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 ?

'71

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?

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Paved Paradise

I am constantly flummoxed by the extent of misinformation on the internet and the mythologies perpetuated. But while Joni Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” looking out over a parking lot in Hawaii, the legend that she wrote the lyrics about the demolition of the Garden of Allah on Sunset Blvd. in 1959 does, indeed, help to make a point. Los Angeles, step by step, is bulldozing its landmarks in favor of nondescript glass boxes. While the feedback I’ve received to my letter-writing campaign to the city council has reassured me that buildings like “Graumann’s” Chinese Theater (L.A. Historical Monument No. 55) and the Egyptian are “safe,” it is the people’s responsibility to consistently remind our representatives in government that we will not allow Los Angeles to lose its character, its history or its importance as a world-class destination. 

Join AM in its due diligence. Write to your councilman. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

John Garlak Rescued in the Night and Treated to a Good Steak



In the early 60s, The Kingston Trio was at the pinnacle of the folk/pop scene. Crossing over into top 40 often (not always) puts a bit of cash in a band’s pocket. For the Kingston Trio, a bit of cash meant 180 million dollars. No one today questions the trio’s influence on rock music, though at the time (late 50s, early 60s) there was criticism of the band’s Switzerland-like neutrality when folk music had historically taken an active liberal view. Others criticized how the Kingston Trio sanitized folk for pop radio.

Whatever one’s take, 180 mil is quite a stash for a band whose biggest hit was “Tom Dooley” (you should have heard of it, but if not, my point is made). With their cache, the trio ventured into the restaurant business (a bit of a tax shelter), and opened The Trident in Sausalito in 1966. The walls were covered in psychedelic murals and the smell of weed permeated the dining room. While the service and fare rivaled restaurants in New York and San Francisco, the clientele was a mix of rock musicians and label execs, and movie stars.
Among those who frequented The Trident was David Crosby, a fixture in Sausalito, who when there, lived on his schooner, MAYAN. DC owned the vessel for more than 45 years. On it he wasn’t a rock star, he was simply a sailor.
A bit of a lengthy segue to catch your interest, which brings us to a cold and damp RJFox band on the streets of San Francisco with nowhere to go.
John Garlak: “So, Joel and I went flat hunting in San Fran. We had no car, no money for a cab, it was getting dark. We were on top of the world, but we didn’t have two dimes to rub together. We’d been at it all day and it was raining this cold and steady, San Francisco, medium downpour, and we were stuck.
“So what do two hippies on the verge do when they need rescue? We called DC, who the day before at Heider’s had given us his phone number on the MAYAN. The friggin’ MAYAN from the cover of CSN! We were all the way over on Potrero Hill and an hour later here comes David and his drop-dead girlfriend in a dark blue Mercedes. Over the bridge and ten miles in, I cannot believe he came to rescue us. And Joel and I are, like, soaked to the bone and we climb in back probably smelling like wet dog and DC says, ‘There’s a coat back there on the floor.’ THEE coat, the big fur David F-in’ Crosby coat, and I put it on and Joel just gives me a look. Then David lights up a J and the girl, never even knew her name, passes it back. It was like being out with, like, your older brother, but your older brother’s a rich pothead.



“But there’s a big ash hangin’ from it like your grandma’s cigarette, and I take a hit and the ash, cherry and all falls onto the coat. ‘Shit, shit. Shit, shit shit.’ On the outside I’m, like, handling it. On the inside, I’m panicking like nobody ever panicked before.
I quietly, subtlety, and secretly brushed that ash off as fast as I could. I didn't smell fur burning, but I was too afraid to look. I crushed out the cherry on the Mercedes carpet. So, crisis diverted, we head over the Golden Gate and five minutes later we’re at The Trident, smoked another J at the friggin’ table, and then the best steak on the planet – to this day…
After dinner, we head the "Mayan.” Small talk and weed and soda. Not wine or a beer, but like an RC, and I take a gulp and DC’s all grins and says it was tainted with LSD. I didn’t buy it, but who f-in’ knows, right? Maybe it was all an acid dream.
We crashed in the cabin and in the morning, Crosby already up and out on deck, it’s all a picture from a jigsaw puzzle, something from a postcard, like we were on vacay, and there at the bow is a sailor in a wool seaman’s cap, an old salt who just happens to be one of the most famous rock stars in the world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

John Garlak - A Memoir - 1971

As a journalist, I’ve always been on the fringe. No one knew my name, though most of the in-crowd walked on eggshells when they saw me up front with my steno pad. Speaking with John Garlak of RJFox this past week has reminded me of the false front I’ve put on over the years – a deadpan demeanor to hide how starstruck I always was. That said, here’s Part 2 of my talk with John in the form of a memoir:

I was 21 years old. Not much younger than anyone else in the room. David Crosby was 30, but seemed worldly, like a rock sage, but h
e could have been my older brother. You know what? Despite his reputation, he was like that with everyone.

