31 December 2007

A Neil Young Primer

If at some point you've become interested in exploring Neil Young's enormous catalogue, let me throw in my two cents:

Neil with Crazy Horse on both occasions:

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969);

Rust Never Sleeps (1979).

These are both essential albums of the rock 'n' roll experience.

24 December 2007

Dylan's "The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 - 3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991"

.... Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?
"Not us," says the angry crowd,
Whose screams filled the arena loud.
"It's too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight.
We didn't mean for him t' meet his death,
We just meant to see some sweat,
There ain't nothing wrong in that.
It wasn't us that made him fall.
No, you can't blame us at all. ...."

(-- Bob Dylan, excerpt from Who Killed Davey Moore?
Copyright © 1964; renewed 1992 Special Rider Music)

I still remember the first time I saw this collection of rare and unreleased Dylan material. It was in the mid-1980's in the massive vinyl collection of a friend. After reviewing the track listings, I said to myself, "I've got to get a copy of this." Many years later, and to this day, the 3 CD set is still among my most prized song collections.

What excited me initially, the outtakes from the Infidels sessions, turned out to be among the least of the treasures here.
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 - 3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991

Despite the fact that Biograph has got Up to Me (recorded but not issued during the Blood on the Tracks sessions) on it, I, as others, have never been happy with the haphazard arrangement of the tracks on that collection. The Bootleg Series (v. 1 - 3) completely solves that problem by going in comprehensive, chronological, and ultimately cosmic, order.
This chronology paints an entirely different portrait of Dylan than you find in his released work. (Vol. 4 and 5 do the same -- I never had "a grasp of the picture" until I heard Visions of Johanna performed live in London by Dylan in 1965. That imagery-filled portrait is made almost crystal clear, to open ears, in Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home.

The "door prize" here is, well, let me work with the the liner notes:
If Not For You [(-- Dylan, Harrison)]: In June 1970, Rolling Stone reported that Bob Dylan and George Harrison had spent a day together in a New York studio, putting down tracks[.] .... [F]rom that session ...
came a
acoustic slide guitar-driven version of the song unparalleled to this day.

The versions of Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind here are nothing short of revelations. Most importantly, Idiot Wind here is delivered mournfully and reflectively, rather than with the caustic anger of the later take included on Blood on the Tracks.
For a Woody Guthrie fan like me, there is no better tribute than one of the only recordings of a Dylan poem ever made: Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie (recorded at a gig in April of 1963). This contemplation of the shifting sands of experience, and where holiness can be found, is pure Dylan without his controversial vocals at issue.
Regarding the 68 tracks on this box set, I could go on and on, on and on, and on and on and on. But I don't want you to read about it -- listen to the music and think about it. Let the music and poetry wash over you.
Update: I'm Not There available on DVD now (22May2008).

19 December 2007

Some Pictures Tell Better Stories: Patti Smith

Patti Smith (Cover photo for Horses, by Robert Mapplethorp)

Because the photo is so good!

Patti Smith: great photos, great poetry, great music. The distilled essence of the mid-to-late 1970's rock 'n' roll revolution: Velvet Underground's John Cale's production of The Patti Smith Group album Horses (1975).


14 December 2007

".... You Got the Fight, You Got the Insight ..."

Joni Mitchell's Shine

Ms. Mitchell's first album of new music in a decade -- she's been devoting herself to her painting and visual arts work -- is, go figure, an element of a ballet score. Even if some critics find the Shine album uneven in quality, the heights she reaches with both the tract If and the ballet score adventure, are the blood and guts of what sets great art, and artists, a step above.

The track If contains the lyric-quote-title of this post -- one among the many insights here into the nature of our lives these days. Joni is, again, using her poetic and compositional talent to guide us on our furrowed path.

For those who want to learn more about Ms. Mitchell's career and musical legacy, see both Wikipedia's essay and also, humbly offered, my post on her album Blue.

Shine on, Joni, shine on!

12 December 2007

On the Passing of Ike Turner

Ike Turner Dies in San Diego at Age 76

The Gold Coast Bluenote extends its condolences to those who will miss this flawed-but-rehabilitated rhythm and blues pioneer. Ike, rest in peace.

09 December 2007

By Request: Lyle Lovett

Ramona and her acoustic Martins requested some Lyle Lovett. Alas:

CD: My Baby Don't Tolerate (2003)

A track from this album, currently in medium rotation on MusicChoice cable, Nothing But A Good Ride, is worth the price of the CD. (Not the MP3 mind you -- with music I recommend, songs are part of entire albums, period. Singles are over -- at least in my mind.)

And I'll bet you my bottom dollar that's bass player extraordinaire Leland Sklar behind Mr. Lovett in the picture above.

