Letter to the Vatican

Steve Rostkoski

An Online Collection of Writings & Musings

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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.


Also read Cindy Lee Berryhill's blog:



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Greil Marcus is one of the deans of music criticism.  His book Mystery Train remains a seminal work in popular music writing.  Marcus’s essays are often wonderfully inspiring, sometimes frustratingly obtuse, but they almost always lead the reader to unexpected places and insights.  His latest book is When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.  It is not a biography of the enigmatic singer-songwriter Van Morrison, nor is it a comprehensive overview of the musician’s vast catalog that spans over forty years.  Rather, it’s a collection of Marcus’s impressions of selected songs, albums and performances throughout Morrison’s career.

The book deftly covers some of the expected highlights, such as the Astral Weeks, Into the Music and The Healing Game albums.  Fans will nod their heads in agreement at the intricate, enthusiastic assessments that Marcus grants these masterworks.  Yet Rough God is often highly personal, even idiosyncratic, as shown by the chapter that dismisses sixteen years of Morrison’s music in one fell swoop.  An outrageous conceit to be sure, but one that Marcus uses to bounce off of and examine other songs and albums that do connect with him.

Perhaps most fascinating are the buried treasures and previously unlit corners that Marcus spotlights.  There are the demos of “Madame George,” one of the cornerstones of the Astral Weeks album, tucked away among a grab bag of recordings that Morrison tossed off to fulfill an early recording contract.  Mark Knopfler’s bland Sailing to Philadelphia album from 2000 contains the song “The Last Laugh,” which Morrison manages to hijack and transform with his appearance.  Morrison also transforms the 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, when one of his songs on the soundtrack perfectly tells us everything we need to know about the story’s main character in an instant.

The 1995 movie Georgia features a Van Morrison song, too.  Georgia is about two sisters, both musicians.  Mare Winningham plays the title character, a folk singer at the peak of her career.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is Sadie, who follows a rougher path of drugs and disappointment.  OK, the story is rather trite, but one thing the movie does get right is the music.  And it doesn’t get any more right than Sadie’s performance of Morrison’s “Take Me Back.”  My wife and I thought we were the only ones on the planet who were awed by the wrecked vulnerability of Leigh’s rendition when we encountered it on film years ago.  What a surprise to find Marcus reveals this secret performance and absolutely nails what makes it so special (and better than Morrison’s own recording).

Just as “Take Me Back” is placed near the end of the movie, Marcus’s Georgia piece is one of the final entries in Rough God (clever, Greil!).  Both left me breathless, wanting to hear and read more, much like Mystery Train did decades ago. Very little music criticism affects me in such a way these days.  Greil Marcus has provided a much-needed tonic for those who wish to share and remember the exhilaration of listening not only to Van Morrison, but also to great music in general.  Buy this book, dive in and savor it.

MAY 24, 2010



It's ok... you can take a Prilosec
It's ok... you can take Vioxin
It's ok... you can get a quadruple bypass and then
Keep on...keepin' on
You are... never alone

                                             -- You Are Never Alone, 2007

You died in Athens, Georgia, your home for most of your 45 years.  A fistful of muscle relaxants put you into a coma and left your friends and family to decide to let you pass on Christmas Day.  Nice job, Vic.

I hope you’ve found peace, or whatever you were looking for, because I can’t see much good coming from your suicide.  I doubt you’re going to become the latest indie-rock Kurt Cobain.  Your profile was never that high to begin with, which certainly was no reflection on the attention your work deserved.  On the music boards I frequent, where you would think a few knowledgeable fans would be familiar with you, I’m seeing lots of “Who is this guy? Should I know him?” comments.  I’m also seeing “It must have been hell being in a wheelchair all those years” posts as well.  I counter with the fact that you battled depression even before your drunk driving accident at age 18 left you quadriplegic.  You seemed to handle being handicapped pretty well most of the time.  Why not consider your more recent struggles to get proper medical care and your mounting medical bills instead?  Press coverage of your death could help spotlight the health care crisis, I suppose.  But everyone already knows that health care is a mess, so your memory will probably be reduced to “that poor guy in a wheelchair who offed himself” for many people, regardless of what’s written.

At least your music is available for those who want to hear it.  I checked out your albums after reading that poet Stevie Smith was one of your influences.  What other songwriter cited such a literary influence?!  Like Smith, you eloquently confronted the difficult and disturbing with wicked wit. Your songs often stared down death itself and somehow elicited laughter.  When I heard you were in a coma, I pulled out my copy of your 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette and was struck by its odd beauty.  All sorts of brass, woodwinds and percussion weave through the songs, yet they sound as if they are coming from the next room, giving the album a ghostly shimmer, like some half-remembered dream.  As usual, many of the lyrics hit almost too close to the bone, such as these from “Square Room”:

Last night I nearly killed myself
Chasing rum with rum
There were crows flying all around my head
And I sure caught and ate me some

It's funny how I alienated
Those who I was trying just so
So hard to impress
Now half those fuckers hate me
And I'm just a fool to all the rest

Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?
Why do I dream about cozy coffin?
I had all these plans of great things to accomplish
But I end up purely pathetic more than often

The words are quintessential Vic Chesnutt, displaying irresistible wordplay amid utter despair.

You left over a dozen albums of pithy prose and haunting melodies, two in 2009 alone.   I haven’t heard these latest CDs yet, but when I do, now their songs will be tinged with anger and sadness over your passing, as will all my Christmases from now on.  Thanks a lot, Vic!  But then, you never did want to make things easy, did you?

DECEMBER 28, 2009



                Take your seat by the ringside
                Watch them bidding for your blood
                Who will own you tomorrow?
                Will you be misunderstood?
                Take me back to the father
                Take me, take me, take me home
                For I can't bear to feel the sorrow
                Of the evil that you've shown. . .

                            From "Ringside"
                            by Pete Ham

Pete Ham, one of the original members of the band Badfinger, wrote the above lyrics just weeks before he hanged himself early one April morning in 1975.  Only a few years before, Ham appeared to have it all.  Badfinger was one of the most successful acts signed to the Beatles' Apple label, scoring such as "No Matter What," "Baby Blue" and "Day After Day."  Paul McCartney penned their first and biggest hit single "Come and Get It."  They played at George Harrison's Concert for Bangla Desh and backed John Lennon on his Imagine album.  Singer Harry Nilsson covered one of their songs, "Without You," and turned it into a world-wide smash.  I unexpectedly found out just how influential the group was, and still is to this day, while reading the excellent book Power Pop by Ken Sharp and Doug Sulpy.  The authors interview twenty-eight of the genre's seminal acts including a recent conversation with Badfinger member Joey Molland.  It's interesting to note that nearly every band in the book that follows Badfinger cites them as an influence.  From the giants of the power pop like Big Star, Cheap Trick and Marshall Crenshaw to the more lightweight Bay City Rollers and the Knack, all say they love and respect Badfinger's music.

Despite Badfinger's fame and influence, Pete Ham died broke and in despair.  In 1983, Tom Evans, the band's bass guitarist and Ham's co-writer for "Without You," also took his own life by hanging.  What happened?

For more than two decades since the group's demise, there was virtually no place to find the answer to the question "What happened to Badfinger?"  Even when Pete Ham and Tom Evans died, press coverage was minimal at best.  However, with the release of a documentary video and the publication of a book late last year, Badfinger's story is finally told.  Or is it? . . .

Gary Katz's documentary, simply titled Badfinger, was the first to appear last summer.  Fans will find the video invaluable since it features many promotional clips and TV appearances rarely seen and not available anywhere else.  Fans can now witness the band perform "Baby Blue" on the Kenny Rogers Show (with an introduction by Kenny himself!) and really rock out on the song  "Suitcase" for The Midnight Special program.  The biggest coup of all however is the inclusion of two complete promotional videos pried from the Apple vaults.  The Beatles Anthology videos show less than a minute of the promo film for the pre-Badfinger hit "Maybe Tomorrow" recorded when the group was known as the Iveys.  Katz somehow obtained the complete clip.  The color is slightly washed out and the sound somewhat muddy compared to the fragment that appears on the Anthology (Apple obviously didn't grant access to the master copy) but it is still very good quality and is nice to have nonetheless.  The promotional short for "Day After Day" is also here.  Made in the pre-MTV age when fans got a kick out of seeing films of their favorite bands doing just about anything, viewing the video now is quaint.  It shows Badfinger strolling through woods and fields, stepping across streams and generally cavorting about in the countryside.  The footage has nothing to do with the song itself.  It's priceless!

The Badfinger documentary also features interviews the with the band's drummer Mike Gibbins and guitarist Joey Molland, as well as Joey's wife Kathie.  The conversations cover the band's early days as the Iveys and how their first manager, Bill Collins, suggests that they give the Beatles' Apple Records a try.  Apple signs the band and following the minor hit single, "Maybe Tomorrow," they change their name to Badfinger.  After their success at Apple, they find a new manager named Stan Polley who snags them a lucrative deal with Warner Brothers Records. Polley convinces the band to invest all their recording and publishing earnings into a  company he has set up called  Badfinger Enterprises Inc., saying it will save them paying taxes and enable them to retire wealthy in a few years.  In 1974 as Badfinger's second Warner Brothers album Wish You Were Here is released, the record company discovers money missing from an escrow account  and demands to know what happened to it.  After getting no answers from Polley, Warner Brothers sues Badfinger and pulls the new album off the market.  And, as you can probably guess, Polley then disappears with all the money.

As tragic as Badfinger's story is, Katz's telling of it is strangely uncompelling and flat.  Part of the problem is that the video production is often amateurish.  Nearly every time that manager Stan Polley is mentioned, the same picture of him is flashed on the screen.  This happens so many times that it becomes laughable after a while.  Katz should have done some retakes of some of the interviews as well.  For example, Joey Molland gets the names of the original Iveys wrong.  This should have been easy to fix.  Mistakes like this make the video appear rather slipshod.

The interviews themselves leave more questions unanswered than answered.  Little is revealed about the characters of Ham and Evans.  Why weren't their friends and relatives interviewed?  Kathie Molland is interviewed when Joey himself is still alive and well.  Why wasn't the band's career following Pete's death covered?  Badfinger did reform and record two albums during that time.  The performance footage makes the Badfinger video essential viewing for fans but it leaves the impression that a major part of the story remains to be told.

Enter Dan Matovina and his book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger published at the end of last year.  Without You vividly takes the reader right into the midst of the tangled Badfinger saga, sifting through the facts and recollections in an attempt to  uncover its mysteries.  There is no question that Matovina has done his homework for the book.  He conducted hundreds of interviews with virtually every person alive who worked with or knew the band.  A few notable exceptions declined to be interviewed, however.  None of the surviving Beatles would comment.  And while the affable Mike Gibbins sat for numerous interviews, Joey Molland, featured so prominently in the Gary Katz documentary, refused to talk.

Musicians getting ripped off in the music business is nothing new.  But Matovina shows that Badfinger was one its worst casualties.  Without You reveals that for nearly every good fortune that came Badfinger's way, at least three other events would usually go wrong.  Even during their Apple heyday, things rarely went smoothly for the band.  The release of the Iveys album was canceled in the U.S. and U.K. at the last minute and only came out in Japan and parts of Europe.  "No Matter What." perhaps their finest song, was initially tuned down by Apple for not sounding commercial enough.  As the Beatles lost interest in running Apple, leaving the company to slowly disintegrate, eventually Badfinger found themselves signed to a label unwilling to support them at all.  When Stan Polley came along with his promises and the Warner Brothers deal, it's no wonder the band jumped at the chance. 

But trouble came from the group and those close to them too.  Their first manager Bill Collins is portrayed in the Katz documentary as a kindly gentleman who stepped out of the picture once he found he could no longer help Badfinger's career.  Matovina shows Collins as tenaciously sticking with the band and demanding his share of the money up until the very end.  Joey Molland is just as ruthless at trying to gain control of Badfinger and grabbing the profits as well.  He's often goaded on by Kathie who is described as pushy and difficult by everyone who encounters her.  (I have a hunch that those close to Evans and Ham may have refused to be in Katz's documentary because of Joey and Kathie's participation.)  Tom Evans is shown as a basically shy man who nonetheless liked to party, and was a mean and abusive drunk.  Mike Gibbins is a laid back, easy going fellow but since he often took the brunt of Tom's anger, he has very few kind  words to say about Evans.  Pete Ham was emotionally distant, more at home by himself making music than he was being around people, but trusting to a fault.  When the other members started questioning Polley's motives, Ham would hear none of it.  Once he finally realized what Polley had done, he was crushed and saw no way out.

All this adds up to four talented people who, despite living and working closely together for years, didn't really know each other well and were unable to support and help one another when things got tough.  This is especially apparent with the steady downward spiral of drugs and depression of Tom Evans after Ham's death.  Pete's suicide took everyone by surprise but people should have seen Tom's death coming.  Evans often said that Pete was in a better place and had the right idea.  The night before he killed himself, Evans called Joey Molland.  They started arguing about how to handle Badfinger's financial problems until Evans ended the call with the threat that he was going to kill himself.  Molland appears to have just laughed the threat off.

Dan Matovina's research uncovered more than Badfinger's tragic story.  Pete Ham's song "Ringside" comes from tapes that were found by Pete's brother while Matovina was interviewing him for the book.  These solo recordings by Ham have been compiled by Matovina on the album 7 Park Avenue, titled after the house where Badfinger used to live and had a studio where the songs recorded.  The album is a good reminder of what a great songwriter Badfinger had in Pete Ham.  Many songs would have made classic Badfinger tunes.  "Catherine Cares" and "It Doesn't Really Matter" have the irresistible hooks and catchy melodies that match the group's hits.  One of the songs included among the demos did indeed become a hit.  "No Matter What" is just as engaging in it's acoustic form as it is in the full studio version.  But the most striking songs on the CD are also the most sad.  Two songs, "No More" and "Ringside" are among the last Pete recorded  It seems that even at his lowest point, Ham could still pour his heart out in his music and create magic.  "No More" is a cry for help as Pete sings:  "Empty days, sleepless nights/Have I lost the will to fight?/Someone help me back onto the road."  Yet ironically, as Matovina points out, the music is wonderfully upbeat.  It's breezy chorus and engaging melody have the makings of a pop hit.  But with "Ringside" the tune matches the betrayal and bitterness of the lyrics.  It is beautiful song but chilling when you remember the events that followed.

With "Ringside," Pete Ham sounds a warning to those wanting to enter the rock 'n' roll arena.  Without You tells the story behind the song and serves as an even stronger cautionary tale.  It's hard to believe it all started out with just four young men wanting to make music.  They went on to make some great music.  And then paid an enormous price for it.  Badfinger deserved better.
FEBRUARY 16-20, 1998


Expectations are tricky things.  A lot of the time, especially after anxiously waiting for something for a long period of time, our expectations are so impossibly high that when the real thing arrives it’s a letdown.  On the other hand, when expectations are met, or even exceeded, it can be an earthshaking, memorable event.  I remember thinking, when I finally tracked down a tape of Springsteen’s 1978 pre-Christmas Seattle show, that the concert couldn’t possibly be as great as I remembered it.  However, the tape tuned out to be a whole lot better than I ever imagined.  Even fellow tape traders who didn’t actually go to the show agreed that the performances (Bruce’s singing and guitar playing have rarely been better) and the song selection made the concert special.  I’ve been thinking about how expectations have played a role in my discovery of some of my favorite music, specifically the music of Big Star.

My expectations could not have been higher for Big Star’s music.  Around 1980, I noticed the name Big Star cropping up in the music press all the time.  Power pop bands were sprouting up everywhere and many of them were being compared to this band called Big Star, and I gathered from what I read that they were a Beatle-like cult band that put out a few albums in the seventies.  I’m an absolute sucker for Beatlesque pop if it’s done well, so I set out to find anything released by the band.  I soon found out that all of Big Star’s albums were out of print and impossible to find.  The closest I could get were albums by Alex Chilton, former member of the Box Tops and one of the founders of Big Star, but they were expensive imports and I wasn’t sure if they were a good place to start.  Reviews of his concerts and LPs at the time said they were drunken, sloppy affairs and every write-up seemed to say that Chilton’s best work was behind him.  Of course this best work they were talking about was the music of Big Star.  The music I could not find anywhere on the face of the earth.

Finally, after at least six years of searching (with my expectations rising all the while) a small American label released Big Star’s third and final album called Sister Lovers.  The album was recorded in 1974 and never completed, but various record companies around the world had released their own versions of the album using the tapes.  Sister Lovers could almost be considered a Chilton solo album since at this point the band had deteriorated down to only Alex and drummer Jody Stephens.  This was sure a strange place to start my journey into Big Star’s music, with an unfinished work by just two members of the group.  And to top it off, my pressing of the record was awful.

Well, I ended up adding a whole new layer of noise to it since I wore the damn thing out!  Sister Lovers is darkly beautiful, not unlike the Velvet Underground’s third album (the Velvets comparison is really quite obvious since Alex covers their “Femme Fatale”).  There are traces of power pop on songs like “Kizza Me” and “Jesus Christ,” but most of the album is made up of bleak ballads like “Holocaust” and “Big Black Car.”  The whole thing is more reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Berlin than anything like the Beatles, which sure confounded my expectations at the time, but Sister Lovers got me hooked on Big Star anyway.

It seemed like the Big Beat label in England was just waiting to satisfy my hunger for more Big Star, because they reissued the band’s first two records only a few months after I found Sister Lovers.  I snapped them up immediately.  I remember strapping on the headphones and putting #1 Record on the turntable for the first time and my jaw dropping in wonder a short time later.  I can only recall a few times previously or since that I’ve been so floored by music so wonderful.  I am still awed by the beauty of “The Ballad of El Goodo,” which just happens to be playing at the very moment I write this.  The gentle “hold on” refrain and the tuneful guitar riffs always get to me.

#1 Record is the cause of all the comparisons to the Beatles.  This is mostly because it is the only album that band cofounder Chris Bell was heavily involved with and his approach was more smooth and melodic than Chilton’s rough-edged style.  Beatle influences certainly abound but I hear traces of other British too, especially on the song “In the Street,” which sounds like a marriage of the early Kinks and Who at their most powerful.

As good as #1 Record is, The next Big Star release, Radio City, is even better and is one of my all-time favorite records.  Chris Bell had left the band by this time because of conflicts with Alex and frustration over the lack of success of the first album, so on this second album Chilton is more in charge.  The sound is predictably rougher, led by Alex’s distinctive guitar, which is somehow incredibly distorted and clear at the same time.  The songs are still melodic (I can’t think of a more melodic tune than “September Gurls”) but are more unpredictable.  “Daisy Glaze” for example starts off soft and slow then kicks into overdrive with the best guitar hooks this side of Badfinger’s “No Matter What.”  These two records are only about 35 minutes each, so I played them back to back the first day I got them and have done so ever since.  I recommend that you do the same, especially now that both albums are now available on one CD.

I’m a little envious of people who are just discovering Big Star today since all their stuff has been reissued on CD and is easily found.  Ah well, this music deserved to be heard, so what am I complaining about?  Rykodisc not only issued an expanded version of Sister Lovers a few years ago, they also released a live radio broadcast of the band from the early seventies, and Chris Bell’s solo work.  The live album is wonderful enough (The rockers are tougher, the ballads more tender than on the studio albums), but the real surprise is Bell’s I Am the Cosmos collection.  His work on #1 Record only hints at the pop greatness found here.  Like Big Star’s first record, Beatles/Who/Kinks influences are apparent, but the songs seem more distinctive and focused on Chris’s own album.  The title track is a classic bit of psychedelic Lennonism that could’ve, should’ve been a hit single.  With the song “Speed of Sound,” Bell somehow makes the cheesy synthesizer sound that was so popular in the seventies heartbreaking, and I melt each and every time I hear it.  I Am the Cosmos received good reviews when it came out but I doubt that very many people heard it.  You don’t even have to wait years to hear it like I did, so check it out as soon as you can.  It will live up to your expectations, I promise.

“I Am the Cosmos “ is also the highlight of the new live album made from the Big Star reunion concert that took place last year.  Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens got together with two members of the Posies to play the music that Chilton has all but refused to perform for over a decade.  Chris Bell was killed in a car crash in 1978 but this version of “Cosmos” is so nice that I’ve got to believe he can hear it as he floats about the cosmos himself.  Sure, the performances are a bit rough and bumpy in spots, but they play most of the Big Star songs that you would want to hear plus a couple of covers (T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut”).  A fan’s expectations met again.

In the song “Thirteen” on #1 Record, Chilton evokes the magic that music held for people who grew up in the sixties.  A new song by the Beatles or Stones wasn’t just a new record release, it was an event.  An event that maybe could change the world.  Yeah, music could change the world, right?  Well, I’m older now and more realistic but that doesn’t mean music can no longer be magical.  I am still floored whenever I listen to Big Star.  Every single time I put on their music, I’m truly amazed at how great it is.  All my expectations fulfilled.  Every impossible time.




. . .Something in the experience of putting the songs together got inside me.  It’s the feeling of setting right a twenty-year-old injustice.  A feeling I’d made an album that was not just better, it was more correct, closer to some kind of absolute truth.

I’ve rewritten rock ‘n’ roll history using my own tape deck.  Really, I have.  I’m not too fond of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA album.  Many of the lyrics are trite and obvious, while musically a lot of the songs are simplistic to the point of tedium.  The LP represented the first time Bruce had let me down.  And to add insult to injury, by collecting bootleg tapes, I was able to hear the songs Springsteen chose to leave off the album, and in many cases they turned out to be much better than those released.  A couple of these eventually turned up as b-sides of singles, but the knowledge of all this great material left unused when the official album was so weak frustrated me no end.  Since Bruce hadn’t called me to produce the record originally, I did the next best thing.  I made my own tape of how I thought the album should have been sequenced using mostly unreleased material, along with a handful of released songs.  I then got rid of my official Born in the USA album and never looked back.  (Well, hardly ever.  I’m looking back now, aren’t I?)  The preparation and completion of the tape was strangely satisfying.  It was almost as if I had righted an historical wrong single-handedly.

Lewis Shiner’s novel Glimpses takes this idea of rewriting rock ‘n’ roll events one step further.  Ray Shackleford is a 37-year-old stereo repairman who loves music with a passion, especially the music of the sixties.  One day, he puts his scratchy, old copy of the Beatles’ Let It Be album on his turntable and starts wondering how the album would have turned out if the Beatles had not been bickering at the time.  What if the tapes hadn’t been turned over to Phil Spector, and their long-time producer George Martin really worked on the album, rather than simply watching the band disintegrate before his eyes?  Ray even imagines that John Lennon added a characteristically edgy new middle eight to “The Long and Winding Road” to offset Paul McCartney’s syrupy romanticism.  Suddenly, Ray realizes the version of the song that he has been hearing in his head is coming out of his stereo speakers.  To prove to himself that he is not going crazy, he records the song on his tape deck and plays the tape for others, including the president of a maverick record company.  Graham Hudson, a no-bullshitting paraplegic who loves to take risks, agrees to release Ray’s tape and convinces him to imagine other great unreleased albums from the past.  Once Ray starts to work on these projects however, he find he may actually be changing past events and transforming the present as well.

I found Shiner’s book a magical experience.  This is my Field of Dreams.  And the funny thing is, I’m not particularly close much of the music used for Ray’s magical mystery tour.  The Doors mean nothing to me, but enough background information was provided about the group’s work and a fan’s perspective presented so eloquently, that I followed Ray willingly into the Lizard King’s lair.  I like some of Jimi Hendrix’s music, although I wouldn’t call myself a fan, yet the climax of the story involving Jimi was fascinating and heartbreaking.