So, when DC and Stephen Barncard (who was 24) were mixing "Cowboy Movie," they couldn't decide on the fade-out. They looked our way, me and Joel [Siegel], and Stephen raised his eyebrows. Joel says, cause he was that way, and I was like his point man, “Use the one where it...”

“Where it breaks down,” I added. “Where it, you know…”

“You know, were it stops abruptly, right, with those jumbled voices with the echo.”

“Don’t fade it out. Just, bam, done.” Stephen looked at David and again raised his eyebrows. And that’s it; that’s the way it ends on the record. 

I mean, we were comfortable with them by then. Funny, later we learned that while we were waiting for Crosby that day a few weeks before when we’d just stormed into Wally Heider’s and asked for David, I guess he was watching us, trying to figure out who we were. There was like a one-way mirror on the door into the inner studio and DC wanted to make sure that we weren't, I don’t know,  the cops or something. So, to be safe,  he checked us out until Barncard came into the lobby and it must have seemed like Stephen, cause he’s friendly and all like that, knew us, and that’s when Crosby ventured out.

Remember, I mean, here are these two unknowns who had the guts to fly up to Frisco and just, you know, show up at the If Only I Could Remember My Name session, uninvited. Kind of funny. Twenty minutes later, DC takes us into Studio A. Studio A, oh my God, where they recorded Blue Cheer and Déjà vu. I mean, the list: American F’in Beauty! Abraxas, Cosmos Factory, Crazy Horse, Bill Withers’ debut, Neil’s debut, Stills’ debut…

Michael Shreves [Santana drummer – incredible Woodstock performance], and members of NRPS were listening to some playback. We hung and talked and smoked some weed. It’s 50 years ago and I still don’t believe I was there. 

And the next day, we were listening in, you know, kind of unobtrusively, to some editing sessions for the LPs lead, “Music is Love.” It was a dreamy blur, really, of harmony overdubs and cleaning up the loose ends. It was me and Joel, Stephen, and David, and we were just, I don’t know, expected to chime in. I still wasn’t over the fact that it was a ruse that we were even there, let alone make suggestions. I mean, little did we know that 50 years later people look back on If I Could Only Remember My Name as a masterpiece of ambient folk, you know?

Two weeks later, RJFox, the whole band, went to the studio and we’re rehearsing the bridge of a song and I’m working out this arpeggio and suddenly we look over and DC’s on the control room phone looking real solemn and sad. We could hear him through the glass, one of those one-sided conversations with someone on the other end dominating the convo, right? After DC hung up, he punched the wall by the phone in the control room, not like hard, mind you, but dejected. I don’t know how to describe it. Later we learned it was Christine Hinton’s father. He still called David all the time. It was hard on David. Such a tragedy, but maybe worse was her father’s sorrow. It was Christine who was the subject of Crosby’s “Guinevere.” The song just kept repeating in my head: “Like yours, m’lady, like yours.”

It was at Heider’s that I met Graham Nash. We’d been out of the studio the day prior. I could kick myself. Joni’d been there that day. I swear you could sense she’d been there. But Nash was there for some backup vocal overdubs. He was kind and soft-spoken. And he was there with Dallas Taylor who shook my hand and said he’d be glad to sit in with RJFox. It was before we got Spencer and Billy. His hand was rough, like a bricklayer’s.

Neil Young was there that same day. Neil just sat in the back of the control room reading the newspaper. I thought DC and Neil would be talking to each other and kidding around like buddies/friends, nope, it was pretty much silent and kind of solemn! I don’t know. They say not to meet your heroes, you know. Like The Beatles, we want them in real life to be just like they were in Help!, living in the same flat, horsin’ around. 

But Neil brought an odd flavor to the studio. Maybe everyone just in awe of him. He’s big, you know and assuming. And later, even weirder, Young got himself an ice cream cone from the Good Humor Man, I guess, and he asked me if I wanted a bite. Neil Young wanted to share his ice cream cone. See, I’m telling you, it’s like something out of a dream. 