04 December 2007

Rolling Stones' "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!": 1969 at the Garden

I watched my VHS tape of The Stones on HBO during the Licks (2003) tour last week -- a great, ethereal gig. I started to write about it, but decided against giving you great wine in aging bottles.

Featuring the band's most critically acclaimed line-up, the best released recording of the many times The Stones brought Madison Square Garden to the forefront of rock 'n' roll palaces is Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! The Rolling Stones in concert (1970).

It doesn't get any better than this. It's all about the spaces between the guitar notes, run through Marshall stacks. The track Carol alone should convince you. What's the word I'm looking for? Raw.
Recommended related films: Performance (you gotta hear Ry Cooder on Jagger's indictment-song Memo from Turner) and, if for nothing more than the performances by both The Who, and also Lennon, Richards (on bass), Mitch Mitchell, and Clapton doing Yer Blues, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (unreleased until 1996, filmed and recorded in 1968). See also my earlier post on the film Gimme Shelter.
Keith's "ancient art of weaving" with Ronnie (Licks tour) or Mick Taylor propelling Keith into the stratosphere ('69 at the Garden) -- such a wealth of riches.

03 December 2007

This Year's "Kennedy Center Honors"

Held last night in DC, in honor of Martin Scorsese, Leon Fleisher, Diana Ross, Brian Wilson, and Steve Martin. A Starry-Eyed Salute will give you the essentials. The yearly telecast of last night's tribute will be on CBS this coming December 26th. I shall be marking my calendar.

28 November 2007

Ernest Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream"

The modern incarnation of the eternal El Floridita in Havana, Cuba

When I was younger, I read Hemingway's Islands in the Stream for the fishing stories, local-Caribbean-color narratives and the crisp Hemingway prose. Now, upon rereading it after setting it aside for a decade, I find depth and solace in the struggles of the older men. Struggles with loneliness, death, lost love, duty, and facing life with half a century behind them.

The bar pictured above is a setting in the middle section of the three movement novel that is the book: I. Bimini, II. Cuba, and III. At Sea. (The fourth book in this series was separated and became the novella The Old Man and the Sea.)

As I read, Hemingway alter ego Thomas Hudson and I are in the car right now, dressed and ready to travel from the Finca Vigia to Havana, with a long stop at El Floridita -- (Wikipedia: .... El Floridita, also renowned for its Hemingway associations [read one of his regular bars], claims to be the “birthplace of the daiquiri.) Papa Hemingway had his frozen daiquiris as doubles without sugar. The bartender, as a matter of bar policy, would leave the shaker with the customer. It contained another drink and a half.

When Papa was slumming it in Key West, he hung out at Capt. Tony's -- not the current location of Sloppy Joe's. In Havana he could get "uptown" past the slums, to the Gold Coast if you will, at El Floridita in the mid-1940's. There were old friends to see, some to avoid -- great old stories to be told and new rum-induced anarchistic toasts to be made. The things we fill our lives with, in war, to make them seem worth living. And then she walks in -- love and death and learning to handle both.

As you could not escape The War in Rick's Cafe' Americain in Casablanca, you cannot escape World War II even at El Floridita. In the end, Hemingway teaches here that all that's left is duty. Truly.

24 November 2007

"One Paper Kid" Covered by Emmylou Harris with Willie Nelson

Emmylou does it again: Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems [SPECIAL EDITION].

When I saw Emmylou Harris a few years back, I checked the set list with one of the sound engineers at the mixing board. The set list did not contain One Paper Kid. My new friend added that Emmylou hadn't done that old recording live in a long time.

This 4 disc, career-spanning collection is exceptionally deep-rooted. I'll cite here One Paper Kid sung in a duet with the perfect person across the microphone, Willie Nelson; and the alternate take of Waltz Across Texas Tonight -- a more electric version than the track included on Wrecking Ball.

Emmylou's magic becomes inescapable after review of the track list to Songbird.

19 November 2007

Bruce Springsteen's New Album: "Magic"

Left to Right: Gary Tallent, Bruce Springsteen, and "Little Steven" Van Zant, November 2007
Landover, Maryland

I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live, for the first times, in 1978 -- twice on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, once in New Orleans and once in St. Petersburg, Florida. At both gigs he and his Jersey-shore band mates cranked out more rock n' fire, laced with burning lead licks from Bruce and gospel/exorcist vocals aflame with intensity. I remember thinking at the time, "How can one little man in a spotlight do that?!"

Gospel wisdom? "It was too many for me." (--from S. L. Clemens)

I never fully recovered; my life-long devotion to guitar rock was now set in granite. If below, I slip into praise of Bruce Springsteen's new album without having listened to it enough to comprehend it, please think of it as a recurring rock critic sin.

