Richard Thompson's 61st birthday gets the most space on my Retroactive program this Saturday. My favorite "guitar" photo of RT is from his 1988 album Amnesia, where he's pictured winding up to hit a power chord...on a chainsaw.
Seems like forever since Richard came to Olympia (1999) and put on the best of the four shows I've seen him do. There were the gentle songs aided by his trebly (one could say trebly or trembling) electric guitar, and harmonies by his son, Teddy, on the tunes Richard & ex-wife Linda used to do ("A Heart Needs a Home"). Or the full-0n rock blast, anchored by the grand Danny Thompson (no relation) on electric standup bass and a great drummer, Michael Jerome. What a show.
Time to play Contrast the DJs (two recent samples).
The first DJ seemed to have the "I am so hip" tone and then referred to Janis Joplin as
"The Pearl." It's just "Pearl," as you probably know, so in one quick moment, the DJ unwittingly told us that at best, his interest stops with a Joplin greatest hits album and not Pearl, the often great, final set of tunes she was working on at the time of death. Another indication that people don't care about albums anymore?
Calling Janis "The Pearl" is kind of like someone who says, "Yeah, I really love jazz, especially The Bird." Got their Yardbird mixed up with a baseball pitcher, or that
TV character, I guess.
Okay, now the second DJ, who was a bit wordy but way more friendly sounding and fun. This announcer played off of the public image of Neil Sedaka as a sweet guy and gave it a little twist: "When I think of Neil Sedaka," he said, "I think of vindictiveness, bitterness and anger...well, not so much."
To a degree, we're living in Goody Goody times, aren't we?
If I can get excited about the country group Lady Antebellum crossing over to pop with "Need You Now"--with its catchy chorus, "I'm a little drunk and I need you now"-- maybe I'm just wishing things were a little more harsh and real in contemporary music.
Perhaps "Need You Now" is a really fine record, not fabulous.
Let's face it: In this era of The Fray (with Isaac Slade's mush-mouthed vocals) or Rascal Flatts' wimpy cover of Tom Cochran's "Life Is a Highway," or do-gooder media like "The John Tesh Radio Show," there's a real vacuum when it comes to popular culture that should be authentic and thought-provoking. Bring back The Roar!
The "Roar" these days is pretty much the indiscretions of famous people as retold in the pathetic press. It might be a kind of silly for a little punk like me, who hasn't had too much to drink since 1982, to be cheering for Lady Antebellum, but I'm desperately searching for something more honest than what we've been getting lately.
Radio edits for "Need You Now" may have already started--maybe The Man has
stepped in and ordered radio to play a version that says, "I'm a little lost and I need you now." I hope not. While I don't advocate getting messed up, even if you're not behind the wheel, popular music should deal with everyday life and stop reaching for the
For any of you with roots in the Detroit/Windsor area, don't forget the edit that CKLW did of Alice Cooper's "Caught In a Dream" back in 1971: "What I thought was heaven turned out to be well." I kid you not.
Since I work at home, I often catch short bursts of sound when I go into the kitchen to get coffee and my wife and step daughter are watching television.
Tonight, it was "American Idol," and someone was performing the Rolling Stones'
classic, "Gimme Shelter." While it may not have been awful, I only had to hear 30 seconds of this version to know that it was subpar, not to mention a poor choice of a song to cover.
Don't get me wrong: "Gimme Shelter" (from 1969's Let It Bleed) is one of the Stones' most magical tracks, with a sense of foreboding that calms near the end (where love is "just a kiss away") even as the music is still boiling. Jimmy Miller's production is utterly amazing, starting with the edgy, percussive intro that fades in perfectly, and never relents.
Mick Jagger's singing is first rate on "Gimme Shelter," and when vocalist Merry Clayton practically shatters glass with her passion--you can hear a "whoo!" in the background in response to her startling guest shot--the track has turned into a masterpiece.
If you break it down, "Gimme Shelter" is a great record, not neccessarily a great song, because it depends so much on pure sound and production values, and the singer on "American Idol" was foolish to even attempt an intrepretation. Blame the band or the sound mix if you wish, but excellence was miles away.
Music is such a wonderful thing, and I'm drawn to the old masters who still have so much to give.
Such is the case with Mose Allison, now 82, with his new album The Way of the World (Anti). It's his first outing of new studio material since 1997, and it's such a joy to hear his biting wit ("I Know You Didn't Mean It") and his still-spectacular piano playing.
His voice is definitely rougher now, but that was already beginning to show on the two volumes of Mose Chronicles, recorded live in London in 2000 and issued 2001-02.
