Thursday, February 25, 2021

I Am a Lonely Painter







My father painted those iconic billboards along the Sunset Strip in the late 60s and 70s, his last, Talking Heads 77. His artwork – master giant-sized forger that he was – was seen by thousands of commuters and passers-by each day; I assume in a span of ten years that millions viewed his work. That's not meant to be a brag, but to make the point that no one knew my father was a writer, and no one cared. His writing was proficient and once he left L.A. for the Arizona desert, it was often sublime. Still, no one cared.

For Joni Mitchell, that same bias befalls her painting. Not on the "no one cared" level that my father experienced, but her work as a painter will always be overshadowed, indeed overlooked, by those who otherwise gobble up her genius. As Joni put it, "I'm a painter, always have been. A painter derailed by circumstance." Indeed, so was my father.
One of my favorites of her paintings is the cover for the virtually unlistenable Dog Eat Dog, in which Joni stands hands raised in control (?) of four mad curs; just one example of when her painting far exceeded her music.

Mitchell as a painter, and as a singer/songwriter, creates in plains of cinematic realism and seduction and temptation all in a mesh
. She defined the singer-songwriter, messed with guitar tunings and jazz, and with the prolificacy of Bob Ross, brought what would otherwise be lyrics to life. Talent is certainly not distributed evenly.


















"Mitchell said, "Dog Eat Dog, for instance, had a large canvas, 10-foot-by-5, all dogs, God dog, Jesus dog, you know, and racial dogs in conflict and so on." For it, she spent months, up to 13 hours a day, working on a cover that was eventually rejected in favor of a photograph. "It was suggested to me that I hadn't put my kisser on the cover for a long time." In an extraordinary range of hues, the canine forms emerge from the commotion of color so that the effect of abstraction dissolves as one approaches the picture and discerns the details.

My father would take the work of others and transform them into his own. He would stand on the scaffold at the top of the city and stand back and think and put a little dab here or there and it wouldn't matter because no one from the street below could discern the difference, but it it mattered to him. It was how he created his artwork at home as well, like that cliche of the artist with his thumb up. Joni would do the same.









Monday, February 22, 2021

Crosby and Nash

Rolling Stone said, "Like a super-stoned campfire jam with an A-list of Cali hippie-rockers – including Joni Mitchell and most of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and CSNY – this hazy solo project by the altered-consciousness overachiever sounds like it was pretty much made up on the spot. See the toasted strum-fest "Music Is Love" (with Neil Young on congas!) and "Tamalpais High," with Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen noodling around wordless Crosby-Nash harmonies. By the time it's over, you may not remember your name, either." I can't top that, but I don't agree (when do I agree with Rolling Stone?).

Indeed, Crosby gets all his mates from Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and records the ultimate hippy-jam album. Try to listen with that in mind before passing judgment. If I Could Only Remember My Name is terribly self-indulgent but equally as good.

The self-indulgence shines on "Cowboy Movie," which is essentially the same musical motif repeated over and over while guitars battle for supremacy as Crosby sings the tale of CS&N set in the wild west. The decadence, if you will, is upped on "Tamalpais High" and "Song With No Words," both lovely songs where Crosby sings the melodies buts doesn't write any words (If I Could Only Remember the Words), and then there's "What Are Their Names," where these various anti-establishment hippie types play a few solos before singing how the stiffs just need to find peace and love. It’s so organic I may sprout roots. So, yeah, there are a few dated hippie moments, and the songs tend to meander a bit, but the point of this album is that it's just one big laid back jam where the occasional tune shines through, most noticeably on the mellow "Traction In The Rain" featuring a fine dulcimer accompaniment, and on the album's standout track "Laughing."

A far better production with real songs and real lyrics comes from Graham Nash on his first solo, Songs for Beginners. As a member of CSNY, Nash wrote the simple feel-good songs while leaving the rockers to the other three. He also provided that quintessential high tenor to make their harmony the thing of beauty that it was. On Songs for Beginners, Nash takes center stage with a great set of songs.

The album opens up with "Military Madness," a poignant anti-war song that rings as true today. Throughout the album, Nash shows his lyrical prowess and a Brit take on Americana. The second track, "Better Days," is probably the best on the album. The song is in three parts, an intro, a climax and a dénouement. Truly a stunning work, the sax solo at the end by Bobby Keys is a fantastic capper.

Next is "Wounded Bird," another poem set to music. "Serenade your angel with a love song from your eyes/ Grow a little taller even though your age defies/ Feel a little smaller/ And in stature, you will rise/ A hobo or a poet must kill dragons for a bride;/ And humble pie is always hard to swallow with your pride.” Syrupy sweet, but I like it.