Magic is Springsteen's first new studio album of original Springsteen cuts since 2005's Devils & Dust. Rolling Stone magazine gave this new album 5 out of 5 stars, a reviewer's nightmare. What do you write about a record already labelled an "instant classic". (But make your own call, you can hear all the album cuts, in their entirety, at the link that follows.) In his review of Magic for RollingStone.com, David Fricke gets a B in handling his task. He writes in part:
.... Magic is, in one way, the most openly nostalgic record Springsteen has ever made. The arrangements, the performances and Brendan O’Brien’s wall-of-surf production are mined with echoes and near-direct quotes of classic records, including Springsteen’s: the early-Sixties beach-radio bounce of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes‚” the overcast-Pet Sounds orchestration of “Your Own Worst Enemy”, the “Jungleland” ring of Roy Bittan’s piano rainfall in “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” sounds like it strutted over from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. “Livin’ in the Future” is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with a new, thick coat of twang and a full tank of lust. [Emphasis and link added] ....
Bruce reinventing old material here is good news for fans; more importantly, he is showing his commitment to personal artistic evolution. Dylan has been doing this very thing, reinventing his old songs, whenever he's stepped on a stage for 45 years. Reworking songs is one of Springsteen's great contributions to the against-the-tide view that "rock n' roll-can-save-the-world".

The distinctive love-story metaphor and mandolins on the title track are irresistible. Roy Bittan's piano into on I'll Work For Your Love is reminiscent of Bittan's masterful, delicate power on Dire Straits' 1980 Making Movies. It's clear that the deep album cuts on Magic show Springsteen bringing new colors to his music and poetry.

True renaissance in rock music today is all too rare. The last time I heard Bruce do this in the studio is his acoustic version of the song "Born in the U.S.A." It's only when the wall of guitars and rhythm section are taken away that the despair of the verses and the sometimes-tragic redemption of the chorus are revealed. (Note: the two rockers I interviewed for this post turned out not to be Springsteen fans, but both cited the album Born in the U.S.A. as their touchstone with his work.)

One final point regarding the opening cut, Radio Nowhere. Rolling Stone critic Fricke gets it just right:
"... A thousand guitars . . . pounding drums," [Springsteen] demands against the racing squall of his band. But “Radio Nowhere” is actually about how we speak and listen to each other through the murk -- "Is there anybody alive out there?” he growls, over and over --and how a firm beat, some Telecaster sting and the robust peal of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone can still tell you more about the human condition than a thousand op-ed words. ....
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are at the head of the class in helping us understand the human condition with "a thousand guitars" rather that 10,000 news analysis essays. It's no accident that

So let Bruce work his electric-Woody-Guthrie-heir Magic. Why, a skeptic might ask? Just one pearl of an example:

... Well the cops finally busted Madame Marie
For tellin' fortunes better than they do.
This boardwalk life for me is through.
You know you ought to quit this scene too. ...

15 November 2007

For My Fellow Emmylou Harris Fans

The "Red Dirt Girl"

See also, November 24, 2007 post here.

Alas. Two Recommendations Arise.

An associate, whose judgment on The Beatles I trust implicitly, highly recommends Across the Universe, in theatres now.

The genre-pioneering members of this ensemble force a recommendation of The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers. This is where country and rock got the conversation into high gear. "Cosmic American Music" as Gram Parsons called it.

12 November 2007

Essential Albums: the Rolling Stones' "Beggars Banquet"

Mick and Keith
(photo (c) Annie Leibovitz circa 1975)

In an earlier post, I recommended a greatest hits album as an introduction to the late sixties Rolling Stones' music. Now file that one away and get your hands on -- and ears into -- the real deal, 1968's Beggars Banquet.

This is a "transition-back" record -- back that is from the musical disarray of Her Satanic Majesty's Request -- to their adopted American roots: blues, country, and straight ahead Keith-driven rock and roll. And not coincidentally, the Stones hiring Jimmy Miller as producer in '68 to give the band some much need direction; it was from Miller that the Glimmer Twins learned their craft. The result, in the view of many -- I'm an Exile on Main Street man myself -- is the best album the Stones ever released.

The final touch was adding Nicky Hopkins on piano. As Jean-Luc Godard's film Sympathy for the Devil (titled One Plus One in its European release) clearly shows from extensive documentary footage of the song Sympathy for the Devil evolving in the studio, it was Hopkins on piano and Richards on bass that formed the core tracks around which the band and company built the haunting cut the song became. Further, the Godard film shows and the song gave us an aural portrait of the maddening chaos of North America in 1968. As Wikipedia put it, "[t]he dissolution of Stone Brian Jones is vividly portrayed, and the tragic chaos of 1968 is made clear when a line referring to the killing of (John F.) Kennedy is heard changed to the plural after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June [1968]." As a lyric/poet, Jagger has never been better than on Sympathy.