I said, "Aw no, I'm ok...thanx though.” Then he came a bit closer and said to me, “Nice riffs." It was a little dinky comment/compliment, but I was thrilled to death, I mean, over the f’in’ moon. Took my breath away. 

Towards the end of that evening, when people were leaving and it was just Neil, Stephen Barncard, Joel, and me, Neil gets on the piano and starts playing some "new tunes." I mean, I don’t know if anyone even heard these songs before. I don’t even remember the songs, maybe “Love in Mind,” but I'm standing by the high end of the keyboard and I’m watching NEIL YOUNG play and sing unrecorded/unreleased music, man, I'm three feet away from his head, for God’s sake. Magic.”


Thursday, November 11, 2021

50 Years Ago, RJFox and the 500 Doors – an Interview with John Garlak

Sometimes it’s dumb luck; others, you may simply look like you belong. Such was the case on both counts with RJFox and John Garlak. You’ve never heard of them, but you should have, and, as always, better late than never.

RJFox was a phenomenally talented harmony group from the Motor City, inspired by bands like CSNY and New Riders of the Purple Sage. The trio included singer/songwriters Richard Hovey (the "R"), Joel Siegel (the "J"), and Sherry Fox (the "Fox") whose harmonies and evocative lyrics would go on to spark the interest of Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun. Like the best of CSNY, the songwriting was a labyrinth of intertwining melodies and harmonies and Americana that, unlike the supergroup, would go unnoticed by all but a select group of insiders. But why? While dumb luck often allows you in the door, it equally lets the door hit you in the ass.

Recently, I caught up with guitarist John Garlak who joined the band in 1971 before they left Detroit for the Left Coast. It was at Wally Heider’s Studio in San Francisco that “looking the part” got the newly formed quintet in the door.

John Garlak: “RJFox was an acoustic/electric guitar, three-part harmony, five-piece combo with a female sharing the lead vocals. I played acoustic and electric lead alongside our bass player, Marty Lewis. Most of us ended up living in a band house in Ferndale, Michigan. We were real good and knew that we had something cool, something special. One night we read on the Déjà Vu liner notes that CSNYs "spiritual guidance" was from David Geffen. Impetuously, we made an appointment with Geffen in L.A., flew out, set up, and played for him at his house in the hills. Yeah, try that today. He loved the girl, but didn't get our ‘band concept.’

"Bummed out and pretty sad, I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone at the hotel and took it back to the room. It was there in the "Random Notes" that we read that David Crosby was at Wally Heider's recording his solo masterpiece If I Could Only Remember My Name.” Young and fearless, the band members looked at one another. “We said ‘shit, let’s go and somehow try to get in there and play for him!

"So, Joel (J) and I flew up to San Fran, got to the front door, and told the receptionist (a long-haired stoned cat) that we were here to see DC. He got up and went into the studio. We were freaking a bit, to say the least, and then, what seemed to be 10-15 minutes, you know, forever, the door opens and there walks out David Crosby.” John says it with a grin on his face like it was yesterday. “We told him, with certainty and confidence, that we were from Detroit and had a band that was gonna blow him away!”


Anyone who knows David knows that he’s an asshole. At least he pretends to be. (When I was six and my mother’s boyfriend played a gig with the Byrds at The Trip on the Sunset Strip, Crosby played Ouija with me in the back room. That’s another story, but I saw right through his gruff stance, even at six years old – not to mention that I loved it that he looked like a walrus.) John continued, “DC looked at us and said, ‘Okay, come back tomorrow and play. Show me.’ Then he invited us into the inner sanction of Wally Heider’s studio. Joel and I hung out for a long while. We just didn’t want to leave.

"The next day, David’s engineer, Stephen Barncard, arrived at the studio to find the band playing with Crosby grinning from ear to ear, enthralled by the luscious harmonies." Here’s where the dumb luck comes in. Barncard thought they were friends of Crosby’s and Crosby thought they were a band Barncard was producing. Doesn’t matter how much talent you have – dumb luck rules! Out of that encounter, RJFox signed with the management team of Elliot Roberts and – wait for it – David Geffen. Better than that, the band tooled around the studio during the If Only sessions over the next few days.

Garlak: “When we played for him, he completely flipped out over us. 100% truth, I kid you not. He was rolling around the floor, laughing, and DC said to us, and I quote, he said, ‘There are 500 doors in the music business... and I'm going to open 499 of them for you’ It was some heavy fucking shit.”

