Friday, January 21, 2022

If I Could Only... I Forget - Part 1

I met David Crosby when I was 7 years old. I didn't know who he was, but I liked his mustache. Here's an excerpt from my memoir, Jay and the Americans 

     More than once we went to the Trip.  Laura and I weren’t allowed in, 21 and up, so we'd sit in the back and listen and I’d color and Laura and I would play Ouija.  I liked the Ouija.  It pointed to the moon a lot.  It spelled my name.  David Crosby played with us.  I didn’t really know who he was, but I liked him because he looked like a walrus.  He asked a question and it pointed to the no.  That’s when he colored with me.  I don't think he liked the Ouija's answer, but he colored real nice.

The Trip was a former jazz club on the Sunset Strip next to the Playboy Club. We were there a lot at one point and, as always, I carried with me a Disneyland coloring book. Another artist who colored with me was Marianne Faithful. I had a crush on her, but she colored out of the lines.

Ouija with the walrus was around 1967 or '68, Crosby was still with the Byrds. He left or was fired from the band and met Graham Nash and Stephen Stills at Mama Cass's house and from there produced Joni Mitchell's debut. In May 1969 came the trio's debut, their incredible performance with Neil Young at Woodstock, and Déjà vu in 1970. In February 1971 came Crosby's solo LP, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Recorded at Wally Heider in San Francisco and at A&M in Hollywood, the LP featured a myriad of prominent musicians, Graham Nash, Gerry Garcia, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Slick, and Phil Lesh, among others. An impromptu band name was applied to the troupe, The Planet Eart Rock 'n' Roll Orchestra. The band would appear on other recordings as well including Graham Nash's Songs For Beginners. 

From the opening track, the mantra-like "Music Is Love," it is apparent that the session was a lesson in soul-cleansing for Crosby who was mourning the tragic death of his girlfriend, Christine Hinton. But instead of going down the 'primal scream' route that Lennon chose, David decided to pour out his grief in a series of sometimes wordless jazzy songs.

"Tamalpais High (At About 3)" is a good example of the wordless approach he took on several of the tracks. Over a moody backing, David exorcises his pain with ghostly harmonies. The brief closer "I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here" is even more stripped-down with just his voice floating serenely skyward.

An atmospheric album, Side A has more of a CSNY sound than any other solo effort by C, S, N, or Y, partly because N & Y are present, indeed, "Cowboy Movie” would be right at home on "Déjà vu." Side B tends toward what could be called ambient music and risks disappearing altogether in a smoky haze, but it's quite pleasant, especially "Song With No Words." As an ambient music fan, I'm drawn toward "I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here." Crosby? Sounds like Eno.

As a window into a time and a mindset, "If I Could Only Remember My Name" is soaked with folky, Laurel Canyon ambiance. As you might expect, there is an L.A. druggie feel to it and therein lies the mood, a journey that started well but slowly goes bad. Retrospectively, one can hear the dream of the 60's die a bit on this album, and its participants aren't even aware.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

ELP - Trilogy - AM9.1

Trilogy (AM9.1)
Artist: Emerson, Lake and Palmer
Producer: Greg Lake
Length: 42:23
Released: July 6, 1972
Tracks: 1) The Endless Enigma I (6:41) 2) Fugue (1:56) 3) The Endless Enigma II (2:03); 4) From the Beginning (4:16) 5) The Sheriff (3:22) 6) Hoedown (3:47) 7) Trilogy (8:54); 8) Living Sin (3:13); 9) Abaddon's Bolero (8:08) 

Personnel: Keyboards (Hammond Organ C3, Steinway Piano, Moog Synthesizer IIIC, Mini Moog) – Keith Emerson; Vocals, Bass  – Greg Lake; Drums, Percussion  – Carl Palmer

Emerson, Lake and Palmer's fourth LP (third studio effort), Trilogy, opens with the sound of a heartbeat to frame the subject of the meaning of life, or life in a cultural construct. The eerie sounds Keith Emerson creates on the Moog, combined with sudden piano runs and fading bongos, establish a sense of mystery that quickly manifests itself into chaos, like the restlessness of a tortured soul. After the band slows the tempo to provide a proper introduction, the vocals begin, with Lake at his best. At first, we don't know to whom the narrator is speaking, until, late in the sequence he admits that the sins ascribed to others are his own, the personification of humanity looking at itself in the mirror. The instrumentation is phenomenal with synth, piano, even a zourka, Palmer's incessant drum fills and Lake's distinctive bass and clear tenor. The song is divided in half by "Fugue" a superb piano interlude with Lake's bass syncopated nicely in the background and Palmer's simple triangle adding a touch of counterpoint. The music changes mood and melody significantly through the pieces: some quiet, some heavy and full of passion. Emerson's synthesizer finally emulates bells and trumpets as Lake belts out the climax to the lengthy track. Lake's vocals are thrilling and hotly emotive, particularly in lines like "They make me sick and tired" and "Please, please, please open their eyes" against Emerson's intrusive Hammond. And then the compelling final verse:

Each part was played
Though the play was not shown
Everyone came
Though they all sat alone
The dawn opened the play
Breaking the day
Causing a silent hooray
The dawn will break another day
Now that it's done
I've begun to see the reason why I'm here.

