Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - From the Beginning

Keith Emerson began his formal music education at eight years old. Quickly tiring of "playing like Bach," Emerson discovered American free form jazz, particularly that of progressive organist Jack McDuff. After playing in several bands throughout college, where he purchased a Hammond L100 electric piano, Emerson heard that P.P. Arnold, a successful solo R&B singer was looking for a backup band. Emerson formed The Nice, with this intent, though six months later the band began performing on their own. During late 1967, the band opened for Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, often at The Marquee Club, whose dossier included David Bowie and the Lower Third, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Move and The Small Faces. In January 1968, The Nice traveled to the U.S. returning to Britain just in time for the release of their debut, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (a contraction of the band members' names). They later recorded "America," a work that combined Leonard Bernstein's famous piece from West Side Story, Dvorak's New World Symphony and protest lyrics, making for a complex political statement (as well as a controversial one since Bernstein didn't initially approve). During a King Crimson/Nice show in 1969, Emerson met Crimson's young bass player, Greg Lake, backstage, and after a brief chat, they tentatively decided to form a band.

Greg Lake began his musical tenure when given a guitar by his mother. As a school boy he wrote the song that would later become one of ELP's greatest hits, "Lucky Man." During the late '60s, Lake played in several bands, and one of these, The Shy Limbs, nearly got him killed. The band slept in a van and ate when they could. Lake developed complications from pneumonia and nearly died before his mother intervened and checked him into the hospital.

While bassist for The Gods, Lake  caught the attention of Robert Fripp, who was searching for a bassist for King Crimson. Lake sang and played bass on the band's first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, but Fripp's "tyranny" alienated Lake, who remained with KC just long enough to record Crimson's 2nd album, In The Wake Of Poseidon (as lead singer but not as bassist).

While Emerson and Lake searched for a percussionist, they met Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix's drummer, who didn't wish to join but endeavored to get Hendrix into the new band. After inviting Carl Palmer, a young drummer from Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the British Press fantasized about a new band with two virtuosi like Hendrix and Emerson, and speculated the band would be called Hendrix, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or HELP, but Hendrix died in September 1970 before the idea came to fruition.

By October, Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their eponymous debut LP. The newly formed band sounded like a veteran supergroup. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (AM7) represents what happens when the right musicians find each other at the right time. All three fresh from other notable bands, it was a meeting of the gods. The fact that albums like this are given short shrift by rock critics says far more about the dark state of rock criticism than it does about the quality of the music therein. Every second on Emerson, Lake And Palmer's debut LP (with the exception of Palmer's accomplished but somewhat needless drum solo on "Tank") is a triumph, as the group moves effortlessly between the multiverse of rock, jazz and classical before heading into the newly-charted realms of electronica with the Moog. Their sense of ensemble on tracks like "The Barbarian" and "Take A Pebble" is breathtaking. Hearing "Knife Edge" for the first time on KMET in 1974, over a crackly FM transmitter, sent a chill down my spine that has never quite gone away. 

Tarkus (AM7) saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer trying their darnedest to outplay their contemporaries - a goal which they succeed effortlessly in achieving - although as a result, the album lacks a sense of restraint. Its centerpiece is the title suite that took up all of side one, an intense, varied 20-minute prog epic that hits the listener like a ton of bricks; its first impression will either leave one fascinated by its originality and virtuosity or running from the room screaming overkill. Were Tarkus written by a contemporary western avant-garde composer (think John Cale or today, Nico Muhly), it would have been recognized as the complex atonal a-rhythmic masterpiece that it is. For most rock listeners, however, the album simply asks too much. It is a complex work full of invention and shifting horizons, far more complex and coherent than even the most celebrated rock albums previously called "complex." A schizophrenic hootenanny, "Tarkus," the LP's shining focus, is indeed a glorious slab of prime prog. Emerson's Hammond B3 and Moog are out of this world, Lake's vocals and under-rated bass work are exceptional and Palmer provides what is the strongest long-form track of his career. 

As for the concept, well, there's this armadillo-tank thing and it kills a bunch of creature things until one of them kills it, so, like a lot of fantasy prog, Tarkus is essentially a mess of pretentious hoo-hah over nothing. And I for one happen to love it.

My first experience with classical music was through Looney Tunes, most specifically Elmer Fudd's "Barber of Seville" or the "Kill da wabbit" scene in "What's Opera Doc?" In lieu of that, maybe it was the odd take on classical that was Ray Conniff's Concert in Rhythm on which my mother sang backup vocals. While this kind of exposure seems trivial, it helped to create a lifelong quest for more music. Naturally, as a young teen, the Peter and the Wolf sensibility of progressive rock made an impression, as did rock music in general as it often borrowed from the classical canon. I remember seeing Bowie at the Santa Monica Civic in 1972 with my older brother. Before Bowie hit the stage, the decibels were cranked on towers of amps playing Beethoven's 9th. And in 1968, I was struck by Blood, Sweat and Tears take on Satie's Trois Gymnopedies, still one of my favorite classical arrangements.