With a grin still on his face, like it was his first time in a topless bar, John continued, “So, at the beginning of our recording sessions, we’d share studio time between RJ Fox and Crosby. We were in his sessions and he was in ours. Well, because he was OUR PRODUCER! He and Stephen Barncard, some heavy shit, again.

“That's how we got into the If I Could Only Remember My Name sessions. It was, to say the least, a very heady and magical period in my, in our, lives.”

Only weeks later, Ahmet Ertegun signed the band to Atlantic where they recorded their debut LP with Grateful Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann and Jefferson Airplane-New Riders drummer Spenser Dryden; Barncard ironically in the producer’s seat.

And then the door hit the band in the ass, ultimately leaving RJFox and its music criminally neglected for more than 20 years. While the recording was finished in three weeks, trouble was already brewing about royalties and advances with Dryden and Kreutzmann.
With the album in the can, members of RJFox began hanging out with then-Grateful Dead manager John MacIntire. With good intentions, McIntire took on the task of representing the band. His negotiations too demanding, Atlantic dropped the band before the record was pressed and 499 doors closed all at once.

Nonetheless, youth and tenacity go hand in hand. Struggling against all odds, the band spent the next two years performing live and recording. A well-deserved high point came in 1972 when RJ Fox was included third on the bill at San Francisco’s Winterland, opening for the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead.

Stay tuned for more from John Garlak in the days to come. In the meantime, check out RJFox on YouTube or at http://rjfox.net/rjfox/

Monday, November 8, 2021

Tomorroland Terrace and Pirate's World - 1969


50 years ago, I was lucky enough to see the Stone Poneys at the Tomorrowland Terrace in Disneyland. Tomorrowland has always been problematic for Disney, the past of Frontierland or Main Street USA doesn't change; it's a different story trying to keep up with the future, but 1967's remodeled version of Tomorrowland was the perfect construct and vision of what the world would become. The buildings rose in a clean white symmetry and featured murals by Small World artist, Mary Blair. Across from the Carousel of Progress and America the Beautiful, the Tomorrowland Terrace would rise out of the ground with the band already playing; what had been a futuristic garden became a stage in the round. The Stone Poneys featured Linda Ronstadt and members of what would become the Eagles: Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Randy Meisner. Linda was like a 60s poster child in a miniskirt and bare feet and of course, the finale was Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum." It was probably the first time I was ever in love. The Happiest Place on Earth featured a mix of musical styles from Harry James and John Denver to 80s quirky post-punk band Sparks.

But while Disneyland could boast an eclectic selection of musical genres, it was an obscure theme park in Dania, Florida that would host some of the 60's best new bands. That theme park was Pirates World which opened in 1967 without really much of a theme, the pirate motif not fully realized. Still, there were great rides including the reconstructed Steeple Chase from Coney Island and a sky tower from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The big attraction though was the summer concert series. Led Zeppelin played there twice; once in 1969 and once in 1971. 1970 had Iron Butterfly, Faces with Rod Stewart, the Grateful Dead, Traffic, Black Sabbath, Blood Sweat and Tears, Deep Purple with both Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Gillan and Johnny Winter would record his album Live Johnny Winter in 1970 with a release date in 1971. 

Grateful Dead
Jethro Tull, Grand Funk, The Steve Miller Band, the Moody Blues and Three Dog Night all played in 1971, David Bowie in 1972 along with Santana, and in 1973, Pirate's World hosted Alice Cooper and The Beach Boys. By 1973 Pirates World was experiencing hard times, with the concert venue being its only real success; it seems, up the road, a little place called Disney World had opened in 1971. Nonetheless, before the amusement park closed in 1976, the venue would feature Chicago, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Leon Russell, Badfinger, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It sounds like a list from the Hollywood Bowl or Madison Square Garden; nope, little old Pirate's World.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Layla and Others

Like the Beatles, the timing for Pattie Boyd couldn’t have been better. She wasn’t what one would call a classic beauty, but she fit the era - no one said Mod like Twiggy and Pattie Boyd. She was the British equivalent of the American “girl next door,” and she inspired three of rock’s most iconic love songs for two iconic musicians, who just happened to be best friends.  

It was 1964. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" topped the charts, and the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show set the record for the most-watched television program in American history. Capitalizing on “Beatlemania,” United Artists approached the Fab Four with a three-movie deal. Just like their records, A Hard Day's Night went on to become a major commercial success, a film that is considered nearly 60 years later one of the greatest films of the modern era.

