February 25, 2014

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It’s easier to tell a lie than it is to tell the truth
It’s easier to kill a fly than it is to turn it loose
It’s easier to criticize somebody else
Than to see yourself

It’s easier to give a sigh and be like all the rest
Who stand around and crucify you while you do your best
It’s easier to see the books upon the shelf
Than to see yourself

It’s easier to hurt someone and make them cry
Than it is to dry their eyes
I got tired of fooling around with other people’s lies
Rather I’d find someone that’s true

It’s easier to say you won’t than it is to feel you can
It’s easier to drag your feet than it is to be a man
It’s easier to look at someone eles’s wealth
Than to see yourself

-George Harrison

February 25, 1943 – November 29 2001

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If Not For Lou

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Some years back I wrote a song called “In the City”.  I was walking across Greenwich Village to the subway after a rehearsal on the Lower East Side and I felt gushy with love for my hometown and the stomping ground of my youth.  Towards the end of the song there’s a long chain of rhymes about people and things that I encounter on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Included in that list are “The Warhols and the Lou Reeds”.  Lou Reed died yesterday and I feel moved to write something about him. His work has meant so much to me.  I’m not sure I ever realized just how much.

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Like most suburban rock fans my age, I first heard and enjoyed Lou’s most famous anthem “Walk On The Wild Side” on classic rock radio as a kid in the 80’s when it was already an oldie. His album New York came out when I was in high school and I was way into it.  I lost myself in the tough street scenes and bohemian daydreams that his songs evoked.  In the lore and artistic romance of Manhattan that I acquired and carried around with me as a kid, Lou Reed’s influence was right up there with that of Woody Allen and Bob Dylan.  In college, I discovered Lou’s earlier work with the Velvet Underground and completely flipped out over their records.  I’ve spent hours upon hours of my life listening to the VU over the years, thinking about their music and reading about their career and their influence.  I even played the part of Lou Reed and performed the VU’s songs with my band in an interactive theatrical show about Andy Warhol’s Factory a few years ago. I’m listening to “Venus in Furs” from The Velvet Underground and Nico right now as I write and it sounds as exciting to me as always.  The immediacy of the thing is just so inspiring.  A young English major has written some intentionally dark and rather well crafted poetry based on an S&M book he read.  He’s delivering his narrative as dramatically as he can with his own Long Island accent.  A make-shift orchestra of his friends playing a viola, a kick drum with a mallet and a loud electric guitar are accompanying him with smart, sleek arrangement, raw energy and complete dedication. So much started for me and for so many others, digging the vibe of this DIY band of twenty-somethings, full of attitude and love of art and literature.

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Lou Reed grew up in suburban Freeport, NY, studied English at Syracuse University and then moved into Manhattan after college.  He was working as a staff writer for a cheap knock-off record label when he met avant-garde classical musician John Cale and they formed the Velvet Underground with a college buddy of Reed’s and his Long Island pal’s little sister.   At the time the VU were forming, The Beatles, British pop and Motown dominated the American pop radio.  Bob Dylan and folk music were huge in Greenwich Village.  Reed & Cale chose to make something else.  They were pop music fans who were too weird and too smart to make main stream pop music themselves.  And just at the moment of their formation they were introduced to Andy Warhol, the king of the outsider artist’s take on insider’s pop culture.  Under Warhol’s patronage they made their first album and began appearing as part of the pop artist’s traveling multi-media shows.  They went on to make 4 inspired studio albums to limited commercial success before breaking up in 1970.  Lou Reed went on to a long solo career with a devoted cult following and a radio hit or two.  To this day, the Velvet Underground are well known to be the inspiration for countless famous bands and artists that came after them from all over the place.  “The Lou Reeds” that I sing about in my song are every such aspiring rocker whoever dreamed of coming to the big city, re-defining himself with an air of intimidating New York cool and making some uncompromising yet ultimately successful work.

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I myself came to live in the city from suburban New York. By the time I was a teen, I wanted to live in downtown Manhattan and spend my life making art.  I wanted to read every great piece of literature I could read and write my own narratives.  I wanted to be surrounded by invigorating art & culture, wild goings on and extreme personalities.  I wanted to feel the collective groove of sexy, catchy pop rhythms and sing my own weird song over that groove back into the collective.  I wanted to feel the sonic wash of loud music all around me.  I wanted real, no bullshit personality, craft and human experience to shine through the songs I made and listened to. I wanted everyone I worked with to share that excitement and that addiction to the miracle of music and language and art, the mystery of life and the joy of rock and roll…

…I wanted to be the Velvet Underground. I wanted to be Lou Reed.

