Documentary Review: The Sublime ‘Linda Ronstadt, The Sound Of My Voice’

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I’m on record here at B&V as being someone who hates the holidays. Well, “hate” is too strong a word for how I feel about the holidays. Perhaps I’m best paraphrasing that classic movie, Barfly when describing my feelings about the holidays, “I just sorta feel better when they’re not around.” Since I met the Rock Chick, I will admit, things have gotten at least a little better for me at the holidays, Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany. Now that we’ve all gutted it out through the Yule cheer and have made it safely through New Years Eve (aka, Amateur Night) we can settle nicely into the New Year, right?

Sadly, as much as I hate the holidays, January has quickly become the worst time of year in my estimation. Winter starts in earnest and you don’t have all the decorations and Xmas lights to distract you from the weather. I’m beginning to understand why Shakespeare used the words, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Back in the old days, all my coupled friends would go into hibernation after the holidays until about St Patrick’s Day. I get that strategy now. It’s cold outside, there’s no new rock and roll music and nothing is going on, everybody is paying off that holiday debt. Frankly, it’s what the Rock Chick and I do now in January – pull up the drawbridge and hibernate. I must admit this year’s January is infinitely worse as I’m participating in what is known as “Dry January,” where you eschew alcohol. It’s not been difficult to quit booze, except for the excruciating boredom of nothing else to do. I will admit, early on I did find myself wrestling for my sanity (wild mood swings for $1000, Alex), but that quickly passed. And contrary to rumor, I did not suffer the delirium tremens. Oddly I feel and sleep better without bourbon, and my weight has dropped precipitously but don’t tell my wife, I don’t want her getting any ideas about reevaluating my sobriety.

Luckily, since we’re barricaded in our home for winter, I can catch up on some of the backlogged viewing I’d intended to do… DVR and chill as the kids say… although I’m still under the impression that means something other than watching recorded videos and falling asleep on the couch. This will require further study. Anyway, last night was a nice example of catching up on my viewing. I watched a great Austin City Limits that featured Jack White’s band The Raconteurs and they played a lot from their last album that I loved, LP Review: The Raconteurs’ (Jack White) ‘Help Us Stranger’. They were followed by a groovy R&B/Soul act, the Black Pumas who are nominated for a “Best New Artist” Grammy. I dug the Pumas, although I might not rush out and buy their album. Although I plan on returning to that slow groove music. “Colors” is a great track you should check out…

The highlight of last night’s viewing is a CNN documentary about Linda Ronstadt, entitled creatively, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. I’ve been looking forward to checking this thing out. In the interest of full disclosure, I was never a big Linda Ronstadt fan but I’ve got to tell you, her music was ubiquitous in the middle and late 70s when I was growing up. She was monstrously huge. And yet, I never really paid attention, I feared she was too mellow. I do remember my friend Steve (and oddly more than half of my friends were named Steve, so I feel there is some anonymity preserved here), and he had a poster of her on his wall. I don’t think Linda ever wore a bra and well, we were all big fans of nipples – we’d never seen one up close. Juvenile, perhaps…but more evolutionary if you think about it. Regardless, that poster of Linda on Steve’s wall was about the extent of my knowledge about her. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate her much, much more and was really looking forward to learning about her in this documentary. I will say this, the documentary was aptly titled – her voice is the absolute star here, as it should be. I was blown away by her.

The documentary is mostly chronological in nature and narrated in large part by Linda herself. It quickly frames her more than ten year battle with Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed in 2009) which has robbed her of her ability to sing. Silencing that voice is one of the most tragic things I can think of. While the movie is chronological, my one complaint here is they don’t frame any of the events in time other than when she left Arizona and moved to California with a big “1964” on the screen. So when they talk about a specific album or event, it left me scrambling to the Google to figure out when that event happened. I’m nit picking but it’s a problem for those of us with musical OCD. Other than that this was a fascinating, entertaining look at one of Rock N Roll’s most important artists – folk, country, country rock, rock and roll, ballads, light opera (operetta), standards and Mexican folk – the woman could sing the phone booth. She was Norah Jones before there was such a thing. The Rock Chick said to me, “I’m surprised you’re going to write about her…” Rock and roll is a big tent, let’s include everybody whose talented.