But the Beatles' first feature film didn't just bring them fame and fortune — it also brought them love. While shooting scenes for the movie, one of the extras took a particular shine to George Harrison. Her name was Pattie Boyd, a 20-year-old British model regularly captured on the cover of Vogue as the embodiment of Swingin’ London.

The meeting is a romantic one. Harrison was equally taken by his newfound admirer and on the set asked, "Will you marry me?" With her refusal, he responded: "Well, if you won’t marry me, will you have dinner with me tonight?" Cut to an evening at the Garrick Club in central London that quickly led to a brief engagement. Harrison and Boyd wed on January 21, 1966 with Paul McCartney serving as best man.

Harrison credited Boyd for significantly broadening his worldview, which included his adoption of Indian lifestyle practices and Eastern mysticism. Boyd, a passionate photographer, also served to expose a more intimate side of Harrison to Beatles fans, as her personal photos of the guitarist were widely circulated at the time. Their relationship inspired a handful of Beatles hits, including "I Need You," "Love You To," and "For You Blue." But perhaps the most iconic song spawned from Harrison and Boyd's love was "Something" from Abbey Road, arguably one of the greatest Beatles songs of all time.

The relationship lasted through the Beatles’ tenure but due to spiritual differences and Harrison’s increasing drug use, Pattie let George’s best friend and fellow guitarist, Eric Clapton, get closer and closer. Equally romantic, Clapton wrote a cryptic and anonymous love letter signed simply, “E.” Later at a party, he asked if she’d gotten his message.

Now it gets dramatic. Torn between the two men, Boyd was approached by Harrison who, sensing the situation, asked who she was going home with that night. Boyd agreed to stay with Harrison, driving Clapton into depression, heroin addiction, and a three-year hiatus from music, though in an effort to nullify his unrequited feelings, Clapton wrote "Layla," a play on The Story of Layla and Majnun in which a young man is driven mad by an unattainable love.

Boyd’s marriage to Harrison ended in 1977 with George’s romantic tryst with Ringo’s wife. (I said there was drama), and this time as Clapton’s advances were successful. 

Boyd married Clapton in 1979 and became yet another legendary musician's muse. Both "Bell Bottom Blues" and "Wonderful Tonight" were inspired by Boyd, yet, even more drama, the good times wouldn't last. The couple began drinking heavily and infidelity and drug use followed suit. By the 80s, the couple was on the outs. Boyd divorced Clapton in 1989, citing his affairs and "unreasonable behavior." She called Eric’s love “infatuation” and added that "Eric just wanted what George had." While Pattie remains torn over her two great loves, men that wrote some of rock’s most iconic songs just for her, but it’s George who remains the love of her life.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021


In 1971, Paul McCartney had his first solo No. 1 single with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” from the Ram LP. The track alluded to the Beatles montage of Abbey Road, a format that emerged again with “Band on the Run,” an ingenious ploy to effectively string together bits of incomplete songs. It was on Ram that he collaborated with (a reluctant) Linda and American drummer Denny Seiwell. The remainder of the instrumentation was by session musicians and the industry’s best, including bassists Ron Carter and Richard Davis. Famous session musician Richard Spinozza was recruited by Linda despite what was, at the time, the exorbitant session fees required by Spinozza - $1500.00 per session (when the going rate was $90.00). When Linda made the phone call to Spinoza, he didn’t even know who she was (reportedly saying “Who?”), nor the fact that Linda was married to one of the world’s most iconic musicians. He said, “Like I was supposed to know that Paul McCartney was calling my house.” While it seemed like McCartney would go the route of the Beach Boys utilizing the industry’s top session musicians, in the summer that year, ex-Moodie guitarist Denny Laine joined Linda and Denny Seiwell to form the band Wings. McCartney said of the venture, “Wings were always a difficult idea … any group having to follow the Beatles’ success would have a hard job … I found myself in that very position.”