"I Used to be a King" is a clever twist on Nash's early hit "King Midas in Reverse." The most personal track on the album with a unique 6/8 feel and Jerry Garcia providing pedal steel reminiscent of "Teach Your Children." Side One concludes with the hopelessly corny "Be Yourself," but I was ten years old when I got it, so there's that.

"Simple Man" is just the opposite, starting out Side Two with a stunningly beautiful verse, if a tad cheesy. "I am a simple man, so I sing a simple tune." We all know that's Graham, and we like it but he didn't have to tell us. All the same, the chorus saves the song as well as the country fiddle. "Man in the Mirror" is the song I always remember as the song with the cool time change. It has a country feel thanks to Jerry. "There’s Only One" is the perfect closer, placed as the fourth to last song, so a bit out of place. Next is "Sleep Song." This one is a little fey for my taste, but you cannot dislike it's tenderness. The LP's grand finale is "Chicago/We Can Change the World," originally from 4-Way Street, the studio version is a stellar, rebel-rousing yell. Nash's vocals suit this one perfectly: "From the bottom of the ocean, to the mountains of the moon/ Won't you please come to Chicago/ No one else can take your place;" to me the most arresting protest song of the era.

Personally, Songs for Beginners was an accident. Without my parent's knowledge, I joined the Columbia House Record Club. You got five LPs for free and all you did was promise your first born male child to Columbia House, sometimes known as Pandemonium. One of the records I chose was called Songs of the Humpback Whale. When my package came, along with a ridiculous bill for shipping and handling, my stepfather had a fit. First and foremost because humpback whales can't sing. With an angry phone call which included threats about soliciting underage and naïve boys, we packaged up the whales, but got to keep Songs for Beginners for our inconvenience. See, it all worked out. Nearly 50 years on, I'm still listening.

CSN - Y, Too


In June 1966, Graham Nash and the Hollies met the Mamas and the Papas at a Hollies press party at Imperial Records. Nash hit it off right away with Cass Elliot and Cass who invited Graham to a Mamas and Papas recording session of "Dancing Bear" at Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard. Fast forward to February 1968 where the Hollies played a Valentine's gig at the Whiskey a Go-Go. Micky Dolenz introduced the show and Stephen Stills and David Crosby were right up front. In April, Cass would introduce Nash to Crosby and Stills at her house in Laurel Canyon and the catalyst for CSN was set into motion. By the end of 1968, Nash took leave of the Hollies, content to consider his future from the restorative oasis that was Laurel Canyon, not to mention his Our House kind of life with Joni Mitchell. We've talked before about the haphazard way in which bands, particularly supergroups are formed. It was fifty years ago that the CSN's eponymous LP was released and none of its luster is lost 50 years on. "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," alongside "Wooden Ships," "Helplessly Hoping," and "Guinevere" sound as fresh today as anything by Lord Huron, Fleet Foxes or the new Americana sounds.

Interestingly, one of the most famous of the CSN debut tracks was "Marrakesh Express," a song Nash had written for the Hollies. He said he was in England reading about the middle eastern journeys of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Here I quote: "So, I grab my wife, Rose, and we took the train down from Casablanca down to Marrakesh. All my pores were open. I was just soaking in this atmosphere." That in mind, listen to the track again to get the vibe and imagine the scene. He said, "I was carrying all these tunes in my pocket just waiting for the right moment." Donovan had fostered the notion that Nash could make it on his own, and in the meantime taught him to fingerpick. Nash found himself floundering in the Hollies who weren’t receptive to songs like "Marrakesh Express" or "Teach Your Children" and when he met Crosby, Crosby said, "Don’t even listen to what they are saying. They're totally fucked. I love those songs."

There is little on the LP that doesn't work. With its soaring harmonies and layered guitars, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" is an epic opener, one that even FM overkill can't kill. "Marrakesh Express" is infectious, "Guinevere" is an ethereal masterpiece that delicately conveys the sense of drugged-up wonder in which Crosby was immersed at the time. And "Wooden Ships" is amazing.  The lyrics speak of a post-apocalyptic world when human beings finally realize that we cannot be enemies and survive. "Long Time Gone" is an angry yet heart-wrenching track on the assassination of RFK.  Crosby's delivery is impeccable. And finally, we get "49 Bye-Byes," a closer worthy of the awe-inspiring music that has come before it. 

Three months later, without any rehearsal time, the trio got together with Neil Young to play Woodstock. There are but a handful of important sets at Woodstock – Santana, Joe Cocker, Hendrix, but it was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who epitomized what Woodstock was all about.