Before I became a recent convert to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, I never cared much for their music.  Glimpses offers the best case that I’ve encountered, other than the LP itself, for why the Beach Boys should not be dismissed and why Brian Wilson is most likely a musical genius.  Ray’s encounter with Wilson is extremely moving and may present a fairly accurate portrait of the troubled artist.  Music journalist Paul Williams has described a 1966 visit he had with Brian and Ray’s visit seems to be modeled after it.  [Author’s note: Williams later told me Shiner wasn’t familiar with the visit when he wrote the book.]  Williams found his way to Brian’s house after Pet Sounds had been released,  Wilson was then in the process of working on what he himself called his crowning achievement, an album titled simply Smile.  Everyone, including Williams, who had the privilege of hearing the test pressings of some of the tracks agreed that it could possibly be Wilson’s finest work.  But Smile was never finished.  Brian’s increasing drug use and deteriorating mental state prevented it from being completed.  It gets finished and released in Shiner’s book.  And in a nice twist of fate, it also has been released in real life last year.  Well, kind of.  Thirty-five minutes of the Smile sessions is included on the Beach Boys box set.  I have not heard it yet, but by all accounts it’s a classic, albeit in an unfinished form.  I’m actually considering buying the set.

I never thought I’d purchase a Beach Boys box but the magic of Glimpses has rubbed off on me.  Glimpses affected me the way great music has done.  Its enthusiasm and love of music is contagious.  If music is in your soul, you will find a lot of yourself in this book.  If you’ve had to come to terms with your own broken dreams and wonder what could have been, you’ll find that here too.  I know I did.

Music is easy.  It isn’t even important what the words say.  The real meaning is in the guitars and drums, the way a record sounds.  It’s a feeling bigger than the words could ever be.  A guy named Paul Williams said that, or something close to it, and I believe it’s true.




It's funny how many different ways music can find you.  Sometimes music falls into your life like a meteor from the sky.  Pavement's album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain certainly took me by surprise in this way.  I wasn't particularly looking to get into any new music at the time I found the album.  I just decided to buy the CD only because I couldn't find anything else real exciting in the store and  I vaguely remembered reading something about  Pavement in the music press.   When I got home and put Crooked Rain  on, it totally blindsided me.  Here was a band that was sticking its tongue out at a lot of the rock 'n' roll conventions (you're not supposed to put down your musical peers like that, are you?) and yet at the same time still carrying on many of it's traditions.  Pavement may be saying "good night to the rock 'n' roll era" but one listen to all the great hooks and riffs and, well, their music speaks louder than their words, I think.  I love the contradictions.  I love the album.  Other times, music can just come around and visit you like an old friend.  Bruce Cockburn is someone I've been listening to for quite some time now and I was lucky enough to be able to see several of his shows in the past few months.  I really like the musicians he's playing with now.  Bruce has made his past jazz influences a little less obvious and has pointed his sound towards a more guitar and organ driven r &b style.  It kind of reminds me of that  "wild mercury sound" of  Blonde On Blonde.  This sound was hinted at on his Nothing But a Burning Light album but I think Bruce has really nailed it in his recent shows and on his new one called Dart to the Heart.  These songs aim for the heart and hit their target.  Bruce's love songs are usually tender but mature, and never flinch from the realities of relationships.  When my wife and I got married, part of the music we chose for our ceremony was a Cockburn song and it is the one song that we would still chose today.  Now, after over eleven years of marriage, his song still  reflects our life together.  And with Dart to the Heart, we have a whole new batch of songs to live the rest of our lives with.  A generous gift from a long time friend.

Arthur Alexander's music entered my life with a note of both meteoric surprise and friendly familiarity.  I'd grown up with the Beatles' version of his song "Anna" and had heard the Rolling Stones' cover of "You Better Move On" but it wasn't until almost two decades later that I came across  a collection of Arthur's songs performed by Arthur himself.  I originally picked  the LP up out of curiosity just to be able to hear some of the music that influenced the Beatles.  And yes, it's quite obvious that John Lennon learned something about vocal phrasing and song writing by listening to Arthur's records.  The similarities are really sometimes quite striking.  But I soon got past listening to Alexander for purely  historical reasons and fell in love with his unique blend of country and soul.  His songs are like a combination of the emotion found in the music of Hank Williams and the grittiness of Otis Redding.  His lyrics are full of sadness and heartbreak, while the  melodies ache with loneliness.  Ultimately though, Arthur's songs aren't depressing but turn out to be rather uplifting.  Part of the reason for this may be that Arthur could write a hell of a middle eight, both lyrically and musically, that lift many of his songs to near perfection.  (You know what I'm talking about.  Listen to the "All of my life...." section in "Anna" again sometime.)   Or it could be,  like listening to Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", a song of such utter loneliness, so beautiful that it fills you with awe and wonder, that Arthur's songs are so full of feeling,  the sheer emotion of them leaves you feeling rejuvenated.

Perhaps it's this emotional purity that makes Arthur Alexander's music excellent material for other artists to cover.  It's as if all the heart and soul is there waiting for another creative being to take it and make   their own.   A tribute album was waiting to happen using his songs and one is finally here.  It's called Adios Amigo and it's a joy to listen to. There is a remarkable consistency to most of the performances despite the diversity of the performers.   Roger McGuinn tackles  "Anna" as the opening track and it sounds exactly as I imagined it would, with those shimmering twelve string guitar riffs, of course, along with Roger's frail but effective vocal.  Elvis Costello turns in a raunchy solo take of  "Sally Sue Brown", while Robert Plant does a surprisingly soulful "If It's Really Got to Be This Way".   The songs chosen by the artists to cover are quite often a perfect match.  Graham Parker's "Every Day I Have to Cry Some"  would have sounded right at home on some of his early albums and "Lonely Just Like Me" fits John Prine's self deprecating style nicely.  Another joy about this album, especially if you are already lucky enough to be familiar with Arthur's music, is that it contains several previously unheard songs.  One of these is "Let's Think About It", which is a gentle twist on one of Bob Dylan's best known gospel tunes, performed by Sir Mack Rice and Michael Hill.  Where Bob sternly warns us that we've "gotta serve somebody", Arthur extends a helping hand and kindly asks us to think about whom we're serving.  The tune is precisely the type of pounding gospel that Bob tore into during his religious shows and, in fact, would be a great song for him to cover even now.

As good as Adios Amigo is, it does start to run low on energy near the end.  A major cause for this derailment is "From Now On", recorded here for the first time by "Italian superstar" Zucchero.  I think I can detect a good song underneath the stiff, soulless vocals and sterile synthesizer wash but this is the one time that the beauty of Arthur's song cannot shine through.  A few more songs follow, including a pair of fun duets.  The unlikely partnership of Frank Black and Gary U.S. Bonds provide a rollicking version of  "Go Home Girl", while Felix Cavaliere and "Veronica of The Ronettes fame" (This has got to be Ronnie Spector under her given name.  I mean, who else can sound like Ronnie?) team up for the spirited "I Love You So".   By this time though, the momentum is lost and it doesn't help that the album lacks a really strong ending.  The title song ends Adios Amigo and  it is performed by two old friends of Arthur's, Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts.  Arthur died last year just as he was making a comeback after he had given up on music for the last fifteen years, so the  performance does make a fitting and touching good-bye to him.  Unfortunately, it is not one of Arthur's better songs.  It's too bad that John Lennon, one of Arthur's biggest fans, couldn't have been around for this album.  I could imagine him jumping at the chance to finally record "Soldier of Love", a song the Beatles used to cover in their early days.  Now that would have been a great conclusion to this mostly wonderful tribute.

There is another album  that could also be seen as a  tribute of sorts to Arthur Alexander, though it is not as readily apparent as Adios Amigo is.   Alejandro Escovido's Thirteen Years CD is dedicated to Arthur and after listening to the music itself, I can say that the two Alexanders share more than just a name.  Escovido also uses country and soul together to create an emotional landscape of remarkable beauty.  He uses straight ahead rock 'n' roll too, along with some classical music influences.  All of these various elements mixed together make Thirteen Years one of the best and most unusual musical experiences I've had in a long time.  It took me a while to grasp the character of the album.  Every time I listened to it, my perception of the music would shift.  One time the album would sound like a collection of moody string backed ballads, and the next time it would come across like a bunch of Stones-like rockers.  I can't remember if I've encountered an album before that changed so much with each listening.  After playing the CD countless times, and liking it more and more each time I might add, I may have figured out at least part of the secret of how Escovido is able to make his work so chameleon-like.  The album begins with the first of several instrumental variations on the title track which serve as bridges between a number of the songs.  One variation is played by a string quartet, another by a solo harp and the remaining two are solo piano performances.  A device like this has the potential to be pretentious but in Escovido's hands it is a marvelously subtle idea that gives the album its own personality.  If I hadn't looked at the song listing I would not have known that these instrumental pieces were variations on a theme, since they flow in and out of the songs so easily.  I think because these meditative themes are spread throughout the entire album, they give the impression that Thirteen Years is a quieter work than it really is.  Upon closer listening, the harder, sharper edges of many of the songs start poking through  and, interestingly enough, you discover that even some of the rock and blues tunes feature a string section.  Contradictions again, and like on Crooked Rain,  I love them.

With the first "Thirteen Years Theme", a gently plucked harp evokes the first rays of a morning sunrise and, sure enough, the opening lines in the next song "Ballad of the Sun and the Moon" are:   "The day started out like any other day/The sun rising/There was always the sun."  Escovido's lyrics are simple, precise sketches that create images by using a few direct words.  These first few lines give you the feeling that you are about to start a new day and discover all that it has in store for you.  You soon find out that the  journey may be a dark one however.  "Can you hear the cannons and the fighting?" Alejandro asks.  "Can you feel the soldiers and their marching?/They came, they took my sister away/They came and the took her away."  In the next song "Try Try Try", a war continues in a more internal sense.  As the bluesy melody stumbles along like a drunk trying to climb stairs, the narrator admits to his friend  that he is "spinning 'round in circles" but swears he's "gonna get it right" someday.  His friend, who has obviously heard all of this before,  tells him "You can crawl across the floor till your knees do bleed/(But) there's no dignity 'cause anyone can bleed."  You know this guy is going to be crawling and spinning in circles for the rest of his life.  My favorite song on the album is "Way It Goes", which could be viewed as an expansion of the friend's point of view in "Try Try Try".  Despite the title and the chorus of  "that's just the way it goes", the song isn't fatalistic at all.  The song begins by showing us a motherless child and a father who has lost his lover, two people who have obviously experienced a loss, then goes on to say that sometimes  loss isn't always as apparent.  The old cliché of knowing that you have hit bottom in your life once you've lost everything doesn't apply here.  I think what Escovido is saying is that there are some people living what look like normal lives but who are really lost souls, sometimes by their own choosing:    "Throw a penny into the Indian ocean/And jump right in/Three wise men can tap you on the shoulder/You jump right in."   But one shouldn't give up just because they are foolish enough to jump into the ocean.  The last verse says   "You've made your choice now live with it/It's all you've got....Well, that's the way it goes."  Sure it's simple advice but in the context of the song, these words are wise and somehow comforting.  The folk melody used to back the lyrics of "Way It Goes" lopes along like someone peacefully walking through life, yet the ambient guitar lines, played by Turner Steven Bruton, wind around it as if they were barbed wire waiting to snare the person.  Just like the unforeseen events in life.  Well, that's the way it goes.....

There is lots more here:  Both "Losing Your Touch" and "Mountain of Mud" are fine barroom rockers, "Helpless" is a slinky Tom Waitsian shuffle and the surrealistic "She Towers Above" wouldn't have been out of place on Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom.  But I'll leave the rest for you to discover for yourself.  With Thirteen Years, another meteor has fallen into my life.  Heads up, everyone!




Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg & Wilco
Strangest Places by Abra Moore
River Under the Road by Ana Egge & live at the Central Market Café, Austin, TX
World In a Drop of Water by Michael Fracasso

                So come back Woody Guthrie
                Come back to us now
                Tear your eyes from paradise
                And rise again somehow

                        From "Christmas In Washington"
                            by Steve Earle

Well, Mr. Earle, Woody has risen, although he sounds a little different from the way we all remember him. 

Like most Americans, I first heard about Woody Guthrie in grade school.  His song "This Land Is Your Land" was a staple of nearly every music class and school assembly that I attended in the first six years of my education.  I remember that it's simple, rolling melody was fun to sing and liking the way Woody's words flowed off the tongue.  The powerful, stark imagery of the "endless skyway,"  "diamond deserts" and "wheat fields waving" really did make me feel in awe of this land's wonders. It is no surprise that the song is still considered by many to be America's unofficial national anthem.

Years after my grade school days, I read Joe Klien's definitive biography on the folksinger titled Woody Guthrie: A Life and learned that "This Land Is Your Land" was much more than a stirring patriotic tune.  The song, originally titled "God Blessed America," included a few verses that I never learned in school:

            Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
            A sign was painted said: Private Property
            But on the back side, it didn't say nothing--
            God blessed America for me.

            One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
            By the relief office I saw my people
            As they stood there hungry I stood there wondering if
            God blessed America for me.

So not only did the song extol America's vast beauty and freedoms, it was also a bold statement about how some of its people feel that this land wasn't made for them.  In this light, "This Land Is Your Land" is an ironic and proud statement that teaches a far more valuable lesson about America than the censored version I sang as a kid.

Just as there is more to Woody's most famous song than meets the ear, Joe Klien's book  shows Woody Guthrie himself as more complex and interesting than his already colorful public image.  Guthrie's legend as a hobo who traveled around the country, singing his songs about the hard times of the working poor that he met along the way, is only part of his story.  His wanderlust may have taken its toll on three marriages, but few know Guthrie wrote many touching (and often very sensual) love letters and songs.  He also had a wonderful child-like innocence making it easy for him to relate to children.  Many children's songs came out of the silly word-play he often traded with his young daughter Cathy Ann, nicknamed "Stackabones" just because he liked the way it sounded.  (When Cathy Ann tragically died in a house fire shortly after her fourth birthday, Woody never recovered from the loss.)   

It's time to rejoice.  Not only is Woody Guthrie: A Life about to be republished early next year, a very special album called Mermaid Avenue now brings another side of Guthrie to light as well.  Besides his recorded material, Guthrie wrote lyrics to over two thousand more songs. Unfortunately, the lyrics are all that remain.  The accompanying melodies, never written down and kept only in Woody's head, were lost forever with his death from the hereditary disease Huntington's chorea in 1967.  In 1995, Woody's daughter Nora, proprietor of the Woody Guthrie Archives, asked British folksinger Billy Bragg and alternative country rockers Wilco to write and perform new music for some of Guthrie's lost songs.  The result is Mermaid Avenue and it is  isightful, unpretentious, often playful and even flirtatious, just like the man Joe Klien portrays in his book.      

There is little of the Grapes of Wrath characterization of Woody on Mermaid Avenue, which is as refreshing as it is eye-opening.  These "new" songs take him out of the role of cultural icon and make Guthrie more human.  Instead of a dust bowl wanderer, the album shows Guthrie more as a philosophical urban dweller.  The album's title comes from the Coney Island neighborhood where Guthrie and his family lived in the late forties.  Many of the album's songs were written at the Brooklyn household and from the very first song, the influence of city life is apparent. 

Billy Bragg starts the album with the playful stumble of "Walt Whitman's Niece."  The lyrics relate what happened when Guthrie and a friend spent an evening with two city women.  Bragg's music is as loose and wily as Guthrie's storytelling.  The call and response arrangement enhances the way Woody coyly reveals details about the visit then quickly attempts to take them back ("I recall a door, a big long room/I'll not tell which room/I remember a deep blue rug/But I can't say which rug").  Bragg's laconic delivery and the drunken-sounding chorus that answers him make an already sly tale even more humorous.  The fact that Billy Bragg is such an open and personable performer also helps bring Woody Guthrie's words to life.  Nora knew what she was doing when she hand-picked Billy Bragg to present her father's songs. 

The wistful "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" shows Guthrie in a reflective mood as he remembers an innocent childhood encounter with a female playmate.  Bragg once again shines with a performance that recreates the dreamy feeling of memory and the lazy summer days of youth.  Natalie Merchant chimes in on backing vocals, adding to the sense of shared child-like wonder and mischievousness.  Woody's curiosity about the opposite sex blooms into full blown admiration in "She Came Along to Me."  Under Bragg's musical guidance, Guthrie's honest expression of love, which changes into an unexpected plea for equality of the sexes and a wish for world peace, is a nifty little pop/rock number with a chorus that can't be beat.  Woody Guthrie as alternative folk-rocker?  In Billy Bragg's hands, he wears the genre well.

The band Wilco is one of the originators of the alternative country genre and also fits right into the spirit of Mermaid Avenue.  While Billy Bragg leans towards songs that tell a story or make a statement (much like his own work), Jeff Tweedy of Wilco provides contrast by choosing songs that are more emotional mood pieces.  The toe-tapping, folky "California Stars" is a simple declaration of love for a companion and nature:

            They hang like grapes on vines that shine
            And warm the lover's glass like friendly wine
            So, I'd give this world just to dream a dream with you
            On our bed of California Stars

Equally as beautiful are the two ballads "At My Window Sad and Lonely" and "One By One."  In the tradition of countless old folk tunes, "Sad and Lonely" has the narrator longing for a lover who has traveled across the sea and wondering if their love will survive.  The pretty unadorned acoustic guitar work makes the song especially memorable.  On "One By One," Tweedy's sober vocal and the quiet piano backing are weary and tender all at once, as Guthrie's prose laments the passage of time ("One by one the days are slipping up behind you/One by one the sweetest days of life go by") but ends with the belief that love will prevail ("One by one I hope you'll say the words to marry/One by one to one by one forever be").

It would be difficult to call "Hoodoo Voodoo" a love song, even though it does include "huggles" and "kissles."  "Hoodoo" is one of Guthrie's playful children's songs, full of non sequiturs to make kids and adults alike giggle.  But just because it's a children's song doesn't mean  that Wilco takes the tune lightly.   Rather, they give it their all with a wild merry-go-round rock 'n' roll arrangement, with Tweedy shouting himself hoarse serving up lines like, "Hot breeze, old cheese/Slicky slacky fishy tails."  It is a fun rocker, reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," only much more light-hearted.  (Dylan, of course, is one of Woody's disciples.)

Mermaid Avenue is a one of a kind effort.  It doesn't try to resurrect a ghost, like the Beatles did when they recorded with John Lennon's old tapes, and it is not the usual formal, over-respectful tribute album either.  The songs fit the artists so well that there are times when you'll swear that you're listening to a brand new Billy Bragg or Wilco album.  Yet Woody Guthrie is far from overshadowed here.  His flair for words and irrepressible spirit remain at the center of the music, making Mermaid Avenue feel like a true collaboration.  Almost as if Woody never left us.


The spirit of Badfinger also lives on, it seems.  You may recall that Badfinger's "No Matter What" is one of my favorite songs of all time.  The soaring melody and energy of the British group's 1970 hit can't be beat.  Artists like Big Star and Aimee Mann have come close to capturing its excitement but few songs give me such a charge as  "No Matter What" still does.  There is nothing like a few well placed power chords to go along with an unforgettable melody.

Well, I should have known.  Once again Austin, Texas has surprised me and spawned another musical discovery.  Her name is Abra Moore.  I hear her videos have gotten some airplay on MTV and VH1 and that she even received a Grammy Award nomination this year.  Since I usually don't pay much attention to such media details,  I bought her album titled Strangest Places on the recommendations of several musicians and music fans.  To my surprise, listening to the album was like turning on the radio in 1972 and hearing those crunching guitar chords again for the first time.  In other words, Badfinger revisited.  It brought back the chills of excitement that make me want to turn up the music as loud as it will go.

Even though Strangest Places features an overall power pop feeling, with Moore's sweetly energetic vocals and Mitch Watkins' crunchy guitar taking center stage, it is still a varied collection of tunes.  "Four Leaf Clover" bops along nervously, reflecting Moore's anxious state of mind as she sings, "My mind is always racing/My body's on overload/You've got my heart in the middle of a feeling/I've got no place to go."  The lopsided waltz of "Your Faithful Friend" with its soothing clarinet fills, is as reasuring as its lyrical bridge:  "You see, it's all about hope, so don't lose sight now/It's all about faith, so don't give up on me/It's all about trust, I'm lifting you up, I'm holding you safe/Under my wing."  In "Happiness," Abra wonders how a once happy relationship has led to such pain.  Fellow Austinite Jimmy LaFave helps Moore through her ordeal with some warm harmonies on the chorus of the bittersweet ballad.   

But best of all is "Never Believe You Now."  I like everything about this song.  It's perfection.  I wish it were a hit single so I could hear every time I turn on the radio, just like I did with my favorite songs back when radio was worth listening to.  "Never Believe You Now" has a huge ringing guitar introduction that sounds like what "No Matter What" might have become if producer Phil Spector had given it his "Wall of Sound" treatment.  The chiming guitar cadences on the bridge recall Big Star at their best too.  These are just the type of hooks that capture me immediately.  And then there's Abra's great vocal performance.  Moore's voice communicates all the anger, bitterness and ultimately,  the triumph of the lyrics, which are about all the fanciful promises told to her by a lover and how she walks away from them.  My favorite vocal happening comes during the instrumental break when Moore tosses out some simple "hey hey hey"s. Her almost off-handed vocal phrasing here speaks volumes.  It sounds as if she's telling her lover, "Hey, hold on a minute.  What are you doing to me?" and also telling herself, "Hey, it's gonna be OK.  Settle down."  

Realization and reassurance conveyed by the repitition of one word.  Such clarity is what  I search for in music.  It doesn't happen often but when it does, watch out!  Thanks, Abra, for taking me to your Strangest Places.


Music takes my mind to many strange and wonderful places but sometimes I have to take my body elsewhere too.  When the library where I work closed down for a month this summer, I used the mandatory vacation time to go to Austin, Texas for a few days.  There is nothing like hearing great music first hand in one of my favorite places in the world for the ultimate nourishment for the body and soul.  And it just so happened that Ana Egge, one of the artists whose music I've been listening to lately, was playing in town the weekend of my visit. 

Listening to Ana Egge, it sounds as if she has traveled the world and lived many lives.  Her debut album River Under the Road tells many stories.  The album's songs not only recall a carefree childhood in the frosty wintertime of the Dakotas ("Dakota"), they also observe a woman getting sucked into the dark side of stardom ("Fairest of Them All") and portray the bitterly hard life of a coal miner ("Made of Iron").  There is a seasoned maturity to Egge's work that belies her age of twenty-one years.

Her depth and versatility were even more striking when I saw Egge perform solo on the back deck of the Central Market Cafe on a warm August  evening in Austin.  Her original material reminds me of Bruce Cockburn's early work, with melodies full of folk, country, blues and jazz influences and lyrics brimming with rich details that put you right in the storyteller's shoes.  But her choice of cover tunes in concert also displayed Egge's diverse talents.  She can wrap her deep, warm voice and deft finger picking around a Mississippi John Hurt blues number just as easily as she can take on a pop tinged Ron Sexsmith tune.  Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me" is a challenge for any vocalist.  John Lennon is one of the only few performers to equal (some might say surpass) Robinson's stunning performance.  Ana Egge's rousing version that I heard in Austin easily placed her on the short list with Lennon of those who can take on Smokey's song and conquer it.  Hearing her throw herself into such a classic and make it her own was the biggest surprise of the show.

