Letter to the Vatican

by
Steve Rostkoski

An Online Collection of Writings & Musings

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IAN
HUNTER
STRINGS ATTACHED
JUST ANOTHER NIGHT
MAN OVERBOARD
Life-long music fan STEVE ROSTKOSKI studied recording engineering and library technology, and has worked as a library technician, archival cataloger,  freelance journalist and publisher. His essays and reviews have appeared in Crawdaddy!, No Depression ,  The Rocket and other periodicals. Letter to the Vatican  began in 1991 as a self-published zine created for the writers' group APA Centauri. This online edition archives both past and present work.
This site would not exist without Paul Williams.  He started  the first rock music magazine, Crawdaddy!, in 1966, which I discovered in its  later 1990s  incarnation. I found Crawdaddy! so inspirational, I wrote Paul and sent him my zine about the book Glimpses.  He liked my essay so much that he invited me to be the first outside writer published in the new edition of his magazine.  I was honored. Paul's encouragement and support of my writing literally changed my life and I am forever grateful.  Thank you, Paul!

In 1995, Paul Williams suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident, leading to early onset of dementia, and a steady decline to the point where he now requires full-time care. His friends and family have set up a website for donations to assist with Paul's care and medical expenses.  The site also provides examples of his work and information about his many accomplishments.

http://paulwilliams.com/index.html

Also read Cindy Lee Berryhill's blog:

http://cindyleeberryhill.blogspot.com/

THE END OF ANOTHER NIGHT:
AN IAN HUNTER APPRECIATION


I'll say it right up front. Ian Hunter's Just Another Night is one of the finest concert videos I've ever seen.  After watching this 2004 performance by the veteran rocker and his band for the first time, I was left exhilarated and exhausted, just as if I'd been to an actual concert.  Very few music videos have affected me in such a way. After countless viewings, I discovered that the last third of the DVD (consisting of the finale and encores) makes an excellent album-sized portion to digest when I'm not in the mood for the whole thing.  I thought I'd use this wonderful mini-set as the basis for an appreciation and overview of Ian Hunter's work. 

Saturday Gigs/All the Young Dudes

Do you remember the Saturday gigs?
We do, we do

The tickets for the fantasy were twelve and six a time
A fairy tale on sale

Oh, Seventy-three was a jamboree
We were the dudes and the dudes were we.
Did you see the suits and the platform boots?
(oh dear, oh boy, ...)

The finale of Just Another Night begins with a short prelude of Mott the Hoople's "Saturday Gigs," one of the last recordings by the band that serves as its capsule history and farewell.  A band called Silence recruited Hunter as lead vocalist in 1969 and changed their name to Mott the Hoople shortly thereafter.  His ever-present sunglasses and curly mane, along with his rough vocal style, mirrored Bob Dylan circa 1966, and made Hunter a natural frontman.  He soon became actively involved in songwriting as well, often adding a sense of lyrical poetry and heart-rending ballads to the band's already eccentric sound.  Mott strived to be a bluesy, hard-rocking outfit like the Rolling Stones, but their choice of cover songs belied an astonishing range of other influences.  Scattered throughout their first four albums one finds everything from Sonny Bono's "Laugh At Me," the Youngbloods' "Darkness Darkness" and Doug Sahm's "At the Crossroads," to Dion's "Your Own Backyard," Melanie's "Lay Down" and a blistering instrumental version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me."  Add an album, Wildlife, that takes an unexpected turn into country-rock (from a bunch of Britishers yet!), and the group's discography is one that impressed critics, but failed to find a large audience.  By 1972, Mott the Hoople called it a day and broke up in frustration.

In stepped David Bowie, a fan who didn't want to see Mott end.  He offered to produce their next album and gave them its title song "All the Young Dudes."  The tune became a huge hit, revived their career and inadvertently connected Mott the Hoople to the glam-rock movement forever.  Mott actually pandered very little musically to the more pop oriented glam scene, exemplified by groups like T-Rex and the Sweet.  They dropped most of the oddball covers to focus on original material, but their sound remained essentially the same, mixing raging rock 'n' roll and Hunter's tender ballads.  The band did go glam image-wise, donning platform boots, tight trousers and other satin and silk finery.  Looking back, Hunter says the image change probably wasn't necessary, but thought they needed it at the time to compete.