Two interesting things. The band was at first introduced as Buffalo Springfield, which of course was inaccurate, and following an incredible set with just Crosby, Stills and Nash, Young milling about in the background of what is referred to as the acoustic session (only joining in for two songs), the rest of the show was a hard-rocking guitar-oriented session with Stills and Young taking the reins. The band, of course, would go on to release Déjà vu just a few months later, which remains one of rock's timeless gems and includes the popularized version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock."

Thursday, February 18, 2021

If I Could Only... I Forget

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.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Janis

When we think of Lennon, it's with admiration; of Hendrix, reverence; with Morrison, it's conjecture and speculation. Like Cathy Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Morrison transcends death; the legend looms so much larger than his 27 years. For others we aren't so steadfastly obliged.

Janis Joplin shared Morrison's California ideology with far less pomp and grandeur, yet she created a legacy equal to that of any 20th-century blues vocalist. From Billy Holiday to Nina Simone, no one captured the gritty sentiment of the blues more effectively than Janis. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills (AM9) is a 60s' powerhouse raw-blues LP. The band, unfairly referred to at times as Janis Joplin and Some Other People, is the go-to album of blues-rock. From R. Crumb's seminal sleeve to Janis Joplin's vocals to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of the band, this is the ultimate acid-experience.  The "live" trappings, like those of Sgt. Pepper, are pretense (with the exception of "Ball and Chain," the only purely live experience), but the music has all the fire and spontaneity of a true live recording.  For a band that supposedly had no musical talent beyond their lead singer, they sure did make a beautiful racket. "Summertime" is one of the all-time great rock interpretations of a standard; "I Need a Man to Love" has all the soul and power that Aretha Franklin was bringing to a much different idiom around the same time; "Piece of My Heart" has been tamed through commercial exposure, yet it remains an authentically passionate performance and a high-water mark for 60s radio. Cheap Thrills is the perfect document of its time and place, but also, like Memphis in the '50s or London in '77, an enduring testament to the unleashed power of song.

The band was formed by Peter Albin, Sam Andrew, James Gurley and Chuck Jones in a Victorian mansion/boarding house owned by Peter's uncle at 1090 Page Street in Haight-Ashbury. That house became the site of Wednesday night jam sessions that were organized by Chet Helms who was the real "Big Brother," naming the band, bringing James Gurley into the fold. The band had what Sam Andrew called a "progressive-regressive hurricane blues style."


During the winter of '66, Chuck Jones left the band and was replaced by Dave Getz who played his first gig with the band on 12 March at the Matrix on Fillmore Street. Peter Albin was the main vocalist at this time, and although Sam Andrew helped out with the singing, both men knew that the band needed a singer who could match the group's instrumental energies. Chet Helms remembered a friend from his University of Texas days, Janis Joplin, and proposed that he bring her back to San Francisco, where she had tried to launch a singing career in 1963-1964. Janis came to town, sang a couple of tunes with the band at their Henry Street studio, and was enthusiastically welcomed into the group. 

Big Brother acquired a new manager at Monterey Pop, Albert Grossman, who brought them to Columbia Records where they made their second album, Cheap Thrills, which was No. 1 on the charts for eight weeks. The music on the album was energetic and driving, the perfect match for Joplin's voice. Guitar Player magazine called James Gurley the "Father of the Psychedelic Guitar." 


What sets this music apart from other bands of its time was the combination of terrific, brilliantly orchestrated and arranged instrumentals, Joplin's amazing, spectacularly expressive vocals channeling the agony ("I Need a Man To Love") and the ecstasy ("Summertime") of love and life in the bluesiest blues to come out of Texas (by way of San Francisco). The standout are of course, "Piece of My Heart" and the showstopping "Ball and Chain." A little more than a year following Woodstock, like Jimi a month before her, Janis would be gone.

Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, an oil refinery town, in 1943.  As a teenager in the late 1950s, she had read about Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, began to dress in her own style, and started listening to blues music with her few high school friends. Blues singers like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly were among her favorites. Janis soon made her way to California and ended up in San Francisco's music and hippie scene.  At Monterey Pop she captured national attention with her incredible performance of "Ball and Chain." From that point on, she became a national phenomenon.

Poster Child for the Woodstock Nation - David Crosby

The consensus is that David Crosby should be dead by now. David came of age in the 1960s, a decade that was either a new golden age or a descent into a self-indulgent one. Crosby tried just about every drug available, because it seemed the hip, countercultural thing to do. He was known to have the best dope around, particularly pot and psychedelics, and his home in L.A. became a mecca of Southern California hedonism and experimentation in alternative lifestyles. Who would have thought he'd make it through the 80s, let alone become rock's curmudgeonly old man/walrus (I am the eggman), with two new LPs in the past couple years!