Another in concert surprise occurred when Egge played a song written by a friend of hers.  "Tin Foil Satellite" by Lee Barber echoes the beautiful late night loneliness of Tom Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night" which is another favorite of mine.  Barber's tune and Ana's performance of it entranced me.  After the show, I told Egge how much I liked the song and, to my amazement, she then offered to take me to see Lee and Elaine Barber perform at a living room sized club called Flipnotics later that same evening.  The Barbers were terrific.  Imagine the bluesiness of Waits infused with some of Randy Newman's irreverent wit.  So not only did I get a generous helping of Ana Egge music on this night, I also made another wonderful musical discovery, thanks to her. 

Making connections, going different places, meeting new people, whether in my mind or physically.  This is another reason I love music.  One thing leads to another as long as you keep your eyes and ears open.                         


Yes, you never can tell which of life's little details will collide and end up surprising you.

On a previous visit to Austin, I attended the 1997 Austin Music Awards and one of the highlights of the evening was a short but intense set by the Charlie Sexton Sextet.  The songs I heard them play at the Austin Music Hall that night were richly textured with one unexpected hook after the other, each one taking the music to new heights.  After witnessing their performance, I had no choice but to hunt down a copy of Sextet's last album, 1995's Under the Wishing Tree, which more than lives up to the promise of the live show.  With a running time of over an hour (longer than the Awards performance), it covers everything from weary folk ("Ugly All Day") and upbeat Cajun stomp ("Sunday Clothes"), to hard driving blues ("Railroad"), Tex-Mex flavored ballads ("Spanish Words") and soaring epic rock and roll ("Everyone Will Crawl").  All this is wrapped up in ghostly swampy sound similar to what Daniel Lanois conjured up on Dylan's Time Out of Mind album.  Wishing Tree is an awesome, sprawling masterpiece.

A few months later, I picked up an album by another Austin musician named Michael Fracasso.  When I Lived In the Wild, also released in 1995, showcases Fracasso's exceptional singing and songwriting abilities.   His high clear voice is an intriguing blend of the vocal styles of both Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.  And the combination of pretty folk-based melodies with a touch of sixties pop influence and deeply personal lyrics make Fracasso's songs wonderfully evocative.  I knew Fracasso was someone that I had to keep an ear on.

When I learned that Michael Fracasso was playing at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin earlier this year, I knew I had to go see him.  While waiting for his show to begin, I read in the SXSW program guide that Fracasso had just released a new album called World in a Drop of Water, produced by -- get this -- Charlie Sexton.  Wow!  What a combination!  I couldn't believe it.  As I was expressing my surprise at learning this news to the person next to me, they asked me, "Is that Charlie on stage now?"  I turned and looked and there was Charlie Sexton setting up a drum kit.  Even though Sexton is known as an Austin guitar legend, there he was playing drums behind Michael.  He, Fracasso and the rest of the band proceeded to rip through a selection of songs from Drop of Water.  The new material had a leaner sound, packing more punch than Fracasso's previous album, reminding me of the mysterious, bare-bones attack of Sexton's work.  Sexton's penchant for experimenting with unusual instrumentation was also evident as a cello player sat in on a few of the songs and added a unique sorrowful dimension to the music.  I left the concert stunned.  Before I left Austin, I made sure I stopped off at Waterloo Records and bought a copy of the new album.

As beguiling as Fracasso's earlier work is, World in a Drop of Water digs deeper, takes more risks and is all the better for it.  A prime example of the album's challenging approach is the song "Jar of Pennies," which begins with a tender harmonica solo straight out of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman."  The mood abruptly changes to something darker as Fracasso's haunting voice enters and the melody abruptly shifts to a minor key.  Like the music, the lyrics also go to unusual places.  They tell a sort of love story that takes place amid the empty lives of an urban couple.  "Oh my love she has a jar of pennies/On her bedside table/She never gets enough/Someday I think I ought to steal one/She'd probably never notice/But who has the time."  The dream-like pump organ and piano arrangement makes this simple slice of life scene somehow touching and a little spooky at the same time.  The mood seems to brighten as Fracasso reaches the song's bridge.  The prettiness of the introduction returns but it belies the bleak landscape of Fracasso's words:  "Acres and acres of old broken down cars/This one's a Chevy/That one's a Dodge."   The juxtaposition of the gritty imagery framed by such a beautiful melody is unsettling but these collisions in style are what make Fracasso's new songs so memorable.

Even the more upbeat numbers on World in a Drop of Water don't shy away from the harsh realities of life.  In "Chain-Link Fence,"  Fracasso cautions that if you "keep all trouble out" by building a fence around your heart, you will also soon be "all alone with time to kill."   The catchy chorus warns of the potential risks brought about by an unfenced heart:  "But oh bad things might happen to you/They always do/Oh bad things might happen to you/If you wish them true."  It is easy to start singing along before realizing that the lyrics aren't exactly reassuring.    Once again, Fracasso leaves the listener feeling slightly uneasy, even if "Chain-Link Fence" rocks along so effortlessly that uneasiness has rarely been so exhilarating.

"Started On the Wrong Foot" is also a fun tune that, in a perfect world, would be an ideal pick for radio airplay.  The music blasts off with a the adrenaline rush of Bruce Springsteen's anthem "Born to Run."  While Springsteen's lovers romantically chase their dreams by taking to the road, Fracasso humorously shows a couple well past the romantic dream of love:  "Maybe I went a bit to far/Should have never made that crack/About you being just like your mother/It's too late to take it back/Then it all explodes on the number fourteen bus/Heaven knows they don't like me very much."  Notice how Fracasso's song is so true to life that he doesn't even give his lovers a car to zoom off in as Springsteen does in "Born to Run."   He has them riding the city bus instead!

The album's finest moment arrives with the song "Marie" which is another portrayal of a love affair.  Like a great novel, the very first lines immediately grab your attention:  "On the road to Los Angeles/He fell in love with a dancer/Who shed her clothes at the drop of a hat. . ."  Fracasso sets off each line with a couple of dramatic but wistful guitar chords, preparing you for a love story of epic proportions.  The stage is set with a gently plucked acoustic guitar backed by some eerie notes from an organ and electric guitar, as the man who fell for the dancer begins his story. 

By simply sketching out a few situations and images, Fracasso makes you slowly realize that there is something terribly wrong with this relationship.  The narrator first asks, "Oh Marie, why'd you take the loose change from my pockets?"  Evidently, Marie is stealing from him.  Even worse, he then says, ". . .the baby is crying for his milk/Oh Marie, tears fall down his fat cheeks soft as silk."  Now we find that there is an innocent child involved.  This is a  heartbreaking revelation.  Why isn't he being fed?  The answer lies in the last verse as the man implores, "Oh Marie, don't return to the belly of the beast. . ." and goes on to ask, "But who's the poet who feels no pain/And who's the miner who found his vein/Of gold beneath your skin so pale and supple?"  What Fracasso is saying with sublime subtlety is that Marie is using drugs, probably heroin.  He doesn't have to get graphic about her addiction.  All Fracasso needs to present is how her abuse affects the people around her to show the tragedy of the situation.  This is devastating stuff and truly great songwriting.

Crawdaddy! editor Paul Williams says that listeners are usually attracted to the sound of the music first, and then eventually pick up on the message of the lyrics.  I know this is true much of the time for me (Abra Moore's Strangest Places being a good example).  But even though Michael Fracasso's new album has a startling, fresh sound, thanks to Charlie Sexton, I find myself sucked in by its lyrics.  Fracasso's unflinching eye for detail reminds me of the work of film maker David Lynch at his best.  There is far more compassion and warmth in Fracasso's work than in Lynch's but both share a nagging sense that something is not quite right with the world, even at its most mundane.  The album title fits the work well.  It is an examination of the small happenings in life.  With World in a Drop of Water, Michael Fracasso makes us get out our microscopes to look at the small details and the stories that they tell.  It is another neighborhood well worth visiting.  You never know what surprises you might encounter there.




Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in Pinner, Middlesex, in northwest London, England, on March 25, 1947.  Sixty years later, he is celebrating his birthday by stepping onstage in front of a packed house at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.  The pudgy, shy, only child, who changed his name to Elton Hercules John in 1967, now sits at the grand piano and sings the opening line of “Sixty Years On,” a song from his 1970 self-titled album.  “Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age…”  It’s a perfect moment.  Almost as if it had been planned all along.

Of course, he couldn’t have planned it, but Elton John has never been one to pass up a happy coincidence.  In fact, the 2007 Madison Square Garden concert not only commemorates his 60th birthday, it is also his 60th show at one of his favorite venues.  John is known for his flamboyancy, so you’d expect such an event to feature elaborate costumes and stage sets, along with a parade of celebrity guest stars.  But Elton is outfitted in a rather austere dark suit and boots, and the only guests all evening are Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams, who quickly introduce John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin during a ten-minute intermission.  No, this three-hour performance is about something that is often forgotten when people talk about Elton John in recent times:  His music.

I grew up listening to John’s music on the radio in the 1970s when his career was at its peak. I was a fan and kept up with his hits until about 1975 when I discovered more “serious” artists such as Bruce Springsteen.  Even though I enjoyed John’s music, I never actually bought much of it, so once I moved on, I didn’t have ready access to review his work.  It’s only been in the last few years that I finally heard many of his albums in their entirety.  One thing that struck me during my rediscovery was the sheer amount of music Elton released at the height of his popularity.  He produced over ten albums in a span of about seven years, the same amount of time that the Beatles recorded as a group. I’m convinced he was probably the closest thing the ‘70s had to the Beatles in terms of quality and success.  And like the Beatles, much of the music still holds up today.

Also like the Fab Four, Elton John’s career started to take off when he hit the USA.  After scuffling around in various British bands and recording cover versions for budget-priced hits LPs in the mid-1960s, John was introduced to lyricist Bernie Taupin when both applied as songwriters to Liberty Records in 1967.  They immediately started writing songs together and pop singers such as Lulu recorded their work.  John eventually recorded his first UK album Empty Sky in 1969, a pleasant, but mostly forgettable effort that made no impact on the charts.  The next year Elton recorded and released his second self-titled album that garnered enough interest in the US for a weeklong residency at Hollywood’s Troubadour club at the end of August.  The lush the singer-songwriter vibe of the album didn’t prepare the press for John’s barnstorming stage technique.  He often included the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” and the Beatles’ “Get Back” in his sets and kicked his piano bench away as he performed handstands on the keyboard.  Led by ecstatic concert reviews and the Top-Ten single “Your Song,” Elton John climbed the US charts for the rest of 1970.  The album reportedly sold 10,000 copies in Philadelphia alone the day after John played there.

The perennial “Your Song” exemplifies the tone of the Elton John album.  John’s effortless, flowing melody frames Taupin’s evocative lyrics, as Paul Buckmaster’s orchestrations provide a sensual, melancholy mood.  A harpsichord is added to the mix for the plaintive ballad “I Need You to Turn To.”  Harp strings and an enchanting tune make the arrival of a new baby brother as seen through the eyes of a child remarkably moving in “The Greatest Discovery.”  The dramatic album finale “The King Must Die” brings a cinematic element to the proceedings, while “Take Me to the Pilot” is a full-blown gospel effort.  One of the LP’s lesser-known tracks, the acoustic country-tinged “No Shoe String on Louise,” could easily be mistaken for a Beggar’s Banquet-era Rolling Stones outtake.  These musical detours indicate there was more to Elton John than the usual laid-back singer-songwriter, despite the album’s prevailing introspective mood.

Tumbleweed Connection appeared at the start of 1971 and presents a more ambitious vision from John and Taupin.  It’s a loose, sort-of concept album with lyrics that reflect Taupin’s fascination with the American West.  The music draws on folk and country influences, though Buckmaster’s sweeping string arrangements are once again used to great effect.  In essence, Tumbleweed Connection is an alt-country album over twenty years before the term for the genre was even coined, and it remains a favorite of fans and Elton himself.  It’s wide range of styles caught the ear of album oriented FM radio, ensuring the LP’s popularity.  Steel guitar and fiddle join Elton’s pumping piano on “Country Comfort,” which Rod Stewart covered rather blandly at the time.   Country and R&B collide as a harmonica and brass section blast throughout the rollicking “Son of Your Father.”  The simple, eloquent “Love Song” features backing by a lone acoustic guitar and gorgeous harmony vocals, both performed by the tune’s composer Lesley Duncan, one of the only instances where John employed an outside writer on his early albums.  “Burn Down the Mission” begins with a subdued Randy Newman-like piano introduction and builds to a thrilling orchestral climax in the span of six minutes.  Tumbleweed shows John growing musically, as his songs became more complex.  This is especially evident on an outtake from the Tumbleweed sessions titled “Madman Across the Water,” featuring David Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, which ebbed and flowed with an almost classical flourish.  It would become the title track for the next Elton John album.

Near the end of 1971, Madman Across the Water appeared, followed a mere six months later by Honky Chateau.  Both albums are eclectic, finely crafted pop gems that radio couldn’t get enough of.  “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon” and the title song from Madman all present exquisite melodies matched with lyrics that sketch provocative portraits and stories, yet remain ambiguous.  While Madman largely retains the dramatic orchestration of previous work, Honky Chateau is stripped down and rocking.  “Honky Cat” is a blast of New Orleans-flavored funk that effortlessly incorporates an oriental-sounding keyboard riff in its introduction.  The comical teenage angst of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” is given an old-timey vaudeville treatment, complete with tap dancing courtesy of “Legs” Larry Smith of the British comedy troupe the Bonzo Dog Band.  “Susie,” “Amy” and “Hercules” are all piano-pounding character studies, while “Rocket Man” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” are enduring ballad profiles.  In keeping with the basic production values of the album, these ballads eschew strings for simple but effective synthesizer flourishes on the former, and a trilling mandolin on the later.

Elton John was now an international superstar and relentlessly toured the US and Europe with his band, consisting of drummer Nigel Olsen, bass player Dee Murray and guitarist Davey Johnstone.  As his popularity rose, John’s stage shows became increasingly elaborate.  At a 1973 Hollywood Bowl concert, porn star Linda Lovelace introduced Elton as a parade of celebrity lookalikes, everyone from the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe to Groucho Marx and the Pope, paraded across the stage.  Five different colored grand pianos raised their lids to spell out “ELTON” and released hundreds of white doves.  And this was only the prelude to the actual concert!

Amid all the glitz and busy schedules, Elton somehow bookended 1973 with two more albums, the wryly-titled Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and the two LP set Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  These present John at his pure pop peak and as idiosyncratic as ever.  I remember when I heard one of the singles from Yellow Brick Road for the first time.  The sound of applause, followed by a quickly played single piano chord and then. . . a pause.  The chord returns, this time it continues pounding out a slow, steady rhythm, punctuated by a descending riff.  The crowd starts clapping along, slightly off the beat.  John’s vocals are bathed in echo, obscuring many of the lyrics, which seem to be about the stylish singer fronting a band.  “Bennie and the Jets” was one of the oddest songs I’d ever heard, yet it was catchy and only one of the many hits off of Yellow Brick Road.  The overture-like “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” became an FM radio staple (and continues to be a frequent Elton concert opener), while the wistful title track and blistering “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” were all over the AM waves.   Perhaps not surprising for a double album, a few genuine clunkers slip onto an Elton John LP for the first time.  “Jamaica Jerk Off” is an ineffective stab at reggae, “Your Sister Can’t Twist” is a 1950s pastiche that works far better on Piano Player’s “Crocodile Rock” and “Sweet Painted Lady” is a tiresome ditty about, you guessed it, a prostitute.

During a huge tour of Japan, Australia and New Zealand in 1974, Elton squeezed in recording sessions for his next album at the Caribou Ranch in Colorado.  The resulting album, titled Caribou, shows the strain.  Two hit singles, “The Bitch is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” propelled the album to the top of the charts, but the LP offers little else.  Besides the hits, nearly every other song is undistinguished.  The one overlooked gem is the finale, a mournful piano ballad called “Ticking.”  It seemed that success was catching up to them, but John and Taupin would rally next time.

Rumors were swirling around in 1975 that John and Taupin were working on an opera based on Hamlet.  What eventually appeared was far better than that absurd idea. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is a concept album about the experiences of John and Taupin during their early days as struggling songwriters.  It is a varied and seamless work, recalling the heights of Tumbleweed Connection. The nearest to operatic Captain Fantastic gets is the faux Gilbert and Sullivan turn of “Better Off Dead.”  The title song begins with acoustic guitars and mandolins, then explodes into an electric guitar-driven chorus. “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” manages to be funky with a string arrangement, while “Meal Ticket” chugs along in classic rock style. The breezy melody of “Writing” perfectly captures both the frustration and lazy afternoons of weekend songwriting sessions.  “Curtains” slowly builds and ends in a blaze of glory, full of chiming bells and rousing vocal choruses.  Bernie Taupin regards Captain Fantastic as the duo’s finest moment.

Before embarking on a tour behind the album, John unexpectedly fired longtime bandmates Dee Murray and Nigel Olsen.  Interviews at the time indicated that John was unhappy with the current band, saying that he wanted musicians that could rock instead of merely playing fast.  His new band was certainly put to the test at their first live show on June 21, 1975, at Wembley Stadium in London.  In a brave move, Captain Fantastic was played in its entirety.  Much of the crowd, unfamiliar with the material and wanting to hear the hits, walked out.  This show is included as a bonus disc in the deluxe edition of Captain Fantastic, issued in 2005, and proves that Elton and the band were in top form and could indeed rock, despite audience reaction.

Unbelievably, just four months later, yet another album appeared.  Rock of the Westies was once again recorded quickly at Caribou, but this time, rather than being uninspired, it sounded like a band relaxing and having a good time.  The album’s single “Island Girl” is light pop fluff and not at all representative of the album as a whole.  Most of the LP is off-the-cuff hard rock, which baffled me when I heard it in 1975.  It is so unlike anything John had done before and may have had a lot to do with me giving up on him.  In retrospect, Rock of the Westies is Elton John at his most daring and interesting.  It is probably his most under appreciated work from his 1970s peak.

When the double album Blue Moves was issued the next year, it was inevitably compared to the previous two-disc Yellow Brick Road.  But the two couldn’t be more different.  The sunny bright pop of the 1973 opus is replaced by a somber, introspective mood.  Blue Moves shows John and Taupin maturing and stretching out to explore more serious musical and lyrical themes.  At the time the LP was met by ambivalent reviews, but has since been recognized as one of Elton’s better works and he still frequently performs songs from it in concert.

The lukewarm reviews the album received was just one event that signaled a shift in Elton John’s popularity over 1975-76.  First, John was criticized for dismissing the original band members that played with him on his early hits. Then he broke up the songwriting team responsible for all those hits.  Following Blue Moves, Bernie Taupin was in the midst of alcohol abuse and divorce, and his writing took a more personal direction.  Elton found it difficult to write music for such lyrics, so they decided to part ways.  Perhaps even more detrimental to John’s career was that in a 1976 Rolling Stone interview, Elton admitted he was bisexual (he was actually gay, but in the 1970s, it was safer to not come all the way out of the closet).  Even though the announcement was somewhat of an open secret, it alienated many fans, especially in the US.

It is at this point where most overviews of Elton John trail off into remarks about temper tantrums, uneven albums, battles with bulimia, cocaine and alcohol and his bizarre short-lived 1984 heterosexual marriage.  It’s true that he became better known as a celebrity rather than a musician after 1976, but this is not the end of John’s musical legacy.

Elton teamed up with songwriter Gary Osborne for 1978’s A Single Man.  Unlike working with Taupin, where John set music to Bernie’s already completed lyrics, during the Single Man sessions, the music sometimes came first and Elton assisted with the lyrics.  If one is able to forget what an Elton John album is “supposed” to sound like, A Single Man isn’t bad at all.  Most of the songs have an enjoyable understated R&B flavor to them.  However, fans and critics alike didn’t give the LP a chance, even though John promoted it heavily through interviews and touring.

He launched a worldwide tour the next year, accompanied only by percussionist Ray Cooper, forcing John to concentrate on his vocals and piano playing.  He began the concerts solo, playing hits such as “Your Song,” “Daniel” and “Rocket Man,” then dramatically introduced Cooper mid-show with “Funeral for a Friend.”  Cooper cut quite a figure onstage, looking like a cross between a schoolmaster and mad scientist, as he banged away on various drums, bells, gongs and sundry other percussion instruments.  The wildly successful tour elicited an invitation to play a series of eight shows in Leningrad and Moscow, documented on the television special To Russia. . . with Elton (not issued on DVD, so I had to hunt down the VHS release).  The high energy level of the performances shown in the footage is amazing coming from just two people.  John was warned not to do two things during the Russian concerts.  He wasn’t allowed to kick away his piano bench (he didn’t) and he couldn’t play “Back in the USSR” (he couldn’t resist).

Unfortunately, the wonderful music and energy of the tour did not translate at all to the next album, Victim of Love. John put himself in the hands of producer Pete Bellote to pursue the R&B leanings of A Simple Man into full-blown disco. The results are considered toxic even by the most ardent fan.  Elton must have known this was a bad move.  By the early 1980s he was back writing with Bernie Taupin and had reunited with his original band.

Although he never regained the commercial success and popularity of the early 1970s, regrouping with his old mates did seem to boost Elton’s career.  Almost every album in the 1980s spawned at least one hit single and contained some worthwhile music.  Jump Up! features “Empty Garden,” one of the finest tributes written in honor of John Lennon following his death.  “I’m Still Standing” from Too Low for Zero sounds tougher and more defiant when divorced from its campy video, which received heavy rotation on MTV.  A terrific piano ballad titled “Burning Buildings” highlights 1984’s Breaking Hearts album.  About the decade’s only real misstep is the admitted record company contract-breaker Leather Jackets that actually contains a duet with Cher.  Bernie Taupin also helped write the wretched “We Built This City” for Jefferson Starship in 1985, for which I personally will never forgive him.

Live in Australia was not one of John’s big commercial successes of the 1980s.  The album reached #43 on the UK charts, though its “Candle in the Wind” single was a worldwide hit in 1987.  But this often-overlooked work is one of my favorite Elton John albums.  It is a recording of the second half of a concert that took place in Sydney, Australia, on December 14, 1986.  The first half of the show featured John backed by his touring band, while in the second the 88-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra joined them.  John had performed with an orchestra in concert several times in the early 1970s and found it both artistically and critically rewarding.  He rises to the occasion once again for the Australian recording, despite not being in the best shape at the time.  He lost his voice during an earlier show on the tour and he still sounds rough here, although not annoyingly so.  It actually adds an uncertain edge to the performance.  (Not surprisingly, Elton would undergo throat surgery only weeks later).  The song selection is simply astonishing, avoiding overly familiar hits for mostly deep catalog tracks that lend themselves to orchestration.  These include two moody ballads from Blue Moves, “Tonight” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” and fully half of the Elton John LP.  The grandiose “Burn Down the Mission” and “Madman Across the Water” get airings, and the dark, pounding “Have Mercy On the Criminal” is an unexpected, but inspired choice off the Piano Player album.  Once the heart-wrenching finale of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” concludes, I’m left breathless.  Live in Australia is also one of the most dynamic, natural sounding CDs I own, making it an all-around thrilling listening experience.  If someone asked me what makes Elton John a great performer, I’d point them directly to this album.

Throat surgery proved to be the beginning of a wake up call for John, because a short time later he entered rehab to end a fifteen-year drug addiction.  The 1990s saw a clean and sober Elton John working harder than ever.  He resumed recording and earned good reviews, but his extraordinarily popular soundtracks for Disney movies and Broadway musicals overshadowed his albums throughout the decade.  In the course of my research, I discovered one of John’s lesser known but more interesting projects during this period was composing the score for the Albert Brooks film The Muse (I have not heard it since the soundtrack CD is now selling for around $70).  John also continued touring like a madman throughout the 1990s and into the new century, taking on joint tours with Billy Joel and performing both solo and band shows that often lasted three hours or more.

