Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame

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*Photo shamelessly borrowed from the Internet, gettyimages, Paul Bergen

I just love this photograph of Pearl Jam from their early days. The only guy who looks happy is the drummer, in the middle, and they fired him. Likely on the HR form it read something like: Reason for Dismissal: Cheerfulness or Enjoying the Fame.

My corporate overlords are asking me to travel quite a bit more and I haven’t been able to write as often as I’d like, my apologies. It has given me a lot more time to think about music… and lately I’ve been thinking about fame. Ah, Fame, it’s such a cruel, fickle beast. Bands often form, write music, tour and work hard to achieve financial stability and yes, fame. But once it happens many bands/artists don’t know how to deal with it. There are certain levels of fame that nobody is ready for. Not everybody can be the Beatles, who not only embraced their fame, seemed energized by it. Well, McCartney anyway, Lennon seemed somewhat unnerved by it all.

Fame has all kinds of effects on an artist and not always good ones. Many artists, feeling the pressure to repeat earlier heights of record sales crumble under the pressure. Many artists turn to drugs, alcohol or just plain break up the band. Or sometimes the effects of fame are even worse…bad juju indeed. There are as many reactions to fame as there are artists, I suppose.

Lately, I find myself thinking about those artists/bands who decided to take control, take the bull by the horns as they say, and purposely change the trajectory of their artistic arc. The artists who, commercially speaking, tried to take a dive. The goal seemed to be to thin the herd of rabid fans, hanging on every word. These acts literally altered their art (in my opinion) to reduce their fame…

Bob Dylan: After a two year period that saw Dylan “go electric” and record three classic masterpieces: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisted,” and “Blonde On Blonde” Dylan retreated to upstate New York to Woodstock (pre-festival fame Woodstock). This creative burst is beautifully documented on the box set, “The Cutting Edge” reviewed earlier in B&V. Dylan just wanted to get away, rest and spend some time with his wife and new family. Then, he had a motorcycle accident. Or did he? I’m not usually a “second shooter on the grassy knoll” guy, but I wonder if Dylan faked the whole thing to get a break in his crazy schedule. The guy was being touted as the “voice” of his generation. He was the appointed leader of the Hippy movement… heavy responsibility for a guy who is really just a singer… or a poet, depending on your outlook. After secluding himself in upstate NY and hanging out in a basement for a year with the Band, recording some pretty amazing music, but not really sharing it, Dylan emerged with a quiet, acoustic based “John Wesley Harding.” While considered a classic by critics, it was quite a dramatic departure from his three prior albums. It’s like Dylan rewrote the book on a career in music. He went on to record a country album, “Nashville Skyline.” He really didn’t recover commercially until “Blood On the Tracks” by which time his rabid audience had diminished and mellowed out.

Neil Young: Neil Young’s trajectory was similar to Dylan’s, perhaps without the messianic overtones… the 70’s were a more cynical decade after all. Young released “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” and then “After the Gold Rush” and joined CSNY. He was poised to explode. I don’t think he realized how big he was going to get when he delivered the mellow, extremely popular “Harvest.” You couldn’t get away from “Heart of Gold.” Neil said, on the liner notes of the excellent greatest hits package “Decade,” that he found himself in the middle of the road after “Harvest” and decided to steer his career into the ditch…he said he’d meet more interesting people there. He dismantled his following by delivering the live LP, “Time Fades Away,” which oddly seemed to declare war on his fans. Young was exorcising demons, but his fans were left to exorcise Neil.

Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen’s career has been a study in the art of controlling your fame. He released “Born To Run” and ended up on the cover of Time and Newsweek… after a 4 year absence due to legal issues with his management, he delivered the grim classic “Darkness On the Edge of Town.” Punk was prevalent and so he probably rode that wave, plus he was pissed about the court stuff and the four year absence. Finally, in 1979 he released “The River” which gave him his biggest seller to date… rather than capitalize on that success he retrenched with “Nebraska” an album I still struggle to listen to without being put on suicide watch. He finally reached his peak potential when he released “Born In the USA” but quickly retrenched to “Tunnel of Love.” Release something that makes you huge, follow up with a quiet personal album to make the crowds go away…it’s the best of both worlds.