Crosby was born in Los Angeles on August 14, 1941; the son of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby (High Noon), he dropped out of drama school to pursue a career in music, touring the folk club circuit and recording as a member of the Les Baxter Balladeers. Crosby cut his first solo session in late 1963 and early in '64 he formed The Jet Set with Jim McGuinn and Gene Clark.  With the addition of bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, the group was rechristened the Byrds.



(Rewind a bit; when The Jet Set released a single in 1964 with Elektra Records, the label's Jac Holzman tried cashing in on the British Invasion pop craze by renaming the band, at least temporarily, The Beefeaters.)

Although McGuinn pioneered the Byrds' trademark 12-string guitar sound, Crosby was the architect of their unique harmonies, The Beach Boys with grit; his interest in jazz and Indian music also influenced the band's venure into psychedelia. They became the premiere folk-rock group when their version of Bob Dylan's song "Mr Tambourine Man" became the summer hit of 1965. Creative differences plagued the group throughout its career, and in 1967 Crosby, based on his bandmates' refusal to release his ménage à trois opus "Triad," quit/was fired from The Byrds after their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

While AM usually dismisses Greatest Hits LPs, The Byrds Greatest Hits is the best history of the original lineup one can find. It dismisses Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the post Crosby country thang completely and offers up America’s so-called Beatles. It was Crosby who created the persona that was The Byrds, acted more like their leader than McGuinn, despite the unmistakable jangly guitar. Chris Hillman of The Byrds said, "David came from a whole other place with his harmony parts. He obviously listened to the Four Freshmen and things like that, as did, I guess, Brian Wilson, but David did harmony parts that I wasn't really used to. I was coming from the old Southern gospel, straight third part harmony, and David was doing these really interesting things. Nobody in The Byrds really shared a common musical background, if you think about it. Everybody came from a different place, musically.




Towards the end of David's sojourn with The Byrd's, according to Hillman, "David's heart wasn't in it. He was hanging out more with the other groups, and the funny thing is that I'm the guy who took him to see the Springfield when they played at the Whiskey. I said, 'Come with me and watch this band.' And he didn't think they were very good. The other thing that tickles me to this day is that when we would be riding about with the Byrds, he'd be raving about the sitar. I said, "You wanna hear an instrument that has a sliding scale? Here: steel guitar!" and I'd punch a country station and he hated it. Of course, he was playing it on 'Teach Your Children, and he did a good job, actually. He wasn't a steel player, but he did a good job on that song." Crosby had that same focus as Neil Young; while it was all about the music, Crosby had to follow his own beat.

Following his sojourn with The Byrds, the disillusioned Crosby found himself In Coconut Grove, Florida's equivalent to Laurel Canyon. It was there that he heard Joni Mitchell for the first time at a Coffee House called The Gaslight South. Those who heard Joni Mitchell sing in those early years were typically blown away and David was one of those smitten by her sound — and her good looks.



A brief physical romance saw Joni move in with David Crosby when they returned to southern California in 1967.  Crosby would later say of Joni: "It was very easy to love her, but turbulent. Loving Joni is a little like falling into a cement mixer."

We came back to L.A. together," Crosby said, "and yeah, I did bring her around to everyone I knew. My favorite trick at the time was to invite everyone over, get a joint of dope that was stronger than they could possibly smoke and get her to play and they would walk out stupefied. They'd never heard anything like her and it was a lot of fun. It only stopped being fun when I started producing her first record. Joni is not a person that you stay in a relationship with. It always goes awry, no matter who you are. It's an inevitable thing. We were starting to have friction and at the same time I was starting to produce her record and I didn't really know how."



Reprise Records signed Joni but wanted her album produced by someone who would give her the folk-rock sound all the rage at that time. David and Joni instead were intent on presenting her music as it was performed - simply: guitar, vocal, atmosphere. David told Reprise that he would take the reins and the company agreed, who better to get at the helm than than a former member of the group that started it? By the time the company heard the session tapes, it was too late to go back and re-record. 



It was through Joni, and of course the coordination of Laurel Canyon's Gertrude Stein, Cass Elliot, that Crosby would connect with Stills and Graham Nash.