There is, truly, not a bad cut on Beggars Banquet.

Take Street Fighting Man, for example. I listened to this song for years before I tore the chorus lyrics out of it, but it didn't matter. Keith and the band deliver all the revolution you can take without you ever knowing that Jagger's telling us, in the chorus, "But what can a poor boy do, but to sing for a rock and roll band? 'Cause in sleepy London town there's just no place for a Street Fightin' Man."

Further, Jagger and Richards never made the "sum greater than the parts" better than on the vocal/acoustic guitar masterpiece Back Street Girl.

And Beggars Banquet would be the last time -- despite ongoing lack of credit to certain musicians who played on their later albums -- that they failed to give song writing credit as was due. One of the gems of this record is the acoustic parable Prodigal Son, written by but uncredited to The Reverend Robert Wilkins.

The lessons of this record are simple: give credit where credit is due; if you get lost in a psychedelic haze, get back to your roots; and, foremost, if you are unfamiliar with the deep album cuts that I fail to mention above, you simply cannot understand where much of today's "adult alternative" music comes from.

Oh yea, and watch out for those Stray Cat Blues!


10 November 2007

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Mr. Mailer, you will be missed. The Hemingway-esque truth and honesty you brought to your best and your worst work, set a standard for us all.

Requiescat in Pace. You earned it.

07 November 2007

'It's a sin to kill a mockingbird ...'

The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
(- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 23, spoken by the character Atticus)
Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird inspired many a young social activist and prospective lawyer to follow Atticus' example and seek social justice, whatever the personal cost. These young idealists would drop like flies as the realities of the real world closed around them. But a few survived to carry the torch for the equality of all men and women under the law.

And the film's impact stretches even further.

The Story of Movies Foundation uses the film To Kill A Mockingbird in the The Story of Movies as a way to provide middle school children a ".... guide to [the] students in learning how to read moving images. Although teachers frequently use films in the classroom, film as language and as historical and cultural documents is not widely taught. ...."

Lovers of great books -- me, I plead guilty -- are becoming fewer and farther between as the electronic media age progresses and instant visual and audio gratification becomes the status quo. But Harper Lee's novel survives as assigned classroom reading and Robert Mulligan's 1962 film adaptation still inspires idealists young and old to this day.

A large part of the credit goes to Gregory Peck for his performance in the role of Atticus Finch. Peck brings a sense of moral certainty, legal ethics and talent, as well as compassionate single-parent wisdom to the role that is truly astonishing.

Thanks Ms. Lee, Mr. Peck, and everyone who contributed to the creation of this film; I am re-inspired and given hope for humanity every time I see this film masterwork.

05 November 2007

Steve Earle's "City of Immigrants"

The following is a link to an essay on culture, national identity, art, faith, and (my favorite issue) speaking truth to power. Eboo Patel's essay City (of Immigrants) on a Hill is inspired by Steve Earle's new song City of Immigrants. The essay, appearing on the front page of today's WashingtonPost.com, touches all the right bases in relaying a message we all need to hear.

My hats off to Mr. Earle and Mr. Patel. Tell it, brothers, tell it!

04 November 2007

The Allman Brothers Band: "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed"

The above YouTube clip of The Allman Brothers Band playing In Memory of Elizabeth Reed -- from the Fillmore East 23 September 1970. One note from me: watch Dickie Betts as he plays, using the volume control on his guitar to get certain notes to fade out in this blues /jazz fusion composition of his.

The following information comes from the comment archives of the Florida Cracker, December 13, 2006 -- all in response to my question "Who was Elizabeth Reed?":
Allmans guitarist Dickey Betts wrote this. Elizabeth Reed Napier is buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, where Betts would often write. He used the name from her headstone as the title because he did not want to reveal who the song was really about. If you are really interested, you can visit "Elizabeth" while paying homage to Duane and [Berry Oakley] who are nearby.
(Posted by wilmarwil)

Elizabeth Reed Napier's grave was probably a very nice place for writing. It's shaded with cedars ... and has a little bench for sitting. I suspect the use of the first and middle/maiden name came from the way the headstone is arranged. As was common at the time, the family name, Napier, was displayed prominently, and the individual members were listed by first and middle names only. ...
(Posted by Juan Paxety)