"Saturday Gigs" and "All the Young Dudes" make an excellent pair on Just Another Night.  Both are anthemic tunes, perfect for audience sing-a-longs, yet have a relaxed air, so they never seem to overstay their welcome.  Hunter presents the first few verses of "Saturday Gigs," coolly relating Mott's early days over its earnest melody.  He lets the audience join in a few times on the "We do, we do" chorus, then abruptly turns to his band, half-facetiously yells "Boring!," chuckles, and launches into the cascading guitar riff of "All the Young Dudes."  It's an electrifying moment.  The song seemingly inspires both performer and fans to respond as if hearing it anew each time, no matter how frequently it's been played.

The Journey/Dead Man Walking
In a 2002 interview, Hunter said that among the songs most requested by fans was "The Journey," a desolate ballad from Mott's fourth album Brain Capers.  He explained that he never could find a way to make the song work in a live setting.  By 2004, obviously something had changed.  "The Journey" not only appears on Just Another Night, it may also be the show's absolute highlight.  I was not familiar with the song before I watched the DVD and was immediately taken by Hunter's delicate piano and vocal introduction.  He begins with the second verse (perhaps dropping the first verse made the song more approachable).

There's a man on a bridge called suicide
And he hides his head while the coast is dark
And the river drags and the water sways
Oh his rags've seen better days

The song slowly builds, pushed by lovely guitar arpeggios supplied by Mott founder and special guest Mick Ralphs.  (His guitar starts woefully out of tune, but somehow that's part of the charm that makes this performance so special.  The fact that this "flaw" remains in the video proves it.)  The album version of "The Journey" climaxes with a sequence of powerful chords that come of slightly clumsy.  In concert, Hunter instead seamlessly adds a chorus from another one of his songs, "You Nearly Did Me In," before segueing into "Dead Man Walking" off his 2001 album Rant.  I almost cheered out loud as this spectacular sequence unfolded.  It's one of those rare concert moments that left me breathless.

"Dead Man Walking," anchored by its sweeping George Harrison-like guitar figures, is only one of the highlights on Rant.  Hunter's latest studio album is the work of a mature artist who proves he can still rock out without embarrassment.  Ian convincingly declares his love for the art form, even after forty years as a working musician ("I Still Love Rock 'n' Roll"), rails against the decline of his native England ("Death of a Nation," "Morons," "Ripoff"), examines his marriage with humor and honesty ("Knees of My Heart," "No One") and even finds room for a terrific Dylanesque put-down ("Soap 'n' Water").  It is his best album yet.  If you like thoughtful lyrics and memorable tunes, get a copy.  Now!


Just Another Night
Cleveland Rocks
Some of Hunter's most popular songs aren't even known as his.  "Ships" became a hit for Barry Manilow and most people know "Cleveland Rocks" as the theme song for The Drew Carey Show, but both are originally from Hunter's 1979 album You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic.  The album drew critical raves and strong sales, not the least because it featured some of Hunter's sharpest songwriting yet and stellar backup from members of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.  Largely a hard-rocking, though still tuneful affair, it has supplied Hunter with prime concert material for decades.  On the DVD, "Just Another Night" is a barrelhouse rocker about the ups and downs of life on the road, whose chorus provides another opportunity for enthusiastic audience participation.  As the persistent synthesizer pulse introduces "Cleveland Rocks," Hunter quips, "Oh yeah, this is a fast one," frantically dog-paddles his hands, then counts the band off with  "THREE, FOUR..." and in his words, promptly "fucks up."  He gets it right the next try and he and the band whirl through one of Hunter's many love songs to rock 'n' roll.

Michael Picasso
Hunter invited Mick Ronson, former guitarist for David Bowie's Spiders from Mars band, to join Mott the Hoople in 1974 while they were working on the "Saturday Gigs" single.  The band was frustrated with their current guitar man Luther Grosvenor (nicknamed Ariel Bender), who came through during live shows, but seemed lost when he entered the recording studio.  Ronson, a formidable musician and arranger, gave Mott the boost they needed.  Once they finished recording "Saturday Gigs," the band set out on a European tour that generated a reaction approaching Beatlemania.  Despite such overwhelming success, however, Mott soon came to an abrupt halt.  Prior to the start of a UK tour, Ian was hospitalized for exhaustion during a visit to the US.  Once he recovered, Hunter unexpectedly announced that he and Ronson were leaving the band.  The reasons for this sudden break are still obscured by controversy, but it's most likely that Ian was tired of shouldering much of the responsibility and felt the rest of the group wasn't dedicated enough.