From 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 club on Sunset.  It was kind of funny that it was under one of the big Foster and Kleiser billboards that my father painted.  The Trip was little and dirty, but there was always good music.  There were fights and people were odd at times, and the police would come or an ambulance, but that was just a part of it.  The Byrds were there a lot.  That's who we went to see.  Lots of songs about change and freedom and how things were supposed to be, all in pretty harmonies. 

Laura and I never actually saw the bands play, we just heard them. "My Back Pages" was my favorite.  Laura and I would sing, "I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now." I was little, but that really made perfect sense to me.

Monday, February 8, 2021

From AM to FM



Initially, as AM Radio was winding down and FM developed its AOR format (Album Oriented Rock), stations like 93KHJ (AM) in Los Angeles, gave way to Top 40 FM giants like KKDJ. The format was the same, only the songs were new. Here are the top-selling singles on the new old format for 1971: 

My Sweet Lord - George Harrison (3 Weeks at No. 1) Knock Three Times - Dawn (3 weeks)
One Bad Apple - The Osmonds (5 weeks)
Me and Bobby McGee - Janis Joplin  (2 weeks)
Just My Imagination - The Temptations (2 weeks)
Joy To The World - Three Dog Night (6 weeks) – Top American Single of the Year
Brown Sugar - The Rolling Stones  (2 weeks)
Want Ads - Honey Cone (1 week)
It's Too Late - Carole King (5 weeks)
Indian Reservation - The Raiders (1 week)
You've Got A Friend - James Taylor (1 week)
How Can You Mend A Broken Heart - Bee Gees (4 weeks)
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey - Paul & Linda McCartney (1 week)
Go Away Little Girl - Donny Osmond (3 weeks)
Maggie May / Reason To Believe - Rod Stewart (5 weeks)
Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves - Cher (2 weeks)
Theme From Shaft - Isaac Hayes (2 weeks)
Family Affair - Sly & The Family Stone (3 weeks)
Brand New Key - Melanie (1 week)
 
The diversity is inarguable. Soul, Folk, Blues Rock, Bubble Gum
and Funk. Just for fun, let’s look at the top British singles for the same year:
 
Grandad - Clive Dunn (3 weeks)
My Sweet Lord - George Harrison (5 weeks)
Baby Jump - Mungo Jerry (2 weeks)
Hot Love - T. Rex (6 weeks)
Double Barrel - Dave & Ansel Collins (2 weeks)
Knock Three Times - Dawn (5 weeks)
Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep - The Middle Of The Road (5 weeks)
Get It On - T. Rex (4 weeks)
I'm Still Waiting - Dianna Ross (4 weeks)
Hey Girl Don't Bother Me - The Tams (3 weeks)
Maggie May / Reason To Believe - Rod Stewart (5 weeks)
Coz I Love You - Slade (4 weeks)
Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) - Benny Hill (4 weeks)

Same kind of diversity, but who? And who? Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” based on its worldwide success, would be the biggest selling single for both 1971 and 1972, but interestingly, The Rolling Stones don’t make it to No. 1, nor do the Bee Gees.

Meanwhile at the top of the album charts in both the U.K. and the U.S. were Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Yes, Isaac Hayes, Led Zeppelin and Lennon; aging teens were turning away from singles as AOR became the staple of KMET, KLOS and WMMR.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

More on The Yes Album

In early 1969, Yes was a fast-rising band on the London scene, most notably opening for Cream at their final concerts. Yet, despite the stellar lineup - Squire, Anderson, Bruford, McKay and Banks - the band was oddly conventional. Its debut, simply titled Yesincluded covers of the Byrds' "I See You" and the Beatles' "Every Little Thing." The former featuring Bruford whipping up a surprisingly swingin' groove over Banks' extended, jazzy solo; interesting but not what you'd call forward-thinking. The vocal harmonies, while technically adept, bring to mind the Fifth Dimension. "Every Little Thing," which interpolates the famous riff from "Day Tripper," begins as a hard-charging instrumental, driven by Squire's thundering bass and Bruford's barrage of phased percussion. The vocals don't kick in until the two-minute mark, and once they do, the arrangement stops and starts, lurching forward at speed, then halting, then resuming, a metaphor for the album as a whole. Yes was a hint of things to come, but it was hardly the debut offered by contemporaries King Crimson and Pink Floyd, or Tomorrow, for that matter.
Time And A Word was a more problematic follow-up, a document of a fledgling band attempting to expand its sonic purview while simultaneously figuring out exactly where they fit in the wide-open rock music landscape. Yes wasn't big enough or enigmatic enough to create a sophomore jinx for Time and a Word, but despite its soaring orchestral arrangements, the album is lackluster and muddy. What the LP did provide was a sense that Anderson would take the lead; indeed, Jon's use of elaborate instrumentation on nearly every track was a bone of contention for Peter Banks, and ultimately the guitarist was fired before the album's release (making way for Steve Howe).  Oddly, the sessions' best track, a prog cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America," was left off the release.