I was there ! On our way to the D.C. mall (for the 1976 celebration on July 4) my brother and I (both [Air Force] vets) decided to take the long way...we left [Jacksonville, FL] on the Sunday week before, and wound our way up A1A as much as we could...stopping to replenish the cooler along the way.
MY primary 'special' stop was to visit Rose Hill. It overlooks a river, and within sight of DA and BO's graves is the Otis Redding bridge. When we went, you could actually drink beer and stand right beside the grave(s) littered with joints, pills, and various empties...foregoing a few roaches and somehow magically abandoned fifths of Jack.
Now I understand it has been fenced [...] off from close observation... We listened to Highway Call almost exclusively..except for an occasional Dylan tune or two. [...] By the way, the Napier family(s) were one of the first to settle in Georgia..
(Posted by csason)

The fencing of the graves was a very contentious time. It was initiated by Candy Oakley Johnson, Berry's sister and [Jai Johanny "Jaimo" Johanson's] ex-wife. She said she was tired of the trash, litter and carryings on at the grave site and, as I understand it, put up a tall fence. The historical folks had a fit - none of the other famous graves in the cemetery are fenced off. They finally compromised on a lower, less intrusive fence. ... BTW, Berry's fatal wreck happened on Napier Avenue, named for the same family.
(Posted by Juan Paxety)


30 October 2007

The Evolution of A Rock Band: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

When I was young, I had to piece together my knowledge of a rock band bit by bit, story by story, picture by picture, concert by concert. Now I've discovered Wikipedia, among other great things: an online encyclopedia of the history of rock and roll. But while the Wiki folks are still getting there, they can't provide me (yet) with clips of Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty sitting with their guitars in a studio working out a song. They don't have interview footage of how Tom Petty got his drummer to show up for a charity gig by telling him (truthfully) that Ringo would play it if he didn't. And most importantly, Wikipedia does not provide me with concert footage of songs as great as The Last DJ. But Runnin' Down A Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers does. And more.

This Peter Bogdanovich documentary gives us something I've never seen before: the credible, mesmerizing behind-the-scenes story of a real rock and roll band, fighting not only the record companies, but also their own personal demons, and creating great music all the time.

Two of my top 10 producers, Jimmy Iovine and Rick Rubin, come to life in the interview and recording session clips. The Heartbreakers are all lookin' like bad asses in the picture above, but in the film the gentleness, the musical tenacity, and on occasion the moodiness of these vulnerable men comes through.

Petty and Stevie Nicks recount the tale of Nicks' desire to leave Fleetwood Mac and join the Heartbeakers. "But there aren't any girls in the Heartbreakers" Petty tells her again and again. The result: one of several musical collaborations documented here that are now what I call music of the 80's that mattered.

I could go on and on, but I'd only be spoiling Bogdanovich's show. At the heart of this stellar documentary is the evolution of two things: a working rock band keepin' it all together over thirty years of turmoil, and the increasingly mature work of a songwriter/poet that will speak truth to power at any cost.

Of speaking truth to power, let me give you just one example, regarding my personal favorite in the Tom Petty songbook:

Well you can’t turn him into a company man
You can’t turn him into a whore
And the boys upstairs just don’t understand anymore
Well the top brass don’t like him talking so much
And he won’t play what they say to play
And he don’t want to change what don’t need to change

And there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
There goes the last DJ

Well some folks say they’re gonna hang him so high
Because you just can’t do what he did
There’s some things you just can’t put in the minds of those kids
As we celebrate mediocrity, all the boys upstairs want to see
How much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free

And there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
And there goes the last DJ

Well he got him a station down in Mexico
And sometimes it will kinda come in
And I’ll bust a move and remember how it was back then

There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
And there goes the last DJ.
(The Last DJ by Tom Petty)

Corporate takeover of the music industry got the last free DJ. And I now have to pay for what I used to get for free. But the suits haven't cut down the fighters like Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Bruce, Tom Petty, and community radio. And I've got hope.

27 October 2007

Essential Album Series: Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Uprising"

I realized tonight that I've overlooked one of the major forces in world music and the rebirth of rock in the late seventies, Reggae.

Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1980 album Uprising has got it all: roots reggae (Redemption Song), Ska (Bad Card), and the pure, soulful, slow burn of the rest. Music you just cannot stand still to. Music you cannot help but learn from. Study this one, it's one step on a mature, beautiful voyage.

Jah Rastafariah!


23 October 2007

Essential Albums: "The Chess Box: Chuck Berry"

In the Saturday Night Live broadcast of April 22, 1978, Steve Martin appeared as a psychic in a mock news show entitled "Next Week in Review." His psychic character revealed that next week, Earth will receive the first official message from extraterrestrials (responding to the [NASA deep space probe containing the] Voyager Golden Records). The message: "Send more Chuck Berry." (Source: Wikipedia.)