Besides Linda narrating this thing, there’s a who’s who of Southern California rock giving commentary as well. Jackson Browne, songwriter J.D. Souther (who dated Linda in the 70s), Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly, David Geffen, filmmaker Cameron Crowe all show up to talk about Linda. Karla Bonoff, who I’d forgotten about shows up. Of all people, the prickly Don Henley shows up. Linda hired him as her drummer (and later hired Glen Frey and they went on to form the Eagles) and Henley is downright reverent about Ronstadt. He’s kind of a dick most the time but not here – his loyalty and devotion to Linda is unwavering. He’s so complimentary, it’s nice to see. He says, “the record company didn’t know what to do with “Desperado,” and then Linda recorded a perfect version of it.” High praise from a man who doesn’t give praise.

Born in Arizona, Ronstadt’s grandfather was an inventor. The music came from her father’s side, he was the singer. Although her mother sang and played piano as well. She had Mexican heritage on her father’s side, which with a name like Ronstadt, we never knew about, but heritage she was justifiably proud of. She started off singing folk music, like many in that generation. After moving to L.A., the Byrds hit and suddenly it was folk rock for her. She formed a country rock band, the Stone Ponys and had a hit before the record company wisely said, uh, we want the chick singer not the band. When she went solo she hired Henley as a drummer and Frey as a guitarist inadvertently creating the Eagles. She eventually hired former Beatles associate Peter Asher as her producer, signed with David Geffen on the Asylum label and her career took off. This is the period of her career we at B&V are most familiar with.

From 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel onward she kind of owned that soft rock crown for the next decade. She had 5 multiple platinum albums in a row. That’s a hot streak comparable to Elton John’s in the early 70s. She was a woman in a male dominated industry and I love how she nurtured and helped other female artists. Emmy Lou Harris, despairing and lost after Gram Parsons OD’d on heroin, was in what she describes as a “very dark period” and Ronstadt started singing with her and promoting her. She saved her. I mean in a five minute period in the documentary they sum up what an important vortex Ronstadt was to country rock and southern California rock. Everybody from the Eagles to Gram Parsons gets a mention. She was at the center of it all. While Ronstadt never wrote her own material she had impeccable taste in what she was going to cover. Either early rock classics by Chuck Berry or Smokey Robinson, a man people fear to cover, or country classics by Dolly, the woman could pick them. She recorded contemporary songwriters as well, helping their career – Neil Young (who didn’t need the help and who she opened and sang back up for), Warren Zevon (my fav, “Carmelita” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” about Jackson Browne), Jackson Browne, Little Feat’s Lowell George (“Willin'”) all had songs covered by Ronstadt. Hell, she even does a great version of the Stones’ “Tumblin’ Dice,” perhaps her greatest rocking moment.

She had grown tired of the road and hanging out with all the dudes you encounter in a rock band so she turned to Broadway and joined the production of The Pirates of Penzance, which I’d forgotten about. She crushes the operetta stuff. Again, that voice. After that, inspired by her mother’s passing, she did an album of standards with Nelson Riddle, the first artist I remember making that leap. The record company didn’t want her to do any of this – and yet both were enormously successful. She went back to her country roots following that to record the huge Trio LP with Dolly and Emmy Lou Harris, another smash success. Then she turned to traditional Mexican songs on Canciones De Mi Padre which remains the highest selling Spanish-language LP in history. Everything this woman touched turned to gold. Why, you may ask? The sound of her voice.

As you can tell, I was really taken by this documentary. Other than giving no time of reference in terms of what year certain events happened, this is a thorough, loving look at the career of one of rock and roll’s greatest singers. Her induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 was long overdue. I just wish they’d inducted her prior to Parkinson’s taking away her voice – I’d love to have seen all the people who would have showed up to perform with her. While mellow is usually outside our wheel house here at B&V, watching the warm hearted, generous artistry of this woman warmed the frozen heart of a Dry January sober, winter blues, B&V music fan. And that says a lot.