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Recommended listening:

The Velvet Underground:

The Velvet Underground and Nico 1967

White Light/White Heat 1968

The Velvet Underground 1969

Loaded 1970

VU released 1985

Another View released 1986

Lou Reed:

Transformer 1972

Berlin 1973

New York 1989

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The Words

During the recording sessions for my album Grand Hotel a few years ago, I had lyric sheets sitting out on the console in the control room.  One of the musicians playing on the album picked up the sheets and started reading the lyrics while I was out of the room.   When I came back, he told me he’d just read the lyrics and was happily surprised to find out how cool the words to the songs were.  This guy had probably already played those very songs 50 times or more with me in concert.  He just hadn’t ever paid any attention to what I was singing.  It’s not really that rare.  I’ve met a lot of people claim to not really care at all what the words to a song are.

Personally, I’ve always cared about the words to songs.  There’s an incredible feeling I get when I hear a well-crafted line sung or read.  I got hooked on that feeling at a very young age and I’ve never been able to kick the habit.  Have you ever seen a well-turned double play in a baseball game?  A well-turned lyric gives me a similar feeling, but on many more levels.  Maybe it’s like the taste of a fine wine for a wine connoisseur or a rich Columbian coffee for a coffee freak.  When I hear or read a great line, I feel a heightened sense of wonder and a deep gratitude for being able to be here to experience the delight.   When a great lyric sits upon a delightful tune, the pleasure is even more exquisite.  Give an Irving Berlin song a shot sometime, or a Bob Marley song.  You might feel it.

People have found delight in rhyme and they’ve written and sung verse of some kind or another for centuries.  Truly gifted poets have always been rare.  It seems like they get more and more rare.  In recent years what’s most often called “poetry” is some kind of faux intellectual exercise, usually the opposite of well-crafted lyric expression.  It’s a shame.  I heard Joni Mitchell talking on the radio the other day.  She was saying all kinds of nasty things about poets, quoting put-downs about poets from Nietzsche[1].   When I was in high school, Joni came out with a record called Night Ride Home.  I can still remember the lyrics from several of the album’s tracks.

Is this just vulgar electricity?

Is this the edifying fire?

Does your smile’s covert complicity

Debase as it admires

Are you just checking out your mojo

Or am I just fighting off growing old?

All I ever wanted was just to come in from the cold…[2]

…Sounds kind of like poetry to me, Joni…really good poetry.

Lyrics can lift you up; they can knock you over; they can blow your mind.  And they don’t have to be lofty or intellectual or academic in any way.  Willie Dixon didn’t study verse at a university, but his great lines get me every time I hear them…

I was accused of murder in the first degree

The judge’s wife cried “Let the man go free”[3]

I feel an equal lift from the lyrics of an old folk song “Shady Grove”

Peaches in the summertime

Apples in the fall

If I can’t have the girl I love

I don’t want none at all

A truly poetic moment of lyric craft is an arrangement of words or word images that moves us, that speaks to us in a way more profound than conversational words might.  Well-crafted lyrics have a rhythmic sense and an aesthetic sense and they lead us to a truth or truths we may have trouble articulating otherwise.

For all we know this may only be dream

We come and go like a ripple on a stream…

 

A great deal has been conveyed in two pretty little lines.  The last two lines of that same song hold a lot of weight too:

…Tomorrow was made for some

But tomorrow may never come for all we know.[4]

Simple, yet expressive and beautiful lyrics are extremely hard to craft.  Writing really good lyrics requires clearing away all of our own personal bullshit and tapping into a kind of collective dream so we might speak on a broader level to a host of people outside the particulars of our own experience.  That’s always been a fairly tall order and it’s only getting taller in the individualist consumer societies we’ve set up.

You can have the best there is but it’s going to cost you all your love

You won’t get it for money.[5]

Most people aren’t up for giving anything all of their love, or even beginning to find out how much love they have to give.  But ol’ Bob was right, the best of anything real can’t be bought, however well the illusion of store-bought experience is woven into our imagination by generations of our own lore and advertising.   So maybe all of the lame “poets” that abound today and have annoyed Joni & Nietzsche so much historically are people who aren’t willing to give “all their love” to their lines.  Poetry, the really good stuff, is a serious dedication for sure.   Words can be a whole lot more than just babble, but it’s going to take some work.  Getting at what Van Morrison aptly called the “inarticulate speech of the heart” takes a kind of digging and searching few will be up for.