My further immersion into classical music would have me bring home ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition. I'd heard ELP prior to this, but this, to my novice ears, was the real deal.
Greg Lake adds some light philosophical/trippy-dippy lyrics to the Modest Mussorgsky masterpiece, and like every piece of excess ELP did early in their career, it works. Keith Emerson traipses through every tone he can get from his early synth arsenal (jarring or otherwise) , giving him the U.K. moniker "the Hendrix of Keyboards" (oh brother, but you get the point). Rumor has it Jimi actually wanted to join the band after hearing this album. Just think! Hendrix, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (or HELP, for short). Pictures has more raw urgency than anything in their catalog, and while Jimi may have had an ear for its brilliance, most of us, myself included, find this the least accessible ELP LP.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Brief History of the Gentle Giant

Woe to the musician who can actually play his or her instrument. In that direction ridicule awaits, or so the three-chord purist would have you believe. In this regard, consider the plight of Gentle Giant, among the most reviled of prog-rock outfits from the 70s, at least in the eyes of the rock purists, I'm calling bullshit. Reality is, 4/4 time gets pretty boring pretty quickly; counterpoint is challenging and aesthetically pleasing to the ears, music with texture and complex instrumentation is far more interesting then the bland purist backbeat (think Please Please Me Vs. Sgt. Pepper).

Gentle Giant, founded by three brothers with a Glasgow Blues background (yeah, it's a thing), succeeded in a daring fusion of jazz, classical and rock.  The strength of the sextet was Kerry Minnear's keyboards (Minnear had a degree in music from the Royal Academy), the guitar virtuosity of Gary Green (a blues veteran) and Phil Schulman’s rococo woodwinds, with each member a multi-instrumentalist. Besides the complex scores, their sound was light years removed from even the most progressive or fusion oriented bands, particularly Derek Schulman's nearly inhuman (giant) vocals, so aseptic they more resembled conservatory solfeggios and Gregorian chant. This wasn't rock; it was some other medieval concoction. 

The first album, Gentle Giant (AM5, Vertigo, 1970), only points to who they would or could become with the dissonant counterpoint, the nearly eponymous peculiarity that made them renowned not materializing until Acquiring The Taste (AM6, Vertigo Records, 1971). Each Giant played a miscellany of instruments with massive use of keyboards lending a symphonic quality to the album. Kerry Minnear's role included electric piano, organ, mellotron, vibraphone, synthesizer, celesta, harpsichord and vocals, while bassist Ray Schulman added violin and viola, and Tony Visconti, David Bowie's producer, added flute. There are typanis, skulls, claves, recorders, jawbones and cowbells. Acquiring the Taste is exactly that, a veritable taste of complex honey.

Three Friends (AM 7, Columbia, 1972), essentially a "rock opera," contains six long ballads with "Mister Class And Quality" and "Working All Day" the most accessible.  "Prologue," "Schooldays" and "Peel The Paint" were like cryptic chamber-music. The harder-edged Octopus (AM8, Columbia, 1972), with the exception of "Think of Me With Kindness," is almost dauntingly complex, with counterpoint and opposing melodies riddled with dead air and aural or negative space, the rest as intoxicating as the note. Generally it's more math-rock, Bach-rock than art-rock in which each instrumental passage is layered and interwoven and complete unto itself. In particular, the vocal harmonies of Knots, inspired by psychologist RD Laing's enigmatic poems (?), were an antithesis to the British tradition both musically and thematically, and the clumsy "Dog's Life," is an eccentric paean to giant's best friend.

In A Glass House (AM8, Vertigo/WWA, 1973 - not initially released in the US), another concept album, is probably their most ambitious work. The exuberant experimentation took particular advantage of Phil Schulman’s departure from the band earlier in the year. The socio-political concept, The Power And The Glory (AM7, Capitol, 1974) is less ambitious yet still fluid and classy and possibly their roughest edge, tempered only by Kerry Minnear's beautiful "Aspirations."

Free Hand (AM8, Capitol, 1975) is Gentle Giant’s "medieval" album. Nearly all the songs ("Just The Same," "On Reflection," "Free Hand," "Time To Kill," "His Last Voyage") reached a formal perfection in their attempt at reinventing the rock song.