That said, and with McCartney (and Wings) rising to the top, it was tough for Paul to simply move on. Linda said at the time, “He’s talking about money now. That’s one of his pet points. He’ll never stop. Denny and Denny are protesting, but there’s nothing I can do.” It’s funny that we look toward Paul and Linda as rock’s perfect couple, dismissing that even the most loving relationships have their rocky roads. “Please get him on to talking about Wings,” she said. “That’s why we are here after all. The others can’t join in talking about The Beatles. I wish he wouldn’t go on like he does. There’s really no stopping him.”
While Linda was a reluctant participant in the Ram sessions, the album features Paul and Linda’s harmonies. Linda, while possibly not the best singer, oddly complimented Paul to create a sound unique to the band that would become Wings. John and Ringo noted an oblique dislike for the LP, particularly John who retaliated for songs like “Dear Boy” and “Too Many People” with his scathing “How Do You Sleep.” (I’m so glad that at 12 years old, I didn’t know any of this.) While George had no comment on the album, George Martin said, “I don’t think Linda is any substitute for John Lennon,” in retrospect a bit naïve.
One of the projects that may have refocused Paul on moving forward was Thrillington, an unusual concept piece for its time. Thrillington is the orchestral version of Ram and one that many McCartney fans aren’t aware exists. The sessions for the instrumental album were June 15, 16, and 17 at Abbey Road, just two weeks after the release of Ram. The directive came for the studio to hire the country’s best classical musicians, with Tony Clark and Alan Parsons (Engineer and Assistant) questioning what Paul would be doing. Interestingly, Paul didn’t sing on the LP or play a single note, acting solely as the LPs producer. It was the kind of focus that Paul had had with the Beatles, particularly on Sgt. Pepper, but served better as a delineation of Beatles and Wings. McCartney isn’t credited with Production on the liner notes; instead, he’s listed as Percy “Thrills” Thrillington.
It’s fun to note that of the Beatles in 1971, up to the release of (and possibly including Ram), Paul was the least successful of the solo acts. John had the critical acclaim of Plastic Ono Band and the commercial success of Imagine, George had the phenomenal All Things Must Pass and Ringo had one of the year’s great pop songs with “It Don’t Come Easy.” Paul’s McCartney was critically panned and the concert staple “Maybe I’m Amazed” would not initially be popular. Paul, of course, would become the most successful Beatle in both the 70s and 80s, but subsequently said of early 1971, “I felt like I didn’t have a use anymore. I’d been a bass player, and I’d been a co-writer with John, and suddenly, all of that was taken away. And I just thought, “Am I any good on my own?” Wow, huh? All of that, of course, would change for Paul after Ram and Thrillington, when McCartney found himself a new foursome in Wings.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Zeppelin and Tolkien

In the late 60s and early 70s, EVERYONE had read or was reading The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, indeed, “Frodo Lives” was often found spray-painted on the Subway/Underground tile, you know, “the words of the prophets.”
Who could have known that when John Ronald Reuel Tolkien first published The Hobbit in 1937, the book would serve as a pillar of rock history? It seems the Elven-kings and queens, the bearded, pipe-smoking wizards, and the laid-back, fun-loving Hobbits played well with the Flower Children who sought to reconnect with nature in a rather romantic way but embracing fantasy rather than Shelley or Byron.
And, what about the influence the other way around? When The Hobbit, its popularity was apparent but, oddly, it took Led Zeppelin to launch Middle-Earth into a full-scale revival that far-exceeded the original publication.
Not readily apparent on LZ’s debut, Page and Plant were nonetheless fascinated with European and Middle-Eastern mythologies, influences that can be heard in their most iconic works, from “Immigrant Song” to “Kashmir.”
Tolkien’s influence on Plant first appeared on Led Zeppelin II, in which the singer alluded to Frodo Baggins’ journey in “Ramble On”. While the track is vague at first with its references to Middle-Earth, it culminates with the line: “T’was in the darkest depth of Mordor/ I met a girl so fair,/ But Gollum, the evil one crept up/ And slipped away with her.”

In 1971, the Led Zeppelin lyricist further pursued his passion towards Tolkien’s oeuvre with the track “Misty Mountain Hop”, where Plant’s cryptic references to The Hobbit coalesce with the description of a young man’s experience in mind-altering substances. Like Alice in Wonderland, of course, Tolkien’s epic was a mess of hallucinogenic imagery, and, as I’ve posted before, “The Battle for Evermore” was Plant enmeshing Middle-Earth with traditional English and Scottish folklore in lyrics like “The dark Lord rides in force tonight" and "I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon.”
On Houses of the Holy, the journey from Hobbiton continues in “Over the Hills and Far Away,” a title borrowing from Tolkien’s 1915 poem of the same name. In it, Plant refers to several events taking place in the book, one of them a riddle game played by Bilbo and Gollum. Another important link featured is when the One Ring is referred to as a woman, not far removed from Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn referring to the “beautiful lady,” or Gollum calling it “My Precious,” as if the ring was a living being.
Tolkien, by the way, said of Plant’s tributes, “You certainly have my permission to compose any work that you wish based on The Hobbit. … As an author, I am honored to hear that I have inspired a composer.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Tarka the Otter - No, Tarkus