Cheers! Enjoy this documentary!

 

 

LP Review: Ex-Byrd Gene Clark, ‘No Other (Deluxe Edition)’, Forgotten 1974 Masterpiece

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I’m alway surprised – and amused, I might add – when, all these years into my journey through rock and roll I find an artist or album that I know absolutely nothing about. Not that I’ve ever claimed to know everything, despite what my wife would tell you. There are artists I don’t like (the Beach Boys, the Moody Blues) that I’ve sort of ignored. There are some bands that I’m just not cool enough to listen to like say, King Crimson, the Smithereens or Elvis Costello that I’ve sort of turned a blind eye toward. I’ve always thought eventually I’d listen to them later down the road. I always seem to be listening to something else at the time. But it’s exceedingly rare (and getting more rare) that there’s someone I haven’t heard of at all. Since somewhere along the line I appointed myself rock n’ roll “Town Crier” I like to think I’ve got a broad view of things.

I watched the Jakob Dylan documentary about the music that came out of Laurel Canyon in the mid-60s a few weeks back, Echo In the Canyon (Movie Review: ‘Echo In The Canyon’ – Flawed, Enjoyable Look at Cali ’65-’67). I really enjoyed that documentary. It led me to start listening to some of the featured music in the film. I’ve always hated the Beach Boys but I found myself adding “In My Room” to my iPod. Somehow I ended up with their “Greatest Hits” (and I use that term loosely) so it was an easy song to add. I was already a fan of the Mamas and the Papas and I found myself listening to “Go Where You Wanna Go” which played a significant role in the movie along side “California Dreaming” and “Monday, Monday.” Michelle Phillips, we love you down here at B&V.

More importantly I went back and rediscovered the Buffalo Springfield – Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay – what’s not to love? I say rediscover, but I really only previously owned Buffalo Springfield Again which I hadn’t listened to in a while. I had their greatest hits too, but it really doesn’t do them justice. I quickly bought their eponymous debut and their third and final album, Last Time Around and am absolutely in love with those albums. Everything those guys did was great. It’s a shame they didn’t get along better. Of course Stills and Young ended up working together in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young so alls well that ends well.

I thought perhaps that would be the end of the road, the musical vein I was mining based on the movie had run out… But something was bothering me… The Byrds played a prominent part in the movie and I’d never really checked them out. The folk-rock, country-rock they helped popularize played a big part of that Cali sound. David Crosby and Roger McGuinn were both in the movie. My brother had been into the Byrds when we were young. I mistakenly thought of them as only a Dylan cover band. I had to investigate these guys… I quickly bought Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn!Turn!Turn, their first two albums and was really blown away. Yes, they did a lot of Dylan covers while inventing folk rock, but they had a lot of great originals. The guy who wrote most of those originals wasn’t Roger McGuinn, but a guy named Gene Clark.

Gene Clark actually grew up in my hometown, Kansas City but migrated, like so many of his generation to California where he found himself forming the Byrds with McGuinn (guitar/vocal), Crosby (guitar/vocal), Chris Hillman (bass) and Micheal Clarke (drums). While in the Byrds, he wrote some of the best tracks, especially on their first two albums. The most popular of which was “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” eventually covered by Tom Petty. But there are other great tracks – “I Knew I’d Want You,” “Set You Free This Time,” and “She Don’t Care About Time,” just to name a few. Like Neil Young, Clark wrote a lot of the songs for this band but unlike him, they let Clark actually sing on most of them. Eventually, because he was making more money on the publishing the other guys came to resent him. When his fear of flying got too bad, they booted him from the band, likely because of that built up enmity. As Roger said to him, “If you can’t fly you can’t be a Byrd.” Which for some reason makes me think of the TV show ‘WKRP in Cincinnati quote, “my hand to god I thought turkeys could fly.”