"The Endless Enigma" is frankly fucking fabulous, one of the great works of progressive rock, followed by an FM standard, one of three by Lake in the canon, "From the Beginning." After the lyrical ballad concludes, Emerson's iconic synth solo ends the track. "The Sheriff" is a playful ditty and the chance for Emerson to show his prowess and diversity, as does "Hoedown," a send-off to Aaron Copland and finally "Abaddon's Bolero," with two tracks that precede the band's musical take on the Armageddon.

The lesser of those is "Living Sin," a heady, dark track, with Lake growling the lyrics in a theatrical seedy undertone: "If you never saw it coming, Hooked you up with Coca-Cola coming, Nice and slippery." While I enjoy the effort, particularly those lyrics, that Golem-esque voice is one of the reason's that Trilogy is only an AM9; while the track redeems itself in other ways.

On "Trilogy," the LP's side two opus, Emerson's piano again sounds the business: crisp, clear Steinway, with the introductory section sounding like progressive Gershwin. Later Emerson brings in Hammond and synthesizers and really rocks it up during a long instrumental section. The track tells the story of a breakup and the profound emotional trauma it entails. The patter-like lyrics, though, are what bring the track to life.

I've tried to mend
The love that ended
Long ago although we still pretend
Our love is surely coming to an end
Don't waste the time you've got to love again
We tried to lie
But you and I
Know better than to let each other lie
The thought of lying to you makes me cry
Counting up the time that's passed us by
I've sent this letter hoping it will reach your hand
And if it does I hope that you will understand
That I must leave in a while
And though I smile
You know the smile is only there to hide
What I'm really feeling deep inside
Just a face where I can hang my pride
We'll talk of places that we went
And times that we have spent
Together penniless and free
You'll see the day another way
And wake up with the sunshine
Pourin’ right down where you lay
You'll love again, I don't know when
But if you do I know that you'll be happy in the end

While the rhyme scheme is quite clever and pronounced, it's the content of the lyrics that capture the story's essence, particularly in the use of three separate tenses as the lyrics progress.  The lyrics in the first verse are past-tense; reflective and looking back at what the relationship once was. The second verse is written in the present-tense describing the day when the "ex" no longer feels pain over the breakup. After the extended instrumental section, the third verse, in the future-tense, reassures her that they will find love and happiness once again, in time.

Rather than being left with some kind of false Disney ending, the listener hopes instead that the breakup works out for the best. There isn't an overwhelming urge to hear the narrator and the ex getting back together. The listener, first hand, has also been exposed to the pain, the confusion, the anxiety, and the loneliness of the breakup, but then as well, the clarity, simplicity and optimism of what lies ahead. The ending is a rational reflection that doesn't call for back-pedaling to the way things were.

Two solid epics, two glorious instrumentals, a phenomenal love song, some kitchy western hoopededoo and a disposable, if acceptable three minute toss-out, make for a solid AM9, vying for one's attention as a 10. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” is an amalgam of this and that. The lyrics from a children’s hymnbook by Eleanor Farjeon, the tune from the Scottish traditional folksong, Bunessan,” the piano theme a variation of Rick Wakeman’s “Catherine Howard.” The recording of the track was a bit of a distraction from Wakeman’s first solo project, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and his session work. The Stevens’ track, recorded in March 1971, was Wakeman’s last session gig before joining Yes for the recording of Fragile in August and Bowie for the recording of Hunky-Dory.

A year earlier, still recording with Strawbs, Wakeman’s manager received a call from Jerry Moss, the M in A&M. “So we went down to the A&M lot, which was Charlie Chaplin’s old film studios. I hadn’t really ever sat in an executive’s office before, so they asked me if I wanted some coffee and I said 'I’d rather have a Scotch' – this was back in my drinking days and it was only nine in the morning. 

“Anyway, Moss showed us ‘round the lot and it was fantastic. And then he said that they had an option on me because of the Strawbs thing. He said, ‘Word in the business is that Yes is going to be a very big band. If that’s so then we should probably put out a solo album”. I’d never really thought about it before, but it sounded like Christmas, so I said 'Yes please.'” 

While maligned by critics (not all of them, but), The Six Wives of Henry VIII sold more than half a million copies in the U.S. upon its release (14 million copies to date). Inspired by a biography of Henry VIII that Wakeman bought at the airport, the concept provided a convenient framing device for a series of melodies he’d been toying with. Gathering together a formidable ensemble of bandmates from Yes (all but Anderson) and Strawbs, Wakeman fashioned his compositions into distinct themes and timbres not unlike those created by John Williams for Star Wars. 

The Six Wives’ gatefold sleeve displayed the impressive array of instruments that Wakeman had at his disposal, and while “Jane Seymour” represents the album’s most faithful Tudor interlude, utilizing the church organ from St. Giles Cripplegate, “Anne Boleyn” is heaven on earth for aficionados of early monophonic Minimoog and ARP synths. The two standout tracks, though, are “Catherine Of Aragon” and “Catherine Parr,” the latter including a memorable Hammond C3 section of immaculately controlled arpeggios punctuated by Bill Bruford’s formidably inspired drumming.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Rick Wakeman, Session Man

Rick Wakeman is one of rock's foremost keyboardists. Obviously any Yesfan looks upon Wakeman as one of the core musicians in the band's storied half-century, but fewer realize that, aside from his initial band, Strawbs, Wakeman was a key incidental session player, most famously for David Bowie's "Life on Mars"; the song would lose its luster without that iconic piano. For Bowie, Wakeman also contributed to Space Oddity, playing the mellotron and electric harpsicord, Elton John's Madman Across the Water, Cat Steven's Teaser and the Firecat, the piano for T-Rex's "Bang a Gong" and Lou Reed's debut LP.