Fleetwood Mac: Nobody saw the huge success of “Rumors” coming. Lindsey Buckingham, fueled by the punk movement took control of their next album and drove the band in experimental, weird directions. Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie apparently didn’t get the memo and continued to record solid mid tempo rock songs causing a very disjointed approach.”Tusk” is a masterpiece in my mind but it was heralded as a huge disappointment upon it’s release. I see it for what it was – Buckingham responding to the pressure of repeating “Rumors” by taking the band in a less commercial, artsy direction. When the LP doesn’t sell as much as the last one, you just say the audience didn’t “understand your creative vision.” It’s a great strategy really. Although Mick Fleetwood did drive out to Lindsey’s house after the reviews were in to say, “you blew it, mate.”

Prince: “1999” was such a breakthrough record for Prince. He, along with Michael Jackson, were one of the first black artists to breakthrough to a broad white audience. He followed up with the movie/LP “Purple Rain.” Prince, a control freak, whose goal had always been world domination, and who actually accomplished it, responded with the quirky, artsy “Around the World In a Day,” an album I bought the day it was released and sold a week later. Yeah, I was one of the fans Prince exiled from his fan base with that record. Prince never really regained his commercial/artistic mojo. That’s the risk when you purposely try to kill off your fame… sometimes you’re successful.

Nirvana: Kurt Cobain, almost 30 years after Dylan, was also tagged with that “voice of his generation” tag. Based on Dylan’s response to that in the 60s and what happened to Kurt, you might want to avoid that tag. After “Nevermind” seemingly destroyed everything that came before it and revolutionized music in a way that punk only dreamed of, Cobain felt painted into a corner. He had wanted to only be as big as say, Sonic Youth, not bigger than the Beatles. In response to the world-wide worship, Cobain and Nirvana delivered the abrasive album “In Utero” an album that was such an obvious attempt to drive fans away and yet it was still wildly popular. “Heart Shaped Box” is still my favorite Nirvana tune. Sadly Kurt never reconciled his fame and for a myriad of reasons ended up sadly ending his own life… the most tragic tale I’m gonna tell.

Pearl Jam: I read an interview with Eddie Vedder once, and he said they were playing a bar that had a free hamburgers in the parking lot while they were set to play. He got on stage in front of an empty room (everyone was eating outside), closed his eyes and when he opened them, the entire bar was full of enthusiastic fans. He went on to say that was how Pearl Jam’s world wide fame happened, seemingly in the blink of an eye. “Ten” was such a huge album and it’s follow up “Vs” despite the “us vs you” implied by the title, was just as popular. Finally PJ put out “Vitalogy” which I consider a classic but like “In Utero” it was a clear attempt to “thin the herd.” You only have to take one look at the picture above and you can tell these guys were uncomfortable with the fame that had resulted from their music. Eddie took these guys down a path that saw them stay a solid live draw, but their music has never sold like it did early in their career and I think that’s how Eddie wants it… Vedder’s only proper solo album was a ukele album…clearly not a guy looking for wide commercial success or additional attention…

That’s it for now folks. Did I miss anybody on this list? Please add your thoughts in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Have a great weekend! Cheers!

Review: Neil Young, “Bluenote Cafe” (Live)

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When I was coming up, Neil Young was quite a divisive figure in my rock and roll world. There were those of us who liked Neil and those who were as equally repelled by him. Generally the supporters of Neil Young were known as “males” while the haters on Neil were known as “females.” I don’t think I ever dated a single woman who said, “Hey, I know, put on some Neil Young.”

Neil’s music tends to get lumped into two categories and indeed there are two different styles he seems to return to more often than not. There is the acoustic side of Neil, the laid-back balladeer of “Harvest” and “After the Gold Rush”. Then we have the feedback-drenched, squalling guitar of Electric Neil most notably present when his once and future backing band Crazy Horse is playing with him.

Neil has never really seemed to care what critics or even fans seem to think about him or his music. In his superb 3 LP greatest hits compilation, “Decade” Neil wrote that after the huge success of “Heart of Gold” and the album “Harvest” put him in the middle of the road as a pop star, he decided he’d veer off into the “ditch” where it was a little more interesting. Critics were quick to seize on this and labeled the three albums he recorded after “Harvest” as “The Ditch Trilogy”. Those three albums, all recorded at a time of great personal upheaval in Neil Young’s life, “Time Fades Away”, “On the Beach”, and “Tonight’s the Night” are brilliant but could be somewhat confounding to the “Heart of Gold” casual listener.

All these years later Neil’s career can still be seen as confusing. His career has seen him take more left turns, blind alleys, dead ends, and attempted genre experiments than most other artists can even imagine. One thing is for certain, his career has never been linear. It’s more of a a hedge-maze. You can really get lost in there. It’s just fun to type the words “hedge-maze”.