A worthy document of John’s live work is the DVD box set Dream Ticket issued in 2004.  It presents three concerts, each in a different setting.  In October 2000, Elton performed two “Greatest Hits” shows at Madison Square Garden with his band, augmented by a second drummer, an additional keyboard player, percussionists and backing vocalists, along with a cavalcade of guests.  Dream Ticket includes the second night’s concert, since the first show was apparently so marred by technical difficulties that John finished the performance by saying it was the last concert he’d ever play (Elton has a history of announcing his retirement from recording and/or touring at least once a year, usually in times of stress.  He mentions the incident the second night and admits he’s “full of shit,” to which drummer Nigel Olsen responds with a perfectly timed rim-shot).  The Madison Square Garden gala lives up to its promise of a greatest hits showcase, offering two and a half-hours of one hit after the other.  The only thing that slows the pace is the guests, ranging from Billy Joel (doing a decent take on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”) to Ronan Keating (who??) and Bryan Adams (now building a career as everyone’s guest star).  It’s a big flashy performance that is entertaining enough, but ultimately a bit wearing.

The other two concert videos are much better.  The first is a 2001 solo performance that took place at the 2,500-year-old Great Amphitheater in Turkey, a beautiful setting that complements the intimate mood of the music.  A selection of the usual favorites (“Your Song,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man”) and surprises (“Burn Down the Mission” and an unusual choice for a solo show, “Honky Cat”) make up the setlist.  Elton occasionally uses electronic effects on his vocals and piano, which are unnecessary, but at least they are used sparingly.  Even better is the December 2002 performance with London’s Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra and Choir.  The orchestra is fabulous on every song, even on the dance-infused “Philadelphia Freedom” (never one of my favorites) and the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” closer that brings the house down.  The most interesting song selection is the medley that combines “Carla Etude,” the lush instrumental that opens side two of the largely unnoticed 1981 album The Fox, with “Tonight” from Blue Moves, a spectacular idea for an orchestral setting.

In 2001, John decided that he and Bernie Taupin should make a concentrated effort to return to writing songs like they used to do.  Even though they had worked together the previous two decades, John felt that all the touring, soundtrack work and Broadway shows had eroded their songwriting for his albums.  Later in the year, John and Taupin  came up with Songs from the West Coast, an album that indeed recalls their glory days.  I was skeptical when I read the glowing reviews, but they made me check out the album for myself and ultimately renewed my interest in Elton John.  There is not one bad track on the disc.  The lyrics are sharp, insightful and vivid.  The music is memorable and full of hooks.  It has everything I remembered from a great Elton John album, including a favorite song (the soulful ballad “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore”).  History did not repeat itself sales-wise, however.  The music marketplace has changed and there are now fewer outlets for older established artists to get their new music heard.  This is a pity, since Elton is producing some of his finest work.  The Southern country soul of Peachtree Road in 2004 and 2006’s recorded-live-in-the-studio sequel to Captain Fantastic titled Captain and the Kid are fine efforts, but were also ignored.  Elton once again made noises about retiring, and this time who could blame him?

Back at the Madison Square Garden birthday bash, it looks as if retirement is the last thing on Elton John’s mind.  After running through over an hour of album tracks and hardcore fan favorites, he starts in on the hits and doesn’t stop for two more hours.  It is a dream show.  One that makes you realize that there is no way Elton John is ever going to retire from music making.  A show that makes you realize that, despite slow record sales, John has an extensive and varied body of work that is here to discover, rediscover and enjoy for generations to come.  I’m happy he and his music are still around.

Elton John 1970
Tumbleweed Connection 1971
Madman Across the Water 1971
Honky Chateau 1972
Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player 1973
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 1973
Caribou 1974
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy 1975, Deluxe Edition 2005
Rock of the Westies 1975
Blue Moves 1976
A Single Man 1978
To Russia. . . with Elton 1979 (VHS)
Jump Up! 1982
Too Low for Zero 1983
Breaking Hearts 1984
Live in Australia 1987
Songs from the West Coast 2001
Peachtree Road 2004
Dream Ticket 2004 (DVD)
The Captain and the Kid 2006
Elton 60: Live at Madison Square Garden 2007 (DVD)




Things weren’t going well for the Walker Brothers.  The American pop trio, who had swept the UK charts in the mid-1960s, was finding their 1970s reunion difficult.  Their cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” reached Number 7 in 1976, but subsequent releases didn’t sell.  New Wave and punk dominated the charts and made the Walkers’ easy listening style anachronistic. Now the group had to make a third and final album for a record company that was going out of business.  Lead singer Scott Engel told John Maus and Gary Leeds (none of the Walker Brothers was actually related or named Walker) that they might as well let loose and make the record they always wanted to make.

Issued in 1978, Nite Flights was the first Walker Brothers album exclusively penned by the group.  Even though drummer Gary had never written a song before, his two contributions showed promise with unusual structures and lyrics.  In contrast, the creative freedom seems to have stifled John.  He had written hits for the group in the 1960s, but his four compositions for Nite Flights are utter failures and totally sink the album’s second side.  Side one features four tunes by Scott.  They are unlike anything the Walker Brothers had done before.  And they are simply stunning.

“Shutout” launches the album with blasts of guitar feedback over dance-oriented bass and drum rhythms.  This isn’t some has-been pop group trying to jump on the then-current disco craze.  The dark, cold tone and frenzied guitar work take the song into an entirely different realm.  Next, what sounds like a single explosion of plucked piano strings introduces “Fat Mama Kick,” followed by a fat distorted descending bass riff.  The low rumble of the piano strings continues throughout, providing a sense of foreboding.  A squalling saxophone then enters, echoing the furious guitar of the previous selection.  Cascading strings and bass begin the album’s title track, probably the most accessible of Scott’s quartet of tunes.  His vocals are relaxed, almost breezy, though phrases such as “the danger brushing you” and “the raw meat fists you choke have hit the bloodlines” reach out and disturb. 

Finally “The Electrician” arrives.  Dissonant strings fade in.  A bent bass note pulses as Scott intones

baby it's slow
when lites go low
there's no help no

The strings rise up, culminating in a beautiful aching melody.  Yet the lyrics become more disturbing, seemingly evoking both sexual pleasure and torture.

he's drilling thru the SPIRITUS SANCTUS tonight
thru the dark hip falls screaming OH YOU MAMBOS
kill me and kill me and kill me

if I jerk- the handle
you'll die in your dreams
if I jerk- the handle
jerk- the handle
you'll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me

At the climax, a classical guitar adds a subtle flourish, until the clashing strings and bass quietly return and Scott repeats the first verse.  A mechanical whoosh-whoosh-whoosh slams the door on the disquieting scenario.

“The Electrician” is Scott Walker’s masterpiece.  It somehow encompasses all the disparate elements of Walker’s entire body of work.  That’s a tall order to hang on one song, especially when discussing a musical career as eclectic and confounding as Walker’s is.

Scott Engel’s career began rather unremarkably in the late 1950s as a teen idol who recorded a handful of nondescript and unsuccessful singles.  The Walker Brothers were born in the mid-1960s when guitarist and singer John Maus recruited Scott as a bass player.  The duo became a popular draw in clubs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and eventually landed a recording contract.  Gary Leeds, who had just returned from a trip to England, then completed the group.  Inspired by the exploding music scene overseas, Leeds convinced the others that they should try their luck in London.  They arrived there in February 1965 and found success in a matter of months.  “Love Her,” one of their US singles that had previously flopped, went into the British Top 20 in April.  Eight more hit singles followed, including “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy on Yourself.”

The Walker Brothers’ hits channeled the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers and Phil Spector’s dense dramatic production, highlighted by Scott’s sensual croon.  John may have started out as lead singer, but Scott became primary vocalist nearly by accident.  During the recording of “Love Her,” the producer determined that the vocal needed to be pitched lower and asked which “brother” had the appropriate range.  Scott’s rich baritone did the job brilliantly.  His deep, almost casual delivery wrapped around the lyrics like a glove and led many of the group’s recordings thereafter.

The group toured with fellow pop sensations such as Cat Stevens, Englebert Humperdink and a rising young American guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.  The Walkers’ popularity in England rivaled the Beatles’ as screaming fans mobbed them everywhere they performed.  By 1967, however, Scott had grown weary of concert appearances and his pop star image.  He reportedly feigned illness or injury in order to get out of playing live dates and sequestered himself in a monastery for a time.  The Walker Brothers soon disbanded.

Shortly before the breakup, Scott discovered the work of singer Jacques Brel, whose songs examine the dark underbelly of society by showing the mundane lives of characters with dashed dreams and broken hearts.  Scott initially heard Brel on LPs owned by a girlfriend, but later had the opportunity to review demo tapes featuring songwriter Mort Shuman’s English translations of Brel’s original French lyrics.  Brel’s work was a revelation to Scott, fitting into his fascination of European culture via music and film.  In fact, Scott’s own songwriting had already displayed this influence in “Mrs. Murphy” with its gossiping apartment building tenets.

Hello Mrs. Murphy
That's a lovely dress you're wearing
Is it new?
Why, thank you Mr. Wilson
But I've had that same old dress about a year or two
Upstairs in bed, the tall boy stretched just like a cat
Put his hands behind his head
And lay there thinking of a dream that he had

I hear that the Johnsons had a baby, Mrs. Murphy
Is that true?
Why yes, but it's rumored that the little tot's real daddy lives in 22

In 22, the boy lay whistling out of tune
Fighting on the seas
Dreaming of a thousand things he'd like to be

Poor Mr. Johnson being married to a wife who should be caged
It's the child who will suffer
And to think that young man is less than half her age

Upstairs he sits, he hears a knock, and nothing more
Come on in, you're late
Well, don't just stand there Mrs. Johnson
Close the door

Most of Walker’s late 1960s solo albums feature Brel/Shuman covers and their influence is felt in Scott’s own songwriting as well.  Scott 1 through 4 are primary touchstones for Scott Walker’s work.  It’s hard to believe in these politically correct times that three of these LPs featuring lyrics that explicitly mention prostitution, venereal disease and death were enormously successful in England back in the 1960s.  I presume that at least part of the reason for their success is Scott’s gorgeous voice, which made even the most sordid subject matter sound majestic.  The lush string arrangements and subtle production flourishes also gave the material a modern day easy listening feel.  One would like to believe these albums were hits simply because of the quality of the performances and songwriting.

Among the Brel songs is “Mathilde,” in which the narrator breathlessly awaits the return of the titular lover.  For every fond memory he has of her, however, another reminds him how she broke his heart.  The sprightly, horn-driven “Jackie” paints a young man’s grandiose, slightly decadent dreams of becoming a pimp and owning an opium den that dissolve into bitterness over a childhood lost.  Then there is “Next,” a stumbling march about a recruit who loses his virginity in a mobile army brothel.  I can’t recall another pop song that uses “gonorrhea” in its lyric so eloquently.

I was still just a kid
When my innocence was lost
In a mobile army whorehouse
Gift from the army, free of cost
Next, next

Me, I really would have liked
A little touch of tenderness
Maybe a word, a smile
An hour of happiness
But, next, next

Oh, it wasn't so tragic
The high heavens did not fall
But how much of that time
I hated being there at all
Next, next
Now I always will recall
The brothel truck, the flying flags
The queer lieutenant who slapped
Our asses as if we were fags
Next, next

I swear on the wet head
Of my first case of gonorrhea
It is his ugly voice
That I forever hear
Next, next

Walker’s own compositions are equally compelling.  A halting string arrangement introduces “Montague Terrace (In Blue),” a description of a struggling couple’s dreary surroundings.  They are “swallowed in the stomach room,” trapped in their rundown apartment as they endure the “bloated belching” of the man upstairs and the prostitute across the hall whose “thighs are full of tales to tell.”  The sublime “It’s Raining Today” has melancholy memories of a “train window girl” descending on a windowpane like the raindrops echoed by plucked violins.  Strings float up and down as “Plastic Palace People” sketches the daydreams of a child that take him floating high above the city streets.

Over the rooftop sails Billy
A string tied to his underwear
Through cobblestone streets a child races
And shouts "Billy, come down from there"

"My mother's calling" his voice whimpers
A string clutched in his tiny hand
Not till I've seen the sky's not lit up
In tears, child try and understand
Don't pull the string, Don't bring me down
Don't make me land

Bass guitar and muted horns set up a choppy rhythm, breaking the boy’s fantasies, as Scott warns about getting trapped in day-to-day existence and losing your dreams.

Plastic palace people
Sing silent songs, they dream too long
Their memories just stare
Plastic palace Alice
She steals her cards tomorrow deals
With deafening despair

His voice rises dramatically as he continues his admonition.  A double-tracked echo effect is added to his voice, making Walker sound menacing.

Hurry, you've got to get in line
Your nose might start to shine
And sweat it out and dance about
The whole eternal life

The song ends with the string section spiraling out of time and out of tune, mimicking a deflated balloon falling to the ground.  In interviews of the era, Scott often denounced the psychedelic turn that pop music took in the late 1960s, but “Plastic Palace People” is positively trippy.  It is also one of Walker’s finest efforts.

Curiously, Scott 4, his final album of the 1960s was a commercial failure.  This is difficult to understand from today’s perspective, since the album easily holds its own against the other three hit LPs.  Some fans even regard it the best of the bunch.  Scott 4 was the first album to contain all original material, so perhaps listeners missed the cover tunes.  Scott also insisted that the album be credited to Scott Engle instead of Scott Walker, which might have confused people.  Or maybe fans saw the name change as a pretentious move?  Whatever the reason, the LP’s failure signaled the end of Walker’s presence on the UK charts.  (His records were all but ignored in the US.)

Walker’s 1970s solo output is largely dismissed, even by Scott himself.  He says he was drinking heavily at the time and let producers have too much control.  Much of this work is long out of print, but according the available discographies and reviews, these albums are made up of songs from films and contemporary country and folk tunes.  The choice of material is often impeccable, mining the catalogs of songwriters such as Mickey Newbury, Jimmy Webb, Billy Joe Shaver, Tom T. Hall and Randy Newman. 

The only album from this era to contain Walker originals is 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes Home and the only reason it is overlooked seems to be that it followed and preceded LPs that didn’t sell.  The songs I have heard from it are as good as those on the Scott albums.  “Joe” is a character study (Scott’s Brel influence remains steadfast) set to a loungy piano ballad that depicts the final days of an old man before he dies in his seedy apartment. “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” is a portrait of someone writing a farewell letter to a lover, thanking them for everything they’ve given in the relationship.  The lyrics brilliantly and subtly reveal the narrator as homosexual.  “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” blasts off with an upbeat arrangement that belies the lyrics’ morbid litany of events that includes suicide, airplane crashes and war.  Maybe Scott’s saying we’re all in this together, despite the horrors?  The acoustic guitar waltz of “Cowbells Shakin’” details the story of a migrant worker overwhelmed by city life in just over a minute.  It’s a marvel of lyrical economy and one of Walker’s most unusual songs. 

Walker gave up songwriting after ‘Til the Band Comes Home until his splendid return on the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights album.  Despite limited sales, Nite Flights piqued the interest of Virgin Records, who signed Scott Walker as a songwriter and recording artist.  It would be six years before Scott delivered anything to the label.

Like his discovery of Jacques Brel, the creative freedom of Nite Flights unleashed something in Scott.  He was now determined to follow his muse with no compromises.  This might mean taking years to complete an album, much to the chagrin of the record company.  Climate of Hunter finally appeared in 1984 and appropriately begins (considering the six years of silence) with Walker singing “This is how you disappear. . . “ The LP’s eight songs clock in at only a little over thirty minutes and explore similar  techno-dance territory found on Nite Flights.  Electric fretless bass slides mesh with electronic keyboards, synthesizer washes, tape loops and blazing guitar solos.  Two exceptions to the prevailing style are the album’s side-closers.  Side one ends with a beautiful orchestrated ballad titled “Sleepwalker’s Woman,” reminiscent of Scott’s earlier solo work, except it feels colder, more distant.  Concluding the album is a cover of “Blanket Roll Blues” from the Marlon Brando movie The Fugitive Kind, featuring the only song lyrics ever written by author Tennessee Williams.  Following Mark Knopfler’s extended bluesy acoustic guitar introduction, Walker slowly sings

When I crossed the river
With a heavy blanket roll
I took nobody with me
Not a soul.

I took a few provisions
Some for comfort, some for cold
But I took nobody with me
Not a soul.

The words are a prophetic send-off, since Scott is well aware that his artistic journey will be a lonely one from now on.  Climate of Hunter sounds like a tentative beginning to his journey that draws upon Nite Flights without adding much of anything new.  Since the album is so short, I burned it to disc and added the four Nite Flights songs, which fit well together stylistically.  But the mix points out just how dated and sterile Hunter sounds in comparison to the fresh and exciting “The Electrician.”  The album was one of the worst sellers in the Virgin Records catalog and the label dropped Scott Walker.  It would be his only record release of the 1980s.

Phonogram Records reissued the four Scott albums on CD in the early 1990s, stirring up critical praise and rediscovery of Scott Walker’s music.  The renewed interest encouraged Phonogram to offer Scott a record deal.  They could not have imagined what he had in store for his next release.  Tilt emerged in 1995, eleven years after Climate of Hunter.  Completely different artists could have created the two albums.  Or different beings.  Tilt sounds like a combination of a bizarre opera and industrial noise.  Walker’s voice is more dramatic and formal.  His lyrics are fractured, opaque and seem to address subjects such as murder, revolution and the Gulf War.  The only respite is the final song “Rosary” which is stripped down to just voice and guitar.  Walker has rarely sounded so vulnerable.  This is far from easy listening.  Tilt is one of the very few albums I’ve encountered that demands attention to such an extreme.  To do it justice, one must actively listen to it.  Playing the album on your iPod randomly mixed with other songs won’t work (I laugh when online radio service Pandora selects this material for my playlists).  It might take a few tries, but once immersed in it, Tilt is a challenging and ultimately rewarding experience unlike any other.

The next few years saw Scott dabbling in film soundtracks and collaborations.  The first of these was, believe it or not, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” for the film To Have and to Hold.  I have not heard this, but have read that Scott’s Tilt vocal style unfortunately doesn’t really suit the song.  He also composed the score for the French film Pola X and contributed two songs for an album by singer/actress Ute Lemper.  All of these original recordings now command a small fortune.

Another eleven years elapsed between Tilt and Walker’s next album The Drift.  It is even more extreme than the previous album.  A study in near silence and overwhelming chaos, The Drift lacks the startling beauty that sometimes reveals itself on Tilt, but is no less compelling.  Walker experiments with unique sounds, including fists punching a slab of meat, a braying donkey and the rumble of a rolling “giant pea.”  Scott attempts an impression of Donald Duck at one point.  Lyrically, “Clara” concerns the execution of Mussolini and his lover who chose to be killed with him, while “Jesse” mixes dreamlike images of Elvis Presley speaking to his dead twin and the Twin Towers of 9/11 (“I’m the only one left alive”).  Strange and unsettling, The Drift is another sonic landscape for the brave listener to get lost in.

An interesting explanation of what Walker is trying to achieve with his later work can be found in the excellent 2006 documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.  One musician who recorded with Scott wonders how some of his songs can sound in tune and out of tune at the same time.  Another musician then demonstrates how Walker explores the area between harmony and dissonance by piling one chord on top of another.  He plays several chords together that sound slightly off-key, then shows how adding just a single note disintegrates into noise.  Pop singer Lulu, who toured with Walker in the 1960s, provides another perspective.  “He was so gorgeous.  Is he still cute?” she asks, before hearing Tilt for the first time.  As the album plays, the look on her face is priceless.

30 Century Man also includes interviews with the reclusive man himself.  Walker comes across as amiable, self-aware and surprisingly not bitter over his career highs and lows.  He says he hopes to compose material that could be performed in concert, which is an exciting prospect for an artist who hasn’t played before an audience in decades.

Scott Walker has kept listeners on their toes for over forty years.  “The Electrician” can be heard as a focal point for all these changes, encompassing the melodicism of what came before and the experimentation that followed.  The one constant throughout being the Brel-like fascination with the dark side of life.  It’s impossible to predict what or when Scott Walker will do next.  But it is sure to be formidable.

DISCOGRAPHY NOTE:  Most of Scott Walker’s major works are easy to find, but there are some frustrating holes in his available discography.  The Walker Brothers recordings have been reissued and compiled endlessly, including a lavish boxset that has almost everything they recorded.  Really only two collections are essential.  After the Lights Go Out is a fine single disc of their 1960s hits, while If You Could Hear Me Now gathers the best of the 1970s reunion releases, including the four Nite Flights songs, plus a number of previously unreleased tracks.  All the Scott albums are required listening, but there are a couple good compilations that concentrate on this era.  The Boy Child import is exclusively original material with the rare B-side “The Plague,” which amazingly sounds like a preliminary run through of Nte Flights ten years before the fact.  It’s Raining Today (compiled by power pop rocker Marshall Crenshaw) is the only Scott Walker collection released in the US and mixes originals and Brel songs, along with some singles and four selections from ‘Til the Band Comes Home.  There is a Scott Walker boxset titled Five Easy Pieces.  Unfortunately, the pieces that comprise the set are all but easy.  The five discs eschew arrangement by chronological order or period, choosing instead to organize by theme, such as “Songs About Women” and “Music from Films.”  About the only rarities found on the set are the later day soundtrack recordings, while it largely skips the out of print 1970s albums.  Poor annotation and shoddy packaging make a set that is confusing for novices and frustrating for fans.  Finally, beware of the ubiquitous repackages of Scott’s 1950’s material.  It is not the stuff you need to hear.

    Scott 1967
    Scott 2 1968
    Scott 3 1969
    Scott 4 1969
    Climate of Hunter 1984
    Boy Child: The Best of Scott Walker 1967-1970 1992
    Tilt 1995
    It’s Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967-70) 1996
    The Walker Brothers: If You Could Hear Me Now 2001
    The Walker Brothers: After the Lights Go Out: Best of 1965-67 2003
    The Drift 2006
    Scott Walker: 30 Century Man 2006 (DVD)

MAY 2008



I can’t get past track seven on this damn album.  What am I, a teenager?  Every time the song finishes, I hit repeat at least four or five times and barely make it through the rest of the disc.

A month or so ago, while listening to online radio, I heard a song (not the song in question) off an album titled New Amsterdam by the Counting Crows.  I liked it so much I picked up the CD.  The Counting Crows fell off my radar following their 1993 debut August and Everything After, so I wasn’t familiar with much of their later work nor knew anything about New Amsterdam, a 2003 concert recording released two years ago.  The group mines late 1960s/early 1970s rock influences, conjuring up the spirits of Van Morrison’s dynamic introspection, Bruce Springsteen’s street poetry and the Band’s rootsy eclecticism.  Lead singer and main tunesmith Adam Duritz writes lyrics full of angst, loneliness and the need for escape.  Many of the song titles on New Amsterdam (as well as the album title itself) incorporate place names – “Omaha,” “Holiday in Spain,” “Goodnight LA” – and reflect the theme of leaving a location or wanting to be somewhere else.

Which brings us to track seven, “Miami.”  It begins rather uncharacteristically, for no-nonsense rock disciples such as the Counting Crows, anyway, with the simple rolling rhythm of a drum machine.  A real drummer soon takes over, reinforcing the beat, while an electric rhythm guitar begins an irresistible flowing chord progression.  Adam Duritz then sets the scene.  He may be down in the Sunshine State, but is haunted by encroaching darkness.