Classically trained at the Royal College of Music, Wakeman found himself in such high demand as a session player that he dropped out of the College in 1969 to concentrate on his career. Wakeman recalls the mellotron session for "Space Oddity:" It was early 1969; I was 19 coming up on 20. I'd worked with the producer Tony Visconti that year on the Junior's Eyes album. I was playing a Mellotron, which was a relatively new instrument and difficult to keep in tune, but I'd found a crafty way. Tony asked: 'How'd you do that?' and I said: 'It's just a fingering technique' and that was that.

"Soon after, Tony called me up and said, 'Rick, I need you to come up to London to play some Mellotron on David Bowie's new single, "Space Oddity." I drove up to London and parked on Wardour Street and went over to Trident Studios to meet David. 'Tony says you can keep this bloody thing in tune,' he said. 'Well yeah, hopefully,' I replied. It was before David was famous, so I wasn't nervous about meeting him – it was just another bit of session work.

"We knocked it out in about 20 minutes. I think it got to number five first time around in '69 and then in '75 when it was rereleased it went to number one. A year later David called and asked me if I'd play some piano on some new songs. So I went round to his house in Beckenham, Kent. I nicknamed it Beckenham Palace because at the time I was living in a tiny little terraced house in West Harrow and his kitchen was bigger than my entire place.

"I sat at the piano while he played songs on his battered old guitar. Things had really changed for him. He was a successful artist and he had a young family. I sat at the piano while he played a load of songs to me on his battered old 12-string guitar. "Life on Mars" stuck out as being something very special. He wanted a piano solo, he wanted the album to be very piano-orientated. I was given complete freedom by him."

In 1971, having just joined the band, Yes was on tour for Fragile, interestingly as the opening band for Black Sabbath. "Yes supported Black Sabbath in America in the early days, and me and Ozzy always got on great. Because of my various alcoholic diseases, I haven't been able to drink for 20-odd years, but back then I was a serious drinker, as were all of Sabbath, so we got on like a house on fire, matching each other drink for drink. When we supported 'em on Yes’s Fragile tour, they had a spare seat on their private plane, so a lot of the time I'd travel with them. You literally couldn't move for booze on that plane. Ozzy was probably putting away as much as me – which was as much as humanly possible."

In the book, Caped Crusader, Rick Wakeman in the 1970s, Elton John writes in the book's foreward, "Rick's mastery of electronic instruments only adds to his abilities, and I think it is fair to say he was one of the reasons I stuck to the piano. I also admire his attitude to stage shows - always willing to take a gamble, but never sacrificing his musical ideals. Just as important, never losing his sense of humour and his sense of the ridiculous. Anyone who can put on an ice show at Wembley must be all right. I must add that Rick loves cars and is a fanatic when it comes to soccer. Therefore, he and I have an unbreakable bond.

"It has become fashionable to knock musicians who have been around a while, and who are still determined to persevere in what they believe in. It is very easy to be misunderstood along the way, but it is vital to ignore trends and get on with what you want to do. Rick will always do this because, quite simply, he's that much better than everyone else."

The photo above is from the gatefold of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and shows the variety of keyboards that Wakeman has used. Starting on the upper left is Wakeman's confessed favorite, the Mini Moog. Clockwise you'll note a custom mixer and a frequency counter sitting on a Steinway Grand Piano. Rick's left hand is playing the RMI electric piano, which sits atop a custom Hammond C3. With his right hand he plays another Mini Moog that sits upon a Mellotron 400D. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Funny. Write a biography and people question how much of it is fiction. Write a novel and everyone wants to know what parts are real. You can’t win. I’ve often written about living on the fringe as a writer, about knowing people superficially, but, as well, I've had my share of close encounters. This one, I included in my fictional memoir, Jay and the Americans (Amazon):