The 80’s were a particularly difficult time for Neil Young fans. After the disappointing Crazy Horse record “Re-act-or” Neil veered left with a techno experimental album entitled “Trans”. Not even I can defend “Trans”. Then he veered in an entirely different direction with a rockabilly album “Everybody’s Rocking” with a backing band named, appropriately, “The Shocking Pinks”. Then he went full on country with “Old Ways”. I’m not sure but I think it was around that time that Neil’s record company, Geffen, sued him for “purposely making uncommercial music”. After the country record, Neil put out a couple of albums largely seen as clunkers, “Landing On Water” and “Life” which saw him reuniting with Crazy Horse. I bought both those albums but you have to be a real fan to like those records. They bear the bad production values of the times – too loud drumming, echo-y vocals. Sadly, I saw Neil and Crazy Horse on the tour in support of “Life” but I had a tad too much beer. All I can remember is throwing up and making out with some dude’s girlfriend in front of me. Que sera sera.

With a decade like that behind him it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise when Neil hired a 6-piece horn section, backed with Crazy Horse (Ralph Molina on drums, Billy Talbot on bass, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on keyboards instead of his usual guitar) as his rhythm section and dubbed them “The Bluenotes”. I’ll say this about Neil, when he goes into a musical genre, he really commits. He wore a funny hat, a long coat and shades whenever he played with the Bluenotes. It was like he was in character. But man did they play the blues. The album they put out, “This Notes For You” actually garnered Neil’s highest critical praise he’d seen in quite some time. According to AllMusic, the critic’s warm response to the Bluenotes was because “all critics tend to stand in awe of the blues in whatever form it appears.” Well, if that’s true, and I’m no critic, I’m just a music fanatic, count me in. I love the way Neil played the blues on that album. Neil is such a superb and expressive guitar player, the blues fit him perfectly. Let’s face it, the blues is where they invented the guitar solo.

Which leads to the latest in Neil Young’s Archive Series, “The Bluenote Cafe”. Neil has put out a bunch of great archival concert recordings. I highly recommend “Live at the Fillmore East” a Crazy Horse show back when Danny Whitten was still alive. For the fans of his acoustic material there are 2 excellent concerts – “Live at Massey Hall” after he’d become a superstar and “Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House ’68” when he was still up and coming. Both are superb live albums culled from single shows. “The Bluenote Cafe” is a live album culled from a number of different shows, but it hangs together like a single concert.

I love this album. While the horn section is very prominent – the guitar is the star. Neil’s beautiful, black Gibson Les Paul is the true centerpiece here. Neil has always been known for extended guitar workouts like “Cortez the Killer” or “Down By the River”, and the blues is the perfect medium for him. I love the interplay between the guitar and the horns. Neil’s no stranger to writing sad songs, and his vocals are fabulous on the down-tempo, dirty blues tunes like “One Thing” and “Twilight”. The guitar work on “Twilight” truly makes it feel like the sun is going down and the world is turning gray…”the suns goin’ down on the long road home”… God I love that song.

There is a bunch of material on this live album that was written for “This Notes for You” but didn’t appear on that record. In some ways it’s like “Band of Gypsies” by Hendrix in that it’s a live album of almost exclusively new material. “Ordinary People” is an epic 13-minute jam that didn’t see proper release until “Chrome Dreams 2” in the 200o’s. I particularly liked “Bad News Comes to Town” and “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me”. The songs “Doghouse” and “Sunny Inside” veer into Otis Redding territory and I mean that in a good way. There is a very muscular, early version of “Crime In the City” that just “rawks”, the horn section must be taking a cigarette break during that one.

The albums ending song is an epic 19-minute version of “Tonight’s the Night” one of the few back catalog tunes included in this live set. As best I can tell Neil chose that one because he must have thought, “what the fuck, I’m Neil Young”. I think one of the things I like about this odd, bluesy, backwater period of his career was that he’d basically bottomed out. He’d burned his commercial bridges with his record company and his fans. Yet, he didn’t despair, he put out a passionate, compelling blues album. He sounds totally committed and engaged on these performances. He soon abandoned the Bluenotes and put out one of his all time great albums, “Freedom” with the anthem “Rockin’ In the Free World”. I’m not sure that would have happened without the Bluenotes. This is definitely a period in Neil’s career that deserves more investigation.

Turn it up loud…

Cheers!