Once booted from the Byrds, Gene Clark started a solo career that can only be described as “star-crossed.” Coincidentally while I was mining all this music from Laurel Canyon – the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds – the record company 4AD released a deluxe, three-CD version of Clark’s album No Other. The serendipity of my listening to the Byrds for the first time in a long, long time and Clark’s album being rereleased was irresistible to me. I listen to the deluxe version of No Other and was completely, utterly blown away. How in the world was this not a smash hit? The phrase, “overlooked masterpiece” or “forgotten masterpiece” is used a lot nowadays but it completely applies here. This is a stone cold classic record that until a month ago I’d never even heard of it let alone heard it. I had barely heard of Gene Clark… I knew there were two guys in the Byrds named Clark (or Clarke) but I thought they were just like Duran Duran where everybody had the last name Taylor.

I came to discover that Clark released a series of fabulous albums that nobody listened to or purchased. I’ve sampled Roadmaster and White Light (aka Gene Clark) and I can’t believe this guy’s name isn’t whispered in the same reverent tones as Neil Young or Gram Parsons (who later joined the Byrds after Clark’s departure before forming the Flying Burrito Brothers). Gram Parsons wanted to fuse country and rock and roll into a “new American music,” but Gene Clark was actually able to do so. I guess since Gram hung out with Keith Richards  he got more publicity. The Eagles, who Parsons hated, owe more of a debt to Clark, based on what I’ve heard. They even covered his song, “Train Leaves Here This Morning” and Bernie Leadon played with Clark a little. I think I can say, unequivocally, that Gene Clark may be the most under appreciated man in rock and roll.

In 1974, after a brief Byrds reunion album, Clark signed to Asylum records, led by the notorious dick, David Geffen. Clark chose producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye who was notorious for cost overruns. They spent the then unheard of sum of $100k (over $500k in today’s dollars) to record No Other. When Geffen heard it, furious about the cost, he refused to promote it. The album was basically stillborn. Geffen also said, he couldn’t hear a single…kind of like the guy who rejected Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The people who played on this album are pretty impressive. The guys who later backed up Jackson Browne and Don Henley are here – Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Craig Doerge (piano), Russ Kunkel drums and Leland Sklar (bass). Jesse Ed Davis who sat in with Rod and the Faces plays some guitar. Pre-Eagles Timothy B. Schmidt shows up to sing back up vocals. Butch Trucks from the Allman’s plays drums on a track. Hell, ex-bandmate Chris Hillman plays on a track. Rumors were that Sly Stone was hanging out at some of the sessions… and there is a funk vibe on some of these tracks. It’s pretty damn impressive.

Clark, raised a Christian, had veered toward Zen and Buddhism and the lyrics here reflect that. I think the songs are deeply rich in meaning. There’s a soulfulness here that really drew me in. His singing throughout is plaintive. He’s got an amazing voice. The music veers from country to folk to borderline prog rock. The album starts out with the country weeper “Life’s Greatest Fool.” It’s a track with hard learned truths… “Children laugh and run away while others stare into the darkness of the day.” I’m surprised the Eagles didn’t take a crack at this one. The second track, “Silver Raven” is a beautiful acoustic track that literally, fucking soars. The title track is the one that borders on prog-rock and funk. It’s got a great keyboard/guitar riff that fuels the track. Clark’s voice is slightly distorted. The lyrics are the trippiest and most spiritual, “If the falling tide can turn and then recover, all alone we must be part of one another.” To my ears, “No Other” was the single. It comes with a great guitar solo. “Strength of Strings” is another soaring track. When Clark sings, “Fiery rain and rubies cooling in the sun,” it’s epic. There’s an almost Native American vibe, it’s incantatory.

What would have been side two starts with “From A Silver Phial.” It’s another beautiful, country-rock/folk-rock track. It’s just a wonderful ballad. It also could have been a single. “Some Misunderstanding” is a great mid tempo track that makes me think of Young’s “Out on the Weekend.” It’s plaintive and haunting. “True One” is an upbeat country rock tune. The album ends on another epic, “Lady of the North” written for Clark’s wife who’d stayed up in North California while he recorded and partied in L.A.

