positive here on B&V but when something momentous like a new GnR single happens, I have to say something. Apparently they reworked an outtake from the Chinese Democracy sessions called “Silkworms” and now it’s called “Absurd.” It was written by longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and former keyboardist Chris Pitman. Soooo, its been 5 years since Slash and Duff came back and you just reworked a single written by the keyboard section that wasn’t good enough to make it onto Chinese Democracy? I guess I was right about the absence of Izzy Stradlin. These guys have put out one album in like 30 years and this is what they chose to lead with?

The track starts with the line, “Listen motherfuckers to a song that should be heard.” This is one motherfucker who would disagree on that whole “should be heard” premise. Axl’s vocals are sung like he’s mad at us. It sounds like he’s shouting through a megaphone. I mean, Zach De La Rocha has an impassioned delivery but at least the music – while still very powerful – has some nimble swing to it. I’ve never heard the oft bootlegged original version of this song, “Silkworms” but I understand it was more electronica than classic GnR rock. I will say that “Absurd” does have some great Slash guitar work. It’s the only thing that makes this track palatable. And Duff has a lovely little bass line on the song, the guy is a nimble player. Those guys certainly elevate the track but not enough to make it interesting. And the lyrics are some of the most misogynist I’ve heard in a while, even for GnR.

You would hope a band this important would want their first single in over a decade to be something epic, something that will burnish their legend and re engage fans. This is so far off the mark that it baffles me. I’ve been hoping for a new GnR album for 5 years… now, not so much. Let’s hope this turns out to be a minor stub of the toe and they’ve been actually working on new material – not just rewarmed Chinese Democracy rejects. They had a year off to write, didn’t they?

Sigh. Cheers!

Review: ‘Summer of Soul…(Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – Brilliant!

unnamed-2021-06-24T152122.522-1624562617-1000x1482

It was last Friday, after a long work week when I wandered out of the cubby hole in the attic I call my office and staggered downstairs to the living room. I flopped down in my chair with an exhausted sigh. The Rock Chick asked me if I’d checked to see if there was any good new music released that day? I don’t know why she even asked, she knows I obsessively check for new music every Friday as that’s the day new music comes out. Sadly I could only say, “Nah, nothing new.” As often happens in my marriage she voiced the very thoughts in my head out loud. “What happened to all this new music that was supposed to come out in 2021, that all the bands we dig were supposed to be working on in lockdown?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly. Usually when new stuff comes out, we’ll pour a drink or two and listen to tunes on Friday night. There have been literally only 4 new LPs that have piqued my interest this year: Cheap Trick, Black Keys, Billy Gibbons and Dirty Honey. I did dig the surprise Bowie birthday single this year, two great covers. I hope those Bowie vaults have more gems…

This Friday, after an even longer work week, I repeated the same ritual of staggering down the stairs. It had been a tough week so I poured myself a tumbler of dark, murky fluid… Four Roses bourbon to be exact. I sat in my easy chair with a hard drink and muttered, “Another week, no new music we’d be interested in.” Not even a single. I guess all the bands I heard were recording: The Cult, The Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with John Frusciante back in the fold, no less!) are either still laboring over their respective new music or they’re waiting to see if this Delta Variant causes touring to be impossible again this year. I hope we don’t see another year of darkened concert halls and empty stages. I think the world really needs music, especially now. I am looking forward to new David Crosby and Jackson Browne LPs next Friday.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my usual spot, sipping bourbon, wondering what Friday night held for the Rock Chick and I. After we dined, she grabbed the remotes and started pulling up Hulu. I don’t know how it works with the remote control in your house. I used to treat the remote to the TV like it was a scepter. He who controls the “power stick” controls the universe. But as the number of remotes needed has multiplied with streaming and such, I’ve ceded control to the Rock Chick. She plans what we binge watch anyway and let’s face it, you have to pick your battles in relationships. As soon as Hulu flickered onto the screen I realized what she was pulling up. I had mentioned the new documentary directed by Questlove – one of the coolest dudes on the planet whose encyclopedic knowledge of music humbles even me – Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). I had been wanting to see this documentary but had forgotten about it during the turbulent week…I mention something to the Rock Chick once and it’s like a steel trap, it’s gonna happen. I need to start mentioning things like Blanton’s bourbon…but I’m off topic.