When I cannot sing my heart

I can only speak my mind[6]

That’s very true.  We may dedicate our lives to attempting to sing our hearts and end up just speaking our minds over and over again.  Just speaking our minds all the time won’t be enough to make anything as meaningful and durable as a beautiful Beatles song.  And while we’re talking away, we might miss something really great being spoken in our midst.  In 1963, Bob Dylan heard “10,000 whispering and nobody listening.”[7]  Imagine how many whispering non-listeners he’s heard by today.   If we talk without really listening, we will only ever be able to whisper and never be able to speak with any kind of voice that carries.  The words and the songs are everywhere if we can find them, but we won’t find them talking.  If we ever hope to have something to say, it’s going to take some serious listening…

Up above my head I hear music in the air

And I really do believe there’s a heaven somewhere[8]

 It’s up there for us to hear, if we can remember to turn off the talk radios that are inside us and all around us sometimes.  The more we listen, the more we’ll hear and the better messengers we can be of what we hear.  The more we listen, the more we’ll be able to make out what our own words sound like.   If we listen with sharp ears, open minds and open hearts, we will find a vast expanse of garbage that stretches beyond the horizons all around us.   We’ll also find a vast wealth of wonderful things to listen to.  “There are heroes in the seaweed”[9] if we can find them.   I’m pretty sure all of the answers are still “blowing in the wind” to this day[10].  But who among us will ever cultivate the kind of listening ability it will take to make out anything the wind is saying?


[1] In a June 4, 2013 interview on CBC radio with Jian Ghomeshi, Joni Mitchell attributed two quotes on poets to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Sarathustra:

1.”The poet is the vainest of the vain.  Even before the ugliest of water buffalo doth he fan his tail…I’ve looked among him for an honest man and all I’ve dredged up are old gods’ heads.”

2.”He muddies his waters that he might appear deep.”

[2] From the song “Come in from the Cold” by Joni Mitchell

[3] From the song “The Back Door Man”

[4] From the song “For All We Know”, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis

[5] From the song “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan

[6] From the song “Julia” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney

[7] From the song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan

[8] From the song “Up Above My Head” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, crica 1945

[9] from the song “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen

[10] from the song “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan’s Writing

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When it comes to writing song lyrics in English, for me there’s Bob Dylan and then there’s everyone else.  Many, many songwriters and many, many, many songs have fascinated me and inspired me and continue to fascinate me and inspire me in my life.  None have inspired me or fascinated me quite so much as the songs of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest poets I’ve ever come across in the English language. He’s one of those guys like Shakespeare.  A million fools will tell you he’s brilliant but they’re actually right.  And that’s not to take away from his music writing either.  Dylan’s words flow brilliantly over his music.  His melodies aren’t often complicated but they’re made with a catchy, seamless simplicity that’s incredibly hard to achieve even once, let alone hundreds and hundreds of times.

I got a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits when I was fourteen.  As soon as I heard those songs I just wanted to learn and recite every line.  They opened up all kinds of feelings I had but couldn’t express; they stimulated my mind.  The words and the voice of the singer had so much anger, alienation, playfulness, love and sensitivity all at once.   It was overwhelming.  I hadn’t been so excited since I had first heard the Beatles as a small child.  I walked all around my little suburban town in the cold that winter singing those songs to myself.  At times I would bust out laughing with joy from just how great the writing was.  Pretty soon thereafter, I taped my brother’s copy of Bringing It All Back Home.  It was hard to believe that so many images and stories and lovely rhymes were poured into one album.  Dylan’s poetry became the gold standard for me, the great challenge.  I figured if lyrics could be this good, evoke such a vivid picture and tell such a moving story, why try for less?  I might never get close to as poetic myself but I could try.

Many years later, I was in Philadelphia on a winter’s night to open a show for a master singer/songwriter/guitarist named Chris Smither.  We had some time backstage before the show and we just started talking about Dylan songs and Dylan records. Eventually, we pulled out our guitars played each other some of our favorites.  Smither played a great version of “Visions of Johanna” in ¾ time.  I had fallen in love with “Visions” when someone had given me Blonde on Blonde as a holiday gift nearly 20 years ago.  Smither himself had been digging the song since it came out in ’66 and he was still as delighted with it as I was, going on 50 years later.  He had been there in the 60’s when everyone was freaking out on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  A whole generation of artists had and tried to create their own continuation of the American folk tradition.  Bob Dylan was able to seamlessly incorporate so much of the wealth of that history, tradition and lore better than anyone else, and he did it with a narrative voice more individual, more evocative and more innovative than anyone from that time or since then.  His writing went far beyond that folk revival of the 60’s, in album after album that followed his first few.  And though he wrote all different types of narratives in a number of styles he managed never to lose a profound connection to his roots.  To my ear, no one has come near him.