Chuck Berry. Just the mere mention of his name fills the mind with vivid, indelible images -- images from the very heart of of rock n' roll. (Source: The Chess Box: Chuck Berry liner notes.)
I must lay out certain of my preferences to begin:

1. Keith Richards is my favorite guitar player.

2. After Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, the next new thing in rock and roll was Chuck Berry.

3. Then came Dylan. And then the man Dylan called "America's best living songwriter", Smokey Robinson. Regarding Smokey, first among his stellar contributions is the the Robinson / Pete Moore / Marv Tarplin composition Tracks of My Tears.

3. Sam Cooke, Patsie Cline, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Sr., and David Ruffin were popular vocalists without equal.

Now on to acknowledgement of the many artists who I have left unmentioned in order to focus on the importance of Chuck Berry's innovations and recordings. But that is a separate post I'm planning on Motown, F.A.M.E., STAX, and Chess Records.

That said, The Chess Box is Chuck Berry's most important catalogue of recordings. Of the work chronologically catalogued in this box set, I would say 1956 -- 1964 was this "brown-eyed handsome man['s]" golden era. At that time, Berry recorded in Chicago for Chess Records, primarily with Chuck's own piano player from his native St. Louis, Johnnie Johnson, and the Chess Studios house rhythm section -- bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon and the incomparable Fred Below on drums (for Below on fire check out Little Walter's Confessin' the Blues). With songs such as Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode, Berry reinvented rock and roll for the last time. So far.

Berry's Impact on Popular Music

What made the early Rolling Stones' career was Keith Richards trying to copy Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger singin' the vocals and sounding so black. When the young Mick and Keith met by chance at a railway station many years after they had known each other in school, Keith wasn't so much interested in Mick, but rather the American delta blues, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry records he appeared to have under his arm. The rest is history, with the final chapter on the Stones yet to be written. But without Chuck Berry, there would be no Keith, and hence, no Stones. Berry's Johnny B. Goode, Mabelliene, Roll Over Beethoven, and Little Queenie (via the Stones), quite simply, changed the world.

I can go on and on but Steve Martin's SNL joke says it best: the first thing advanced alien civilizations want from us is "More Chuck Berry". I would send them The Chess Box: Chuck Berry and declare "Mission Accomplished".

"It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it!"


16 October 2007

Potentially Great New Film on the Many Sides of Dylan: "I'm Not There"

On November 17, 2007 one of the most creative, innovative films, so far, about the career of Bob Dylan will be released. To read more about this "metaphorical masterpiece", starring Australian actress extrodinaire Cate Blanchett as on of the actors portraying Dylan in this film, see I'm Not There at IMDb.

11 October 2007

A Sermon -- Johnny Cash style

A while back, I wrote in some detail about the American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin, that Johnny Cash made in the last years of his life. While listening to some of these songs last Sunday, I reflected on Cash's message and the hollow sermons given in churches these days. It hit me that somebody ought to piece together a great sermon based on Cash's end-of-the-trail lyrics. Here's my humble attempt:


I have been ungrateful
And I have been unwise
Restless from the cradle
But now I realize
It's so hard to see the rainbow
Through glasses dark as these
Maybe I'll be able from down on my knees

Oh I am weak
Oh I know I am vain
Take this weight from me
Let my spirit be unchained

Old man swearin' at the sidewalk
And I am overcome
Seems that we've both forgotten
Forgotten to go home

Have I seen an angel
Or have I seen a ghost
Where's that Rock of Ages
When you need it most

It's so hard to see the rainbow
Through glasses dark as these
Maybe I'll be able
From down on my knees


When The Man Comes Around

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying: "Come and see."
And I saw.
And behold, a white horse

There's a Man goin' 'round takin' names

An' He decides who to free and who to blame

Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reaching down

When the Man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup'
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter's ground.

When the Man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singin'
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin', voices cryin'

Some are born an' some are dyin'.

It's Alpha's and Omega's Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree

The virgins are all trimming their wicks

The whirlwind is in the thorn tree

It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks

'Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom

Then the Father hen will call his chickens home.

The wise men will bow down before the throne.

And at His feet they'll cast their golden crown,

When the Man comes around.

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still.

Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still.

Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.

Listen to the words long written down,

When the Man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers

When The Man Comes Around


from Redemption

From the hands it came down
From the side it came down

From the feet it came down

And ran to the ground

Between heaven and hell
A teardrop fell
In the deep crimson dew

The tree of life grew

And the blood gave life
To the branches of the tree

And the blood was the price
That set the captives free

And the numbers that came

Through the fire and the flood
Clung to the tree

And were redeemed by the blood

From the tree streamed a light
That started the fight
'Round the tree grew a vine

On whose fruit I could dine

My old friend Lucifer came

Fought to keep me in chains

But I saw through the tricks

Of six-sixty-six

And the blood gave life

To the branches of the tree

And the blood was the price

That set the captives free

And the numbers that came

Through the fire and the flood
Clung to the tree

And were redeemed by the blood
. ...


from "Why Me Lord"

Why me Lord, what have I ever done?
To deserve even one
Of the pleasures I've known
Tell me Lord, what did I ever do?
That was worth loving You

Or the kindness You've shown.