That’s the original album… the deluxe material is all interesting. It’s different versions of the tracks that ended up on the album. All of the tracks are complete. Some you hear Clark directing the band or calling out to band members. It’s a fascinating look into the man’s creative process. There are two versions “Train Leaves Here Tomorrow” on the deluxe version of the album. I can’t help but wonder, if he’d completed that one, maybe that could have been the single. This is all just fantastic music. There were rumors this was meant to be a double-album, but there’s nothing here that isn’t on the original record.

When Geffen pulled support and this album tanked, it hurt Clark, badly. He never recovered really. The booze and drugs took off. He lived until 1991, but things were never quite the same for him. Commerce was not his friend. I can’t help but again compare this guy to Neil Young. The writing and the music was all there but for Clark, no one listened. Thankfully we all have a chance to revisit his masterpiece, No Other. If you’ve heard Gene Clark, you know. If you haven’t, you need to check this guy out. Having just written about Leonard Cohen (LP Review: Leonard Cohen’s Posthumous ‘Thanks For The Dance’ – A Haunting Elegy) and Iggy Pop (LP Review: Iggy Pop’s ‘Free’ – An Atmospheric, Stylistic Left Turn) at least now I’m writing about someone who is a beautiful singer!

It’s a dark ride folks, be good to each other!

 

Movie Review: ‘Echo In The Canyon’ – Flawed, Enjoyable Look at Cali ’65-’67

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As avid, repeat readers of B&V already know, my corporate masters often force me to travel to far flung places in order to do my job. I’m hitting all the garden spots these days from Des Moines to Phoenix to Minneapolis. That’s Minneapolis in November people. This is not glamorous travel. Yes, there’s a lot of eating and drinking on the road but I’m to the point where I’m kind of over that. I never know when I’ll be asked to drop everything and head to the airport.

When I’m actually home, I like to Netflix and chill, which I have always thought meant watch shows on Netflix and well, chill out. Apparently there may be another meaning to that phrase… I may need to ask someone younger… Anyway, my travel schedule doesn’t really allow me to watch “network television.” Not that I’ve been a fan of watching anything the networks put out… I haven’t really been a big TV fan since they cancelled Kojak. I like to watch football and tennis on TV and that’s about it. I’m not like those, “I only watch sports and public television” type of snobs (ahem, Doug). After a long day at work, when I am at home, I do like to veg out on the couch and binge-watch something.

After recently returning from one of my extended trips away, the Rock Chick said, “I’ve found a bunch of things we need to watch.” This is always a happy announcement. However, sadly, Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite was one of them… don’t waste your time (full disclosure, it was one of my picks). One of the first things she pulled up was a documentary on Netflix called Echo In the Canyon. It’s a documentary focusing on L.A.’s famous Laurel Canyon, a haven for artists and rock stars back in the heyday of rock and roll. Rock and roll doc, a rockumentary, Hell Yes! It was put together by director Tom Slater and Jakob Dylan (son of Bob, formerly of the Wallflowers) who also serves as the narrator/chief interviewer. There’s a funny piece of dialogue between Jakob and David Crosby when Crosby says, “And then Dylan showed up…” and Jakob, very deadpan responds, “You’re going to have to be more specific.”

The doc traces the influence of the Beatles to the Beach Boys and then through a series of iconic bands from the mid-to-late sixties. The show is divided between archival footage of the bands, to interviews with members of the bands (Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills) to shots of current artists sitting around discussing the  music and the time that generated it (Beck, Cat Power, Jakob, Norah Jones). It appears after filming the documentary, Jakob Dylan got a bunch of people together, both in the studio and at a one-off concert to recreate the songs. They released a soundtrack and the covers are mostly reverential. The only track that really caught my ear was Jakob and Fiona Apple duetting on the Beach Boys “In My Room,” a song I’d never heard before but instantly loved. It’s an interesting listen. Beck and Norah Jones, two of our B&V favorites have tracks on the soundtrack too.