—I saw Rickie Lee Jones at the Roxy. Tom Waits was in the audience, drunk. So was Chuck E. Weiss. Rickie, too, was drunk as a skunk, but the songs were funky, and if not they were beautiful. The show was over, the crowd dispersed. The curtain was drawn when Rickie pushed her way through. She said, “Where’s my hat? Where’s my fucking beret?” I was sitting at a table taking notes. She looked at me. “Jou take my hat? Hey, hey, where’s my fucking hat?”
Tom Waits came out from behind the curtain. In his gruff voice, he said, “You seen the lady’s hat?”
I looked around. A beret was on the table next to mine. I handed it to her. She said, “Well, thanks, then. I though’ you stole my hat.”—
After that, they knew me; or they knew of me. But early one morning, the sun peeking over the horizon, I got to talk with Rickie Lee. I wasn’t a Duke’s fan; Ben Frank’s was cleaner, better food, off-street parking. I shuffled in alone after a long night at the Roxy and the Rainbow; Max Ten and my friends had all gone home. Rickie was there with Waits in the back table, what was rightfully “our” booth, btw, though by then, she had a Grammy nomination and my claim to the real estate was null and void. Maybe Duke’s was no longer worthy.
I bumped into the waitress and knocked the checkbook out of her hand. I picked it up, and as I handed it back she said, “Sitting here?” I looked at Rickie Lee. She shrugged and moved over. Waits was across the table, a porkpie hat over his face, his legs stretched out into the aisle.
“Where’s your friends?”
“Duke’s, maybe. Home.”
“What’s your friend’s name, anyway? See him everywhere.”
“Max Ten. Maxwell Tenniel.” To the waitress, I said, “Pancake sandwich.”
“Coffee?” I nodded.
“I like that. You know, nicknames and shit.”
“I noticed. ‘Sal lives in a black vinyl pen.’”
“In New Jersey. Sal Bernardi. Have you met him?”
I shook my head. “Your songs are colorful, like the people in them.”
“Everybody real. Friends.” The waitress brought my breakfast and filled my coffee. Rickie said, “I know you, right?”
“You thought I stole your beret.”
“At the Roxy.”
Waits took the hat from his face. “I remember you.” He licked his lips and put the hat back over his eyes.
“I used to live in Venice, you know? You don’t remember. You guys wouldn’t, you know, PLP with me*”
She laughed. “When was that?”
“Couple years.” I sipped my coffee. Then it was the journalist in me. “So, new album?”
“Working on it. Maybe I’ll borrow Max Ten.”
“Kinda wish you wouldn’t. What, you need more characters. Who you got?”
“Johnny the King. Eddie with the Crazy Eye. Cunt-Finger Louie.”
“That one’s Sal’s. So, you using Max Ten? You writin’ a book?”
Waits sat up. He said, “Don’t ‘kinda’ write a book.” I can hear him in my mind.
Rickie looked at me and shrugged. She said, “Write a book.”
And there you have it, my impetus for my first novel. Thanks, Rickie.
*Not sure if PLP is a Rickie-ism or not. It means Public Leaning Post. Like a parking meter or the lamppost; an old friend you can lean on.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

50 Years Ago - Joni and James

Joni Mitchell’s relationship with James Taylor, while brief (six months if you listen to Joni; a year according to James), inspired a myriad of songs on Joni’s first real venture into jazz, For the Roses. With Joni in the studio (A&M), by December 1971, Taylor was already immersed in his relationship with Carly Simon. While we tend to look more fondly and intently on Joni’s affair with Graham Nash, the “Our House” era, it was James with whom Joni felt she’d found her pair-bond. With the relationship’s demise, Joni put the Lookout Mountain house in Laurel Canyon up for sale and fled to British Columbia.

For recovering addicts, moving to another locale to escape the confines of substance abuse is called a "geographic cure," and that's what James Taylor, battling an addiction to heroin, was looking for when he moved to London in 1968. His debut LP on Apple Records, while critically acclaimed, went unnoticed and James moved back to L.A. a year later, sleeping on Peter Asher’s couch (he was only 21 years old). Upon her return to L.A. from Crete, Joni started seeing James and in that time, the couple accentuated each other’s work, their lyrics and vocals intertwining as Taylor played on Joni's "California," "All I Want" and "A Case of You," and Mitchell provided vocal backup for Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.
For the Roses' most telling song is “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” Joni’s lament on James’ addiction. Some speculate that “A Case of You” from Blue was also written about James (or Leonard Cohen) alongside “Blue” and “All I Want.” (Taylor plays guitar on “California,” “All I Want” and interestingly “A Case of You.”) The James tracks on For the Roses include “See You Sometime,” the title song, and “Woman of Heart and Mind.” The next year, Mitchell would pen “Just Like This Train” for Court and Spark, a painstaking portrayal of their relationship. James in turn would write “You Can Close Your Eyes” for Mud Slide Slim. The couple would record a version that’s been released on The Reprise Years Vol. 2, from the Joni Michell Archives.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Other Side of the Canyon

has extensively covered the folky side of Laurel Canyon. In early 1971, one incredible LC LP was dropped after another, a trail of music history that includes Joni and James and Carole and Stephen and and… (we’ll get to all that).

Driving through today, the Canyon around the Country Store still has that Americana feel; one is hard-pressed not to sing: “Young girls are coming to the Canyon…” And yet, Laurel Canyon was equally less pastoral over on “Love Street” or at the Cabin; LC was the avant-garde muse of The Doors and Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Alice Cooper.

As 1971 was gearing up for Tapestry, Blue and Mud Slide Slim, The Doors were down on Santa Monica Blvd. having a burger and a beer and playing pool at Barney’s Beanery; spending as much time there as in the studio recording L.A. Woman.

After Revolver, the Beatles' hiatus lasted an unheard-of 13 months. Word on the street was that the Beatles were done, that they’d lost it. Then in May 1967 came Sgt. Pepper.

That same negativity pervaded The Doors in early ’71, The Soft Parade was “disappointing,” its sales were lackluster (despite a No. 1 hit in “Touch Me” – or because of its commercialism), and that lack of interest diffused the far superior Morrison Hotel. With Jim’s antics added into the mix, no one knew that The Doors would find their path in what many consider the band's finest LP.