I don’t really have anything to say about Bob Dylan as a person.  I don’t know Bob Dylan or anyone who does.  I’ve read some stories and seen some movies like everyone else.  I’ve been to a bunch of his concerts, but I was pretty late to that party.  I do recall a summer evening show at an Amphitheater outside of Chicago in the later 90’s that was pretty darn impressive.  As much as I’ve enjoyed catching him in concert and  learning about his life, I think the records and the songs are inspirational enough by themselves.  If you’re looking for where to start with Bob Dylan’s catalog, it’s daunting.  There’s just so much.   I’ll give you 10 albums filled with what are for me the most “Holy Sh_t!” moments of Dylan poetry.  Please note:  Some of my favorite individual Dylan songs aren’t even on these albums.  These are just a more than adequate starting point.

1.The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963

2.The Times They Are A’ Changin’ 1964

3.Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964

4.Bringing it All Back Home 1965

5.Highway 61 Revisted 1965

6.Blonde on Blonde 1966

7.John Wesley Harding 1967

8.Blood On The Tracks 1975

9.Oh Mercy 1989

10.Time Out Of Mind 1997

Appendix:

Here a few other English language lyric writers whose work I love:

Paul Simon

Chuck Berry

Leonard Cohen

Hank Williams

Willie Dixon

Irving Berlin

Randy Newman

David Byrne

Hal David

Joni Mitchell

Cole Porter

Lennon/McCartney

George Harrison

Hoagie Carmichael

Donovan

David Bowie

Robert Hunter

Mark Knopfler

…I think Bob Dylan is better than all of them.

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Early 70’s Mac Attack

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Do you want to listen to something good?  Put on Fleetwood Mac’s Kiln House from 1970.  It sounds great on an I-pod but I would advise cranking it on a car stereo for maximum righteousness if you can.  It’s a great sounding album and a wonderful piece of Mac history.  Fleetwood Mac was at a pivotal point in their career when they made Kiln House.  Their leader and founder Peter Green had just quit the band.   Green formed Fleetwood Mac in 1967 as an electric blues band.  A couple of years later he was gone. Between Peter Green’s original blues band and their eventual multi-mega-hit, arena rock explosion with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac soldiered on through years of albums, tours and line-up changes.  Kiln House marks the beginning of that journey.

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The original Fleetwood Mac in 1967, Left to Right: Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green, John McVie and Jeremy Spencer

It turns out Peter Green was somewhat of a visionary.  In 1966, he had been playing lead guitar in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, backed by drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (Fleetwood was only in Mayall’s band for about six weeks).  Green decided to break off from Mayall and form his own band.  He admired his rhythm section so much that he named his new band Fleetwood Mac, from their names.  At first, he couldn’t even get both namesakes to join his new outfit.  McVie wasn’t up for leaving his steady gig with Mayall.  But Peter Green still went ahead and named his band Fleetwood Mac anyway.  Eventually, McVie did join the group and he never left.  In fact, decades after Peter Green was long gone, the rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie remain the only consistent part of the Fleetwood Mac line-up on every single record.  The group’s sound evolved and evolved through many different songwriters and singers, but that groovy old rhythm section just kept on trucking, anchoring the band through it all.

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When Kiln House was made, Fleetwood Mac was a four-piece band.  With Peter Green’s blues revivalism and brooding narratives suddenly gone from the act, guitarists Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer were responsible for singing and writing all the songs.  John McVie had just married the former Christine Perfect, singer and keyboardist from a band called Chicken Shack.  Christine wasn’t officially in Fleetwood Mac yet, but she drew the album’s artwork and played some keyboards uncredited.  You can hear her guest harmonies clearly on the song “Station Man”.  She had yet to step into her duties as the band’s principle songwriter and singer.  The songwriting of Spencer and Kirwan isn’t much to write home aboutSpencer goofs around with a fair amount of bogus English Americana on Kiln House.  There’s some 50’s rock nostalgia and faux-country mixed in to his folk-rock. Kirwan’s songs are more straight-ahead hippy blues-rock, sung with his sweet little angelic voice.  The jamming and riffing of the Peter Green Mac is still integral to several songs on Kiln House, most notably Station Man, Jewel-Eyed Judy and Tell Me.  But there’s a light heartedness to the heavy jams of the album.  Somehow, the whole informal mix of stuff just works.  At least it worked for the duration of the Kiln House album.  A few months after the record came out, Jeremy Spencer would step off of a Fleetwood Mac tour in Los Angeles and join a cult, never to return.  Danny Kirwan lasted for two more years in Fleetwood Mac before getting the boot.