In the middle sixties the Beatles were king. Their influence can not be overstated. The documentary which features Ringo (we all love Ringo, Peace and Love, baby), starts with them and their influence. They’d spent time in Laurel Canyon on one of the early tours. Laurel Canyon was a hot bed of artists (I’m talking painters/poets not just guitarists) and musicians. All these different bands had people who lived in the Canyon. They’d jam all the time. They’d show up at each other’s houses and write songs and try out new material. If I were to die and reawaken in Laurel Canyon in the sixties I’ll know I’m in heaven. It had to be rock and roll Nirvana.

The film starts with Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty hanging out in a music store, surrounded by guitars. I’ll admit, it sort of hit me hard to see Tom Petty sitting there surrounded by guitars talking about folk-rock and the Byrds. He strums a tune on a Rickenbacker (which he says is pronounced “back” not “bach”) from the She’s the One Soundtrack, and after a few chords, he smiles a devilish smile and says to the camera, “that’s all you get… you can’t afford any more.” God, do we miss Tom Petty. He sets up the entire story…

The main band at the beginning of this story is the Beach Boys. Now, in full disclosure, I’ve always hated the Beach Boys. Besides Brian Wilson they didn’t really play instruments. They were the sixties N’Sync if you ask me. But I’ll begrudgingly admit the huge influence they also had. They were influenced by the Beatles and “genius” Brian Wilson in turn influenced the Beatles… and back and forth it went. Pet Sounds is compared to Bach in the documentary. That influence was even greater on some of their American compatriots.

From the Beach Boys we go to Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. McGuinn was also influenced by the Beach Boys and especially the Beatles. He started playing Beatles tunes, stripped down and acoustic for folk fans in the Village in New York city. They didn’t dig it, so he packed up and headed out to the Canyon to form the Byrds with David Crosby, amongst others. Crosby is interviewed at length and even admits that, well, he was kind of an asshole. He was kicked out of the band for writing a song about a threesome… “Triad.” Hell, that’s what a lot of songs are about these days… I don’t see the issue there. Ironically the Jefferson Airplane recorded the track a few years later.

From the Byrds the line runs to the Mamas and Papas. They too were trying to make it in New York and then migrated to the Canyon. Michelle Phillips is on hand to recount her glory days, sleeping with everyone. Go Michelle, go! She explains the genesis of such legendary songs as “Do What You Want to Do” and “California Dreaming.” The vocal harmonies in that band were incredible. Mama Cass never gets the credit she so richly deserves. I found myself loading tracks from their greatest hits onto my iPod.

After that the story heads over to a band I’ve always under-appreciated, the Buffalo Springfield. Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay all in the same band. They showed some great clips of the guys back in the sixties. Stephen Stills apparently was very fond of cowboy hats in those days. What a great band. I only had their Retrospective hits LP, and after this documentary I quickly rushed out and bought their debut, eponymously titled LP. What a classic. That’s the key to this whole documentary – I was filled with the need to go and seek out these bands and explore their music. I urge all of you to do the same.

Now, I have to admit the choices they made here were pretty limited. The Monkees, who always get a bad rap, also lived in the Canyon and they’re ignored. Hell, they used a lot of the same session musicians the Beach Boys used. The Monkees hung out with the Beatles too, you know? They learned to play their instruments and in 1967 they had the second biggest selling LP of the year behind Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which means they sold more LPs than Hendrix, who once opened for them. They totally ignore the Queen of Laurel Canyon (if you will), Joni Mitchell. Where is she in this? They talk to producer Lou Adler, you’d think they’d talk to or about Joni. Jim Morrison of the Doors lived out there but I guess his music is outside the narrow focus of folk-rock, country-rock. Yes, this rockumentary is slightly flawed if you ask me.

All of that said, if you accept the narrow focus of the documentary, then this is a very enjoyable watch. And again, everyone should seek out this music, whether it’s the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Buffalo Springfield, and try to find it on vinyl. If you were to pass below my  home office window this week, you’d think it was 1966 up here… I’ve been dancin’ around all week with a fringe jacket and bell bottoms on. It’s groovy stuff people and we all need more groovy these days.

Cheers!