The summer of 1968 was a turbulent one in America, especially for Blacks in the inner cities. Martin Luther King, Jr had been assassinated in April and there was broad rioting across America and New York’s Harlem was no exception. Bobby Kennedy was killed in June of ’68 making matters worse. Then reactionary thug Richard Nixon was elected in November. That ain’t no summer of love… what a difference a year makes. In 1969, perhaps in an effort to distract people they put on a series of concerts over six weeks in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now I believe it’s called Marcus Garvey Park). The concerts were billed as the Harlem Cultural Festival. Apparently they had cameras and filmed this event. When you consider Woodstock was just up the road around 100 miles and they filmed it and released a movie, one has to wonder, where has this film been? Apparently all the film of what was known as “Black Woodstock” sat in someone’s basement for 50 years, untouched. It’s been years since I saw Woodstock at the midnight movies at Oak Park Mall, but that was an influential movie for me, quite formative. I can’t help but wonder what impact this footage of Black Woodstock would have had on everybody had it been released similarly.

Questlove did an amazing job as director of this film. I literally had tears in my eyes during certain moments of the film. He took the original concert footage – which is so vibrant and beautifully shot – and mixed in news reel footage to give it all some historical perspective. He interviews a number of the performers who played the Festival. He also – and I loved this – interviewed some of the people who were kids in the crowd that historic summer. The overflowing vibes of Black Power and Black Pride put the aforementioned tears in my eyes. I just loved this film. It was a really difficult time in America and especially for Black Americans… Sadly, it was eerily similar to what we see today… certainly like the summer of 2020. I’d have hoped we’d have made more progress in 50 some years.

The performers and performances also just knocked me out. It started with a young Stevie Wonder singing and playing a righteous drum solo. There was a big Gospel section in the middle of the movie – one might consider it the heartbeat of the film, as it is for so many performers – that featured the Staples (I love Pop on guitar and Mavis!) and Mahalia Jackson. The Fifth Dimension does a couple of songs and they interview Marilyn Mccoo and Billy Davis, Jr. I must say, Florence LaRue is my new rock n roll crush right now. Sly and the Family Stone – one of the first bands to feature men and women, black and white – put on their usual incendiary performance. B.B. King is such a beloved performer, I love his song in the film. Seeing Gladys Knight I realize I will never be, nor have I ever been cool enough to be a Pip…the way those cats move! David Ruffin from the Temptations does a solo set (he’d just left the group) that proves he may be the greatest rock/soul singer ever. Of the performances, I have to admit Nina Simone steals the show. It was a thing of brilliance to end the movie on her performance. It really puts an exclamation point on the film. “Blacklash Blues” is a song for the ages. She was fierce. 

I urge everyone out there to see this film. This is a hugely important historical document. It shows the Black community coming together peacefully to vibe on great music and culture. This was an event that didn’t deserve to be a whispered rumor or fading memory but should be celebrated as the cultural touchstone that it was. Its a great thing for music fans to see this footage but it’s also a great look back to 1969 and what was happening in Harlem. Its a wonderful addition to the Woodstock movie in terms of viewing 1969 musically. I was profoundly moved watching this film. I laughed, I cried… it really got to me. I think it will do that for everyone who watches it. Whoever controls the remote in your house needs to dial this movie up immediately…

Cheers!

 

Something Different, 4th of July Memories: My Father-In-Law And Dirt Road Surprises

IMG_1192

In loving memory of R.A.S.