When we note the core of a band's career, a clear selectivity often rears its head. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's canon, for me at least, starts with the phenomenal debut and ends with Works, Vol. 1, dismissing the leftovers from Vol. 2 and the horrid Love Beach. For Gentle Giant, it begins with the eponymous 1st LP and ends with Freehand before the band fell into corporate rage. At times, though, it's more subjective: leave off The Final Cut but accept A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell (and where does The Endless River fit in)? But, whether we're talking Pink Floyd or Joni Mitchell, the subjective canon nearly always includes an artist's debut; not the case for Yes.

For me, as it does for most, the Yes canon begins with The Yes Album (and ends early on with Going For the One). It's Howe’s presence, coupled with a musical maturation gained from the road, that pushes the tracks on TYE to new heights, though some of the credit goes to new producer, Eddie Offord who replaced Tony Colt. Offord’s production is vastly more adventuresome, with a better ear for framing the diverse integrated styles into a whole.  In turn, the band stretches out, going places it hadn't before. 

The Yes Album revolves around four extended tracks, which show off the band's more confident and focused songwriting and grasped a baroque sensibility that incorporated elegant, melodic passages while balancing shifting tempos and complex time signatures. "Starship Trooper," in particular, embodied these strengths in.  An aggressive opening riff overlaps a soaring Anderson melody that melds seamlessly into acoustic bluegrass. The Yes Album's radio mainstay is of course "Your Move/I've Seen All Good People."  The former a breezy pop song, the later an all-out boogie jam.  

The down low: It's The Yes Album's arrangement, time changes, beautiful melodies flitting about a single chord, its counterpoint and harmony, that accentuate this ethereal soundscape. The pinnacle Wakeman, White years lie ahead, but for pure innovation, The Yes Album was the band's zenith.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Yes Album

Yes' incredible trilogy (The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge), almost didn't happen. Atlantic, following the dismal sales of the 2nd Yes LP, nearly dropped the band from the label. (How many of you, be honest now, have ever really heard the first two Yes LPs?) Were it not for the Yesterdays compilationthe incredible cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America" would be obscure, even to this writer who, in his teens followed Yes around like the Grateful Dead. The first phase of Yes, the Peter Banks' Yes, was essentially a psychedelic band, a decent one, but by 1971, no one cared (in the same way that no one cared about Tull's English folk). The band was somehow able to respond to this unknown threat with the addition of Steve Howe and Jon Anderson's switching up his focus and taking the writing reigns like a boss. 

Howe joined an already immensely talented band, whose members each had distinctive styles, but things certainly change when the new guitarist's skillset is like nothing anyone ever heard before.
Progressive rock gave us many incredible guitarists who studied musicians ranging from Wes Montgomery to Andrés Segovia, but Howe listened to Chet Atkins and the flatpickers and banjo players of American Appalachian music, adding the pedal steel guitar to his growing arsenal of instruments. That kind of innovation and leadership tied with Anderson's fanciful tunes was the catalyst as well for Chris Squire's ascent as one of rock's premiere bassists; arguably the musician who took the bass from out of the percussion section to have it vie for the lead.
 
The distinction of diverse sounds seems the key to the lineup, and one can't talk about the other band members with acknowledging an element that would not evolve later in the classic years of Yes, that of Tony Kaye's Hammond organ. Wakeman the following year would thoroughly embrace the Moog and a bevy of synthesizers, but the Hammond is integral to The Yes Album (so prevalent in "Starship Trooper). 

The Yes Album's, structures, even its complexities, are uncluttered and clear, despite a virtuosity of each band member that might otherwise be a sloppy stew, and while Eddie Offord's production helps here, the LP is syncopated by Bill Bruford's stunning jazz sensibility. Unlike Keith Moon who filled every available space with his patter, Bruford let the music breathe, to come up for air. He would leave the band for the far more eccentric King Crimson the following year, replaced by Alan White for the most classic Yes line up, but Bruford's subtle contributions are essential to The Yes Album sound.

After the relative tedium of their second album, Time And A Word, Yes had arrived, luckily dodging the corporate bullet. With the addition of Steve Howe, Chris Squire had the perfect foil for his bass leads and the songs were all the better for it. "Yours Is No Disgrace" is ten minutes of innovative time changes and "Starship Trooper" rocks harder than 95% of the prog-rock that isn't Crimson, and didn't "The Clap" make you want a guitar? 