The Doors’ Workshop at 8512 Santa Monica Blvd. provided a makeshift recording studio without the studio price; not to mention that Elektra didn’t want them wrecking the studio, particularly based on the less than impressive sales of the last two studio LPs. A mixing console was installed upstairs with studio monitors, microphones, and keyboards on the first level. Morrison recorded his vocals in a bathroom doorway to emulate an isolated vocal booth.

To toughen up the LP’s timbre, the band added bassist Jerry Scheff (who recorded and toured with Elvis) and Mark Benno, the hot rhythm guitarist from Leon Russell’s band. And what a difference it made on rockers like the title track and “Love Her Madly.” It took just two months from the LP's inception to its completion in January (the album was released in April 1971).

Here’s how important Scheff and Benno were to the band: “L.A. Woman” was initially a slow, bluesy thing from Jim and Robby Kreiger. It was in the studio that The Doors’ classic came to life, kicked in the ass by Scheff and Benno. Ray Manzarek said, “We smoked a joint and just locked in. God, did we capture it.” And it was Scheff who solidified “Riders on the Storm” with his essential yet subdued bass line. Amazingly, the recording was finished in six days with little in the way of retakes and overdubs. The album was essentially recorded live in the studio.

Sadly, Morrison left L.A. for Paris during the mixing of the LP. What was supposed to be a temporary leave of absence was a final farewell. On July 3, 1971, less than six weeks after the album’s release, Morrison died, bringing one of rock's most tumultuous careers to a bitter conclusion.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Thank you, Mike

The guitar-playing singer-songwriter with the wool hat who along with Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz became a TV star and 1960s pop sensation as a member of The Monkees, has died. He was 78.

Nesmith died Friday of natural causes, his family told Rolling Stone.

 “With Infinite Love we announce that Michael Nesmith has passed away this morning in his home, surrounded by family, peacefully and of natural causes,” they said.

A Texan whose mother invented Liquid Paper, the Grammy winner also founded a multimedia company through which he created the prototype for MTV and produced several films, most notably the 1984 cult classic Repo Man.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

She's Leaving Home - A Play in Four Acts

The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” is the story of a girl who runs away abruptly, leaving only “the note that she hoped would say more.” It’s based on the true story of Melanie Coe, a teenager from London whose account is told in counterpoint to the lament of her parents: “We gave her most of our lives/ Sacrificed most of our lives/ We gave her everything money could buy.” The song captures what, at the time, was headline news, the “generation gap.” The track has an abiding realism because it helps us to understand a lack of mutual understanding and the diversity of family life. Conceived by Paul McCartney, the Greek chorus of ennui was added by Lennon based on the stereotypical sayings of his Aunt Mimi. The track has inspired this “play” of interconnected songs, an exercise in realism.

ACT 1 – She’s Leaving Home
INT: A London row house. Melanie creeps downstairs with a carpetbag, a plane ticket in hand, skipping over the creaky stair, then quietly locking the back door. Mother hears the door latch, picks up a letter slipped under the door, and wakes Father.
Mother: Daddy, our baby’s gone.
Father (with a furrowed brow): How could she treat us so thoughtlessly?
Mother (tears in her eyes): We never thought of ourselves.
Father (less sorrowful): We struggled hard all our lives…
ACT 2 – All I Want
CUT TO: The California desert. Melanie is hitchhiking across America. She wears a gauze dress in the style of the day and stands on the road near a dusty gas station with her thumb out.
Melanie (thinking but out loud): I am on a lonely road and I am traveling. Looking for something. What? What can it be?
A young man in a pickup truck stops. He says he can take her as far as Pearblossom. She falls asleep and when she awakens the sun has set. They stop at a country bar. He buys her a drink.
Young Man (slurring his words): Do you want, do you want, do you wanna dance with me, baby?
She shakes her head
Young Man: Take a chance, baby, maybe find some sweet romance. Come on.
She pulls away. Next door is the Greyhound Depot.
ACT 3 – 12:30
EXT: The Laurel Canyon Country Market. Melanie is sitting on the step eating a sandwich. People come and go. Each smiling or saying “hello.”
Melanie (thinking but out loud): At first so strange to feel so friendly, to say "Good morning," and really mean it.
Melanie: Good Morning
Hippie Girl Just Like Her: Hi. Beautiful morning.
Melanie: It ‘tis.
Hippie Girl: Love your accent.
Hippie Girl (walking away, singing to herself): Young girls are coming to the canyon.
The Hippie Girls turns and looks at Melanie who smiles.
Melanie (singing in-kind): And in the morning I can see them walking.
ACT 4 – Love Street
INT: The next day. She wakes up on a strange couch. There’s another girl across the room. A young man is teaching her chords on a guitar. There is the smell of bacon.
Another young man looks up from the kitchen and smiles.
Young Man: Hungry?
The first Young Man takes the guitar from the girl.
Young Man With Guitar (singing): I see you live on Love Street./ There's this store where the creatures meet./ I wonder what they do in there?
The Young Man from the kitchen comes into the living room and gives her a plate with eggs, toast, and bacon.
Young Man From the Kitchen: So, what do you think?
He smiles.
Melanie: I guess I like it fine.
She returns the smile.
Melanie: So far.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Little Bit of Help! (Parts 1 and 2)