I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, across the state line in Kansas in Johnson County. Growing up in the suburbs is like growing up in the slow lane. You lack that hipster vibe that you get when you grow up in a more urban, big city environment. I used to think, “At least I’m cooler than those farm kids…” And then I met the coolest farm kid ever, the Rock Chick. I was surprised to learn such a dazzling, stylish woman had grown up in more rustic surroundings on a farm. It was then that I realized that my upbringing in the suburbs not only lacked that big city hipness but a certain “country” self reliant vibe. People who grow up on a farm just know how to do stuff… change the spark plugs, check. Of course, when I went to college, at Kansas State University, I met a lot of people who grew up out in the country and those guys were insane. I’d never met people who partied with such gusto. Work hard, play hard, indeed. Growing up in the suburbs, you hung out at the mall. It was like Fast Times At Ridgemont High… Growing up in a rural environment was more like Beyond Thunderdome with beer and tractors. As far as I was concerned I didn’t know the difference between a John Deere riding mower and a combine. What does it mean to slice the milo?

As I see the calendar rolling towards the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, and I lay in bed at night listening to various neighborhood miscreants lighting off midnight fireworks, I can’t help but think of my father-in-law. I was quite fond of my father-in-law, who I’ll call Billy. Billy sadly passed away about 11 years ago. I still miss the guy. He was a paraplegic. He was hurt in a farm accident when the Rock Chick’s mother was pregnant with her. She only saw her father standing in photos. Billy was an imposing figure, one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met. He had a way with the ladies, despite the wheelchair. When I went to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he made me sweat a little and then gave me his blessing. Then we drank a ton of beer and shot rifles at targets all afternoon. Like I said, he was cool. If you want cement a good relationship with your future father-in-law, take the time to honor the man and ask his blessing when you go to marry his daughter, but I’m off topic… Every 4th of July, the Rock Chick, her daughter and I would drive down to the Rock Chick’s sister’s farm. We’d meet Billy there and well, do what everyone in the Midwest does: drink beer, grille BBQ chicken, play a lot of loud country music and prime Bob Seger and blow shit up. By nightfall Billy would slip off back home and the rest of us would climbup on the roof to watch the panoramic sky full of small town fireworks displays.

Billy was a gun enthusiast, to say the least. He was also a collector of older, vintage trucks. When he retired from ranching, he was always on the internet seeking out parts for these dinosaur trucks he was building. The man almost always had a hidden agenda. We had a hot dog roast on his farm one time and when he lit the bonfire, I discovered he’d hidden a tire in the burning pile. He needed to get rid of it and it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was most decidedly not a good idea…the entire family was engulfed in poisonous, black smoke…at least Billy was amused. Even though I knew all of that about Billy, I was still surprised one 4th of July, when he pulled up to my sister-in-law’s farm and rather than get out of his van, he said to me in his cryptic, terse way, “Get in the truck.” It was more of a command really, he was used to telling people what to do. As I recall I was slightly hungover and was ready for cold beer and firecrackers and knew this “errand” likely involved trouble, at least for me…I could tell by his tone of voice. But then, I was generally wary when Billy asked me to do something. Billy had a way of getting people to do things for him even when they didn’t want to. I once strung Christmas lights on his roof during a downpour. He was bitching at me from the ground and I remember saying, “Do you wanna come up here and do it?” He just looked up from his wheelchair and laughed. I didn’t know quite how to respond to him that 4th, so I just said, only half-joking, “I knew this day would come… do we have to hide a body?” He finally smiled at me, but only with his eyes and said, “I need you to do something for me,” which was his usual way to ask for a favor. It’s like that scene in The Godfather when the Brando as Vito Corleone says, “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”

Reluctantly, I climbed into the passenger’s seat. I won’t lie, as I climbed into the vehicle, I did cast a sideways glance to the back of the van, just to make sure there wasn’t a human shaped tarp back there. I’m an outlaw, not a criminal… I mean, I couldn’t survive hard time, I’m from the suburbs. We drove down my sister-in-law’s gravel driveway and headed off down the two-lane black top highway. Billy wasn’t a big talker so we just rolled along in silence, the only sound was the wind blowing in the open windows of the van. I stared out the window, wishing I was blowing stuff up with my daughter and drinking the cold beer I’d expertly iced in the cooler… I trailed my hand along through the wind and became absorbed in the rural landscape slipping past me. We drove through a small town, twisting and turning through the narrow streets like we were trying to lose somebody. We drove past fields of wheat and corn turning brown in the hot summer sun. We drove past decrepit barns and stately farm houses just off the road shaded by copses of trees. We passed a couple of giant oil storage facilities. There was barely a word exchanged between Billy and I. It was no use asking questions now, I was in the van… I’d bought the ticket, so I had to just enjoy the ride.