Guess I think I feel alright
You come circling through the light
The skyline, baby, is bright tonight
One more perfect rendezvous
Sundown paints the shadows through
Daylight aiming on what we do
It looks like darkness to me, oh
Drifting down into Miami

The riffing guitar grows more intense as Duritz explains why there’s trouble in paradise.

Can I say
I wish that this weather would never leave
It just gets hard to believe
That God sent this angel to watch over me
Cause my angel, she don't receive my calls
She says I'm too dumb to fuck
Too dumb to fight
Too dumb to save
Well, maybe I don't need no angel at all
It looks like darkness to me, oh
Drifting down into Miami
She could pull the sun right through me, Oh!
Coming down, into Miami

I like how the verse starts with the wish for never-ending warmth and how its source  is twisted into a vicious weapon with the line “she could pull the sun right through me.”  The chorus concludes and a guitar solo explodes into tuneful, frenzied ecstasy that takes the song higher and higher.  Suddenly, the music quiets, leaving Duritz to muse

Make a circle in the sand
Make a halo with your hands
Make a place for you to land

A single booming drumbeat stirs the band back into full-throttle.  The city disappears in the rearview mirror.  Escape to another place, once again.

The bus is runnin', it's time to leave
The summer’s gone, so are we
So come on baby, let's go shut it down
in New Orleans!

Some great chords, lyrical wanderlust, tension and release.  It’s a formula that can add up to great rock ‘n’ roll.  And the Counting Crows use it to infectious effect on “Miami.”  I hear their latest album  Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is good too.  I’ll report back, but I may stay in “Miami” a while longer. . .

JUNE 9, 2008



"Who is this Ronnie Lane bloke?", I remember asking myself as I bought Rough Mix, the  album by Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane.  It was sometime in late 1977 and being an avid Who fan, I picked up the album because it was Townshend's second solo effort.  I had no idea who Lane was.  Opening up the gatefold sleeve, there was a photo of somewhat worn looking but smiling Pete sitting along side a gentleman with an impish grin, who also appeared to be a bit battered around the edges himself.  When I played the album, Townshend's songs were great enough but it was his partner's tunes that really got to me.  Lane's voice sounded as roughed up as he looked, yet I could also detect an easy going charm underneath the gravel.  There was a comfortable hominess in Lane's tunes that offset Townshend's occasionally grander musical schemes, giving the whole project a relaxed charm all its own.  It was as if Lane was nudging Pete and telling him with that mischievous smile, "C'mon mate, don't be so serious all the time."

One evening last year I pulled out my Rough Mix LP and found an envelope bearing a British postmark tucked inside the sleeve.  The envelope contained a photocopied typewritten note and a photo of Ronnie Lane with a scrawled signature in the upper right corner.  I'd forgotten all about this!  About five years after Rough Mix's release, stories in the press revealed that Ronnie had Multiple Sclerosis.  After reading about Lane's illness in Rolling Stone, my girlfriend (now my wife) Kathy wrote him a letter.  Kathy and I had just met a few months before and I guess her show of support towards Ronnie was a way of helping her deal with my own handicap.  (I have Cerebral Palsy, which is a condition I've had since birth and not a degenerative disease like MS.)  A few weeks later Kathy received the note thanking her for her support, along with the autographed picture, obviously signed by Ronnie's own, and now shaking, hand.  It was strange looking at the picture after all these years with Lane gone.  The disease he battled for over twenty years finally took his life earlier in 1997. 

I never got around to checking out more of Lane's own music while he was alive.  When I played Rough Mix again that night for the first time in a long while, I fell for Ronnie's songs all over again and knew it was time to explore his music further.  Thanks to a few decent used CD stores and the Internet, I found all sorts of Ronnie Lane music with little effort.  The only problem was finding a place to start my journey.

Kathy started things off and provided some background on Lane's early career by getting me a Small Faces hits collection for Christmas.  Lane was the bass player and one of the primary songwriters for this British sixties band, often thought of as the Who's Mod rivals (a fact that may have influenced the Who to choose drummer Kenney Jones as Keith Moon's replacement many years later).  Since lead singer Steve Marriott handled most of the vocals and also claimed to have written most of the Small Faces hits himself (even though they are credited to the Lane/Marriott songwriting team), it's hard to say how much of Lane's influence is heard on these songs.  Many of them do have an echo of Lane's old-timey, laid back style to them.  Maybe Lane's contribution to the band is more felt than heard, at least when discussing the Small Faces' hits anyway.  All these speculations really don't matter all that much since the Small Faces were a great band.  From heavy soul influenced "All or Nothing" to the psychedelic pop sound of "Itchycoo Park" and "Tin Soldier," their music is slightly eclectic but always catchy and a lot of fun.  I'm glad my expedition into Ronnie Lane's music led me to the Small Faces.     

The band that the Small Faces became once Steve Marriott left in 1970 is even better.  The Faces formed when guitarist Ron Wood joined the band and brought along his friend Rod Stewart to take over as lead vocalist.  Their boisterous live performances made The Faces enormously popular, especially in the U.S., but the band did record four albums as well.  So far I've heard only one of them.  It's called Long Player.  It's excellent.  Anchored by Ian McLagan's soulful keyboards and Wood's crackling guitar, not only does the album prove that Rod Stewart was once worth listening to, it also uncovers the talents of Ronnie Lane.  Stewart shines on the powerful live performance of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" (I remember hearing this version quite a bit on the radio when I was growing up) and on Lane's gospel ballad "Tell Everyone."  Lane takes a turn at vocals on his homesick country blues of "Richmond."  The gentle rasp of the slide guitars mirrors the lonesome roughness in Ronnie's voice.  His voice doesn't sound quite as knocked about yet but the down home charm that I found so winning on Rough Mix is already evident in his early work.  It's great music that makes me want to go out and get the following Faces album too, A Nod's As Good As a Wink. . . To a Blind Horse, which I hear is even more terrific.    

Lane had been reluctant to let Rod Stewart into the band from the start so when Stewart's solo career took off into the stratosphere with the hit "Maggie May" and began overshadowing  The Faces, Ronnie had to leave the band in 1973.  Lane then put together his own group called Slim Chance and lived out his back to basics fantasies by embarking on a rag-tag tour of the English countryside.  The tour was like a traveling side show with a troupe of clowns, dancers and  musicians that went from town to town in a fleet of brightly painted dilapidated buses.  Ronnie loved the gypsy lifestyle and playing close to the people.  Unfortunately, the poorly organized tour was a financial disaster.

But Slim Chance was far from being a musical disaster.  Using a line up that included  accordion, saxophone, mandolin and fiddle, I say Ronnie Lane came close to creating music that is the British equivalent of the Band.  Yes, I know Fairport Convention holds that honor already.  It is true, like the Band, Fairport Convention uses elements of traditional music in their work, but the styles of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson pull the listener into the modern age, despite their influences from the musical past. Fairport's work, as great as much of it is, just doesn't have the same timeless quality found in the Band's best music.  I do hear the a similar agelessness of the Band's work in Lane's music with Slim Chance however, and it makes for transcendent listening.

The first Slim Chance album, 1974's Anymore for Anymore, is quite simply outstanding from beginning to end, even though the CD reissue begins and ends differently than the original LP did.  The album is now bookended by two songs from a single released shortly before the album came out.  This slight revision works perfectly.  "How Come" with its jaunty ragtime feeling makes a great introduction.  The lyrics are great fun too.  It seems that Ronnie's woman friend has him feeling a little concerned.  Why does she keep hemlock in her spice rack?  Why do her friends give her lilies on her birthday?  Just to be on the safe side, Ronnie has broken her broom and done away with her black cat.  He's not superstitious, you understand, but some of the things he's seen are slightly worrisome.  The single's B-side makes a fine coda to the album as well.  "Done This One Before" with its earnest vocal puts me in the mind of Rick Danko's work with the Band.  The richly textured sound of the organ and mandolin layered with the playful harmonica breaks combine to make the tune a subtle yet soaring finale.

There are plenty more gems found on the actual album in between the two supplemental songs.  I only have time to cover a few of the highlights:  "Roll On Babe" is an American folk song that in Lane's hands reminds me a lot "I Wasn't Born to Follow" by the Byrds, only prettier.  "Tell Everyone" from the Faces' Long Player is revisited.  Where Rod Stewart rips out your heart with his vocal take, Ronnie's fragile vocals feel more like a gentle tap on the shoulder and whisper in your ear, making an already heartfelt love song even more intimate.  "Chicken Wired" shares the fifties rocker stylings of Rough Mix's "Catmelody."  As much as I love "Catmelody," it feels to me like it could rock out a tad bit more.  It just misses going into overdrive and over the top, I think.  But "Chicken Wired" swings so hard it nearly flies off the CD.  With its chicken scratch fiddles and electric guitars, along with Lane's exuberant singing, it sounds like the most wired country western band on earth tackling Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" and burning down the house in the process.

Then there is "The Poacher."  Before I heard any of Ronnie's albums, I read a few of the reviews and the most common word used to describe Lane's music was "pastoral."  The definition of pastoral is "having the qualities of idealized country life."  I can't think of a better way to describe "The Poacher."  The song is a masterpiece of simple beauty.  It's the ultimate in pastoral music and perhaps Lane's finest work.  A small woodwind and string ensemble lightly skips in before each verse, preluding Lane's high frail vocals, and capture the beauty and solitude of a carefree country life. The sound is almost classical, though it still maintains Ronnie's unique rustic quality.  Since the CD booklet does not print the lyrics, the words are often somewhat difficult to understand but as near as I can gather, the song is about an old fisherman who sits and fishes while letting the world go by.  His surroundings are so peaceful that he feels as if he is the very first human to fish the river or, as he puts it, "the world's first poacher."  His mind is only "on his tackle and the words upon his mind." and some of these words going through his mind sound like the philosophy Lane followed throughout his life:  "I have no use for riches/I have no use for power/I have no use for broken hearts/I'll let that world go by."  "The Poacher" is quite possibly an intimate portrait of the artist himself.

Ronnie liked to keep his life and music as simple and uncomplicated as possible.  None of his albums reflects this attitude better than Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance, released in 1975.  More rough and tumble than its predecessor, Slim Chance's second album gets back to Lane's musical roots.  His love of dance hall music ("I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"), country & western ("Single Saddle") and fifties rock 'n' roll ("You Never Can Tell" and "Blue Monday") is worn on his sleeve in his choice of cover tunes.  All are given Slim Chance's engaging loose-limbed Celtic country swing treatment.  This must have been what the band sounded like on their gypsy road show gigs. I can't think of better music for an evening of wild drinking and dancing.  Its good-time quality is intoxicating even if you can't dance and don't drink like me.

The original songs on Slim Chance are just as delightful.  And to my surprise, two of them were already familiar to me.  "Stone" began life as "Evolution" which appeared on Pete Townshend's first solo album Who Came First.  The earlier version is a driving acoustic take with Pete handing the vocals over to Ronnie.  For Slim Chance, Ronnie snatches the song back again and infuses it with a shuffling Cajun arrangement.  The melody to "Give Me a Penny" surfaces again two years later on Rough Mix in the form the beautiful ballad "Annie."  "Annie" is my favorite song on that particular album.  It's definitely one of Lane's finest "pastoral" creations.  The sad harmonica and accordion arrangements and the "God bless us all" refrain melt my heart every time.  So to my ears "Give Me a Penny" has a lot to live up to.  "Annie" still ends up with top honors in my book but "Give Me a Penny's" lively arrangement fits right in with the party atmosphere of the second album and is a wonderful tune in its own way too.

The comparison between "Annie" and "Penny" may reveal the reason why I prefer Anymore for Anymore over Slim Chance, if I had to make a choice.  For all the ramshackle charm of the latter album, it is missing some of the pastoral (that is such an appropriate word for Lane's music) beauty of the former.  The third album One For the Road returns to the mix of timeless prettiness and barroom swing of the first Slim Chance album.  The album's opener, "Don't Try 'n' Change My Mind" lopes along  in an easy-going boogie with the bass guitar and fiddles leading the way.  "Burnin' Summer" is Lane at his most mysterious sounding.  His hushed vocal backed by quietly strummed acoustic guitars makes me feel the oppressive heat of the season.  "Harvest Home" brings to mind a cooler time of year.  The accordion, piano and guitar melodically flow along, subtly rising and falling in intensity, like sunlight fighting through the passing clouds.  No need for vocals on this one.  The instruments say it all.  And the hearty sing-a-long title track would not have been out of place on a Faces album.  Perhaps not as raunchy as the earlier band, it nonetheless conjures up the spirit of the Faces.  Lane's voice on the chorus even sounds a lot like Rod Stewart's.

One For the Road is an apt title for what would be Slim Chance's final call.  At the end of 1976, left with a pile of debt from financing Slim Chance's countryside tours, Lane could no longer support the band.  He asked his old friend Pete Townshend if he would collaborate on an album in hopes of bringing in some money.  Townshend agreed and the splendid Rough Mix was born.

A couple of years later, Townshend helped Lane out again by producing a single for him called "Kuschty Rye."  The single's accordion laced sound proved that Lane hadn't lost his touch.  "Kuschty Rye" was just one of  the memorable songs on Lane's last album, 1980's See Me.  The wryly titled "Lad's Got Money" recalls the heart-tugging gospel feeling of Long Player's "Tell Everyone."  "She's Leaving" is a beautiful breezy ballad that has an irresistible sweeping chorus.  Co-written by Eric Clapton, "Barcelona" may be the most tender song on any Ronnie Lane album.  But my favorite is "Only You."  While not the old Platters tune, this Lane original certainly takes its rock 'n' roll heart from the earlier fifties ballad and features Lane's best forlorn vocal.  See Me also tries to slick up Ronnie's sound and it doesn't always work.   The dance beat on "Good Ol' Boys Boogie" is almost embarrassing as it reins in Ronnie's usual relaxed charm.  And "Don't Tell Me Now" attempts to join Lane's love of the accordion with a slow reggae rhythm, making for an unusual but jarring mix.

The cover of See Me is a partially developed photograph of Lane with his image barely visible.  He must have felt as if he were disappearing around this time since the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis were growing progressively worse.  He still performed music as much as he could, playing some gigs around London following his last album, organizing a series of all-star concerts in Britain and America to raise money for MS research in 1983, and, as he relocated to Austin, Texas a few years later, becoming a part of the city's thriving music scene.  One of the groups Lane formed while in Austin had an instrumental line up very similar to Slim Chance and included a guitarist named Alejandro Escovedo.  (Escovedo  jumped at the opportunity to play in Lane's band.  He had been a long-time Faces fan, always securing himself a place in front of Ronnie's side of the stage whenever he went to their shows.)  Ronnie spent his last years living quietly with his wife and step-daughters in Trinidad, Colorado until he passed away on June 4, 1997.

It is a shame it took Lane's death to motivate me to finally seek out his music.  But getting to know Lane through his music has been an unforgettable experience.  I know now that Ronnie Lane was much more than a person who battled MS and Pete Townshend's sometime protégé.  He was a romantic who followed his muse with his heart, producing music that in many ways foreshadows the "alternative country" genre of today.  The music of this grinning Englishman with the twinkle in his eye trespassed into my heart and captured it, making Ronnie Lane not only the world's first, but also the best poacher.

FALL 1997



I've never actually been to Memphis, Tennessee.  I've lived most of my life in a small college town in Eastern Washington State, about as far removed from Memphis as you can get.  Cheney, Washington doesn't exactly ooze music.  Rodeos and wheat harvesting are the big things here, not rhythm and blues, rockabilly or Stax and Sun.  Although I'm stuck inside of Washington, Memphis is now a place that is alive, thanks to a couple of books that I've recently read.  I first visited Memphis through Peter Guralnick's wonderful book about Elvis Presley called Last Train to Memphis which hooked me deeply from almost the first line of its introduction.   I was right there with a young Elvis as he sat at a Memphis soda fountain, drumming his fingers on the counter, barely able to contain the music stirring inside of him.   Last Train to Memphis really sucked me into it's world as very few books have done before.  I've told my wife that if virtual reality is perfected in my lifetime, I could very possibly become addicted to it.  Imagine if computer generated reality becomes so lifelike that I could actually be at Elvis' Sun sessions or perhaps a vintage Dylan concert.  I wouldn't want to leave, kind of like the character in Lew Shiner's Glimpses.  (No wonder I loved that book so much!)  Well, I didn't want to leave Guralnick's book and I didn't have to wait for any technological advances to experience its magic.   With writing this vivid and vital, who needs virtual reality?  

I was captured even more by It Came From Memphis, a remarkable book by a Memphis born and raised writer named Robert Gordon.  The book focuses on what else, besides Elvis Presley, makes Memphis such a special place.  By my estimation, Gordon and I are about the same age but our musical experiences while growing up weren't just separated by half of the United States, they were so different they might as well have happened on different planets.  For Robert Gordon, the music that he loved was being created by people right in the town where he was growing up.  In 1975 when he was in ninth grade, Gordon was captivated by seeing bluesman Furry Lewis open for the Rolling Stones at one of their stadium shows. A short time later, he encountered Lewis again, this time at his own  high school at an informal lunch time gig arranged by a fellow student.   Gordon asked how this impromptu performance came to be and was given Furry Lewis' phone number.  With just a phone call (though an offer to bring a bottle of whiskey may have helped), Gordon was invited over to the bluesman's house and gained admission to the Memphis music scene.  Soon his list of telephone numbers grew to include other local musicians as well.  The idea of making contact with such great music makers when I was the same age is so alien to me. This may be the reason why I found It Came From Memphis so awe inspiring.  Music was something I bought at the record store, not something being performed by someone who lived down the street.  Music was a living, breathing entity in Gordon's life as a teenager and he brought his experiences to life for me through his writing.     

According to Gordon, Memphis is about collisions.  Like the collision between a white high school student and a frail black man with a guitar.  It Came From Memphis chronicles some of the many collisions that occur in the unique world called Memphis, Tennessee.  Memphis is about another white kid named Jim Dickenson who, while walking home with his father one day, encounters a jug band playing in an alleyway and can't seem to tear himself away from the sound.  Dickenson went on to become a noted musician/songwriter/producer and has been a key figure of the Memphis scene for over thirty years.  You get the feeling that Dickenson knows every nook and cranny of the local music scene and has a million and one stories inside of him.  Dickenson lets more than a few of his reminiscences loose here in Gordon's book and it makes for fascinating reading.  Memphis is radio disc jockey Dewey Phillips, known for his eclectic playlists and wild on-air antics, hitting TV in 1956 with his own pre-American Bandstand music show and becoming kind of a rock 'n' roll version of Ernie Kovacs.  And over twenty years later, the manic spirit of Phillips is resurrected for television once again when a group of mostly non-musicians named Panther Burns perform an unworldly rendition of the Burnette Bothers' "Train Kept a Rollin'" for a local morning talk show.  No one had seen or heard anything like it before and Memphis may be the only place in the world where such a thing could ever happen.  Memphis is a song titled "Last Night" by a group of white boys called the Mar-Keys, one of the first big hits for the Stax label, known for releasing tons of classic soul and r&b sides by the likes of Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas.  In fact, the Mar-Keys were the label's first house band and played on many of the early Stax releases. Collisions between the young and old.  Between the city and the rural.  Collisions between black and white cultures.  Different musics colliding.  This is what Memphis is about.

One Memphis collision that I'm intimately familiar with is the music of the power pop band Big Star (Beatlesque sheen meets the dark mysteries of Robert Johnson) and the career of leader Alex Chilton.  After Big Star disintegrated during the recording of it's third album Sister Lovers, Chilton has pursued a career that has puzzled many of his early fans.  Why has Chilton turned his back on the British influenced sound that he's best known for in favor of doing covers of early pop and r&b tunes?  In the context of Gordon's book however, Chilton's solo work makes perfect sense and is a prime example of the Memphis way of doing things.  One of Chilton's first albums called Like Flies On Sherbert, made up mostly of rockabilly and country covers, brought the feeling of danger and manic energy of visiting a West Memphis nightclub in the 1950's to the recording studio of the late 70's.  The album is the aural equivalent of flying beer bottles, gun shots and drunken fist fights.  It was recorded in three days by a studio full of musicians who usually didn't know what song was coming next and mixed by Jim Dickenson over the course of a year.  The sound is sloppy and frightening, yet in its own way it is as sweeping as a Phil Spector production.  The sound of collision again.  A sound that is Memphis.  Even though Big Star has reunited for a few concerts and a live album, Alex Chilton continues to go his own way.   One of his new albums Clichés is a collection of jazz standards performed with just an acoustic guitar and his voice.  He sees no reason to repeat himself by penning some new Big Star-like material for the fans.  The old Big Star songs are still available if and whenever he wants to perform them.   All he's doing now is playing  music that his heart leads him to.  Just like Dewey Phillips did with the records he played on his radio and television shows.  Mixing things up until a spark happens.

And Chilton's individualistic attitude is not a unique one.  Gordon's book taught me that many Memphis musicians almost revel in their obscurity.  Why?  Because obscurity means being able to have something more valuable than a big recording contract and loads of money:  the freedom to create without the restrictions and pressures of fame.  If Chilton had landed a deal with a major record label, I doubt Like Flies On Sherbert would have been released or that he could have made an acoustic album that includes renditions of both Bach's "Gavotte Suite" and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song".  Wise man Jim Dickenson has a saying that sums up the Memphis music scene:  The best songs don't get recorded, the best recordings don't get released, and the best releases don't get played.  The attitude in Memphis, as Gordon says, is that there is no reason for every song to be a hit but there is every reason for a song to be.  It doesn't matter if Furry Lewis plays for fifty people at a high school or for a stadium crowd of fifty thousand.  As long as the music is being made and someone is there to hear it, that's the important thing.  
It Came From Memphis ends with a section of "Further Reading, Watching and Listening,"  which points the way to enough music and other materials for a lifetime of exploring.  The variety of music presented here could make a playlist that would make Dewey Phillips proud.  The extensive listing includes everything from Red, Hot & Blue, a compilation album of  vintage radio shows by Dewey himself, to some more recent gems that haven't even seen the light of day yet, such as video of a Memphis Big Star reunion concert (oh please, let this be released!) and a documentary that captures the spirit of Memphis called Stranded in Canton by Bill Eggleston.  The film has not been widely seen but from Gordon's description, it sounds like its a sometimes moving, other times disturbing portrait of the city and some of the people that hang out in its shadows.  Kind of a visual Like Flies On Sherbert, only the gunshots are real ones this time.