After leaving Mott, Ronson and Hunter immediately began work on Hunter's 1975 self-titled debut album, and then toured, recorded and produced albums together, off and on, for nearly two decades.  They not only shared a musical bond, but a personal one as well.  Their families even lived in the same house for a period of time. The pair recorded a terrific album, YUI Orta (taken from the phrase used by the Three Stooges), in 1989 and planned to tour behind it, when Ronson was diagnosed with liver cancer.  He passed away in 1993. 

Hunter wrote a tribute to "Ronno", as he's fondly remembered, titled "Michael Picasso" and included it on the 1995 CD Artful Dodger.  The song became a permanent fixture in Hunter's setlists.  On Just Another Night, Hunter begins its plaintive melody alone on acoustic guitar and sings of his old friend and their friendship.

Once upon a time
Not so long ago
People used to stand and stare
At the Spider with the platinum hair
They thought you were immortal

We had our ups and downs
Like brothers often do
But I was there for him
He was always there for me
And we were there for you

How can I put into words
What my heart feels?
It's the deepest thing
When somebody you love dies

I just wanted
To give something back to you gift to gift
Michael, Michael Picasso good night

As Hunter pleads, "Heal me / I'm the one who's left here / Heal me!,"  the band enters to showcase a dramatic guitar solo, then quiets down again.  Hunter ends the song, almost in a whisper and quotes a well-known Phil Spector lyric, "To know, know, know him / Is to love, love, love him / And we do."  He nods and says, "We still do."  The audience erupts in agreement.

Standing in My Light
"Standing in My Light" is another track from You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic.  It is a study in dynamics, building from a whisper to a scream and back again several times, making it a perfect choice for the live DVD.  Hunter sings the opening verse while beating out the rhythm on his chest with his hand, like some old blues or gospel singer.  This is pure showmanship, of course, yet it works wonderfully.  Drums boom as Hunter reaches the second verse that leads up to the blazing "Move over 'cause you're standing in my light" chorus.  The band pulls back, then Hunter accompanies himself with some gospel-flavored piano chords, until the music swells up again for a few more rounds of the climactic title statement.

All the Way from Memphis
Despite uneven record sales, Mott the Hoople remained a spectacular live act throughout their relatively brief career, often eliciting near-riots at concerts.  Several early attempts at capturing this excitement for a live album were thwarted by technical problems, until recordings of two 1974 shows, one in New York and another in London, were deemed worthy of release.  To cut costs, the record company refused to issue a two record set, instead cobbling together a severely truncated single-LP version of perhaps Mott at their best, titled simply Live.  Even in its chopped-up form, the album became one of Mott's best-selling discs.  Fortunately, the recently released 30th Anniversary Edition of Live restores almost all of the songs from both shows on two CDs. It reveals Mott in top form and rivals the Who's Live at Leeds as one of the most powerful, unrelenting live rock 'n' roll recordings ever made. 

One of Live's highlights is "All the Way from Memphis," originally the leadoff number for the 1973 Mott album and now the final encore on Just Another Night.  Brian May of Queen steps onstage for this current version of the piano-pounding rocker (Queen frequently opened for Mott on tour).  The three-guitar attack of May, Mick Ralphs and Ian's lead guitarist Andy York practically shakes the house down and leaves the crowd (and me, the viewer) delirious. 

Just Another Night proves that long-time rockers don't have to become Las Vegas lounge acts or greatest hits machines.  Ian Hunter is reinventing his past material, shown by his restructuring of "The Journey," and is still writing great songs, evidenced by "Dead Man Walking" and other songs from Rant.  It's exciting to discover an artist that can create such an unforgettable live experience late in his career.  I look forward to what Ian does next and have a feeling his best might be yet to come.



SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Mott the Hoople:
Mott the Hoople (1969)
Wildlife (1971)
Brain Capers (1971)
All the Young Dudes (1972)
Mott (1973)
Live (original release 1974, reissue 2004)
Ballad of Mott - A Retrospective (1993)

Ian Hunter:
Ian Hunter (1975)
All American Alien Boy (1976)
You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979)
YUI Orta (1989)
Artful Dodger (1995) (Released only in the UK and Netherlands)
Rant (2001)
Strings Attached (2003) (available on CD & DVD)
Just Another Night (2005) (DVD)

JULY 2006

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OVERBOARD & UNDERSTATED

This is quite a year for Ian Hunter. After 30 years apart, the 70-year-old veteran rocker reunites with his old band Mott the Hoople for a series of shows in London this October.  I hope all the hoopla over Hoople doesn’t overshadow Ian’s new album called Man Overboard, which represents some of the strongest work of his long career.

Like Hunter’s previous LP, 2007’s Shrunken Heads, the eleven songs on Man Overboard mine a similar alt-country/roots rock territory.  “The Great Escape” lopes along to a relaxed country beat, with a couple of unusual musical detours that parallel Hunter’s zigzagging misadventures from his younger days that are detailed in the lyrics.  Acoustic guitar and banjo strums introduce the song, reflecting Hunter’s easy-going obliviousness, as he leans against the bar on his 21st birthday before he’s tipped off to his “impending doom.” As he tries to outrun someone “looking for my blood,” an off-kilter keyboard interlude accompanies his journey.  Though the “na-na-na” vocals in the final verse effectively taunt his pursuer, Hunter reveals that he’s relieved to say farewell to such youthful mischief:

        I seen the club when he came out swingin’
        I seen his eyes when I gave him the finger
        Those days are over, it’s been good to know yeh
        You’re just a stoneage daydream. . .

The overall tone of the album is subtle, but “Arms and Legs” is an anthemic love song that’s a perfect single, if record companies still actually released singles.  It’s sweeping chorus and sliding guitar hook are made for constant radio play.  It’s followed by the album’s only out-and-out rocker, “Up and Running,” which begins as a rap reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” only updated for the new economy:

        Down in the basement wondering where the money is
        I got no insurance, can’t afford to pay the rent
        Outside creditors banging on the front door
        It’s easy when you’re rich, poor ain’t gotta future

Pounding drums and a unique ascending piano riff propel the song’s urgency, leading Hunter to finally exclaim, perhaps with a little tongue in cheek and a wink to the fans:

        I still got a screw loose, agony when not in use
        I think I need another boost
        Of Mott the Hoople juice, I still got the legs

The intensity builds with each screaming “I’m up and running” chorus, until the song stops and trails off, ending in uncertainty.  Up and running. . . to where?

The answer may be in the title tune, as the protagonist awakes “to the roar of the trains overhead” and explains, “I got a newspaper floor, a towel for a door and there’s things crawling ‘round in my bed.”  Life has left him behind and, as the chorus states, “drunk and disorderly.“  Hunter presents the story of this man overboard as a stirring waltz that builds to an orchestral climax.  He adds a little grit to the proceedings by including some Dylanesque harmonica on the into and outro to keep things grounded, though..

“Irene Wilde,” from the 1976 album All American Alien Boy, is one of Hunter’s most poignant ballads.  It concerns an unrequited love that pushes the narrator to “be somebody someday.”  “The Girl from the Office” is somewhat of an update, only this time the whole gang at work is infatuated by the title character.  The song unfolds with a charming baroque harpsichord and trilling guitar arrangement, as the question “What’s she like?  What’s she like?  What’s she like. . . in bed?” echoes from guy to guy every time the titular girl visits the factory floor.  This time around, the anecdotist gets the love interest and knows the answer.  At least that’s what he says, anyway.

A plaque read while waiting for a hotel elevator sparks Hunter’s imagination in “The River of Tears,” as he relates the  legend of the Agora tribe in which the chief’s tears over his lost daughter result in a flood.  The majestic folksong shuffle is the perfect setting for the winding tale that leaves Hunter to reflect, “Roll back the years / To the river of tears / I wish all the world was healing.”  It’s this kind of vivid slice of life realism that makes Man Overboard so engaging.  Hunter’s observations don’t  come across as self-important.  He writes about every day life (several songs simply begin “Woke up this morning. . . “) with an unassuming, keen sense of detail.  Those looking for a grand rock ‘n’ roll gesture will have to wait for the Mott reunion.  Until then, settle in with the understated, but richly rewarding Man Overboard.  Don’t worry, Ian will get to the Hoople juice later.

AUGUST 2009
       
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