The Yes Album is an AM8.



Note: Interestingly "The Clap" is actually just called "Clap," though Jon Anderson's misstep introduction has forever retitled the tune.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Joni and Zappa?



The posts from
AM form a continuum, the Zen of things. I'm on a Laurel Canyon kick of late, but usually about the Americana bloc and not the bluesy underbelly of the same scene. The posts often imply that the Joni/James side of the spectrum never crossed paths with the Jim/Frank contingent, which simply wasn't the case. To me, you'd be hard-pressed to find any camaraderie between the realism that is Joni Mitchell and the surrealism of Zappa – but what do I know?

Case in point: November 13, 1970, the Fillmore East, NYC.
Joni Mitchell left for Crete in the early months of 1970. There she broke up with Graham Nash in a way akin to breaking up in a text message. She’d spend the remainder of her trip pining over the "Our House" days, writing songs about Graham like "My Old Man," and meeting people like Carey who she would immortalize in song. Out of those days, of course, came Blue. Returning to the states, Joni was dating Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood, saxophonist and singer for The Mothers of Invention. Joni would attend the Mothers’ gig at the Fillmore and, with coaxing, found her way to the stage. Said Sherwood, "Joni sat in with us during the second show and we improvised a thing that was really good - ending it with her singing 'Duke of Earl.' She came on stage, we did a few chords for her and she started reciting this poem: 'Penelope Wants to Fuck the Sea..." (Penelope was the wife of Odysseus – so yeah, Joni's genius.)

Mark Volman of The Turtles (Flo from The Mothers of Invention) said, "'Penelope Wants to Fuck the Sea' was introduced by Joni Mitchell as a poem she had written that she could never perform, live or otherwise. Joni was basically a real funny person. I had lived up the hill from her on Lookout Mountain and knew her from our singer-songwriter nights in Laurel Canyon. Her image was huge and her fans relied on her to maintain her status as the "earth mother to the stars." Frank always got a kick out of stars joining us and sinking down to our level. Grace Slick came up on stage one night and humped everyone on stage, albeit with her clothes on, as a gesture of her freedom to be weird. When Joni recited the poem, Frank directed the band through a series of noises and musical sounds that followed the poem to its climax. Joni had this huge smile on her face when she finished as though she had really broke some rules and Frank really laughed. I mean with a huge big ol' grin he laughed out loud. Frank was someone you loved to perform for."
Zappa said, "…And we did a few chords for her and she started reciting this poem which began 'Penelope wants to fuck the sea…' And the audience did a double-take, 'Yuuunk!...' and a hush falls over the Fillmore… 'Joni Mitchell?'"
Cool beans, huh? The moral of the story is, the twain shall meet.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Bill's Signs

Bill
In 1966 my father closed his sign shop at the corner of Saticoy and Woodman Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, just across from the Gas Giant. The shop, Bill's Signs, was only moderately successful, and he had been offered a position as the principal artist for Foster and Kleiser, a company that owned and maintained billboards. At the time, billboards were akin to wallpaper for the most part, but not on the Sunset Strip. There they were hand-painted and in-your-face and would become as iconic driving down the Strip as the Chateau Marmont or the statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle. My father's first billboard was The Doors, and over a 14 year span, he was responsible for Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s So Far and dozens of others. I didn’t see my father much growing up, but if I ever needed him, I knew where to go; I'd just cruise down Sunset, and although I wasn't allowed, once I found him I'd climb the ladder to the platform and we'd sit, our feet dangling over the edge, and talk as we gazed at the city in the smog.

Jim Morrison looked out over a changing Hollywood and wrote "L.A. Woman;" a song about change and loss. The billboards along Sunset today are primarily for Calvin Klein or BMW; a statement itself in how the Strip has evolved. There has always been speculation who the L.A. Woman might be, with Pamela Courson the obvious choice; in reality the L.A. Woman was Los Angeles: "Never saw a woman so alone..."

Jac Holzman of Elektra Records was the first to venture into this advertising medium. For $1,200 a month, he reserved a sign near the Chateau Marmont hotel , and inaugurated it with the Doors, who were the "house band" at the Whisky A-Go-Go just down the street. Holzman reasoned that L.A. disc jockeys would see the sign on their way to work, saying the billboard was "a calling card for the artist, but it was a very large calling card."

Below is a collection of Sunset Billboards, some from Robert Landau's fabulous coffee table book, Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip (available through Amazon). I do not own the rights to these photos, only the rights to my father. And, of course, you can read so much more in Jay and the Americans. Click on the links in the sidebar, please!






