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One thing I really love about Kiln House is that its whole conception follows a model that no longer exists in the music industry and only really existed briefly:  You’ve got a band with no flashy front person and no hit singles on them.  They’ve got a following because they tour their butts off and they’re super-tight from playing a million shows.  So the record company pays for a bunch of hippies to hole up in a house in the country for a month or two and get an album together.  One of the guy’s girlfriends draws some loving, hopeful, hand-drawn hippy art for the cover.  The record comes out and the band goes back on tour.  The album doesn’t go gold, but the label doesn’t drop them.  You pick up the album somewhere, put in on, float away and listen to those hippies rock out.  Maybe you catch the band the next time they come through town and when the next record comes out you check it out and see if you like that one too.  It seems like that was a pretty good way to develop some really big talent for a while.

The Mac made five more albums for Warner/Reprise without a hit and moved to Los Angeles before busting out big with their 1975 self-titled album featuring “Rhiannon”, “Landslide” and “You Say You Love Me.”  All five of those early 70’s records are uneven, but they all have their moments and the groovy bass and drumming are the yellow brick road that runs right through it all.  Once Christine McVie’s singing and songwriting is added to the mix, you’re assured at least one or two gems per record and I enjoy listening to the evolution evident in the other stuff too.  Of those albums I recommend Penguin and Mystery to Me most of all, though I like songs on all of them.  I think Kiln House stands out as a little more special than those other transition records.  It’s feels fresh and free of the big league slickness that would follow.  Not that I don’t love mega-hit Mac.  Their famous records feature some of the greatest pop songwriting and recording craft I know of and the singing and playing on all of them is exquisite.  Rumours was my introduction to the Mac and I still listen to it all the time and marvel at its perfection.  Kiln House isn’t that kind of pop perfection experience.  It’s just a damn good sounding record by a damn good band, pretty early in their career.

In fact, Kiln House was just one in a slew of wonderful sounding records by damn good acts that Warner/Reprise released around the turn of the 70’s.  I’ve been meaning to ask a producer or an engineer what they think accounts for the amazingly clear and warm sound of so many of those albums.  They weren’t all made in the same studios or with the same musicians or engineers but they’re all great and they came out over the course of just a few years.  I’ll give you a few examples:

Joni Mitchell Blue

Van Morrison Moondance

The Kinks Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One

The Faces Long Player

The Grateful Dead American Beauty

Bonnie Raitt Takin’ My Time

James Taylor Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town

Neil Young Harvest

Randy Newman Sail Away

Ry Cooder Boomer’s Story

…They all sound really wonderful…and there are so many more…

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Can’t Stop Thinking About George

There was a little cedar wardrobe closet upstairs in my house when I was a kid.  I put a record player and a couple of posters in there, in an attempt to make it a kind of clubhouse.  I had a poster of Band Aid, the British rock super group formed by Bob Geldoff to raise money for Ethiopia in 1985.  I remember playing the Band Aid single “Feed the World” in there.  I also remember hiding out in that clubhouse, playing a cheap re-issue copy of George Harrison’s 1974 album Dark Horse.  I had picked up the album in the bargain bins of a variety store called McCrory in the New Rochelle Mall.  I played the hell out of it.  I still have the record.  It’s all scratched up.  I just put it on and I’m listening to it now.

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George loving was a pretty solitary endeavor for a kid in the 80’s.  I couldn’t really get any of my friends on board with my George Harrison solo albums.  George was too old, too mellow and too obscure for them.  Still, I couldn’t help preferring his old albums to Duran Duran or whatever my friends were into.   I also really liked the persona that came across in interviews with George.  I took his memoir I Me Mine out from the library.  I read it and stared at all the pictures.  I liked imagining George’s mellow mansion millionaire musician life.

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Though he was rich and famous, he was decidedly un-glitzy and he was pretty much completely gone from public life when I was growing up.  He seemed a bit like my dad:  A middle aged guy with a  mustache and a family who stayed out of the limelight and enjoyed gardening.  I could relate to George too.  Like me, he was into music, poetry, comedy and hanging out with his friends.  But unlike me, he had a recording studio in his basement and a heliport on his roof.  He transcended his physical being through meditation and played slide guitar on records with Willie Weeks on bass…and he had been in the Beatles.  So George was my bizarro dad from the spiritual, rock star, magical mystery alternate universe.  I felt very safe and looked after, hanging around with those albums spinning in the background.  I had an old cassette of All Things Must Pass and a few other George solo lps and I played them all the time while I was doing homework, playing board games, building a fort in the living room or otherwise being a kid.  Anytime I’d run across a George record in a bargain bin, I’d buy it for $3.99 and put it in rotation.  My friends tolerated my records as background music, even if they never got into it themselves.