It's been a shorter wait between releases for the Holmes Brothers (three years), yet I was wondering about their status, too--they've responded with Feed My Soul (Alligator), another straight-ahead, graceful affair produced by their longtime friend Joan Osborne.
I read that Popsy Dixon had been battling cancer, and there's a sense of how precious life is throughout. Feed My Soul encompasses a typical Holmes Brothers menu of blues, gospel and other tunes (the best Beatles cover I've heard in a long time, "I'll Be Back"), that somehow blend stylistically and still manage to stand on their own.
The year is definitely shaping up as a fine one for new music. Will anybody buy it?
"You're putting out a lot of crap--Iron Butterfly and all that shit."
--Jon Landau to Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler, circa 1969 (Landau went from Rolling Stone critic to producing and managing Bruce Springsteen. The quote is taken from Fred Goodman's "The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the
Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce" [Vintage Books/1997]).
Looks like I'll have to take back my earlier comment that I caught Bruce Springsteen live for the first time (36 years ago this week) before Jon Landau did. Now that I've gotten to that part of the story in Goodman's book, my claim doesn't seem to hold up. But I will maintain that I experienced Bruce on a great night in March 1974 before Landau saw him on a great night in April, ahead of his famous review: "I saw Rock'n'Roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
I was so fortunate to be near Austin, TX in late 1973 when Springsteen's second album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle was released and then ignored by almost all radio in the U.S. Not ignored in the East, of course, and welcomed by Austin station KRMH (Karma), where they played "The E Street Shuffle," "Kitty's Back" and the double whammy of "Incident on 57th Street"/"Rosalita" with growing regularity. My friends at Texas Lutheran, Danny Davila and George Daeschner, were as astounded as I was to find something so energetic and joyous on the radio, because even at my young age, the 1960s were starting to feel like a different century. "Did you hear that?" we asked each other about the buzz that KRMH was picking up on.
The first two Springsteen Austin shows, at the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters, fifty miles from our school, were slated for March 15-16, 1974, and I think we were present the second night. Now I'm wondering if my friend George went to this show or if it was the next one we went crazy over, in November. Memory is a funny thing. Journals say that Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys opened, but I don't remember that. All I know is that Springsteen and this mighty band (including David Sancious on piano and Ernest 'Boom' Carter on drums--they would leave later that year, after playing on the epic title track of Born to Run) electrified me. I'd heard you were supposed to be blown away by a great show, but for me so far (I was just shy of 19), concerts were enjoyable, hardly life affirming.
By then I was consuming all the music I could, still learning the history of Rock'n'Roll.
What I found is that Springsteen encompassed the whole thing, throwing out everything meaningless from Frankie Avalon to, well, Iron Butterfly; later for the garbage. His sound was every piece of the majestic: Presley, Dylan, the Shangri-las, the Ronettes, Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison--and that very definition of Rock'n'Roll melted seamlessly into Springsteen's own point of view. The first tune started quietly with Sancious' classical and blues piano motif, and then only Bruce appeared, strumming acoustic guitar and slowly building through "New York City Serenade." He would quiet down in certain places and the audience of a couple thousand gravitated to him more and more--you could hear a pin drop. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons joined in and gently accelerated the performance. Everyone went nuts and it was only the opening song.
From there, the full band knocked us out--their dynamics, ranging from restrained and eloquent to flat out blazing, were unbelievable. And they probably weren't that tight yet, as former drummer Vinnie Lopez had only recently been booted out, but their style was overwhelming. The originals, like "Kitty's Back," took on a "progressive" yet hard-edged drive (and played off the impact of the stage lighting), while the oldies weren't the cutesy kind that Sha Na Na was doing on TV. I remember that they did "Let the Four Winds Blow" that night, reminding everyone that Rock'n'Roll did not begin in 1964. Bruce himself was this full-throated vocalist, which the first two albums barely captured, and he was way into his material, playing a character in the most natural sense. But it wasn't like an empty broadway production. What Bruce and company created was a fully realized, deep feeling I've never "outgrown" (unlike the Doors, whom I thought were the stuff when I was 12).
That feeling has almost always been present where Bruce Springsteen is concerned (for me, the stadium hoopla, with all those newfound fans not really listening, had just gotten too big by 1985, when the second U.S. part of the Born In the USA tour brought him to the Pontiac Silverdome). Yet what remains is an authentic rush, producing chills whether it be 1974 or today. Allow me to note a few treasures among thousands:
*"Jungleland" from last fall's Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame concert in NYC--the man is 60!