Lord help me Jesus, I've wasted it so
Help me Jesus
I know what I am
Now that I know that I've need You so
Help me Jesus, my soul's in Your hand.

Tell me Lord, if You think there's a way
I can try to repay
All I've taken from You?
Maybe Lord, I can show someone else
What I've been through myself
On my way back to You.

from Personal Jesus

.... Reach out and touch faith.



'A Divided Civilization Subjected to Scrutiny'

Lessing Wins Nobel Literature Prize

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 2007

For six decades, British novelist Doris Lessing has written works of fiction that explore the sometimes painful intertwining of the political and the personal. Today, those efforts landed her the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature.

In awarding her the prize-of-all-writing-prizes, the Swedish Academy championed Lessing as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."

Lessing's work had been of great importance both to other writers and to the broader field of literature, academy secretary Horace Engdahl told Reuters news service. He said members of the academy had discussed her as a potential laureate for years.

"Now the moment was right. Perhaps we could say that she is one of the most carefully considered decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize," Engdahl told the wire service. "She has opened up a new area of experience that earlier had not been very accepted in literature. That has to do with, for instance, female sexuality." ....
Congratulations to Ms. Lessing.

Epigram: I learned later in this day that her watershed masterpiece is her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.

08 October 2007

Hughie Thomasson: The Passing of an Outlaw

One of The Outlaws last gigs

On September 9, 2007, Hughie Thomasson, vocalist and influential guitarist for The Outlaws, passed away. Another loss of one of our greatest Southern Rock musicians.

On a personal note, The Outlaws formed in Tampa, Florida (my hometown), and the lightning-strike of a song Green Grass and High Tides was a huge part of my musical education. For videos of this song and interviews with the band, click here.

Hughie, rest in peace.

06 October 2007

Transcendental Blues: "The Revolution Starts ... Now"

You gotta check out Steve Earle's 2004 The Revolution Starts ... Now. Tracks (emphasis mine):
  1. "The Revolution Starts ..." – 3:10
  2. "Home to Houston" – 2:41
  3. "Rich Man's War" – 3:25
  4. "Warrior" – 4:11
  5. "The Gringo's Tale" – 4:33
  6. "Condi, Condi" – 3:08
  7. "F the CC" – 3:12
  8. "Comin' Around" – 3:41
  9. "I Thought You Should Know" – 3:46
  10. "The Seeker" – 3:11
  11. "The Revolution Starts ... Now" – 4:23
This masterwork by Mr. Earle is the best protest rock I've heard in years. Are you down with that?

For the whole story on why Earle is the new man, check out David McGee and Earle's story of this artist's road: Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet. Fearless Heart indeed.

I'm with Steve, we are in a revolution -- are you in or out? I want to see the deaths and disappearaces of Bhuddist monks and protesters in Burma stop now!


04 October 2007

History is the Set of Questions ... (Epigram)

I completed viewing all 16 hours of Ken Burns' documentary The War last Tuesday night. I though about my great uncle's (European theater tail gunner) experiences. I spoke twice with his wife (brave homeland supporter and the person who met, among other things, all his post-war emotional needs). I reached two conclusions:

1.) As with all good history, Burns' The War asks more questions than the thousands it answers.

2.) I am 50 now, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, a non-veteran. And I will never look at war, any war, in the same way. Burns' documentary has reshaped not only my views of war, but also the questions I ask of military history.

As the old saying goes, "There are no atheists in the trenches."

01 October 2007

History is the Set of Questions ...

Given my attempt, however successful, for historical analysis interwoven in all these posts; and given that, as of this writing, I have watched every episode broadcast so far of Ken Burns' The War; and given the quality of the music controlled by Wynton Marsalis (who calls on Norah Jones along with vintage artists of the early forties, for a contribution to his score, this documentary is a monumental achievement.

In a tip of the hat to Mr. Burns' work promoting the film, I quote the following from his September 27, 2007 appearance on The Daily Show:

"History is the Set of Questions
We of the Present

Ask of the Past"

Tell it, man!