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Few rock critics had been up for tolerating those Harrison solo albums when they came out in the 70’s.  Nearly all of the records that I enjoyed mellowing out with had been critically slammed, often rather severely.  George’s only US concert tour met with equally awful reviews.  There was one rock critic called Robert Christgau* who just tore every George album to shreds.  I was too young to catch all of that when it was happening but when I think about it now I imagine that it must have been pretty painful to be out there playing your first solo gigs and have to read over and over again “This guy sucks.  He’s no good without the Beatles.” I don’t know really what to say to all of that criticism. I’m listening to those 70’s records right now and they still sound really good to me.  Sure, it ain’t the Beatles, and it’s rather easy listening but so what?  I’d much rather write ten pretty little songs that aren’t as good as the greatest pop group in history than write a hundred scathing, wise ass lines about Hare Krishna for a deadline.  I’m not saying every moment is brilliant on these George records but the melodies are catchy and often very beautiful.  There are many great sets of lyrics and the grooves are always totally solid.  The singer sings with a lot of heart, even when his voice doesn’t make it all the way.  I can see how these are the kind of songs that are easily taken for granted but that doesn’t mean they should be.  I don’t hear all that many narrators full of heart, soul and groove ruling the airwaves these days.

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George eventually resurfaced with comeback hits and videos from Cloud 9 and The Traveling Wilburys in the later 80’s.  By then, the stakes were lower for the reviewer.  The story was no longer the fall of the great hero.  George was no longer in contention for a spot as a top pop idol.  He was just a mellow old retired rock star, getting together with his rock star palls.  Even then, he made catchy records full of heart and soul.

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I’m guessing you haven’t heard all that many George records.  Or maybe you have.  Here’s what I’ll do:  I’ll list some of my favorite George songs from the solo years.  If you’ve never heard them, maybe you’ll check them out online or even make a playlist.  If you have heard them, maybe you’ll tell me I’ve got it all wrong and list all of your favorites in the comments or maybe you’ll just share some George love.

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If my count is right, George made two experimental solo albums while still in the Beatles; Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound.  After the band broke up he made nine solo albums, two collaborative concert albums and two albums with the Traveling Wilburys.  …Not a bad retirement.  There’s also a recently released collection of demos called Early Takes which I really like.

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I recommend checking out each album individually and making your own decisions.  Just put them on and get back to building your fort. If you’re looking for an album recommendation, most people will tell you to check out All Things Must Pass George’s triple album blockbuster from 1970, produced by Phil Spector.  My personal favorite is his light rock gem George Harrison from 1979.  Dark Horse, Cloud 9 and Thirty Three & 1/3 are also favorites.  I’m skipping the concert records, though I really like The Concert For Bangla Desh. I’m also skipping the first two albums.  Wonderwall Music is a psychedelic, Indian music-influenced instrumental soundtrack and Electronic Sounds is two sides of Moog madness so I won’t get into those, though I’m glad they exist.

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Here are just over forty of my favorite George songs from the solo years (in chronological order).

1.My Sweet Lord

2.Isn’t it a Pity?

3.What is Life?

4.Behind That Locked Door

5.All Things Must Pass

6.Run of the Mill (dig the demo version on Early Takes)

7.Apple Scruffs

8. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)

9. Don’t Let Me Wait To Long

10. Simply Shady

11.Maya Love

12. Dark Horse

13. Ding Dong, Ding Dong

14. Far East Man

15. You

16.Can’t Stop Thinking About You

17.Tired of Midnight Blue

18.See Yourself

19.Crackerbox Palace

20.Pure Smokey

21.Love Comes to Everyone

22.Here Comes The Moon

23.Blow Away

24.Dark Sweet Lady

25.All Those Years Ago

26.Save The World

27.Mystical One

28.That’s the Way it Goes

29.This is Love

30.Someplace Else

32.Set on You

33.End Of The Line (with the Travelling Wilburys)

34.Handle with Care (with the Travelling Wilburys)

35.Heading for the Light (with the Travelling Wilburys)

36.Maxine (with the Travelling Wilburys)

37.New Blue Moon (with the Travelling Wilburys)

38.Any Road

39.The Rising Son

40.Lost Inside a Cloud

41.Brainwashed

42.Deep Blue (B Side from 1971)

R-150-3323384-1325764706

*Christgau had actually gone to high school and college with my dad as it turns out.