I have often mentioned my life on the fringe, from Rickie Lee and Tom Waits accusing me of stealing Rickie’s beret to my being “responsible” for Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining Fleetwood Mac (indeed, a stretcher, but that’s life on the fringe*). My first “job” as a journalist was as an intern at UCLA for The L.A. Weekly. A year later, I was living on my own in Hollywood, a fixture in the burgeoning new wave. The bands I covered going forward were new to the scene and included Haircut 100, Wham!, Depeche Mode, Spandau, Duran Duran – all the new new wave bands on their first gigs in America, and because there was no inherent fame associated with any of them at the time, it slipped my mind how starstruck I’d always been. Enter Paul McCartney… 

Keep in mind that, like all of us, I’d grown up on the Beatles and during my formative years, there was never a moment when McCartney was on the radio. The McCartney canon of etched in one’s mind tracks included “Jet,” “Live and Let Die,” “My Love,” “Band on the Run,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” on and on and with the release of his Greatest Hits LP upon his departure from Capitol Records, McCartney was in L.A. A press session was held at the iconic Capitol Building on Vine Street and as gracious as he was, Paul was eager to answer questions about any topic – that’s when I stumbled to the podium. Of course, I said everything that everyone says about it being an honor, about it being such a special moment, and quickly I got into my diatribe extolling how Paul had been a part of my life as long as I could remember, that I was four years when my brother took me to see Help! at the Panorama theater (as if he knew where that was), how it was then that I became enamored by the Beatles. I related a story about how at every restaurant on the paper placemats I’d draw a stage with the Beatles singing “A Hard Days Night.” 

It was at this point that Paul interrupted and said, “So, do you have a question, or did you just want to talk?” 

But he wasn’t interrupting me and waited for me to continue. Shakily, increasingly nervous, I said, “You know there’s a scene in Help! in which each of you goes to a different door, but when you enter, you all live in the same flat?” 

“I recall.” (Laughter) 

“It was the first real depiction of friendship that I had in my life, and I think that many of us believe that it was real, that it was genuine, we want to believe that, and I’m just wondering, at least at that moment in time, was it real?” 

I never heard Paul’s answer. Somewhere in there,
I realized that I was talking with a Beatle, and he was talking back. For one brief moment, I was a part of Paul’s world. And that’s when I passed out.


Mid-Century Modern Beatles 

Post-war Britain was a solemn place. Throughout the 50s, the remnants of war were a part of the landscape. Abandoned makeshift military bases succumbing to weeds, rubble instead of jungle gyms, bombsites, and buildings with encrusted black soot. This is the setting for the bands who influenced our lives, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd to the Kinks. 

That would change in the 60s with a newly-found optimism in which London would flex its might as a fashion capital and a barrage of new music would infect the world. 

The term “mid-century modern” most readily conjures up images of sharp-suited businessmen, bachelor pads, and chairs from Scandinavia courtesy of movies like North-by-Northwest, or television shows like Mad-Men. In California, mid-century modern meant all-electric Medallion homes with oddly pitched roofs and a lanai. In Britain, mid-century modernism manifested as something different, coming in the form of schools, cathedrals, municipal buildings, and… The Beatles? 

As imagery-laden as a watercolor by SHAG, the interconnected flats in The Beatles’ Help are a mid-century marvel. Filmed at Nos. 5, 7, 9 and 11 Ailsa Avenue, Twickenham, the Fab Four’s apartment is entered via four separate front doors (color-coded for each band member), though once we get behind these fairly ordinary doors in a fairly ordinary block we are presented with one, open-concept space, zoned by color for each member of the band: green for George (with a real grass “rug,” brown for John, blue for Ringo (with some groovy snack machines in chrome and glass and an Arne Jacobsen egg chair), and Paul’s white room, which includes an “Arco” standing lamp also seen in Tony Stark’s mansion in Iron Man.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory was the fourth album in Bowie's discography and his first for RCA Records. When he began recording the album in the summer of 1971, he was without a recording contract and was only several years removed from "dustbin shopping" for clothes on Carnaby Street with Marc Bolan of T-Rex. With the exception of the heavier sounding The Man Who Sold the World, his previous album, Bowie was more or less a folky singer-songwriter whose clever lyrics set him apart from his contemporaries and promised a bright future ahead. 

Hunky Dory represents the coming of age of a yet-to-be iconic superstar who used the album to tinker with the sounds and themes that he wanted and later explored on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars (1972). The LP is also is the first in which he was backed by his Spiders From Mars (Mick Ronson on guitars, Trevor Bolder on bass guitar, and Mick Woodmansey on drums with a special appearance by Rick Wakeman on keyboards).

The opening track "Changes" is representative of the mood Hunky Dory evokes. It brings Bowie back to his breezy, Anthony Newley style of song craftsmanship that he was known for at the beginning of his career. The song is a subtle acknowledgment that he would not be occupying this particular artistic space for very long, as he sings, "Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I'm going through." The track remains his most iconic radio tune.

Impending fatherhood was another influence on this album with "Oh! You Pretty Things" as one example. In this song, Bowie muses about the superman race emerging in the form of his son Duncan, then called Zowie. Oddly enough, the song was covered by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and became a hit in England. The other song inspired by his son is "Kooks," a nod to the works of Neil Young who Bowie happened to be listening to when he heard the news of his son's birth.