And then it was over. Record company pressures, a changing listenership, a new sense that progressive rock was not only passe but that it had done a disservice, led to albums that didn't make sense except as contractual obligations. Part jazz-rock, part folk, part medieval polyphony or renaissance dance music, Gentle Giant was a crazy hybrid of music that shouldn't have worked on any level, but instead, in perfect counterpoint, worked on them all.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young)

In April 1970, Joni Mitchell released her third LP, Ladies Of The Canyon, an ode to the denizens of the enclave she called home, Laurel Canyon, a mountainside oasis hidden within the confines of L.A. The title track is perhaps the most obvious tribute in which Joni characterizes three women who define the canyon as a geographical and sociological oddity, a jumble of largely undeveloped mountain acres adjacent to the busy streets of West Hollywood. By 1968, when Mitchell wrote the song, the neighborhood had become the center of the local music scene, though it boasted no clubs or venues. Nearly every Los Angeles musician lived there, jammed there, or crashed on someone's couch there: The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Love, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Canned Heat. With its steep hills, winding dirt roads, and a handful of manmade caves strung with lights (for anyone who wanted to get back to the land or had run out of couches), the canyon provided a refuge from Los Angeles' hard urban landscape, and it was here that Joni and Crosby, with the coaxing of Cass Elliot, met Stills and Nash.

Quintessentially Californian, The Byrds were each refugees from folk bands. Roger McGuinn was a third of the Chad Mitchell Trio, Gene Clark a New Christy Minstrel; Chris Hillman played mandolin in The Hillmen, and David Crosby was an outspoken folk singer. The group lived and practiced in Laurel Canyon, their rehearsals reverberating across the sandstone hills and decorated caves. After dark, the nightcrawlers would descend on the Sunset Strip to play Ciro's, The Troub and the Hullabaloo. The Byrds were the house-band at the Whiskey (alongside The Doors), and at It's Boss, a teen club that only recently changed it's name from Ciro's (today it's The Comedy Store).

Those two settings, the remote wilderness of the Canyon and the urban bustle of the Strip, offered a contrast that defined folk rock as both acoustic and electric, country and city, harmonious and aggressive. A year before Dylan electrified the Newport Folk Festival, the Byrds had invented a new kind of pop music that mirrored the messy geography of Los Angeles, a hybrid of psychedelia, folk and country. Not long after, The Buffalo Springfield entered the L.A. scene with Stephen Stills and Neil Young fighting over the reins of the band. Graham Nash would find success with Britain's The Hollies and secure two smash American singles in "Bus Stop" and "Carrie Anne."
That night, while Joni listened, the three of us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those voices. And I knew my life would never be the same.
The dilemmas each artist faced with their bands led to the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1968. They were signed to Atlantic Records and released their first eponymous album in May 1969. It did well, spawning two Top 40 singles: "Marrakesh Express" (at No. 28) and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" (at No. 21). The album itself went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

As Nash remembers, "We were all very much in love with each other; we were all very much in love with the music…obviously doing something we felt was totally unique.  It was against the grain of most of the music that was out at that time, and we just managed to slip this acoustic-feeling record right through all the stacks of Marshalls and giant electric guitars." It's funny how their attitudes would fluctuate over the years, but 50 years on there's still talk of further collaborations.

When joined by Neil Young, several months later, they played for a half a million people at Woodstock in what was only their second appearance together. CSN&Y’s stirring performance exemplified the spirit of the day, and is still treasured as a touchstone for many who came of age in the ‘60s. 

In 1970, CSN&Y released the now-classic album Déjà Vu to great acclaim, generating three Top 40 singles: "Woodstock" (No. 11), and Nash's smash double play of "Teach Your Children" (No. 16) and "Our House" (No. 30).  It also introduced perennial favorites including Young's "Helpless," Stills' "Carry On" and Crosby's sociopolitical "Almost Cut My Hair." Next up was 1971's 4 Way Street, a double live LP that showcased both group dynamics and solo strengths, and delivered Neil Young's "Ohio," a rebellious memorial to the four students killed at Kent State in 1970.  Although CSN&Y drifted apart midway through the ‘70s, they continued to perform and record, individually and in various configurations.  Solo, Crosby released If I Could Only Remember My Name, and Nash followed with Songs For Beginners and Wild Tales.  Together, the pair recorded three albums and in 1977 released a live LP. Stills released the platinum Stephen StillsStephen Stills 2, two LPs with Manassas, and Long May You Run with Neil Young, while Neil's solo career outweighed them all; today having recorded 42 studio LPs.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

EGBDF – The Moodies 50 Years Ago

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour took its title from the mnemonic for the EGBDF lines of the treble clef. It was the album that contained Justin Hayward’s impressive “The Story In Your Eyes,” a Top 30 U.S. single that was withdrawn from sale in Britain at the band’s request. But that didn’t stop the album from going all the way to the top. The Moodies had reached No.1 in the UK with On The Threshold of a Dream in 1969. To Our Children’s Children’s Children was stopped at No.2 by The Beatles’ Abbey Road, but they were not to be denied with 1970's A Question of Balance, which had three weeks at the summit.