"That is the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life," Springsteen said when he saw the billboard for Darkness on the Edge of Town (not my father's - wrong company). The Boss proceeded to "enhance" it with graffiti. Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, bassist Garry Tallent, and some crew members arrived late at night with twenty cans of black spray paint. Springsteen wrote "E Street" himself while standing on Clemons' shoulders. "I wanted to get to my face, and paint on a mustache," he said. "But it was just too damn high.

The Doors of Perception - 1970

It's amazing that there could be so much incredible music simultaneously. The Billboard album Top 10 in December 1970 included Let It Be, Let It Bleed, Deja Vu, Tea for the Tillerman, Moondance, the Doors Live and Morrison Hotel (and that only scratches the surface). Yet more productive than any other band that year, was the Doors.
Now in 1970, it was obvious that Elektra Records liked the young, slim, sexy Jim far more than the fat one he'd become. Both the live album released that year and the compilation, 13, had photos of Morrison from a younger, less alky, day; no beard, no belly. But for those who were really there for the music and not the soap opera that was Mr. Mojo, Jim's voice simply got better with age. You could hear it on Morrison Hotel, but this was the late 60s and artists had to quickly get out another one; the Doors were preparing for L.A. Woman before summer was over. (Morrison Hotel was recorded in December 1969 and January 1970.)

Time for a commercial...
I think the wonderful part of Calif. by R.J. Stowell is that as you read, you get to experience the California of 50 years ago, and in 1970, this happened (and it's just page 1):

     “I love the places I’ve never been,” she said. Farmgirl stared out the window like a puppy. “There it is!” I knew where it was; I’d grown up in L.A. Barney’s Beanery, Santa Monica Blvd., the beginning or the end of Route 66. We took a booth by the pool table. There was a book of matches in the ashtray that said, “Fagots Stay Out.”

     Two guys who looked like Jim Morrison were playing Eight Ball and arguing. The first was the young Jim; the other, the fat one with the beard. I liked them both. I had a chili-size and Hadley, Farmgirl, had a vanilla Coke and an order of fries with gravy. As the waitress walked away she said, “Gravy is so much better than ketchup it’s not even worth talking about.”

     When the Morrisons left, Farmgirl jumped up to grab the table. She stood at the register with a dollar bill and got quarters from a scroungy old man who shaved his gray whiskers like a poorly mown lawn. She pushed her quarter into the slot and the balls tunneled down.

Back to our program...
Okay, back to the Doors and the fat Jim. On Morrison Hotel the band was clearly returning to its blues roots, but for L.A. Woman, arguably the Doors' greatest achievement, each simply excelled. Morrison Hotel was a comeback of sorts, fusing a newfound appreciation for blues with the group's early sound. With few exemptions, L.A. Woman reveals how the band left behind the pop flavors of their salad days in favor of straight-ahead, grungy blues.
L.A. Woman’s bluesy existential bent and its bar-band R&B flow freely on the two hardest cuts, "Been Down So Long" and "Cars Hiss By My Window," oddly stripped of Ray Manzarek's trademark keyboard. It shows the incredible musicianship of Manzarek, who knew when to keep it low. The title cut is a strong rocker where the instruments rip and burn, a testament to a city as the ultimate femme fatale, a place Morrison viewed as diseased and alienating. "L'America" is the third rail here, a potent psychedelic chestnut rejected from Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" but it has an odd otherwordly energy, as does Robbie Kreiger's "Love Her Madly." Pretty good when these are the weakest tunes on the album. "Riders On The Storm" fittingly closes the LP with a strong jazzy sensibility and ominous thunder and rain, a sad testament to a life lived on the edge of the abyss. L.A. Woman is a fitting "signing off" from the Lizard King.
And here's my recommendation – but caution, I've evolved since the isolation began – buy this LP on 180-gram vinyl. That's right, you heard it from me, buy new! In my vintage stereo days, I would never have said this, but having switched up to PS Audio and an audiophile turntable, I'm embracing new vinyl anew. While the 180-gram part is a gimmick (but not for 70s era RCA Dynaflex LPs – which were horrible – definitely replace your old Bowie), the remastering of L.A. Woman for the 2019 vinyl release is magic. The stereo separation is sublime, and the lack of surface noise reveals the pressing we've waited for for nearly 50 years.

Calif. is available here on AM. Send us an email at rjsomeone@gmail.com and we will invoice you through PayPal -OR- Click on the link to your right to order from Amazon.

The Other Side of the Canyon


AM
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.