Gordon's discography inspired me to do some exploring of my own.  I may not be able to experience Memphis first hand from all the way out in Washington State, but I can seek out and experience recorded moments of its music history.  I managed to snag tapes of some of the nine disc Complete Stax Singles 1959-1968 collection.  (Just think, this nine disc set is only a tiny tip of an enormous iceberg of Memphis music!)  I have tapes of three of the CDs which is still plenty of music to dive into for my Memphis baptism.  Some observations and revelations:  A few of the songs I remember hearing on the radio when I was a kid but they haven't been part of my life for quite some time.  I was familiar with things like Booker T. and the MGs' "Green Onions" (I'd forgotten about Steve Cropper's snarling guitar on this one.  How great!) and the Otis Redding material (Even surrounded by all of this other great music, Redding's performances still stand out.  Every time one of his songs popped up, with just the first few notes I'd take notice and think "Wow!  What is this?!").   But much of the music here was new to me.  After reading Gordon's book, I would have been gravely disappointed if my tapes hadn't included the Mar-Keys' "Last Night."   I'm happy to report that the goofy, infectious classic single made it onto my tapes.  The song is a Little Richard style keyboard boogie punctuated by one note horn blasts that sound like they're blowing  inches from your face.  On one level, it might be surprising that such a simple, silly song could be such a huge hit.  On another level, well, I defy you to keep from dancing once you hear it!  Two more artists that surprised me with nearly every one of their songs I encountered on the set were Carla Thomas and William Bell.  Thomas did some fine up tempo numbers with her father Rufus, but it was her series of earnest ballads that won me over.  Time and time again, with one single after another, she seems to capture something special with her voice.  The liner notes for the Stax box says that William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" is regarded as the "first great country-soul ballad".   I had never heard of the song or Bell before but with one listen to the song I became a fan.  Bell's songs are more pop oriented than most of the other Stax singles and remind me a lot of another one of my favorites, Arthur Alexander, who also mined both country and soul for inspiration.  I wonder if William Bell has any albums of his own out?  Ah, another look at Gordon's book answers my question.  He recommends the album Soul of a Bell.   The search is on!
But Robert Gordon's book did more than just open the door to a bunch of great musical finds.  While Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis made the passion and enthusiasm that Elvis had for music real, It Came From Memphis has shown me that this particular kind of passion doesn't begin and end with Elvis Presley.  This creative fervor seems to be everywhere in this place called Memphis, Tennessee and Gordon's book captures the excitement of being there.  Living in Eastern Washington, music for me is still mostly delivered via recordings.  Every once in a while I may travel across the state to Seattle to catch a concert but live music isn't an everyday happening in my life.  It's an event that happens a couple of times a year, if I'm lucky.  But when Gordon writes about performers like Mud Boy and the Neutrons, who have only released two obscure albums in their twenty-one year career and whose rare live shows sound as dangerous as Elvis probably seemed in 1954, I'm reminded that music isn't just a static performance preserved on a shiny disc, it's also still a living and evolving thing.  Living in the middle of nowhere,  bombarded by slick videos on M-TV and lousy radio, it's easy to forget how special a live performance is.   In the end, music, especially in Memphis, still comes down to people performing music in front of other people.  Just knowing that there is a place where all this music and creativity happened, and is happening still, is exciting to think about.  I had no idea there was so much going on in Memphis.

I don't  know if I'll ever make it down to Memphis to experience its magic in person but I do know I'd want someone as savvy as Robert Gordon as my guide, that's for sure.  The diverse elements that mixed and collided to help produce this special magic has also caused some clashes and casualties.  Don Nix, one of the original Mar-Keys, says, "There's something about Memphis that makes people a little crazy.  Since I moved out of there, I'm not near as crazy as I was."  Remember those gunshots I mentioned?  Sounds a little scary to me.  But even if the closest I get to Memphis is just getting to hear some more of the music that Gordon recommends or, hopefully someday, watching a Stranded in Canton laserdisc in the comfort of my own home, I'll still have It Came From Memphis to open up and remind me that Memphis is an alive place.  Through Robert Gordon's virtual Memphis, I can feel its spirit and music.  Even while stranded here in Cheney, Washington.




Charlie Sexton became Bob Dylan's main guitar-slinger in 1999, but Dylan originally asked the multi-talented musician to join his band nearly two years earlier and Sexton actually declined.  Why?  At the time, he was busy producing an album by singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso.  One listen to Fracasso's music and it's clear why Sexton regards him so highly.  His high, lonesome voice, richly detailed lyrics and haunting melodies combine to make some of the sweetest sounds to come out of the musical hotbed of Austin, Texas.  A West Coast tour recently brought Michael to Seattle, where Kathy and I gave him a place to stay and he graciously granted me an interview.  Fracasso talked about his early days as a musician in New York City and Austin, working with Charlie Sexton and hearing Charlie's current boss for the first time.

Steve Rostkoski:  When did you decide to become a musician?

Michael Fracasso:  I'd say [my 1978 move to] New York was my headlong dive into professional music.  I had played gigs prior to that, but I made a commitment to be a musician with my move to New York in order to be among other songwriters and throw myself into the scene. 

SR:  You moved to New York from Pullman [a small town where Fracasso attended Washington State University for a short time]?

MF:  Yeah, it was quite a transition.  Just before I left Pullman, I started to read the New York Times.  I thought, "OK, I gotta learn about where I'm moving to."  They had an article about the folk music scene.  It was a big article in the Entertainment section of the Sunday paper.  They talked about the Cornelia Street Café and when I got to New York, that was the first place I went to, to see what was going on there and it was really exciting.  You know, I think part of the reason why I wanted to move to New York and be a songwriter was Bob Dylan's second record jacket [laughs].  Freewheelin', that was such a romantic cover and I'm kind of a romantic anyway.

SR:  You were a long-time Dylan fan?

MF:  Oh yeah.  I was a freshman in high school [in the 1960s] and my older sister was going out with a college guy and he came over with Blonde on Blonde and left it at our house and I was hooked.  I remember hearing some of Dylan's stuff on the radio before that, but Blonde on Blonde was the first time I was really exposed to Dylan's music.  At that time, the folk music boom was really happening, so folk music started filtering onto TV shows and you could hear it now and again on the radio, like Peter, Paul and Mary's "Blowin' In the Wind" and things like that.  I had an immediate love for that kind of music.  I loved the sound of the guitar.  It was new [to me] and really exciting to hear an acoustic guitar.

SR:  After your New York stay. . .

MF:  I was there quite a while.  I moved there in June of 1978 and left in April 1990.

SR:  I didn't realize it was that long.  You must have met a lot of musicians during that time.

MF:  I met a lot of great musicians, like Steve Forbert and Suzanne Vega.  They were all on the scene.  Steve actually had released his first record, Alive on Arrival, that same year I came to New York.  That's still one of my favorite records.  I just saw Steve.  He was in Austin and had me sing backup on a radio show with him.  To me, Steve is the philosopher of folk music.  His mind is always working on something pretty deep, it seems.

SR:  So, back to your travels.  In 1990 you packed up your VW Rabbit and headed for Austin, Texas.

MF:  And again I made another dramatic move.  I didn't know anybody in Austin.  It was kind of the opposite of my New York move.  I first moved to Maynard, Texas, where a couple hundred people lived in town.  I was in the middle of fields and after being in New York, I really loved it.

SR:  Did you soon get involved in Austin's music scene?

MF:  I actually took it easy.  I was tired of New York and trying to make it as a musician.  I realized that I was more interested in being successful in the music business, rather than just making music.  That has to do with living in New York.  It sucks it out of you sometimes and that's why I left. What would happen was people would say, "We want to sign you.  We really love you.  Blah blah blah," and then I'd wait around and wait some more.  Finally, someone from Warner Brothers came to one of my shows at CBGB's and said, "You know Michael, you don't belong in this town.  You need to go out and get some exposure somewhere else and get something under your belt.  It's not going to happen for you here if you don't."  And I really took that to heart.  I knew she was right.  I always felt I needed to move and that gave me the kick in the butt to get out of New York, so I did. [After I moved to Texas] I didn't want to force myself to do anything.  I moved to Austin, got a job as a waiter, I painted and I wrote music.  For the first time I felt really free to write again.  I was fun.  For the first three months, I didn't go out to clubs to hear music at all.  All these great acts were playing in town and I never went to see them.  Eventually, I started going to open mic nights and getting gigs at this little place called Chicago House.  Lucinda Williams was in town and we became good friends.  She was always hosting parties at her house.  It was fun hanging out, playing music and meeting people, like Doug Sahm and Bob Neuwirth. 

SR:  How did your first album, Love and Trust, come about?

MF:  I put out an independent cassette. . .

SR:  Did you try releasing your own tapes while in New York too?

MF:  I did a lot of demos with a lot of different producers.  In the beginning, I was paying for them out of my pocket and that was disgusting.  And then I started getting production deals with other people paying for it, which was nice.  But nothing I really liked came out of those demos.  I listen to that stuff now and I realize I hadn't really learned how to sing very well.

SR:  So, you started making your own tapes in Austin?

MF:  I made a home demo and gave it to one of the radio stations.  They really liked it, although the quality was really bad.  I remember being in my car and listening to the radio and they played one of the tracks from the cassette.  [The DJ] said, "That was a Michael Fracasso song and we hope one day that he'll go into a real studio and make a record so that we can play it all the time."  So I thought, "OK, I gotta go do that."  So I basically used the material on that first home tape and put out an independent cassette, but good quality and recorded in a studio.  Then the guy at Dejadisc heard it and wanted to put it out.  We cut three more songs in the studio and that became the first album, Love and Trust.  I really love that record.

SR:  How did you meet Charlie Sexton?

MF:  It turned out that Charlie was a fan of mine.  I didn't know Charlie and one time I had a gig somewhere and the drummer cancelled at the last minute.  I didn't know who to call, but my bass player George Reiff suggested Charlie Sexton.  I was like, "What???  Charlie, he plays guitar."  George says, "He plays drums."  I thought, "Yeah, but he's not going to know my material," but George tells me, "He knows all of your songs, Michael.  He knows everything you do."  Anyway, I call Charlie and he invited me to his studio.  The very first day in the studio, we started tracking what became the World In a Drop of Water album.  He said, "Hey, let's record you," and the next thing I know I'm playing Charlie the title song, which is a very bizarre song.  He probably thought I was out of my mind!

SR:  When I first saw you in concert, Charlie was playing drums.

MF:  He played with me in Austin all the time.  He played almost every gig [in Austin] for about a year and a half.  Either guitar, bass or drums, depending on what I needed.  He plays everything!

SR:  Charlie is on your latest live album, Back to Oklahoma.  How did that come about?

MF:  Charlie and I started working on my fourth album and pretty much hit a wall.  We recorded ten songs and I tried to shop it to finance the finishing of the record, but couldn't get any money together.  I had all this other material that wasn't going to make it onto this record we were working on, so Greg Johnson, from the Blue Door club in Oklahoma City, and music critic Dave Marsh thought I should make a live album after seeing me and Charlie play together at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin.  Charlie was on the road with Bob Dylan by this time, so I didn't know if he'd ever have the time, but when I asked him, he said, "Sure, let's do it!"  We flew up to Oklahoma City to the Blue Door, got there in the morning, went to work and by the evening we had a record.

SR:  You always seem to play at the Blue Door.  Is it one of your favorite venues?

MF:  Yes, it's one of my favorite places.  It's a nice room.  Really great people go there.  They're really into music.  They go there to listen to music, not just to be seen.  I get back there as much as I can.

SR:  What are your future plans?  Are you recording with Charlie in the studio again?

MF:  We're going to try to finish this other record of mine.  I have a lot of new material that I want to try to put down.  We already have ten songs, but I think we're going to take some of those out and replace them with some others and see if it comes together.  Or we might start from scratch.  I think Charlie has some time off this summer when we can finish the record.

SR:  Dylan is supposedly filming the movie around July and the tour starts back up in August.  Are you using Charlie's studio again?

MF:  We're going to use another studio this time.  I don't want Charlie to have to be the engineer.  I'd rather not have him work that hard so he can concentrate on producing.

JUNE 2002



Just us kids hanging out today
Watching our long hair turnin' grey
Not so skinny maybe not so free
Not so many as we used to be

There’s a lot of music coming at me lately and not much of it is sticking.  A friend sent me two new reissues regarded as classic albums, Floodland by Sisters of Mercy and the Bee Gees’ Odessa.  I can’t connect with Floodland at all.  Maybe because I’ve been gearing up for the upcoming Leonard Cohen show and his suicidal elegance makes the Sisters come off as mopey posers in comparison.  The Bee Gees’ ambitious opus is quite a bit better, but it still hasn’t blown me away like its reputation says it should.  Perhaps I’ll give it a few more spins.  I’ve also heard most of Neil Young’s next album, Fork in the Road, fuelled by Young’s current interest in eco-friendly cars and the state of the economy.  The new songs he’s previewed in concert and on his website aren’t very distinctive.  Neil can write this stuff in his sleep and probably did.  His spontaneity and conviction are admirable, but this time don’t add up to anything I’d want to listen to frequently.  It’s times like these when I think it’s better to return to old musical favorites from my library instead.

Then something unexpectedly comes along and does stick.  A few new songs by James McMurtry recently caught my ear so I decided to try his latest album Just Us Kids.  Maybe disappointment over Bruce Springsteen’s last effort made me hungry for some fine slice-of-life storytelling.  Or perhaps anticipation of Bob Dylan’s forthcoming release put me in the mood for some good songwriting.  Whatever the reason, Just Us Kids hit me at just the right time.  Now this I can get excited about.

Unlike Neil Young’s latest polemic, McMurtry’s album is lyrically sharp and musically rich.   His voice combines Lou Reed’s lazy quaver with deep resonance of John Doe.  A gang of fellow Austin musicians, including keyboard player Ian McLagan, guitarist Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escovedo’s cellist Brian Standefer, creates a musical palette that reminds me of Los Lobos’ eclectic style.  James is most likely weary of literary comparisons, being the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, but Just Us Kids does indeed grab the listener like a good book.  You’re snapped to attention with the front-loaded gritty rockers, then lulled into the subtle details of the quieter second half.

Like Springsteen’s 1982 masterpiece Nebraska, Just Us Kids is a series of desolate portraits that populate the current American landscape.  The specter of the Iraq war, and the political and corporate idiocy of the last eight years hang over the songs “Cheney’s Toy” and “God Bless America (Pat MacDonald Must Die)” (“Negotiation's just no fun / And it don't serve our interests none / Gonna turn up the heat till it comes to a boil / Then we’ll go git that A-rab oil”).  The title track follows a small town kid looking for escape and his rise as a dot com fat cat as he ages and nears retirement (“It's a damn short movie / How'd we ever get here?”).  “The Governor” reads like a short story that mixes a murder mystery with political corruption.  Then there are the devastating character studies.  “Ruby and Carlos” is melancholy epic about the memory of a romance between a musician/war veteran and his older lover.  “Hurricane Party” uses the festivities surrounding an impending storm as a backdrop for a man’s reflection on past mistakes.  Most harrowing of all is “Fire Line Road,” which unwinds slowly and builds in intensity to finally reveal a life withering away.   Everything winds down toward “You’d a Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die),” a rumination about hidden thoughts and actions crumbling a relationship that’s a wry finale worthy of its titular poet.

Just Us Kids is an album Springsteen only wishes he could come up with these days, and if Dylan’s new one is half as good as McMurtry’s latest, I’ll be very happy.  James McMurtry’s journey is a dark one and the people he introduces along the way are unfortunately all too familiar in today’s America.  These kids are not alright.

APRIL 10-12, 2009


Well, I made it back home from the South By Southwest music convention and festival in Austin, Texas.  I had the time of my life down there!  When I think of all the music I heard and all the people I met, my head still spins.  Way too much happened to tell you about it all here but I will say that the highlight for me was the final event of the festival, the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra gig.  Hearing Escovedo with his big band (horn and string sections, two drummers, a percussionist, keyboards, along with guitars and bass) is the best way to experience his music, in my opinion.  All the wonderful diversity and intricacies of the music are even more apparent when performed by the large ensemble.  Even the rocker's anthem "Rebel Kind" had a wistful quality to it that almost brought tears to my eyes.  Heavenly stuff!  If heaven doesn't have music this beautiful, then I don't want to go there.  I'll stay in Austin.

It does feel like I left part of my soul down in Austin.  I've been feeling very restless ever since I got back and have taken every possible opportunity to get out of town for a while.   Kathy and I took off to Seattle for a weekend in mid April to see Pavement at the Paramount Theatre.  We were a little worried about getting moshed upon by the kids and had planned on grabbing seats in the first row of the balcony.  But we found out when we got to the theatre that the balcony was closed because only 800 tickets had been sold, not even enough to fill the seats on the floor.  (And here we had worried about being able to get tickets!  Sometimes I think  Seattle must not know how lucky it is to get shows like this.  Try being a music fan in Eastern Washington where the big upcoming show is John Tesh.)  Kathy and I ended up in the first row of seats behind the mosh pit, whose floor was lower than the seats so we could still see over the heads of the dancing crowd.  This was a really nice.  I wish more venues would have such an arrangement.  This way, those that want to dance can without blocking the view of those who wish to sit.

 A band called the Apples opened for Pavement and the best I can say about them is that they bravely attempted a cover of the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains."  They really didn't do much with it, other than playing it really fast at the beginning, quietly slowed down for the middle part and then sped through to the end.  The band were enthusiastic but their nervousness often showed, especially on their tentative guitar solos.  There was nothing tentative about Pavement, that's for sure.  Any band with a member like Bob Nastanovich, who may be the world's only harmony shouter and hollerer, can't possibly be called tentative.  I had heard that Pavement's live performances were sometimes sloppy affairs.  Based upon the show that I saw, I wouldn't call them sloppy at all.  I might call them relaxed, perhaps comfortable or cool, onstage but certainly not sloppy.  They effortlessly careened through most of their terrific new album Brighten the Corners, did quite a few songs from the first album Slanted and Enchanted and even played a request, the early single release "Box Elder," as the last encore.  I hardly noticed that they played only one song, "Cut Your Hair," from my favorite Crooked Rain.  Stephen Malkmus' voice was all but gone (he heartily agreed with an audience member's assessment that his voice was "roached") but he did the best he could and worked around his even more limited than usual range without pushing it too hard.  Voice or no voice, Malkmus does cut and unusually striking figure onstage.  His peculiar angular stance was enthralling.  I can still see him standing almost in profile, his microphone raised high so that his head tilted upwards towards the ceiling as he sang the easy going "Type Slowly" from the new album.  Pavement scarcely played for an hour and a quarter so I was left wishing for a few more songs.  Still, it was a great evening of music.   I wanna see them again sometime.  Maybe next time Malkmus will have his voice back too.

Two weeks later, we returned to Seattle since Wilco was in town.  Shortly before we left, I bought their latest album Being There and after hearing just the first couple of songs, I commented to Kathy that I had a feeling that seeing the band in concert was going to be something special.  While Wilco's first effort A.M. is a slightly loopy but heady combination of barroom rock 'n' roll, power pop and country, Being There is a more ambitiously varied and mature work.  The melodic power pop tunes, along with the country roots, are still evident.  This time however, the songs have a dark, moody undercurrent to them.  It reminds me no less than one of my favorite albums of all time, Big Star's Sister Lovers.  I was excited to hear what they were going to do with this challenging material live.

I was right.  The show was really special.  In concert, Wilco not only reminded me of Big Star (with his hair now cut short, lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy even looks a little like Alex Chilton), they also were very reminiscent of the Band.  The first part of the show consisted of the more folk and country material from Being There, which displayed the down-home feeling and virtuosity of much of the Band's early work.  The proceedings built in intensity as the rockers from the new album, and also a choice few from A.M., were introduced.  The double disc Being There was performed almost in its entirety, with the live versions often surpassing the originals.  "Someone Else's Song," a weary sounding country ballad on the album became an all out wicked blues number at the show.  The album opener "Misunderstood" sounds like "Walrus"-era John Lennon ballad on the verge of exploding at any minute, as the band drifts in and out of controlled chaos.  The song also opened the show and the tension between the quiet and noisy parts of the song was even more palpable than the studio take, until the band totally let loose at the end.  The end of the show was pretty crazy as well, with encores of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song,"  featuring one of the band's roadies on lead vocals.

The crowd at the King Cat Theater was appreciative but somewhat laid back.  For most of the evening, much of the audience remained in their seats.  By the end of the show, most everyone was on their feet.  Most everyone, that is, except me.  I'm on crutches so I usually stay  seated at concerts as long as I can see the action onstage.  Since Kathy and I were in the center seats four rows back, I could see most of the time.   It also helped that the people in front of us didn't stand throughout most of the show, which I didn't mind at all.  This did bother Jeff Tweedy however.  He asked what was wrong with the center section of the hall and chided us until everyone stood up.  Except me, of course.  Tweedy obviously had his eye on me because during one of the final songs, he jumped off stage, came down the aisle and squeezed his way down the row of seats until he reached me.  He grabbed my sleeve and tried to get me to stand up.  I pointed down to my crutches on the floor at my feet.  He nodded, said "OK" and ran back onstage.  I wasn't offended or anything.  I actually thought it was pretty cool.  Just one of the added benefits of going to a live show.

After the show I teased Tweedy a bit and said that I wasn't a total slacker since I did travel across the state just to see Wilco, after all.  He was good natured about it and apologized for singling me out.   No apology necessary, Jeff.  It's surprises like this, along with all the great music, of course, that makes all the time and expense of  traveling, the hotel reservations, not to mention the hassle of trying to escape work by calling in sick, just so I can get to these shows worth it.  Sure it's easier to stay at home with my CDs but there really is nothing like watching fellow human beings play music (or have them run over to you mid-song!).  I'm already making plans to go to more concerts.  I hear Alejandro's rock 'n' roll band Buick MacKane is supposed to hit Seattle in the near future and that Richard Thompson is going to play Portland at the end of June.  Let's see, how much vacation and sick leave do I have left?...




Actor/comedian Steve Coogan’s last introduced British television to Alan Partridge, an egotistic talk show host who rarely said or did the right thing.  The character starred in two series that combined the absurd situations of Curb Your Enthusiasm and backstage show biz comedy of The Larry Sanders Show.  Partridge constantly put his foot in one uncomfortable situation after another with squirm-inducing, hilarious results.  It was brilliant comedy.

Coogan’s most recent TV series, Saxondale, has finally been released on DVD in the US.  It’s about Tommy Saxondale, an aging former roadie who’s worked for countless rock bands throughout the 1970s.  Although now settled into suburbia and employed as a pest exterminator, Saxondale can’t quite let go of the rock ‘n’ roll rebel image he still has of himself.  He’s divorced, goes to an anger management group (though these sessions seem to be the only thing that really sets him off) and has an adoring artist girlfriend, Magz.  Tommy works with his young, slightly naïve assistant Raymond, and receptionist Linda, the passive-aggressive office gossip.

If you’re expecting the broad laughs of Alan Partridge, you may be disappointed with Saxondale at first.  But pay close attention and you’ll be rewarded with something more subtle and complex.  The relationship between Tommy and Magz turns the concept of the standard sitcom couple upside down.  It throws out the tired cliché of the middle-aged guy ending up with a young supermodel who endures all his shenanigans.  Magz, played by Ruth Jones, is a sexy, somewhat full-figured woman who obviously loves Tommy, though doesn’t hesitate to get on with her own life when he gets too irritating.  Tommy is a bit full of himself and often comes off as a know-it-all, but is basically a regular guy doing the best he can.  He just hasn’t grown up yet and can’t let go of the past.  Their relationship comes off real (if a little kinky).  The inspired idiocy of the Partridge character is toned down to a “you’ve been through this too, haven’t you?” everyman wink that makes Saxondale a richly textured comedy that ultimately may be even more satisfying than Coogan’s previous television efforts. 

P.S. Knowledge of ‘70s rock bands will enhance your enjoyment, but isn’t mandatory.

MARCH 2009



In the late 1960s, unauthorized albums of unreleased songs by popular artists such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan started to appear on the underground market.  These bootleg LPs enabled voracious fans to hear studio outtakes and live recordings unavailable on official releases.  Enterprising bootleggers often included one or two enticing gems, then padded the rest of an album with scraps and floor sweepings from the recording studio floor.  I guess things haven’t changed much, since a couple recent unofficial releases reminded me of these good and bad aspects of early bootlegs.