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The First Few

I have my parents to thank for exposing me to the music that’s nearest and dearest to my heart by accident.  There were some extremely cool records in our living room when I was a small child.  I have no memory of my parents ever playing those very cool records themselves.  They certainly never talked about them.  If I ever asked them where those cool records came from, they never seemed to know or care.  It didn’t make sense to me.  I knew that my father listened to classical music in his study.  He had mentioned thinking that rock music seemed kind of dumb to him.  I knew that my mother thought James Taylor was dreamy and I remember her spinning Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” and loving it.  Her taste was definitely of the time and place (suburban New York in the early 70’s) but it wasn’t nearly as cool as some of the records in the living room.  So where did those cool records come from?  It’s still kind of a mystery to me.  Maybe my parents got their groove on when we weren’t looking.  Maybe some friend or relative had given my folks those records in a failed attempt to make them cooler.  However those records got there, they were there in our record collection and we (my older brothers and I) found them.

 

The first record in the world for me was the American version of the Beatles  A Hard Days’ Night soundtrack.  My parents owned an old scratched up copy of the album.  My brothers and I played it on the living room stereo and in our room on a little briefcase record player my uncle had given us, starting when I was about 4 or 5.  It was the most wonderful, exciting thing I’d ever heard.  For years, the Beatles were the center of my universe.  All I wanted to do was be in a band like theirs and play music like their music.  I wanted to know everything there was to know about the Beatles and hear every note they ever played.  Eventually I got all of their records.  But it all started with A Hard Day’s Night.  I’m listening to that old LP right now as I write this.  George’s electric twelve string solo on the title track still gets me all excited.

  

Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline was also in that living room record collection.  It was an odd, rather gentle intro to the music of Bob Dylan, but it was enough for me.  It wasn’t long before I was way gone on his whole catalog, quoting his lyrics in my notebooks.  After all these years, that mellow country record still sounds very lovely and appealing to me.  In fact, I’ve performed three songs from Nashville Skyline on my own gigs in the past three days.

The soundtrack to the Jamaican movie The Harder They Come was also one of our living room lps.  Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and several other soulful giants of reggae music, showed me a whole new side of the groove.  I listened to that album over and over again in my young teen years.  It filled me full of emotion and made me want to move.  I loved all of the voices, harmonies, grooves and melodies.  I loved the evocative world of the lyrics.  I used to go see Jimmy Cliff in concert every time he came to town.  I still perform and/or listen to most of the songs from The Harder They Come regularly.

Then there were the Warner Brothers compilation albums:

 
 

My parents had four double lp samplers that Warner/Reprise put out in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Neil Young, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, The Faces, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Herbie Hancock, The Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison… They were all on these records.  And the album packaging was filled with liner notes and photos so you could read all about the artists.

Those records were the land of dreams for me.

I branched out and got into all kinds of music in the years that followed those little kid in the living room days.  But I don’t think I’ll ever lose the influence or the joy of those first few records.  The sounds and the words from the songs on those albums are pretty central to my aesthetic world.  To this day, there’s nothing that will ever sound as familiar and yet perpetually fresh and new to me.  I know I can hear the influence of those records all over my own songs.

..And how about you?  What were your first few records?

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Isn’t it a Great Time to Make Music?

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I’m pretty bad at small talk.  Recently I attempted some small talk at someone’s beach house.  A guy asked me what I did for a living.  He told me that he was a video game developer.  His girlfriend mentioned that she had made a lot of money on Wall Street.  I told them I was a musician.

Video Game Developer:  Isn’t a great time to make music?

Milton:   Well I sure like making music, but what do you mean?

Video Game Developer: There are so many different ways to make money with your music on the internet.

Milton: I like to make money and I like to make music.  I’m not sure I like much of the music being made these days.  I’m not sure I like the ways that I can make money making music these days.

Wall Street Girlfriend: For years only very few records got made by mainstream companies and no one ever got to hear all of the original and creative things that people were doing.  Now anyone can put their own music out there on the internet.

Milton: For years we couldn’t hear what everyone was doing instantly.  Now we can hear what everyone is doing instantly.  Is everyone now good?

…But wait!  I still haven’t answered the first question.  So I will now in this blog post.

I’ll call this segment IFAQ (infrequently asked questions):

Hasn’t the internet been liberating for artists?