* The YouTube video of "Tunnnel of Love," posted by "bruchee" and running 5:47, from 1988. You have to get 30 seconds into that to see how Bruce & the E Street Band entered the venue every night on that tour. It's a smile fest at the very least (yes, the song ends early--it's not a decent edit, but you need to see it).
*The long guitar intro version of "Prove It All Night" from the '78 tour. I believe the video has "Landover, MD" in the title.
*"Spirit In the Night" from the Hammersmith Odeon, 1975 ("Where'd my hat go?").
*I have to skip ahead to performances from Springsteen's 2005 solo tour, which I loved just as much as a full band show. "Incident on 57th Street" rules, and the new "Matamoros Banks" was more than haunting--it is tragedy set to music.
*Finally, the official "Born to Run" video, recorded live in 1985. He is a brilliant singer (on this version, note the phrasing of "there's no place left to hide") and the whole thing speaks to the danger, silliness, dead seriousness and friendship that the best Rock'n'Roll
provides. Here's the definitive five minute example of how it feels to be truly alive.
Thank you Bruce. And thank you Danny D. and George D. for that shared experience
36 years ago in Austin.
My latest Retroactive show (Saturday) was awfully sloppy--I kept losing my place when backselling the music--but I did a little pre-recorded piece that was a lot of fun.
The birthday feature was Lou Reed, the birth anniversary was Bob Wills, and the angle of my bit had to do with all the well-intentioned music being recorded for disaster victims in Haiti, Chile and elsewhere. Plenty of folks don't enjoy those benefit recordings ("Hasn't Haiti suffered enough?" asked Seattle's The Stranger weekly), so I said that what we need is a unique pairing of artists. The problem is that, to cite the
most basic example, Bob Wills is no longer alive and cannot collaborate with Lou Reed.
I used the intro of Wills' version of "Trouble In Mind," (from the 1940s' The Tiffany Transcriptions) before Tommy Duncan's vocal comes in, and did my own half-singing of Reed's "I'm Waiting for the Man" lyrics. I changed some of the lyric phrases ("Up to Lexington 1-2-5/He says he's got some beer for me and something else I should try"),
adding my take on Bob's trademark, high-pitched "Aw Haw!" at the end. It came out pretty cool sounding--better than most of the radio show, at least.
My favorite book about music of late is LaShonda Katrice Barnett's "I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On their Craft" (Thunder's Mouth/Avalon, 2007).
Barnett's interviews are with artists who get bypassed in the press again and again, from the late Odetta to Nona Hendryx to Joan Armatrading to Angelique Kidjo. A few are known for their singing more than their writing (Dionne Warwick, Shemekia Copeland, Dianne Reeves), but most of the chapters are insightful about how these women create songs or what inspires them about the music they tackle as interpreters.
To find anything recent about the late Nina Simone is rare enough, but this is a fabulous chat (ranging from pithy to downright scalding) with her on top of that. It's interesting that Simone loathed Rap, while some of the younger women interviewed in this book love it.
I think it was Pamela Means who said that she only heard one Lucinda Williams album, didn't care for it, and never checked out Williams' work again, showing what a small window of opportunity most artists, female or otherwise, are afforded in our slam-bang culture. We've got many types of bigotry to deal with, not to mention our collective short attention span, and "I Got Thunder" takes on these issues--it's impressive.
We are missing my wife Gina's mom Lucile, who would have turned 85 today.
There are a zillion mother-in-law jokes out there, but I didn't have one. As the "other half" of someone, people in a relationship often feel like their partner's parents are keeping an eye on them while pretending to ignore bloodlines. I never felt that way with Mom, who treated me as if I were part of a family partnership, and with a lot of love. But Lucile is not is sight; we lost her in 2007.
I saved a phone message from her that's nearly ten years old now. At the time, we only had basic cable, so there was a particular TV show that Gina's daughter Ina watched when she was visiting her grandma because we didn't have access to it at our house. When we couldn't get to Mom's home, she would put the program on and
give Ina a report about what happened.
The phone message I have from Lucile is telling Ina that the show wasn't on. "Batman" was showing instead, "and I'm not going to watch 'Batman.' Goodbye." Her tone of
voice was made for a sit-com, and I liked it so much that for several years, I played it on my annual Halloween radio show right before I did whatever version of the "Batman" theme I was airing that year.
But the gag no longer makes it to the airwaves. Sometimes, her memory just isn't good enough; we all miss my mom-in-law Lucile.