Sandwiched in between these odes to his son are "Eight Line Poem" and the timeless "Life On Mars?," which Pitchfork named the best song of the 1970s in their recent list. While you would get many good arguments against Pitchfork's declaration (for me, of course, my guilty pleasures are "Bennie and the Jets," "Ventura Highway" and 10cc's "I'm Not in Love) there's no denying that it remains one of the best songs in Bowie's catalog and iconic radio fare. BBC Radio 2's Sold on Song describes it as "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting."

The genesis of "Life On Mars?" can be traced back to 1968. Bowie had written the English lyrics for a French song called "Comme, D'Habitude" and called his version "Even a Fool Learns to Love." Unfortunately, the song was never released, and shortly afterward Paul Anka heard the original version, bought the rights and rewrote it as "My Way." Anka passed the song along to Frank Sinatra and it became synonymous with Ol' Blue Eyes. Originally, out of anger at his misfortune, Bowie recorded "Life On Mars?" as a Sinatra parody. He eventually made his peace with it and in the liner notes, he wrote that the song was "inspired by Frankie. 

The final track on side one is "Quicksand," a ballad that touches on some of Bowie's non-musical influences like Buddhism, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and the occult. Co-producer Ken Scott had just finished engineering George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and wanted to create a very similar sound using multiple tracks of acoustic guitars.

Side two opens with a cover of the Biff Rose/Paul Williams composition "Fill Your Heart," which sort of acts as a buffer for the next three songs that pay homage to Bowie's three major influences, "Andy Warhol," "Song for Bob Dylan" and "Queen Bitch." The latter was written as a tribute to The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed in particular. If you listen closely, you can hear hints of "Sweet Jane." The song's arrangement is very similar to the style Bowie would display on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust the following year.  

The final song is a ballad called "The Bewlay Brothers." It was one of the last to be written and recorded for the album. Bowie told producer Ken Scott that he wrote the song with the American market in mind because "the Americans always like to read into things, even though the lyrics make absolutely no sense."

Although it received high praise from the critics, Hunky Dory did not really take off until the middle of 1972, after the commercial breakthrough of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Even Bowie himself credits the album as one of the most important of his career. He told Chris Roberts of Uncut Magazine in 1999, "Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience—I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do?' There was always a double whammy there."

1971 was a remarkably great year for music and Hunky Dory was a huge reason why. For David Bowie, it concluded phase one of a brilliant career that can only be rivaled by ?


It was the year of Imagine, Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Master of Reality (Black Sabbath), Electric Warrior (T-Rex), Pink Floyd's Meddle, Elton John's Madman Across the Water, Who's Next, Aqualung, Ram, Teaser and the Firecat and Led Zeppelin IV - and that was just the British side. In California Joni Mitchell put out Blue, The Doors, L.A. Woman, James Taylor, Mud Slide Slim, David Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name, Graham Nash, Songs For Beginners, Carole King, Tapestry and posthumously, Janis Joplin's Pearl. It was the year of California.

Carole King was one of several artists to put out more than one album in 1971. She released Music later the same year. McCartney followed Ram with the first Wings' album Wildlife, while Yes followed up The Yes Album with Fragile - all in the same twelve months. The strength of the list is even more amazing based on the people who didn't put out new material: Dylan, Paul Simon, King Crimson. Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Queen, Steely Dan and Bruce Springsteen had yet to release an album (next year, maybe).

In 1971, Lifehouse was scrapped, even that was written in the stars. Pete Townshend never could get that behemoth off the ground (are behemoths supposed to fly?), but out of it came Who’s Next, Lifehouse minus the fluff and dodgy concepts. 

The singles chart had one last fling with AM and a stellar lineup: "Roundabout," "My Sweet Lord," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Maggie Mae," "Levon," "Brown Sugar," "Iron Man," "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," "Get It On," "Shaft" and "Riders on the Storm."

Manet painted Olympia and LeDejuener sur L'Herbe in the same year (1869). '71 was that good on the rock music front; not as innovative, not as shocking or earth shattering, but that good. Manet's favorite? I'm saying T-Rex. Monet? I think he'd like Blue. I can picture Picasso painting "Guernica," getting down to "Brown Sugar:" "I say 'yeah, yeah, yeah, wooo." 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

60s 45s

I've recently moved into a new (old) home and in the course of the move revisited my old journals that go back more than 40 (a-hem) years. In a journal from the early 90s, one of the most elaborate that I made, there is a list of the “Top 10 Songs of the 60s,” a list obviously made retrospectively. While each of the songs may not still be my faves, in the car this morning I pondered the merits of my list and the following is my attempt to justify it years later. 

10. I first heard Dionne Warwick on the radio circa 1967. My brother had the Burt Bacharach LP, Reach Out (still one of my favorite instrumentals), and here was Dionne making the songs even better. “Walk on By” is perfect pop. Every note, every bit of phrasing is exactly as it should be, not one hair out of place; no smudged mascara here. One might even call it overproduced, but for me, I can compartmentalize every aspect of the track: the trumpet, the drum brush, Dionne’s phenomenal voice. It is the soundtrack to a 60s bachelor pad. It’s gloss, though, overshadows its melancholy. 