Hindsight often shines a light on delightful accidents. From Malcolm McDowell’s “Singin’ in the Rain” improv in A Clockwork Orange to Kurt Cobain’s quandary over “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” written on a friend’s wall in Sharpie*, sometimes things just happen.
 

It may seem hard to fathom now, but back in 1971, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were forced by their label to shelve the prog-rock adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in favor of “Tarkus” because the latter was more commercial; that’s right, a sci-fi piece in which an audacious tank-like armadillo pops out of a volcano and heads off to war is more “commercial.” (Yeah, it’s a regular “Sugar, Sugar.”) It’s as goofy a concept as one can imagine, nonetheless one of the greatest of all prog epics thanks to Lake’s brilliant lyrics somehow adding the verisimilitude the concept required. 

The band’s self-titled debut from the year prior included some pretty spectacular performances, if a bit uneven, but keep in mind that this (1970) was progressive rock’s infancy, and much of what was recorded by Gentle Giant and Yes, Floyd and Genesis was experimental. Tarkus was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s opportunity to address the criticisms of the eponymous LP (I have few, btw; love that debut!). 

The title track, with its seven movements, was a bold step that succeeds due to Emerson’s compositional deftness. Of it, he said, “It was coincidental that Carl Palmer and I were working individually on the same sort of complex rhythm ideas. He was doing this on his practice drum pads, while I was at home on an upright piano in London and a Steinway in Sussex. As my ideas seemed to compliment what Carl was up to, I pursued this direction. 

“We focused on a centerpiece first to establish a concept. Sometimes we didn’t know if it would become a conceptual piece of work at all. All of the compositions had to bond and work together, and if they didn’t, they were used somewhere else.” 

Emerson drew heavily on the work of Frank Zappa and the Argentinian classical composer Albero Ginastera, well known to ELP fans as the composer of “Toccata” on Brain Salad Surgery. “I was a huge admirer of Frank Zappa, and had met him on a few earlier occasions when he wanted my advice on how to cope with English orchestras. Frank was of the opinion that there really should not be time signatures. That’s how I felt. Why be governed and dictated to by a 44 or 34 rhythm by adding or subtracting notes just to make it fit?”

After several months, Emerson presented the bones of the composition to Palmer and Greg Lake. All that was missing were the lyrics. Lake wasn’t initially a fan of what he heard while Palmer, in simpatico with Emerson, was already on board. “I don’t think Greg was too enthused,” Emerson said. Indeed, Lake was heard to say, "If you want to play that sort of stuff, I suggest you play it on your solo album." 

Nonetheless, gritting his teeth, Lake took inspiration from the album’s artwork as the starting point for his lyrics serving up some of the most potent lyrics of his career. Emerson, for his part, vividly remembers the first time he saw the cover that became so entwined with the album and the concept story. “One day I walked into the studio after my long drive from Sussex. Greg and Carl were looking over the artwork of an artist that had just dropped by [William Neal]. We were all fascinated by his artwork, particularly the armadillo with cannons and the dodo bird with guns on its wings like a Spitfire. To everyone, it represented what we were doing in that studio. The next day on my drive up from Sussex the imagery of the armadillo kept hitting me. It had to have a name. Something guttural. It had to begin with the letter ‘T’ and end with a flourish. Tarka the Otter [a children’s novel published in 1927] may have come into it, but this armadillo needed a science fiction kind of name that represented Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in reverse. Some mutilation of the species caused by radiation… Tarkus!” 

The 20+ minute title track is monumental. As the first significant side-long prog-rock epic, the track has it all - amazing keywork by Keith Emerson that fits seamlessly from movement to movement, a gorgeous electric guitar solo from Greg Lake, lyrics that refocus an otherwise silly storyline, intricate bass, and incomparable drumming by Palmer. Bottom line, like Floyd’s miraculous “Echoes,” “Tarkus” is a brain-fry bong-load of resinous prog, dripping with cosmic ether. 

Anyway, “more commercial?” Guess the folks at Island Records were right.