Then came Favour, which featured solo compositions by each of the five members of the band, as well as the only Moody Blues song to carry credits for the whole quintet, the opening “Procession.” Even more democratically, Messrs Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, Pinder, and Edge also shared lead vocals on the track.

The album entered the UK chart at No. 2 and moved to the top on August 14, 1971. That was the only week at No.1 for the Moodies’ album, but it proved its staying power by spending the next four weeks at No.3, and a total of nine in the Top 10. In the US, by October 1971, it went gold, continuing an impressive run in which all of their albums had achieved RIAA certification. Cashbox observed that the group and producer Tony Clarke had, in securing that sequence, “created music which has won them a wide and devoted following.”

On this day, 50 years ago, “The Story in Your Eyes” a stunning rock-based track by the band's guitarist Justin Hayward, was released as a single with "My Song" on the B-side. The track was the last by the Moodies to feature the Mellotron as it would be supplanted by the Chamberlin on Seventh Sojourn. While many consider EGBDF to be the least of the “Classic Seven,” it remains for this writer a very sophisticated moment for an eleven-year-old who saved for six weeks just because I was captured by the album’s cover. Sometimes you can tell a good [album] by its cover.

The Magnificent Moodies

It was fifty years ago that the Moody Blues released the third in a series of seven phenomenal concept LPs that began with Days of Future Passed, still the iconic symphonic rock LP. Owning any of the six, particularly if you've never heard anything by the Moodies but "Nights in White Satin," is an experience you can thank me for later; well, thank them for. 

Image result for on the threshold of a dreamThe LP, On the Threshold of a Dream, was among the first wave of album-oriented rock or AOR that would take hold in the 1970s; indeed, On the Threshold of a Dream had no hit songs despite the LP being the first release to enter into the U.S. Top 20 and a No. 1 smash in the U.K. 

In 1965, the Moody Blues had a hit with a remake of "Go Now" that was promo'd by what may be the very first MTV style video, predating even The Beatles' "Rain" and "Paperback Writer." Despite the single's success, the Moodies were struggling financially. Decca Records, hoping to further its exploration into stereophonic recordings, asked the band to do a rock interpretation of Dvorak's New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9) for the new Deram Records label. Instead the band recorded, without the label's knowledge, Days of Future Passed with Mike Pinder's "Dawn is a Feeling" as the catalyst for the project. Justin Heyward would follow with the LP's big hit, "Nights in White Satin," a play on words in which bed sheets are used as a cunning metaphor. Released in 1966, it is still my favorite Moody Blues LP and it introduced the world to symphonic interpretations of rock music. 

The band would follow up with In Search of the Lost Chord, a psychedelic concept piece all about the journey. It contained no real hit but gained a lot of radio play with "Ride My See-Saw" and the biopic fantasy "Legend of a Mind," about Dr. Timothy Leary. The song is a part of an extended concept song called "The House of Four Doors," the Moodies at their finest and an incredible soiree into the psychedelic experience.

With the 3rd LP in the concept series, Threshold of a Dream, the Moodies would fully establish themselves as the first AOL rock band. Each of the LPs was meant to be listened to in its entirety; this wasn't background music. The Moody Blues were when listeners first sat on the couch and immersed themselves in the experience. What's interesting though, is that with the next few LPs, the Moodies would have their biggest hits in "Question," "The Story in Your Eyes," "I'm Just a Singer in a Rock 'n' Roll Band" and oddly, six years after its initial release, "Nights in White Satin" would make it all the way to No. 1.

On the Threshold of a Dream is an LP oozing with splash and psychedelic experimentation. The album was a runaway smash in the U.K. and provided The Moody Blues with their first No. 1 British LP, remaining on the charts for some 70 weeks. 

The Moody Blues and Phil Travers

I wasn't cool enough to be a part of the 60s, and not just because I wasn't old enough. I was there, born early in the decade, and, as you'll find when you finally read Jay and the Americans, my informative early years were shaped by 60's TV and rockets to the moon, by Space Food Sticks (you have to remember those) and The Monkees, but had I been in my teens, or in high school as the Summer of Love fell like fall leaves (and not the pretty yellow ones; the brown crumbly ones), I still wouldn't have been cool enough to immerse myself in this mesmerizing culture. I was cool enough in the 80s, for R.E.M. and New Order, but as it lay, I was The Monkees and not The Beatles, let alone The Moody Blues. And yet…

While my brother was cool enough to embrace Days of Future Passed, I didn't understand it. The songs were hidden amidst all that old people music (while my grandmother loved Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," the music coming out of the Magnavox console stereo in our home was more likely Montovani and Ferrante and Teicher or 101 Strings' versions of Beethoven; and Days of Future Passed sounded more like that to me than the pop strains of Headquarters. And yet…

My brother got me In Seach of the Lost Chord for my birthday in 1968. I didn't want it, of course; he did, and he bought it in stereo so that I couldn't play it in my room and only on the Magnavox. (He got me Blood, Sweat and Tears too. Didn't want that either.) But I couldn't take my eyes off the cover, that hypnotizing painting by Phil Travers, who would work with the Moodys on six occasions. Like Hipgnosis' Storm Thorgerson and Pink Floyd, Travers was like another member of the band.