9. Initially, “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield) was Stephen Stills’ op-ed about the shuttering of West Hollywood’s Pandora’s Box, a teen club, the closing of which culled the riots on the Sunset Strip in 1966. The song, though, has a far more symbolic edge, representing the dissatisfaction of youth. It remains a subtle protest in the form of a monster hit. 

8. Unlike the radical bent of “For What It’s Worth,” “Bus Stop,” also from 1966, is one of the last of a kinder, gentler youth, Monkee-like; it’s theme, the mating rituals of modern teenagers. It’s a song about falling in love in the rain; nothing more complex than that. It’s like “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” older brother. 

7. Everyone knows I like a good story song, sappy or not (think “Same Auld Lang Syne,” “Taxi,” or “Wildfire”), and “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967) is certainly where, for this writer, it all began. This Southern Gothic ode rivals Tennessee Williams with visuals like a Netflix crime expose, not to mention its ingenious use of interspersed dialogue. Rarely do rock lyrics rise to this level of poetic storytelling. 

6. Baroque Pop was a subgenre of the Psychedelic era; a kind of pseudo-classical pop, and the height of it was The Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee.” The single, which would reach No. 5 on the pop charts in 1966, was a tribute to Renee Fladen, the girlfriend of Tom Finn, the Left Banke’s bassist. Oops. The saturated strings and rococo-inspired harpsichord are moving in and of themselves, but anyone can identify with the gloomy romance of rain on empty sidewalks, our narrator’s only sympathizer. Hmm. Rain seems to be a theme. 

5. & 4. Okay, two songs that rival one another as the most beautiful pop songs ever written (and that from a sucker for beautiful pop songs): The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Each disguises a pervasive melancholy so prevalent as the undertone of the 60s. “God Only Knows” is what the listener wants it to be, a love song, a spiritual, a thesis of unrequited love; it is hopeful and hopeless depending on the time of day or how many drinks ones had. The song’s opening line, “I may not always love you,” is uncertain, cautious, and filled with ennui and trepidation. I may start to cry right now. It’s the sound of youth hoping against hope that love, indeed, conquers all. On a larger scale, “America” is about the lost innocence, not just of Cathy and her chum, but of America in the face of its tribulations. Unlike “God Only Knows,” “America’s” traveling companions only subconsciously understand their troubled nation. They are playful in their observations of gabardine suits and spy cameras. Not to mention that “And the moon rose over an open field” is the most beautiful sentence in all of pop music. If you’re not crying over it, you have no soul. 

3. Switching gears for a bit of soul. Today I would choose “Try a Little Tenderness” or “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” either of which vie for my top pop song of all time, but in the 90s I went through a funky-soul phase and No. 3 on my list was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965). I cannot even write the line without hearing the trumpets blaring of the JB Band.  Almost everyone with even a passing interest in James Brown (whose name I can’t say without singing Tom Tom Club) knows that an exhausted band on tour recorded the track somewhat bedraggledly (probably not a word). Then came the studio magic. Some unknown someone got the light bulb to twist a knob marked “Speed Everything Up,” and bam, soul was funk. 

2. Many will argue with this one, and I will be easily swayed, but The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (1966) is psychedelia’s greatest moment. And I say this from an LSD perspective – nothing rivals this song. The 12 string solo is immense and undeniable. The spacy pre-vocorder, pre-synth vocals are what psychedelics were made for – just ask Albert Hoffman (you know, cuz Timothy Leary’s dead). “Eight Miles High” came out of nowhere but its lineage is clear: the dissonant instrumental sections were unprecedented in rock, but not in jazz, where artists such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman shunned traditional harmonic structure in favor of free-form heroics. Out of it comes that solo on a tuned down 12-string Rickenbacker. Sublime. As the challenge is often made on FB, prove me wrong. 

1. “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s simple. All four Beatles. George Martin at his best. An original classical (baroque) score that predates Days of Future Passed). And lyrics that put a smile on crazy ol’ Ezra Pound. It is the perfect sophisticated pop song, a song that elevated rock to something that it had never been. As an English teacher, it rivals the best in poetic verse. Here’s where I’ll go overboard (you know the No. 1 now, so you’ll probably stop reading anyway). Eleanor dies in church, buried along with her name. Even Ozymandias, despite the "lone and level sands stretch(ing) far away," has his name. In Eleanor Rigby's death we see the death of hope itself, the ultimate tragedy. (Ironically, her name lives on.) ER’s story is typical of Paul with its two functioning, unrelated characters brought into ironic proximity in the final scene, as though it were a novel by Bronte, and a precursor to "Penny Lane." One can't help but sense the influence of John upon Paul's particular choices of detailed imagery and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. The song avoids sentimentality by keeping its distance from the subject, presenting the action like a film script: "Look at him working," and uses various tense to imply shift in perspective: Eleanor Rigby "died in the church" (past tense), while in the same scene, Father MacKenzie is "wiping the dirt from his hands" (present tense). When Paul McCartney first wrote "ER" he had the music worked out before the lyrics, as he often did ("Yesterday," remember, started out as "Scrambled Eggs"). Paul often used placeholder lyrics that he'd subsequently abandon. To be specific, the original version began, "Ola Na Tungee/ Blowing his mind in the dark/ With a pipe full of clay/ No one can say."  Okay, I’m done proselytizing. I could write a whole book on Eleanor and Co, but it is my No. 1 on this list and maybe on others. 

How’d I do. Justified?