Pretty soon we’d turned off the main, county roads. We were on roads that were much more narrow. Pretty soon even the asphalt fell away and we found ourselves driving down gravel roads. People often reference the middle of nowhere… I’ve been there. If someone wanted to live off the grid, I suspect this is where they’d go. The gravel roads continued to narrow until it was really just one lane… Luckily there was nobody else on this deserted “road.”
Billy muttered, a couple of times, “I think we’re headed in the right direction,” which wasn’t comforting. Being from the suburbs I’ve never been terribly comfortable out in the country. I mean, I’ve seen Deliverance. I suspected Billy was packing but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. Finally we found ourselves creeping along the narrow gravel road up to a rather large farm house. Without warning, Billy swung the van into the driveway of potholes and stones. We had apparently reached our destination… although his comment, “I think this is it,” was not a confidence builder. If people live out in an isolated place like this, I’m guessing they’re not big on visitors, especially tall, goofy looking guys from the suburbs. I had mistakenly worn a Stones t-shirt and was worried I’d be considered a subversive out in this rustic setting. This was Billy’s world… I was an interloper, at best.

Billy turned in his driver’s seat toward me and squinted… “I think this man has a truck I wanna buy. I need you to go up and knock on the front door.” The big farm house was all in darkness. I wasn’t exactly dressed like an encyclopedia salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness so I hesitated. “Does he know we were coming? This doesn’t look like a very friendly house?” That was true enough. The house was large and somewhat forbidding. It didn’t look like a place with a doormat that read, “C’mon In Y’all.” To my query about the guy knowing we were coming Billy chuckled and said, “Not exactly.” Not exactly comforting. I slid out of the passenger side of the van slowly, like I was leaving the scene of an accident. I went crunching up the driveway like it was the Bataan Death March. It was like when I was a kid, my feet got heavy and I was walking very slowly, eyes furtively looking around, but always coming back to the front door. I was not happy.

It was then, from behind the house, I spotted the biggest German Shepherd I’d ever seen… and it was loping around the house, straight at me. I froze. So this was how I was going to die, killed by a German Shepherd miles away from any hospital or emergency care. I’d bleed out before the ambulance got here, I’m from the suburbs…if Billy even knew to call an ambulance. Thinking of Billy I turned slowly toward the van and realized I was half way up the driveway, too far to run from the giant beast who was looking at me like I was lunch and he missed breakfast. I glanced at Billy and my eyes were as big as Frisbees. He threw his hands up, gave an exaggerated shrug and I noticed… he was laughing uproariously. I wondered if he’d have to shoot the dog. I turned toward the dog and it was bearing down on me. I flinched, put my hands up… because… I have no idea why, I wasn’t going to fend him off. The German Shepherd launched himself up toward my throat and I knew it was over… His two big, dusty paws landed on my chest and I thought… that’ll look crazy in the autopsy photo, two paw prints on my shirt. I was looking the feral beast in the eyes as his face came even with mine… His giant jaw dropped, his mouth opened and… he licked my face. Yes, the dog was harmless.

Billy was now laughing so hard, I thought he’d fall out of the van. “That looked tense there, man.” No shit. After a quick spot-check to make sure I didn’t piss myself, I petted the dog and in a seriously high sounding voice muttered, “Good doggy.” I rang on the doorbell, wondering if this could go any worse. What was next, a shotgun blast? No one was home. We’d gone through all of this for naught. I was pissed at Billy at the time… but now I just look back on it as a funny story we could share. We drove slowly back to my sister-in-law’s farm where I grabbed two beers to calm my still shaky nerves.

To all of you out there this 4th of July, I hope you have a happy, safe time. We want all 10 fingers on Monday. I hope you all make some happy, danger-less weekends. Please remember its a celebration for most people but to your dogs and cats it’s Armageddon, take of your pets. Maybe get ’em some CBD. And to Billy, where ever you are… I miss ya buddy.

Cheers!