"I met the Moodys," he said, "in a London pub, and we worked out the details of the commission. They invited me down to the studio shortly after that first meeting to listen to the album. So I got an early taste for what they were doing. I liked it. And that's the way it always worked with them. I'd get to listen to the record, then discuss the themes and ideas behind it, before any art concepts were developed. 

"The band wanted me to illustrate the concept of meditation. This was not something that I had much personal experience of, and so my early thoughts about the subject were, unfortunately, insubstantial. My first rough designs really reflected a lack of ideas. I began to panic a bit as time was running out, when that image I mentioned in the glass window, of a figure ascending, came back to me and everything then fell into place. I had days rather than weeks to complete the illustration, and submit it for approval. I used Gouache and some water colour to get the effect I was after."

Sometimes it’s the aesthetics of an LP that sparks our interest ( I can still visualize Nancy Sinatra in her go-go boots), and while we can argue over the validity of modern music (the tepid pop charts, the insufferable rap and its lack of musicality), one of the greatest losses that I've found since the advent of the CD and now MP3s and Spotify, is the disassociation of music with the visual. In the 60s, you wanted to peel that Velvet Underground banana or unzip Jagger's Levis, you had the Dark Side post cards on your bulletin board and you displayed Goodbye Yellow Brick Road like it was artwork, only to pick it up, open it and use the gatefold to roll a joint.

Anyway, it was a birthday present, but it was its cover that brought my attention to the highly overlooked Moodys. In retrospect, they'd done the symphony thing and pulled it off with flying colors, but this follow-up was 100% Moody Blues. Of the 33(!) different instruments used on the LP, each was played by the band. They earned the nickname of "the world's smallest symphony orchestra."

The LP is a journey, from beginning to end, in search of the chord and ephemeral whatnot. There is a heavy Eastern Philosophical influence, especially on the Mike Pinder contributions ("Best Way to Travel," "Om") and the tracks flow into each other seamlessly, making it one contiguous work of early world music. In every song, the singer yearns for something that cannot be defined. Mike Pinder's searing mellotron and Ray Thomas's soaring flute are the definitive sounds of the album, while the lyrics are a fanciful journey like Coleridge or Shelley.

Of course, this is the album that yielded two of the Moody's most enduring concert pieces, "Ride My See-saw" and the psychedelic "Legend of a Mind." Another standout is "The Actor," a Justin Hayward penned ballad so haunting it matches "Nights in White Satin." Then there's the lovely "Voices in the Sky," and John Lodge's epic, expermental "House of Four Doors," which samples musical styles throughout history. When I was 7, that one was key for me. Lost Chord is loaded with beautiful, experimental music. Why this band is so often overlooked, especially as a part of the Prog Rock era, I'll never know.

An aside: Other LPs bought because of their covers: the velvet wrapped Odessa, by the BeeGees, Brain Salad Surgery, Coltrane's Blue Train, Sinatra's In the Wee Small hours of the morning, Unknown Pleasures, Houses of the Holy, Captain Fantastic. Just a smattering.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Passing of a Legacy - Charlie Watts Dies at 80


It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts. He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family," his spokesperson said Tuesday in an emailed statement to CNN.

"Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also as a member of The Rolling Stones one of the greatest drummers of his generation."
The quiet, elegantly dressed Watts was often ranked with Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and a handful of others as a premier rock drummer, respected worldwide for his muscular, swinging style as the Stones rose from their scruffy beginnings to international superstardom. He joined the band early in 1963 and remained over the next 60 years, ranked just behind Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as the group’s longest-lasting and most essential member.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Graham Nash on Joni Mitchell

The following is an excerpt from Graham Nash's article in London's Daily Mail. There is nothing quite like hearing the story, as much as you may already know it, from the source.

Graham Nash: On an August evening in 1968, the sun was sinking in the western sky as the cab crawled up Laurel Canyon, bathing the Hollywood Hills in a golden flush of summer. We stopped in front of a small wooden house on Lookout Mountain Avenue. Inside, lights glowed and I could hear the jingle-jangle of voices. I leaned on my guitar case – the only baggage I'd carried off the plane at LAX – and considered again where I was and what I was doing here: leaving my country, my marriage and my band, all at once.