Revolution Take… Your Knickers Off! presents two CDs worth of circa 1968 studio sessions by the Beatles and a few of the artists they worked with at the time.  John Lennon runs through multiple demo takes of his acoustic ballad “Julia.”  Paul McCartney teaches singer Cilla Black “Step Inside Love,” a song he wrote for her British television series.  He also shows Badfinger his song “Come and Get It,” which became the band’s first hit single.  Eleven takes of an early Badfinger composition “No Escaping Your Love” then round out the collection.  All of this is fascinating fly-on-the-wall stuff, but repetitious and hardly anything you’d want to listen to very often.

The one gem here, and it’s a MONSTER, is a previously unheard and complete take of the Beatles’ “Revolution.”  This was the first song recorded for their self-titled 1968 album, known as the White Album for its austere cover.  The 10 minute take became two of the album’s selections, “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9.”  It begins with the recording engineer announcing the take number and a John Lennon quip that supplies the bootleg with its risqué title.  The first four minutes comprise “Revolution 1” without the horns and other overdubs heard on the released version.  The remaining six minutes disintegrate into chaos with guitar and other sound effects, “mama-dada” vocal harmonies and spoken word non-sequiturs.  Lennon took elements of this section to create his “Revolution 9” sound collage.  It’s jaw dropping to hear this raw complete “Revolution” and realize how different parts were used to make separate songs.  How did this finally surface after more than forty years?  Who knows?  But I'm sure glad it did.

The first rock music bootleg album released over forty years ago was Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder, coincidentally also named for its plain cover.  It contained songs from sessions known as the Basement Tapes.  In the summer and fall of 1967, Bob Dylan and a group of musicians called the Hawks, later known as the Band, holed up in a house near Woodstock, New York, to relax and make music.  The body of work they produced draws upon traditional folk, blues and country tunes for inspiration and has an otherworldly, timeless quality to it.  Tapes of some songs were distributed to publishers and musicians so that other artists, such as the Byrds and Manfred Mann, could record them.  A selection from the original tapes was finally officially issued in 1975, but it barely scratched the surface and even left off two of the most popular songs, “I Shall Be Released” and “Quinn the Eskimo.”

Once again, the bootleggers have come to the rescue.  Mixin’ Up the Medicine is one CD filled to the brim with the cream of the Basements in the best quality yet.  It puts the official album to shame, both sonically and in song selection, and would make a stellar official release in its own right.  It’s all here, from the original renditions of the jaunty “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Down in the Flood,” two songs Dylan still performs in concert, to “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released,” all later covered by the Band themselves on their albums.  This is essential stuff.

Amazingly, releases such as Mixin’ Up the Medicine and Revolution Take… Your Knickers Off! show that even decades after the fact bootleggers can somehow still surprise hardcore music collectors and fans.  It makes me wonder what else could be out there waiting to be unleashed.

APRIL 27, 2009



I’ve been lucky and busy with three major musical visitations in the span of about a week.  Less than two weeks after I discovered James McMurtry’s Just Us Kids, I find out he’s playing two gigs right in my neighborhood.  There’s no way I could pass this up, especially for a mere $15.  His excellent album didn’t prepare me for the blazing power trio made up of McMurtry and his rhythm section that invaded the bar.  In my review of Just Us Kids I compared his vocals to Lou Reed and was surprised that in concert McMurtry produced loud, heavily distorted guitar riffs reminiscent of Reed’s fretwork as well.  Things only cooled down a bit when James picked up an acoustic guitar for songs like “Ruby and Carlos” and “Lights of Cheyenne,” letting his lyrics light up the place instead of the band.  The songs did most of the talking all night since McMurtry is rather taciturn, occasionally drawling a self-deprecating “Now it’s time for all the HITS,” or “You know what you wanna hear, but don’t know what you’re gonna hear” in response to yelled requests.  All in all, a great show by one of the finest songwriters I’ve heard in quite a while fuelled by a surprisingly blistering ensemble.

I wonder if James played “You’d a’ Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)” the next night in tribute to the Canadian poet who was also in town the same evening?  I don’t know, because I was fortunate enough to be in the presence of Mr. Cohen himself instead of seeing McMurtry a second time.  The two performers may share the gift of literate lyrics and a similar low key manner, but their shows couldn’t be more different.  Cohen presents a finely tuned live experience. His rehearsed-to-precision band includes a keyboard player, woodwind player, two guitarists, bass player, drummer and backup vocalists.  Their mix of jazz and folk, with a dollop of funk, backs Cohen’s beyond-deep rumble of a voice that sounds like God himself, as he contemplates redemption, love found and lost and other late night ruminations.  For three hours, the 74 year-old bard gave the audience exactly what they came for, singing favorites from a four-decade-long career. Cohen could have easily gotten away with giving less on his first tour in fifteen years, but that’s not possible for an artist as humble and generous as he is.  Dressed in a dark gray suit and fedora, Cohen often knelt on stage as he sang, almost in supplication to the audience and fellow musicians for the honor of letting him perform.  He blessed us with his words and music.  Indeed, the most common comment I heard as I left the auditorium was, “I feel like I’ve just been to church.”

“Doug [Sahm] was like me, maybe the only figure from that old period of time that I connected with.  He was a big soul.  He had a hit record, “She’s About a Mover,” and I had a hit record [“Like a Rolling Stone”] at the same time.  So we became buddies back then, and we played the same kind of music.  We never really broke apart… I miss Doug.  He got caught in the grind.  He should still be here.”
                                                                                                     -- Bob Dylan
                                                                                                         Rolling Stone Interview, April 2009

Shortly after being anointed by Leonard Cohen, I received Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life, the latest gospel by the master of all songwriters.  Dylan has been on a late-career roll ever since 1997’s Time Out of Mind.  However, his last studio album, 2006’s Modern Times, is perhaps the weakest link in a decade of fine work.  It’s a collection of good songs hampered by slightly lackluster musicianship, especially apparent in the guitar playing.  Well, Bob must be reading my reviews because his touring band’s guitarists are nowhere to be found this time around.  David Hidalgo from the Los Angeles band Los Lobos and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers take their places and what a difference new blood makes!  While the playing on Modern Times sounds like a mannered struggle, the new record’s performances are tight and assured that make for a more volatile, engaging experience.  (If only Bob could tour with this lineup!)

Hidalgo is credited with both guitar and accordion, giving Together Though Life a Tex-Mex, south-of-the-border feel.  I’m not surprised to read Dylan’s comments on Texas musician Doug Sahm in a recent Rolling Stone interview, and the new songs can be heard as a tribute to him.  These tunes roam the same musical territory that Sahm did, stirring up a Texas-flavored brew of blues, rock, R&B and country.  The lead track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” is a Latin-flavored romp punctuated by trumpet and accordion fills.  A mandolin trills throughout the tender country ballad “Life is Hard,” while a violin gives "This Dream of You" an aura of a melancholy memory.  “My Wife’s Home Town” is a Willie Dixon-based slow blues supported by a driving beat and angular guitar lines, and the breezy “If You Ever Go to Houston” swings with a singing steel guitar.

Lyrically, these songs largely eschew the wry wordplay found on the 2001 masterpiece “Love and Theft” and echo the dark shadows of Time Out of Mind and the more straight forward quality found on Modern Times.  “Forgetful Heart” sounds like a Time Out of Mind outtake laced with spooky distorted guitar as Dylan mourns, “Forgetful heart / Like a walking shadow in my brain / All night long / I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain / The door has closed forevermore / If indeed there ever was a door.”  The soulful spirit of Sam Cooke comes calling musically on “I Feel a Change Comin' On,” while its verses go from hopeful (‘We've got so much in common / We strive for the same old ends / And I just can't wait / Wait for us to become friends / I feel a change comin' on / And the fourth part of the day's already gone”) to disparaging hopelessness by song’s end (“Everybody got all the money / Everybody got all the beautiful clothes / Everybody got all the flowers / I don't have one single rose”).  The set closes with a litany of the world’s wrongs in the style of “Everything is Broken” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” with Dylan finally declaring tongue-in-cheek, “It’s All Good.”

Together Through Life is more playful and satisfying than Modern Times and comes close to heights of the last decade’s masterworks.  It proves Dylan is as vital as ever.  And so are Leonard Cohen and relative newcomers like James McMurtry.  Their visits create a little bit of musical heaven on earth.  And that’s a wondrous thing to witness indeed.

APRIL 28 – MAY 2, 2009



In the 1960s, the Who’s Pete Townshend once described their music as “power pop.”  The term later became a post-1960s genre defined by melodic hooks, jangley guitars and crisp vocal harmonies, influenced by 1960s British Invasion bands such as the Beatles, the Who and the Kinks.  I’m a sucker for the stuff.  Maybe because our usual dreary nine-month winter has finally lifted, lately I’ve been in the mood to unearth a few Power Pop gems. Perfect for summer listening! 

One of Power Pop’s prime instigators was the Dwight Twilley Band. Led by Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based band burst into the Top 20 in 1975 with the hit “I’m On Fire.”  Record company problems stalled the release of their first album Sincerely for nearly a year so they were never able to capitalize on the single’s initial success.  Shortly after 1977’s Twilley Don’t Mind, Seymour left to pursue a solo career.  Twilley himself went on to release a number of albums over the years, but he and Seymour recorded only one more song together prior to Phil’s death in 1993.  So the recent unexpected appearance of a vintage 1976 Cleveland concert recording is a most welcome surprise.  Live from Agora captures the band between the release of their two albums and is a stunning reminder of the magic Twilley and Seymour created together.  Since Seymour released just two solo albums, it’s easy to forget how integral he was to the Dwight Twilley Band sound.  Although he and Twilley shared the vocals, Seymour was the stronger, more versatile singer and it’s wonderful to hear his voice again on Live from Agora.

The concert blasts off with “Shakin’ in the Brown Grass,” the first of three previously unreleased songs included in the set.  It’s a great showcase for the band’s harder-edged live sound, propelled by two drummers, including Seymour, and no less than three guitarists when Twilley isn’t covering the keyboards.  The sound here is huge compared to their studio work.  The Dwight Twilley Band are unique because they add a dash of rockabilly to their pop mix, brought to the fore by Bill Pitcock IV, an amazing lead guitarist who effortlessly channels riffs from both the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes within the same song.  “TV” sounds like a punked-up Elvis Presley number, while the stuttering groove of “I’m On Fire” recalls Buddy Holly backed by the power of the Who.  “Chance to Get Away,” a breezy folk-rock tune on Twilley Don’t Mind, is given a harder push live by the throng of ringing guitars.  The two drummers thunder through “Betsy Sue,” another unreleased rocker, and even when Twilley’s pounding piano on “Could Be Love” echoes the Sesame Street theme, it somehow works.  The guitar-driven “England,” reminiscent of the Who’s cover of “Summertime Blues,” brings Live from Agora to a breathless close.  This could simply be the best Dwight Twilley Band recording available.  It’s that good.

One of the earliest Power Pop innovators was the successful South African band the Flames who left their native country for London, England, in 1968.  While there, the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson spotted the group playing at a club and offered to fly them to the US to record an album.  They changed their name to the Flame and issued their self-titled LP in 1970.  Long out of print, the album has been reissued on a small import label for Power Pop obsessives like me to rediscover.  The opening track “See the Light” unequivocally states the Flame’s musical agenda, recalling a crunchier version of Badfinger with layers of electric guitars and lots of background percussion flourishes.  “Lady” evokes White Album-era Paul McCartney at his most tuneful, as does the first part of “Don’t Worry Bill” until it explodes into a heavy Lennonesque guitar-driven finale.  “Get Your Mind Made Up” ends with a three-way guitar jam much like the second side of the Beatles’ Abbey Road.  And a gentle acoustic guitar, lush vocal harmonies and plucked violins make the short but sweet “Dove” soar.  The Flame album is a must for any Badfinger or Beatle fan.  Unfortunately, a second LP was shelved and the band called it a day shortly thereafter.  It’s not surprising that member Ricky Fataar became part of the brilliant Beatle parody band the Rutles in the late 1970s (he played Stig O’Hara, the quiet one).  Former bandmate Blondie Chapman remains a long-time sideman for the Rolling Stones.

It might seem odd to include the Searchers in my Power Pop roundup since the Liverpool group’s 1960s hits, such as “Needles and Pins” and “When You Walk in the Room,” actually influenced the genre.  But the band recorded two comeback albums in the late 1970s without relying on past glories and updated their sound to fit in with the times.  I’ve appreciated the second LP, Love’s Melodies, ever since its 1979 release.  The record is full of engaging hooks and ringing guitars.  In other words, Power Pop to the hilt!  It also includes a great cover of Big Star’s “September Gurls,” which was my introduction to the classic song.  I don’t know why I never picked up the first self-titled album, but I remember seeing it constantly in the used record bins.  Of course when I went looking for a copy, the bins were bare.  Luckily, it has been recently reissued on CD, so I finally grabbed it.

The Searchers is a mix of well-chosen covers and a few originals, much like Love’s Melodies.  But the selection on the earlier disc is even more startling and diverse.  I first heard the ribald “Switchboard Susan” on Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust, where it was a blistering pub rocker.  The Searchers tone things down, revealing the song’s laid back folky groove instead.  Tom Petty’s “Lost in Your Eyes” is a lush ballad that fits the Searchers like a glove, all glistening guitars and heart-felt vocals.  An unreleased Bob Dylan composition, “Coming from the Heart,” makes a surprise appearance and the band gives it an understated, inviting performance.  But best of all is “Hearts in Her Eyes,” written by John Wicks and Will Birch of the group the Records, who would hit the charts in 1979 with their song “Starry Eyes.”  It’s the perfect vehicle to take the Searchers into the 1970s with an irresistible sing-along chorus and waves of strumming electric guitars.

Hearing “Hearts in Her Eyes” made me pull out my copy of the Records’ self-titled LP, and, not surprisingly, it holds up very well after 30 years.  “Starry Eyes” still stuns and brings back memories of when it was one of the few good things on the radio.  Nearly all the rest of the tunes are similarly spectacular, though a few are lyrically weak.  Titles such as “Up All Night,” “Insomnia,” “Affection Rejected” and “Phone” pretty much sum up the plots of these songs.  But it really doesn’t matter when they are propped up with hooks that will snare you forever.  What I’d forgotten about is the album’s unique pacing and texture.  The guitars sound huge, but the overall production feels distant, as if hearing the band play live in a gigantic warehouse.  There are barely any pauses between songs too, which keeps the energy level high throughout.  All in all, the Records’ first effort remains a Power Pop highpoint.

Around the same time the Records were hitting the charts, a band in Germany called Key issued their album Fit Me In.  Out of all the LPs I’ve covered, Key’s one and only recording is clearly the most Beatle influenced.  This was no doubt helped by the fact that it was largely recorded in England with recording engineer Jerry Boys, who had previously worked with the Beatles.  Key member Volker Langefeld requested that Boys utilize many of the same effects he used on the Beatles’ records and the engineer certainly came through.  Fit Me In is chock-full of swirling string and horn arrangements, jaunty psychedelic keyboards and gorgeous vocal harmonies, straight out of Sgt. Pepper.  Many of the songs feature unusual chord structures and rhythms that only add to the period atmosphere.  The occasional use of a 1970s synthesizer is about the only clue that the recording is from that decade.  Fit Me In sold 10,000 copies in Germany, but went largely unnoticed in the rest of the world.  The band released one more single and recorded a few songs for a follow up album, which are included as bonus tracks on the Fit Me In CD reissue.  It’s interesting that some of these later songs such as “Until the Day” and “’Cause You’re a Lady” reference the earlier A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles, relying on a driving beat and dominate guitars rather than effects.  Key leans more toward the McCartneyesque pop side of the Power Pop equation, but is an essential entry in the genre’s canon

So far I’ve concentrated on releases from the 1970s.  San Francisco’s Translator took Power Pop into the 1980s by adding the artful intelligence of the Talking Heads and the punch of New Wave and punk.  The angular shuffle of “Everywhere That I’m Not” put them on college radio and received airplay on MTV in 1982.  Their four albums got raves from the critics, but each release seemed to sell less and less.  By 1986’s Evening of the Harvest, Translator started dropping in psychedelic touches and wild extended guitar solos.  The title track ends in a flurry of feedback worthy of Neil Young.  Unfortunately, it signaled the end of the quartet.  Tired of record company indifference, Translator then broke up, leaving their LPs to go out of print for decades. 

It’s too bad the group never got the recognition they deserved because out of all the artists I’ve covered here, Translator are perhaps the most accomplished and interesting.  Steve Barton and Robert Darlington share both the vocal and songwriting duties, highlighting their contrasting styles.  Barton is brooding and world-weary, while the deep-voiced Darlington is the more thoughtful, calming influence.  Many songs avoid the usual love lament, focusing instead on subjects such as philosophical self-examination (“Inside My Mind”), political (“Sleeping Snakes”) and childhood nostalgia (“Necessary Spinning”).  All of their albums were reissued on CD in the last year or two and the band gets together for the occasional reunion gig.  Maybe now if a few more people keep their eyes and ears open, they will discover the dusky, tuneful world of Translator.  It’s well worth investigating.

Steve Barton has also put out several excellent solo albums.  I’ve only just discovered 2007’s Flicker of Time, which sounds like a garage band version of Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom.  The sound is rougher, more driving than Translator, but still diverse and darkly melodic.  Barton explores some new directions here.  “Under a Broken Sky” is a stately piano ballad (I don’t remember hearing any keyboards in Translator), while “Great Expectations” brings a subtle blues feeling to his repertoire.  The instrumental “End Credits” closes the album on a hushed, almost classically baroque note.

Flicker of Time proves that after nearly 40 years Power Pop continues to evolve.  Certain elements of the music may be enhanced or become less obvious as the decades pass.  But as long as musicians continue to rediscover and update the influence of 1960s British rock, and fans keep seeking out archival releases by the likes of the Flame and Key, Power Pop will never die.

JULY 2009



Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm.  All cities that musician Willy DeVille frequented throughout his career.  Willy fronted the band Mink DeVille, whose first album Cabretta has been a part of my collection for decades.  Its 1977 release caught me at the height of my Springsteen fandom and I fell for the LP’s similar romantic swagger.  Even though DeVille emerged from the mid-1970s NYC punk scene, his music was far removed from the noisy anarchy of his peers.  Instead, he channeled heartfelt rock and soul from the 1950s and early 1960s for inspiration.  Despite the popularity of their live shows and critical raves, Mink DeVille never sold many records and the group ran its course by the mid-1980s. Willy pursued a solo career that brought him a measure of success in Europe, but largely indifference in the US.

By the 2000s, Willy DeVille was left a bit battered by hard living and rough times, but remained on the road, still releasing albums and playing gigs mostly in Europe.  I recently discovered several live recordings from this era and compiled the best of them into a career overview titled Amsterdam – Berlin – Stockholm.  I took selections from a double CD set entitled Live in Berlin and a DVD called Live in the Lowlands.  The Berlin set is an intimate acoustic trio performance from 2002 with DeVille backed by standup bass and piano.  It adds bonus tracks from a full band show recorded the same year in Stockholm.  The DVD is a 2005 band showcase that took place in Amsterdam.

This Amsterdam show serves as the core of my two-disc retrospective.  I used the entire DVD soundtrack augmented by songs from the other two performances.  Not having the DVD visuals may be a plus, since the camera work looks like cats directed it.  Scenes constantly go in and out of focus and cameras drift to another part of the theatre in the middle of the action.   I’ve seen better direction in amateur concert videos.  You’re better off without these distractions.  Focus on the great music instead.

Disc one begins with the drummer counting off a cover of “Low Rider,” originally released by the multi-cultural funk band War, which serves as a prelude to DeVille hitting the stage.  His band’s version is nicely done with the honking harmonica riff, slinky bass and clattering percussion firmly in place.  DeVille arrives and the Latin groove continues with one of his own compositions “Chieva,” an ode to addiction.  Later on during the Stockholm concert, Willy chastises critics for harping on his 20-year struggle with drugs, yet he often eloquently examines the subject himself in his lyrics and in his choice of covers.  As catchy as “Chieva” is, it’s a harrowing midnight portrait of someone haunted by the need for heroin and the things done to obtain it.  More haunting follows in the Cajun-fuelled “Even While I Sleep,” where a love invades every dream and breath DeVille takes amid rollicking accordion and slashing guitar.  The Tex-Mex flavored “Come a Little Bit Closer” features two lovers eyeing each other for the first time, where perhaps Willy finally gets his object of desire. “On the Down Side on Town” is another south of the border ballad and things turn bleak once again.  DeVille wails, “She hurts me still since I cut her down,” an all too real reference to the suicide of his second wife. 

You may notice that DeVille’s work draws on a variety of genres that has expanded beyond his pop and R&B roots.  This journey actually began with Mink DeVille’s third album, 1980’s Le Chat Bleu.   DeVille insisted on recording the LP in Paris and soaked up the city’s musical atmosphere.  Even though several songs were written with legendary rock ‘n’ roll songwriter Doc Pomus and the musicians included Phil Spector and Elvis Presley session players, Le Chat Bleu also displayed Cajun accordions and lushly orchestrated chansons.  The record was DeVille’s dream that took his original sound to a new place.  Capitol Records was horrified and refused to release the album in the US, though when import copies started selling briskly, it eventually got issued stateside.  In the late 1980s, DeVille moved to New Orleans and became infatuated with its musical legacy.  His albums became steeped in the city’s influence and subsequently he added mariachi and Mexican-American sounds to the mix as well. 

The blues is another thread that runs through DeVille’s music.  The Amsterdam concert continues with “Muddy Waters Rose Out of the Mississippi Mud,” a tribute to the great bluesman fittingly adorned with a stinging slide guitar and stomping beat.  Guitarist Freddy Koella begins a slow blues riff, while Willy joins in on harmonica, building intensity until the whole band explodes into the pounding “Steady Drivin’ Man” from Mink DeVille’s second album Return to Magenta.  The swampy gutbucket funk of Andre Williams’s 1957 R&B hit “Bacon Fat” provides DeVille with another addiction song.  Willy wonders what this powerful “new kind of junk” going around is.  The answer arrives in the chorus, complete with an infectious  “lickitylickitylickitylickity” refrain.

The first disc ends with a quiet three-song interlude, starting with the unusual cover choice of “Slave to Love” (addiction again?), the 1985 hit by suave English singer Bryan Ferry.  DeVille infuses Ferry’s icy smooth ballad with some heart and soul and unexpectedly makes it his own.  I followed this with two intimate performances from the Berlin trio show.  Just about every song Arthur Alexander wrote was a heartbreaker and “You Better Move On” is no exception.  Its country soul yearning fits DeVille like a glove.  “Night Falls” is perhaps one of DeVille’s finest compositions that perfectly captures “the mystic time between night and day.”  The stark piano and bass accompaniment makes it shine like a dusky jewel.

I return to the Amsterdam show to begin the second disc of my compilation, as Willy revisits his past with blistering versions of Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” and Mink DeVille’s “Savior Faire” and “Spanish Stroll.”  The band takes a slightly different tact on Return to Magenta’s “Just Your Friends.”  Koella breaks out a violin while DeVille plays harmonica and acoustic guitar, giving the former Mink rocker a mournful Spanish feeling.  Even more startling is the rearrangement of the rock standard “Hey Joe” into a mariachi rave-up.  Finally, DeVille closes the Amsterdam performance tenderly with a hushed, heartrending encore of “Let It Be Me.”