28 September 2007

Exile on Green River

It's a stark reality in the white blues/rock world that, if you wanna add your voice to those of the greats, you gotta make an album as gritty and awe-inspiring as the unparalleled blues/rock achievement of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (note: it's greatness owes a lot to a number of uncredited contributors -- Dr. John first among them for his horn arrangements generally and masterful piano on Let it Loose).

When U2's Rattle and Hum (album and film) came out, certain reviewers got my inner circle discussing the question "[W]as Rattle and Hum U2's Exile on Main Street? Of course, we were trying to judge way too soon, and got it wrong. Great as it is, Rattle and Hum is no Exile on Main Street.

It takes decades, at least, to evaluate an album's place in rock history. So let me try this one again. In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival ("CCR") released a trilogy of superb albums:

Bayou Country
(released January 1969)

Green River
(released August 1969)

Willy and the Poor Boys
(released November 1969)

I would argue that this diverse, written-mostly-while-touring trilogy is CCR's Exile on Main Street. The radio domination of the albums' singles such as "Proud Mary" and "Bad Moon Rising" tell only part of the story. Green River contains some of the best Cosmic American Music Grams Parsons didn't make, two examples, Lodi and Wrote a Song for Everyone. And if you don't think John Fogerty and the boys can reach the black delta mud of serious blues/rock, served straight up, then check out Green River's deep album tracks.

I will save discussion of the other two '69 CCR albums for another time. Come on mate (or Sheila), what do you say, whatcha think?

23 September 2007

The Breakdown of "Omerta" and the Lure of Drug Profits: Copolla, Scorcese and Modern Mob Films

Commune di Corleone , Sicilia


The tragic history of Sicily -- conquered time and again through the millenia due to it's strategic location along traditional vital Mediterranean routes -- helps us understand why the people of that stunningly beautiful island organized themselves for protection from subjugation and sanctioned government cruelty. In modern parlance, historically: American immigrants' need for protection from the cops.

And why wouldn't the isolated, non-English-speaking Sicilian immigrants bring their deep beliefs in Omerta' and other Mafia tools with them, through Ellis Island to North America. And why wouldn't this notion of familia, organized as the old Roman legions were, evolve as the U.S. matured and grew in the 20th century? Well, they would, and did, and North America changed and so did the Mafia.

And soon the great Mob films will be about the Eastern European Mafia that quickly emerged after the implosion of the U.S.S.R. -- first out of the non-indie gate is the just released Eastern Promises.

It is the older, gritty classics -- Public Enemy, Little Caesar, White Heat, Scarface (1932 original) -- that so heavily influenced Martin Scorcese, and North America.

The modern classics of this genre we owe primarily to two men: Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Don't compare Coppola's The Godfather trilogy to Goodfellas or any of Martin Scorsese's crime syndicate movies. Coppola shows a progression from the Cosa Nostra of 1940's, with flashbacks to the first quarter of the 20th century, through North America's ongoing love affair with coke and horse. I would argue that the increase in disorganized violence was partially caused by growing illicit drug profits; it may also be argued the loss of the friendship of the Pezzonovante' (bigshots) of the Church and government went hand-in-hand with the Mafia's move into the drug trade.

In DeNiro's and Liotta's Goodfellas characters, we see competent men who couldn't break into "The Family" because they weren't full blooded Sicilian. More importantly, we also see an excellent view of mob life from the "Button Man's"

Bottom line, both the Corleone and the Paul "Paulie" Cicero (Goodfellas) syndicates were brought down, in part, by the drug trade backed up with automatic weapons.

For a historical persective on gang life, a brief discussion of Scorsese's Gangs of New York is warranted. The Five Points in 19th century Manhattan gangs alignment with Tammany Hall protected them for a while, but here hatred clouded reason and the last days of the Civil War took their toll. Compare Casino and Mean Streets.

Of course, the period Irish music -- which to great degree still is played in cities such as Chicago -- is superb. Hats off to Scorsese and Executive Music Supervisor Robbie Robertson. And then there's the elegant use of a modern Irish band, U2, with there over-the-credits ending theme: The Hands That Built America.

Drug trafficking, lack of backing organization, and uncontrolled violence are one unifying theme in the downfall of these criminal empires. In Scorsese's most recent syndicate film, The Departed (2006), the Syndicate boss (Jack Nicholson's character) deals directly with a new, inner circle "button man" (Leonardo DiCaprio's character) -- note: buffer system smashed. Further, this Irish Mob shreds Omerta'; finally, Southie is drowning in white powder and Nicholson's character, well, ... -- that would be spoiler information on a new essential film; you won't get it from me.

The unifying lessons of the Cosa Nostra films: get well organized, be faithful until death to
omerta'; and stay away from trafficking in white powders.

By way of comparison, check out Forrest Whitaker as the lead character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai -- a professional assassin following a strict Samurai code.