...the Hollies and I had come to an impasse. We had grown up together and enjoyed incredible success, but we were growing apart. The same with my marriage: Rosie was off in Spain chasing another man, and I was in Los Angeles, the city that already felt like my new home, to visit Joni Mitchell, who had captured my heart. For just a moment, I hesitated. Sure, I was an English rock star – I had it made. I had co-written a fantastic string of hits with The Hollies. I was friends with the Stones and The Beatles. You could hear me whistle at the end of "All You Need Is Love." But deep down, I was still just a kid from the north of England, and I felt I was out of my element.

Suddenly, Joni was at the door and nothing else mattered. She was the whole package: a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, like windburn, and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within. Behind her, at the dining room table, were my new American friends, David Crosby and Stephen Stills – refugees, like me, from successful, broken bands. I grinned the moment I laid eyes on them. I had never met anybody like Crosby. He was an irreverent, funny, brilliant hedonist who had been thrown out of The Byrds the previous year. He always had the best drugs, the most beautiful women, and they were always naked.

Stephen was a guy in a similar mold. He was brash, egotistical, opinionated, provocative, volatile, temperamental, and so talented. A very complex cat, and a little crazy, he had just left Buffalo Springfield, one of the primo L.A. bands. 

That night, while Joni listened, the three of us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those voices. And I knew my life would never be the same.

Joni and I had first met after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada in March. I'd seen this beautiful blonde in the corner by herself, and I'd shuffled over and introduced myself. 
"I know who you are," she said, slyly. "That's why I'm here."

She had invited me back to her room at a beautiful old French Gothic hotel, where flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays and beautiful scarves were draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire. She picked up a guitar and played me 15 of the best songs I’d ever heard, and then we spent the night together. It was magical on so many different levels.

That evening with Crosby and Stills at Joni's, five months later, was the first time I'd seen her since. After that, I moved out to Los Angeles for good, as soon as I had messily extricated myself from The Hollies. The plan was to crash at Crosby’s house, where a party was always in full swing: beautiful young women all over the place, some clothed, some not so clothed. Music pulsing through the place. Hippy heaven.

On my first night, in the midst of the party, Joni appeared. Taking me by the arm, she said: "Come to my house and I'll take care of you." 

Joni had a great little place, built in the 1930s by a black jazz musician: knotty pine, creaky wooden floors, a couple of cabinets full of beautifully coloured glass objects and Joan's artwork leaning discreetly here and there. From the moment I first heard her play, I thought she was a genius. I’m good at what I do, but genius? Not by a long shot. She was finishing her Clouds album and writing songs for what would become Ladies Of The Canyon

We both wrote whenever the spirit moved us, but in Joni’s house, when it came to the piano, I always gave way. If she was working there or playing guitar in the living room, I'd head into the bedroom with my guitar or simply take a walk. Occasionally, I lingered in the kitchen, just listening to her play. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

Rock and Other Four Letter Words - 50 Years Ago

"Our House"

Steffi Nelson in her review for the LA Weekly ("Back to the Garden") stated, "There are some who say the 60s didn't end until mid-way through the 70s, others who believe Helter Skelter in August [referring to the Manson Family murders] followed by Altamont in December slammed the book on the decade the minute the clock struck 1970. The hippie look and lexicon certainly lasted well into the 70s, but purity in any movement is fragile and fleeting. Born of isolation and insulation, the Laurel Canyon scene couldn't survive the scrutiny or the influx of drugs and money. By the end of 1969 the royalties from CSN's massively successful debut album had already bought the musicians new homes in other, more upscale neighborhoods."

The Byrds

This reporter's opinion is clear: the 70s were brand spankin' new. Though many of those Laurel Canyon artists of the 60s would populate the charts in the 70s, they did so with a blind eye to things that passed. Through Asylum Records, the California sect ran from the folk scene to jazz; if nothing else they turned out something new, something unnamed: acid jazz maybe (too strong), fusion rock (too lame), post folk (not catchy); nonetheless, out of Ladies of the Canyon came Blue and Late for the Sky and Hotel California.

In 1865 Edouard Manet shocked Parisian audiences at the Salon with his painting Olympia, an unabashed depiction of a prostitute lounging in bed, naked save a pair of slippers and a necklace. Manet's endeavor to capture the flavor of contemporary society extended to portraits of barmaids, street musicians, ragpickers, and other standard Parisian "types" from out of the foul rag and bone shop of literature,  but there was no place for that at the Academy. 

The 70s rock music scene was that explosive, that revolutionary. 

An excerpt from Rock and Other Four Letter Words

In the 1960s, grand as it may have been, as many AM10s as there were, most of what was celebrated, from Jefferson Airplane to Buffalo Springfield, was evolutionary, an extension of what was, but by 1972, musicians on both sides of the Atlantic were smashing the molds in a way that arguably hadn’t been seen since Robert Johnson. Suddenly we weren't so much channeling Woody Guthrie through Arlo, we (I write this as if somehow I played a role) were pushing all the boundaries. Joni Mitchell, indeed, dismissed the elements of song (verse, chorus, bridge) and created a musical format equivalent to the tone poem; Roxy Music was doubleplusgood, out there, indescribable - I'm reaching for adjectives that fit; there are none. It was too new, too whacked, too out there. It was a dividing line like Alice going through the looking glass. New York would come later, '73 maybe - punk new wave, hip hop, minimalist classical, avant-jazz, all would come out of the east, not yet.