But wait, Amsterdam – Berlin – Stockholm isn’t finished yet.  I saved the best for last as an encore of my own.  The eight-song selection from the 2002 Stockholm show is an astonishing convergence of styles and genres that shows DeVille’s never ending versatility.  He and the band tear into “One Night of Sin,” the original version of Elvis Presley’s “One Night.”  This rendition rivals the smoldering passion of Elvis’s performance on his 1968 TV special.   A reprise of “Steady Drivin’ Man” is up next, leaner and looser than the Amsterdam 2005 take.  I couldn’t bear excising it from the Stockholm set just to avoid repetition.  DeVille returns to the blues with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Goin’ Over the Hill,” featuring Koella’s menacing guitar and David Keyes’s twisty double bass lines.  “Bamboo Road” tells a Springsteenesque workingman’s tale, only placed in a tropical Calypso setting.  The traditional folk tune, “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot,” is a mournful waltz, while Warren Zevon’s junkie lament “Carmelita” fits right in with DeVille’s favored subject matter and Tex-Mex style.  His love of New Orleans is represented by Fats Domino’s rambunctious boogie “All By Myself.”  The set concludes with one of Bob Dylan’s often-overlooked gems, a ballad about Billy the Kid simply titled “Billy.”  It a stellar performance, made all the more captivating by Koella’s ethereal guitar lines.  (Coincidentally, Freddy Koella would join Dylan’s touring band in 2003 for a year-long stint.  He’s still remembered as one of Dylan’s most unpredictable and challenging sidemen.) 

No doubt DeVille identified with the lines, “Billy, they don’t like you to be so free” and “Billy, you’re so far away from home.”  He spent his life doing what he wanted to do, but was largely exiled and unrecognized by his native country.  Pancreatic cancer ended Willy DeVille’s outlaw journey on August 6, 2009.  Amsterdam – Berlin – Stockholm  is my tribute to the rich musical career of this intriguing and unjustly overlooked American artist.

1. Low Rider
2. Chieva
3. Even While I Sleep
4. Come a Little Bit Closer
5. Downside of Town
6. Muddy Waters Rose Out of the Mississippi Mud
7. Steady Drivin’ Man
8. Running Through the Jungle
9. Bacon Fat
10. Crow Jane Alley
11. Slave to Love
12. You Better Move On
13. Night Falls

1. Savoir Faire
2. Cadillac Walk
3. Demasiado Corazon
4. Just Your Friends
5. Change Of Heart
6. Cry to Me
7. Spanish Stroll
8. Can’t Do Without It
9. Hey Joe
10. Let It Be Me
11. One Night of Sin
12. Steady Drivin’ Man
13. Goin’ Over the Hill
14. Bamboo Road
15. Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot
16. Carmelita
17. All By Myself
18. Billy




Tom Waits has said in interviews that he doesn't feel his songs are complete until he has broken their backs.  I think what he might mean is that when recording his songs, he makes sure they sound as unconventional as possible.  Ever since 1982's Swordfishtrombones album, Waits has lifted himself out of the Kerouac caricature he was becoming  (though he was a master at making the persona work for him) by performing music that sounds as if it was recorded in a utility closet, with Waits howling away while pounding on every piece of junk found inside.  He has taken modern composer Harry Partch's sensibility of using objects such as hubcaps, oil drums and bell jars as instruments to create a unique sonic landscape for his own songs.  Accompanied much of the time by Marc Ribot's atonal guitaring, Waits' music has become more challenging, often times hitting the listener over the head with wonderful noise, other times quieting things down, although usually in a prickly, slightly uncomfortable way.  As a long time Tom Waits fan, I found it fascinating and quite admirable that he was able to recreate himself in the middle of a long career and come up with some of his best music ever. 

Listen close enough and you may hear the sound of more Waits songs being broken these days, although not by Tom's own hand.  One of those ubiquitous multi-artist tribute albums made up of his songs  came out a little while ago but I haven't heard it yet.  I hope the artists involved aren't too reverent with their interpretations.  Tear those songs apart!  Bend 'em.  Reshape 'em!  Go wild!  I say Mr. Waits would want it that way.  I have a feeling he would probably approve of the song reassembling found on Canadian singer Holly Cole's own collection of Waits cover tunes called Temptation, an album that has really grown on me.  I wasn't familiar with Cole until I saw her mentioned in a column about upcoming jazz releases late last year.  Now, by no means am I a jazz buff.  About the only jazz experiences I've had so far have been reading a two volume Miles Davis biography some years ago and then checking out his Ballads compilation (which I enjoyed but haven't listened to much) and the Kind of Blue album (I haven't found my way into this one yet).  The idea of an artist doing a whole album of Tom Waits songs was so intriguing however that I had to hear the album, no matter what musical category it was stamped with. 

It is fitting that I had to break apart Temptation to find my way into it.  When I listened to the album for the first time, initially all I heard was the kind of easy listening, lounge-type jazz singing that is muzak to my ears.  All the passion seemed to be zapped from "Jersey Girl," one of my favorites, as Cole transformed it from an under-the-boardwalk love ballad that rivals Springsteen's "Sandy," to a piece of pseudo pop/soul complete with a girl back up singers sha-la-laing on the chorus.  But just as I started to wonder if I should give up on Cole, something happened midway through the album.  On Waits'  "I Don't Want to Grow Up" from the Bone Machine album, I love the way he laughs in the face of adulthood while still acknowledging the inevitable realities of leaving childhood.  I don't know if there is anyone who hasn't dreaded the responsibilities of growing up at one time or another but at least Waits makes us smile a little at our common predicament.  With her version of "I Don't Want to Grow Up" though, Holly Cole rips away the clown's smile.  Rather than coming across like a kid joyfully banging away on coffee cans, Cole presents the song as coming from the frightened, shy child that is perhaps in us all.  She slows and quiets the song  way down,  uses some dark minor chords and tentatively almost whispers the lyrics.  The effect is startling.  It feels like a whole different song.  This one piece of the album became the key to opening up the rest of the album for me.  Something about Cole's reinvention of the song got to me emotionally, enabling me to throw away a few of my preconceptions about jazz and finally allowing me to really hear what she was doing.  And ever since this epiphany,  I found more to like about Temptation with each listening.

Paul Williams pointed out in his Crawdaddy! review of Bone Machine that Tom Waits' voice is a marvelously subtle instrument.  Sure, it's an acquired taste but I can't think of anyone who has done more with less of a voice.  His voice has gotten "worse" over the years but this has seemed to push him to use it different and more effective ways.  "Tango 'Til They're Sore" is a song that comes at you like a jug band gone mad and is driven along and held together by the way Waits alternates his vocal inflections from a  throaty roar to a nasal growl.  His voice can't help but be the focal point.  Cole handles the song in an almost opposite way and uses instrumentation to build tension instead of  the vocals.  Beginning with just a string bass and some light percussion, the song quietly prowls around for a while until some sharply played piano chords pounce in on the chorus, creating a momentum that slowly builds.  The arrangement virtually turns Waits' take of the song inside out.  The same point could really be made about most of the songs on the album.  Cole is a good singer but I don't think a terribly distinctive one.  What carries Temptation  is the way the songs are rearranged  and Cole's voice is used primarily as an accompanying instrument to achieve this goal.

The reinterpretations range from the radical to the subtle.  The title track may differ the most wildly from Waits' recorded version.  Waits uses a high pitched rasp that sounds like a demon screaming from the depths of hell, although this particular demon would have to be dancing the tango too.  Cole turns the song into a barely audible mantra.  It wasn't until I just now cranked up the volume and re listened to the song that I realized that Cole used more than the chorus.  All I could make out previously was the buzz of the chant "Temptationnnnnnnn.....................................Temptationnnnnnnn..........................................
Temptation-Tem-Tem..........Tempatationnnnnn".  But the rest of the lyrics are there too, recited at a fast clip in a low whisper, backed by various types of percussion and the insect-like scraping of a bowed string bass.  Weird and scary!  Cole may have outdone Tom himself on this one.  Very few people can outdo Waits' own rendition of  "(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night" though.  I usually don't like having this song messed with since it the one that made me sit up and take notice of Tom Waits in the first place.   Over twenty years ago I remember seeing Waits on a Public Television program called Soundstage.  Many of his Beat-type ramblings escaped me at the time (though they did pave the way for my discovery of the Beats themselves later) but once he hit "Saturday Night" he had me hooked.  The song captured the melancholy release of the weekend twilight so perfectly that it stayed in my head for years even before I finally got it on album.  Well, Holly Cole's cover of the weekend evening eulogy gets my blessing.  Her "Saturday Night" is a sweet and tender almost country ballad (hey, didn't someone call this a "jazz" album?) that didn't make me yearn  for Waits' original, more world-weary and street level-folk rendering at all.  And that's quite an accomplishment in my book.

Cole impressed me further by including a couple songs that were new to me.  What a nice surprise!  Temptation ends with one of these new tunes called "The Briar and the Rose."  It's quiet grace puts me in the mind of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, even though the muted brass section makes it sound quite unlike anything off that album.  The title is a metaphor for the pain and beauty of love.  Come to think of it, the title could also be a good description Waits' own music.   His songs have a thorny beauty all their own.  Since Waits has such a unique style, I would have thought his material would be difficult, if not impossible, for other musicians to break apart.  But with Temptation, Holly Cole has largely succeeded in making this formidable material her own by cutting away some of the thorns (but adding a couple of her own it seems) and  highlighting different aspects of its beauty.  It's exciting when an artist can open my ears to a few more possibilities and perhaps introduce me to a whole new world of music.  Now, where did I put that copy of Kind of Blue?.....  

FALL 1995



Leon Russell, one of rock music's top session musicians, scored his first hit "Tight Rope" in 1972.  As a kid just starting to expand my musical horizons, I picked up the Top-2 single's corresponding album Carney.  My vinyl copy disappeared long ago, probably traded in at some used record store for whatever reason, but I recently bought the album again on CD and revisited it for the first time in almost thirty years.  My God, what a wild, wonderful, strange work!  It's hard to imagine all those years ago that I easily accepted and liked something that sounds so off-the-wall today.

"Tight Rope" itself is an unlikely candidate for a hit song.  Though it features a catchy, ragtime-tinged arrangement, Russell's mumbled drawl immediately snaps the tune away from commercial territory.  What Russell sings about is rather unconventional for a Number 2 single as well.  The lyrics present someone in the spotlight observing fame, and the audience that brought it, with a jaundiced eye.  Russell was just coming off the enormous success of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and the singer's "Delta Lady" single when he recorded Carney.  The glare of the spotlight was obviously not all it was cracked up to be.  His unease pervades "Tight Rope" and other songs on the LP.

            And the wire seems to be the only place for me
            A comedy with the fear of falling
            Like a rubberneck giraffe
            You look into my path
            Well, maybe you're just too blind to see

            I'm up in the spotlight
            Oh, does it feel right?
            The altitude seems to get to me
            I'm up on the tight wire
            Linked by life and the funeral pyre
            Putting on a show for you to see

"Out in the Woods," continues to examine life as a working musician.  Amid Russell's rollicking R&B piano playing, with spooky jungle sounds and percussion in the background, Leon's road-weary voice appears out of the murk to explain his predicament:

            Goin' down a hard road
            Don't know where I've been
            I'm walking 'round in circles
            Can't even find a friend
            My love is not waiting
            I've been gone to long
            People make me crazy
            I can hardly sing my songs

This song, and nearly all the others that comprise the album, proves that Russell can still sing his songs and create music that consistently surprises.  Out of nowhere, an almost triumphant African-influenced chant rises up to give "Out in the Woods" an exhilarating finale.  Despite the pressures of fame, Russell still delivers and remembers how magical music can be.

The mood lightens slightly on the country flavored "If the Shoe Fits," as Russell recites a litany of inane questions and requests the average musician encounters from hangers-on while on the road.  Over three decades later, I've heard the same sort of irritating pleas backstage, so things haven't changed all that much!

            Can you get us in free, my girlfriend and me?
            We like the songs but we hate to pay
            Can I have your guitar?
            Can I ride on your car?
            Can you give me a role to play?
            Can I have your autograph?
            Can I sit in your lap?
            Are you really into witchcraft like they say?
            Can I follow you home?
            Can I use your telephone?
            Can we crash here for just a few days?
            We're from Rolling Stone so it's OK

So far, in only three songs, Russell has covered ragtime, R&B (with World Music flourishes) and country.  Carney's diversity continues with "Roller Derby," a fun 1950s rock 'n' roll number, "Cajun Love Song," which is just what the title implies, and "Me and Baby Jane," a haunting ballad about an old friend lost to drugs.  But nothing prepares for the two songs that open the second side.  The title track is a short boogie-style tune performed on what sounds like an authentic calliope.  It's strange how two usually upbeat elements, the wheezing circus instrument and the boogie-woogie melody, combine to produce such an unsettling atmosphere.  Even stranger is "Acid Annapolis," where ghostly voices weave in and out and against each other.  Russell ends this weird piece with a recording of canned laughter and applause, perhaps as further commentary on commercialism and its fickle audience.

Near the end of the album, a lovely electric guitar and vibraphone interlude reveals itself.  Bathed in echo, the sound is stately and dream-like.  It's somewhat surprising that it introduces the jazzy "This Masquerade," one of Russell's most popular songs and a huge hit for guitarist George Benson in 1976.  Even at his most accessible, Russell can't resist adding his own unique twist.  Carney represents a situation that doesn't always work out in popular music: An eccentric artist creating an uncompromising work, yet achieving his biggest commercial success with it.  I feel privileged to have discovered it early in my musical journeys and to find myself returning to the album's quirky charms again today.

MARCH 15, 2006



Wilory Farm by Terri Hendrix
Unspoken by Joy Eden Harrison

"You've got to own your own universe," urges Terri Hendrix on her latest album Wilory Farm.  True to her stated philosophy, the album appears on her own Tycoon Cowgirl Records label without any help or hindrance from a major recording company.  The album's title is also an homage of sorts to Hendrix's freewheeling way of life.  Frustrated with college, she dropped out in 1990 and went to work on the farm of her friend and mentor Marion Williamson in exchange for vocal and guitar lessons.  Wilory Farm, dedicated to Williamson, reflects the lessons, both the life and musical kind, learned from her teacher and showcases Hendrix's many talents. 
Marion Williamson nurtured Terri's self-reliant, independent spirit and stressed that the main motivation for making music should be to make your audience happy, advice that Hendrix obviously took to heart.  Indeed, before the release of Wilory Farm, I'd seen Hendrix in concert twice and she captivated me with her on-stage warmth each time.  Her sparkling eyes and bright smile make it seem like she performs her upbeat folk-pop melodies and confessional, often humorous lyrics directly to every individual in the room.

Wilory Farm captures all the charms of Hendrix's live performances while presenting some new and exciting musical directions at the same time.  The shows I witnessed were solo acoustic affairs, but the album pairs Terri with a stable of Texas' finest musicians who help bring out the best in Hendrix's music.  Ping-ponging bongo drums and singing steel guitars frame the breezy heartbreak of  "Flowers." A frenetic snare drum and string bass humorously convey the buzzing gossip surrounding a roommate's sexual orientation in "Sister's Apartment."  "Hole In My Pocket" with its subtle accordion and mandolin, and some fine, simple vocal harmonies, is full of gentle vulnerability.  A lively fiddle makes "The Know How" swing like mad, while "Wind Me Up" turns into a wild, sing-a-long blues number, thanks to a dirty sounding horn section and a studio full of raucous friends singing along on the chorus.

But the most startling number here is "Gravity."  Sitars and other stringed instruments drone and twang relentlessly as drums pound away, creating an urgent, psychedelic feel.    The lyrics confront mortality as Hendrix asks

        Why do we crash into the blue?
        Why does a high never last into the blue?
        All you have to blame it on is gravity
Yet just as she accepts that all life inevitably ends, with the very next line she acknowledges that the same power that takes life can also give us control over our own destinies:

         In you, I have a lot of gravity in me

The song ends with a combination of a chant and cathartic wail from Hendrix.  No other song on the album hits the emotions quite as hard as "Gravity" does.  It's not surprising that the loss of Marion Williamson from cancer inspired such a riveting performance.

Like Hendrix, Joy Eden Harrison ponders some big questions on her new album Unspoken.  In the song "Leap In the Dark" she asks, "What if I fall in and die?/What if I stand here for the rest of my life/Perfectly paralyzed?"   (It sounds as if the song's character needs to work on owning her own universe.)  There are other similarities between the two singer-songwriters.  Harrison's CD is also independently released, on her Chicago-based Astarte Records, and packed with songs full of humor and revelations.  Harrison brings a darker hue to her palette, however.  A cool jazz flavor imbues Unspoken; quite different from the bright country-folk that paints much of Wilory Farm.

Producer Cindy Lee Berryhill helps along the eclectic tone of Harrison's album with a sparse sound that is wonderfully all over the map.  Anyone familiar with Berryhill's own work will smile when they hear her stripped down Brian Wilson-style string and percussion flourishes that grace the album's opening track "Forty Days and Forty Nights" and the tip-toeing "Graveyards."  A ominous far away rumble is the only backing on the disturbing "Rubber Band" ("I wrap you around my tiny wrist/Cut off my circulation/I don't know why it feels so good/But just before they amputate/I pull you, stretch you, snap you, break you/Save myself while I forsake you") before it segues into the spooky sound of footsteps at the end.  And "Leap In the Dark" almost sounds like a lost Burt Bacharach classic with it's humable melody and understated brass arrangements.

It is the words on Unspoken that leave the deepest impression though.  The long narrative of "Yellow Yellow"  is the best example of Harrison's poetry.  The song's lyrics take many thought-provoking detours that are sometimes chilling, other times wondrous.  Here is one of my favorite moments:

             . . . He loved this woman so much that he showed her all her faults.
            He was like a magnifying glass on brutally sunny day.
            He fried his love to a crackly crisp.
            It was an unfortunate accident. . .

 "It was an unfortunate accident" at first seems facetious.  "Yeah, sure it was an accident," you think, while chuckling at the line's apparent ironic humor.  But then it sinks in that maybe the man didn't know any better and it really was accidental on his part.   Such relationships happen all the time but it's rare that they are so eloquently examined. That's what Unspoken does.  Its songs express the joy and heartbreak of situations that people often cannot put into words.  I love the way the sense of awe is presented in the following verse:

            . . . And then she asked me if I knew that color, light, matter,
                 imagination and the ocean were made up of exactly the
                 same thing.
            And then she opened her mouth.
            So wide she could swallow the night with me inside it.
            And this sound came out.
            So breathtaking a sound came out that the stars stopped in their
                   tracks to listen. . .

    Unspoken concludes with "The Innocence Begins Again," a beautiful ballad that makes me stop in my tracks.  Harrison's smooth, clear voice and mellow electric guitar are the only instruments here, along with some warm, dreamy imagery:

            I take off my clothes like rose petals
            And sink through the stars
            I know somewhere down here at the bottom of darkness
            Is a passageway back to the air again

Hmm, perhaps the woman Harrison introduces in  "Leap In the Dark" takes a chance and finds her own universe after all.  On Wilory Farm and Unspoken, both Terri Hendrix and Joy Eden Harrison create and own their own awe-inspiring universes.






Peter Gabriel is someone whose music I kind of backed into or discovered sideways.   Hearing  his "Solsbury Hill" on the radio in the late seventies, I was reminded of a Pete Townshend song, with its lilting melody, powerful, dark chord structure and wistful lyrics. Also, there was a quality in his voice that I found quite intriguing.  It had a touch grittiness to it that put me in the mind of a grainy black and white photograph of a rain-swept English landscape.  Slightly unsettling but comforting in a way too.  But after this initial encounter, I really didn't pay much attention to his music for quite some time.  I was too busy discovering Bob Dylan's music and going back and checking out people like Buddy Holly and Phil Spector, so what use did I have for the former leader of  the progressive rock group Genesis?  I next noticed Peter when his "Sledgehammer"  video hit everyone's TV screens and didn't much like what I saw or heard.   The animation techniques used for the video were groundbreaking but I found the visuals to be so distracting that I ended up hating the song.  And it certainly didn't help my opinion of Gabriel any when the follow up video, "Big Time," looked and sounded like "Son of Sledgehammer."   I wondered if he was showing his art rock roots and was all flash and no substance. 

Since I had these reservations about Gabriel and his work, it's strange that I bought the Shaking the Tree greatest hits collection a few years later.  It probably had something to do with picking it up cheap and wanting to hear "Solsbury Hill" again but the album did open up my perceptions that I had about Peter.  For the first time, without the video images to bother me, I actually heard  "Sledgehammer" and discovered that it was a big slab of funk almost worthy of Prince (the lyrics even could be taken as obliquely sexual).  And "Biko" ranked with Little Steven's "Los Desaparecidos" as one of the best politically oriented songs in recent memory.  Like Steven's song, "Biko" took what many could only relate to as a news story and made it human.  Even if you weren't familiar with the details of the murder of South African leader Steven Biko, the song still passionately evoked the horror and injustice of what happened to him and many of his fellow countrymen.  Perhaps there was a heart underneath all of Peter's video glitz after all.

The problem of Gabriel as a high tech wizard versus a performer with a heart confronted me again when a friend of mine called to tell me about a show she saw on Peter's most recent tour.  "Peter Gabriel is God!", she exclaimed, and proceeded to describe the two stages connected by a runway, the giant dome that covered one of the stages, the big video screen and the images that were projected onto it.  Now, to be fair to my friend, it is much easier to describe things like giant domes and screens than it is a musical performance, but her description immediately brought to mind some big flashy show like Pink Floyd's.  I thought that Peter might be relying on technology again, as in his recent videos, rather than just performing his music. That's what usually bothers me about performers with elaborate stage shows.  The special effects are remembered, not the music.  Still, my friend's "Peter Gabriel is God" statement and enthusiasm certainly did pique my interest in Peter Gabriel's live show, so when his Secret World concert video aired on cable earlier this year, I made sure that I caught it.

Secret World has been released as a two CD set and a home video and both use material from the same 1993 Italian shows.  There is certainly nothing wrong with the CD set.  It has fine performances of the hits and a good portion of  the songs from Gabriel's last album Us.  The melancholy title song that features Peter's rain cloud vocals that I love so much, and the deep r&b groove of "Kiss That Frog," are particularly noteworthy.   But I think you might be missing out on an important part of the Secret World experience if you don't check out the home video.  I'm not just talking about getting to see all the high tech props and effects that are used either because most of them are really fairly simple and straightforward.   On "Dig", a song about confronting personal demons, extreme, and I mean EXTREME, fisheye close-ups of Peter's face as he's singing are projected onto the video screen.  This is far more effective and disturbing than the official video for the song which relies on computer animation.  Maybe it's time for Peter to take a more basic live approach to his videos because it works very well here. And this may be the key to why I enjoy the concert video so much.  Secret World is a good title for the video since it reveals something that has been hidden under the computer generated image that I've had of Peter Gabriel.  It shows him as a person who has a great time on-stage playing his songs for other people and not some techno-being (or even a God) that changes his shape with every beat of the music.  One of the two stages that is used for the show is left clear much of the time so that Peter and the musicians have room to dance and move about.  They joyfully skip around during the unexpectedly light and breezy version of "Solsbury Hill."  Until now, I wouldn't have thought of the song as one to skip around to but it's a lot of fun to watch and feels, well, so human.  When I go to a concert, sometimes I like to spend much of the show with the binoculars glued to my eyes.  A close-up view of the performer can make the performance more human for me.   Seeing a certain look or move from an artist during a show can remind me that there is a fellow human being up there on the stage and that the concert isn't just a big spectacle of light and sound.   In the Secret World version of "Solsbury Hill," as Peter sings the line about "the smile on my face," he lifts his smile shaped tambourine and gently shakes it with both hands.  I don't know, but this little moment may be my favorite part of the video.



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