Other historians might argue that the revolt came sooner. In an episode of Mad Men set in 1966, Don Draper says, "When did music become so important?" Later in the episode he turns off the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and walks from the room.  But that wasn't the revolution, that was the seed, and the seeds were sown across the land, and it was good (sorry, getting carried away).

The Hollywood Sign, 1973
Picture it: the year is 1970. The place: Laurel Canyon. Tucked away in the hills of Los Angeles, bohemian bungalows fill the canyon inhabited by the coolest and most talented in the music industry. Marijuana smoke fills the air and Frank Zappa could take a stroll down the road and hear the tunes of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's guitars echoing through the hills. Graham Nash moved out to LA to stay with his lover, Joni Mitchell. All hanging out together, co-writing songs, taking drugs, and messing around.. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Michelle Philips, Linda Ronstadt, Mama Cass, The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, and Jackson Browne were just a few of the groovy rock 'n' roll bandits who were making history in the free love world of Laurel Canyon. Other stars from all of the world were known to have frequented the canyon to visit their famous friends, too. 

Growing up I had a book, Rock and Other Four Letter Words. There's a quote from John Sebastian: "We're not really derivative of New York. Don't forget, I've just been listening to the radio since I was fourteen, like everybody else. My folks went to Italy when I was eight. When I got back, my symbols weren't the same as other kids. I wasn't very interested in cars and beer." Maybe that's a key to the revolution. Maybe it wasn't the music changing us, maybe it was us suddenly immersed in the world. Sebastian went to Italy, but each and every one of us, whether 14 or 20 or 6, lived vicariously through The Big News or movies and song. The catalyst was everywhere. Music changed us. We changed music. This we can talk on and around forever, though when our throats are dry and the angel of hush flutters across the room, someone puts on Joni or The Beatles and we move forward.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Calif. - Buy This Book!

Don't miss out! 

Today only, get R.J. Stowell's Calif. FREE for your Kindle! Just a thank you to our readers. Enjoy.

Here's the Link: https://www.amazon.com/Calif-R-J-Stowell-ebook/dp/B0861KBB92/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=rj+stowell+calif&qid=1628943475&sr=8-1

Monday, August 16, 2021

Human Highway

CSNY’s Human Highway is often called “the SMiLE of the 1970s,” referring to The Beach Boys infamous unreleased LP. Over the years, just like we did with SMiLE, many of us have tried to put together a fantasy playlist that might emulate what Human Highway may have been.

I have notes scribbled in a journal as far back as 1977 that includes a tracklist of songs like Neil’s “On the Beach” or “Walk On,” or Graham Nash and Neil Crosby’s “Homeward Through the Haze,” to me the track with a distinctive Déjà Vu vibe.
In the early 70s, few albums were as anticipated as eagerly as CSNY’s follow-up to Déjà Vu. Of course, we never got it. Plenty of the foursome on their own or paired and by the end of the 70s, an LP without Young, but Human Highway never happened. On at least three occasions, CSNY gave it an effort with mid-1973 and late 1974 as the highpoints of the collaboration, but each ventured crash landed after only a few days.
In 1976, Neil Young and Stephen Stills were in the studio eventually inviting Graham Nash and David Crosby to add vocals to finished tracks. Once again, things fell apart; the album (Long May You Run) was released as Stills-Young Band project and Crosby and Nash’s vocals were edited out. That had to help.
The bones of the LP, including songs like Nash’s “Prison Song,” Stills’ “First Things First,” and C&N’s “Homeward Through the Haze” would eventually find their way on vinyl, but without the foursome playing nice. Human Highway wasn’t happening.
I love the bits and pieces, though; my favorite among them was included by Young with Crazy Horse on the iconic LP Zuma: “Through My Sails,” a Laurel Canyon-esque hippie ballad about leaving the past behind. The song featured CSN harmonies floating behind Young, vocals that conjured images of Woodstock or a heavenly night at Joni’s house.
Looking through my old journals, I have been piecing together notes and scenarios for my latest project, Half-Crazy, which utilizes the familiar faces in my novel Calif. The title derives from the main character, Daisy Lane and alludes to the lyrics to the nursery song, “Daisy, Daisy.” Daisy is enamored by the music of Laurel Canyon, from Joni to CSNY to the Doors, and as I write the novel, I’m obsessing over Human Highway in much the same way that Daisy does.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Elton John/Bernie Taupin - The Early Years

Although the pudgy kid known as Reg Dwight had always considered a music career, he'd spent the 60s as an un-credited studio musician for artists like The Hollies, until, in 1966, he answered an ad from Liberty Records and was given lyrics by a 17-year-old Bernie Taupin. Reg was so taken by Bernie's words that he wrote songs for each, though he wouldn't meet Taupin for six months. Before long, they found their songs covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Three Dog Night. And although that success got the newly-named Elton John a record deal, it didn't produce immediate results: it was two years before he scored his own hit with 1970's "Your Song." A tremendously influential series of live performances at L.A.'s Troubadour proved that John - who'd been a huge Jerry Lee Lewis fan - could rock as hard as anyone, and before long his solo career was taking off both on stage and in the studio.

Bernie Taupin  was born in 1950 at Flatters Farmhouse in the southern part of Lincolnshire England. He was not a diligent student but showed an early flair for writing. His maternal grandfather was a classics teacher and graduate of the University of Cambridge, his mother studied French Literature, and his father was a farmer.  They taught him an appreciation for nature and for literature and narrative poetry, all of which influenced his lyrics.  At age 15, he left school and started work as a trainee in the print room of the local newspaper, The Lincolnshire Standard with aspirations to be a journalist. He soon left and spent the rest of his teenage years hanging out with friends, hitchhiking the country roads to attend youth club dances in the surrounding villages, playing snooker in the Aston Arms Pub in Market Rasen, and drinking. He'd worked at several part-time jobs when, at age 16, he answered the advertisement that eventually led to his collaboration with Elton John.

Bernie’s unique blend of influences gave his early lyrics  a nostalgic romanticism that fit perfectly with the hippie sensibilities of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He sometimes wrote about specific places in his home town of Lincolnshire. For example, Grimsby or ‘Caribou’  was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a nearby port town often visited by Taupin and his friends. More famously,"Saturday’s Alright For Fighting" was inspired by Taupin’s experiences in the dance halls and pubs of his youth. More often he wrote in more general autobiographical terms, as in his reference to hitching rides home in "Country Comfort." These autobiographical references to his rural upbringing continued after his departure for London and a life in show business, with songs such as "Honky Cat," "Tell Me When The Whistle Blows" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," in which he thinks about "going back to my plough."
Together, Bernie and Elton found a niche with what might be assumed American folk, somewhere along the lines of Woody Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, their music that storied, that romantic. For Tumbleweed Connection, Elton's forth LP, the pair crafted an LP of ten songs with a theme they couldn't have known much about, except through books and Taupin's imagination: the American Civil War and subsequent land expansion out west. Though falling short of a masterpiece, the duo found a way to express their fantasy in an unusually conceptual album. "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun" opens the album, addressing the concerns of a man arrested for unspecified crimes, yet showing deep remorse when he's thrown in prison by the Pinkertons (the forerunner of modern-day detective agencies), as well as losing all his ill-gotten gains. The dusty verisimilitude seeps out of "Song of Your Father" and "Talking Old Soldiers;" the former about a blind man who confronts a "friend" who owes him money by brandishing a rifle. The accused relents, but only to bide time to gain the advantage over the blind gun-toter; the result is two men "lying dead as nails on an East Virginia farm." That's storytelling, and Taupin is the kingpin of rock storytelling. The latter track deals with an aged Civil War vet who stumbles upon a fellow warrior. Taupin's lyrics are superb, and the idea of two former soldiers drowning their sorrows over everyone's lack of understanding as to what they went through, can be a hard topic to cover in a three minute pop song. However, with only Elton's rising and falling piano chords the only accompaniment, it works splendidly.
Of course, you have two wonderful love songs, "Come Down in Time", featuring the orchestration of Paul Buckmaster. Though the theme is esoteric, it lends an air of mystery and charm. "Love Song", a song written by Lesley Duncan, is a stark tune played on acoustic guitar with deft toe-tapping noticeable.
"Where to Now, St. Peter?" is a swirling blues rocker about a man's journey into death, while questioning his fate and faith. Again, Taupin's esoteric themes make this song less than cut-and-dried, and all the more intriguing. One of the best tracks is "Burn Down the Mission", an old concert favorite. The war between the haves and have-nots is eloquently stated, with Elton's rising and falling piano competing with Buckmaster's strings. "My Father's Gun" is the tale of the Johnny Reb who buries his father (killed by a Northern soldier), and vows to avenge his death by finding the nearest regiment. "Country Comfort" is hokey like a hoedown and the bouncy "Amoreena" is a lot of fun, strongly evoking the Southern coquette pictured so vividly in the listener's mind. Tumbleweed Connection is an album reminiscent of another Brit take on American life 100 years ago, The Notting-Hillbillies. Tumbleweed Connection is Elton country-bluegrass, and it works on just the right level.