In some ways it has, in other ways it hasn’t.   The internet is a medium.  It’s what you make it. You can use it to promote and distribute great art or you can use it to sell Cheese Whiz to diabetics.  “All of this machinery making modern music can still be open hearted”* as the group Rush sang long ago.  But if your heart isn’t open, the internet won’t open it.  Billions of people can record their own voices talking and send out their signal to the whole planet instantly, but it’s really what they’ve got to say that matters.  If we don’t create an environment in which interesting voices can be recognized, developed, promoted and protected, we will hear only the sound of “ten thousand whispering and nobody listening”** as Bob Dylan sang so many years ago.  …Ahh yes, Bob Dylan, who got his start on a big, fat major label in 1962 at the age of 21.   Even a major label doesn’t have to be a bad thing, if the machinery is open hearted.  If artistic decisions are actually made by people who love art and know about it.  Bob Dylan was signed by John Hammond, a man who loved music and spent his life immersed in music.  The Beatles were signed by George Martin, a classical musician with an ear for novelty in music.  Run DMC were signed by Rick Rubin, a fanatical music fan.  These music lovers were able to promote the artistic cause of the acts they worked with, not just the commercial cause.  If the decisions made surrounding a piece of art are only made in the interest of crass commercialism and marketing, it doesn’t matter what medium we choose.  Paint on canvas is only as interesting as the artistic vision that gets the paint on there.  Does the internet make it easy for millions of people to read this blog or hear my Garageband demo if millions of people want to?  …Yes.  Has the internet made people, and specifically those with the most money, power, and influence more quality oriented and art friendly? …What do you think?

Bob Dylan and John Hammond at the sessions for Dylan’s first album, 1961.

George Martin, working on the Sgt. Pepper album with Paul McCartney, 1966

Rick Rubin with Russell Simmons and Run DMC

Aren’t there so many great ways to make money from your music on the internet?

 “They give you this but you pay for that”as Neil Young put it.***

There are many ways to make money with your music in a variety of different media.  Most of the money you can make comes from licensing of a piece of pre-recorded music.  For-profit enterprises will always have some money to throw at artists if there’s a lot more money to be made by using the art for their commerce.  Companies used to make a lot of money by selling the recordings themselves.  That doesn’t work anymore.  There’s a lot more money to be made from using the recordings to score movies or TV shows.  There’s even more money to be made by using music to help sell products directly.  If you don’t care what products you sell, then any commercial usage of your stuff is great.  More artists each day are game to take the money every time.  I would have a hard time turning down big money if it were offered to me.   Still, I know that flatly accepting corporate ad money has its cost.  When I think about the question of what the money is worth to me and where it comes from, I always think about the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind.  A baby is underwater reaching out for a dollar on a hook.  I think that cover design was chosen very deliberately.  Kurt Cobain was not happy about becoming a big brand name.  Many people today mark the major label release and commercial success of that Nirvana album as a landmark victory for independent music.  But “history is written by the victors” as Winston Churchill once said.  The rise of commercial “alternative” music, was in many ways the death of a truly independent underground music scene, a self-governed counter-culture/economy, left untouched by the big marketing machines.  Today, many is the angry young musician, independently turning out songs on a computer, dreaming of hearing his/her songs on a commercial for a bank or a chain restaurant.  Once upon a time Allen Toussaint wondered what justified the decision to “jump the fence for the dollar sign”.**** I’m not sure that as many artists even care about that question anymore.  I’m not sure many people spend much time in their lives on the other side of the fence.

Allen Toussaint

Isn’t it a great time to make music?

Yes.  It’s a great time to make music, really good music.  It’s a truly great time to do that.  In fact, it’s always a good time.  It’s a good time to learn a lot about music and work very hard.  It’s a good time to sing and write and play with all of your heart and soul.  It’s a great time to hone your craft and try again and again and again.  It might be hard to get rich making music.  It might be hard to make any money at all making music, but this world could still use some good music.  People could always use some good music, some good art, some good entertainment.  We could really stand to gain from some good music now more than ever.  It’s a good time to learn about listening.  It’s a good time to read and inform yourself as much as possible and develop your own taste.  It’s a great time to make something lovely and to appreciate something lovely.  It’s a good time to keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open.

*The Rush lyric mentioned comes from the song “The Spirit of the Radio” from the album Permanent Waves, released in 1980.  I got a copy of the record on 8-track tape at a garage sale in about 1986.  I didn’t have an 8-track player so I never listened to it.  I learned spirit of the radio from the radio.  The song got a lot of play on classic rock stations when I was in high school.

**From the Bob Dylan song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”.  I learned the song from Bob Dylan’s performance at the Concert for Bangla Desh.  It first appeared on his second album when he was in his early 20’s.

***From Neil Young’s song “Hey, Hey, My, My”.  I just gave Rust Never Sleeps a spin yesterday.  It’s awfully good.

****From the song “What is Success?” from the album Toussaint, released in 1971. The song was also recorded by Bonnie Raitt.  I learned it first, by hearing it at one of Allen Toussaint’s lovely Sunday brunch solo shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City about 6 years ago.

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Milton And Me

I started using the stage name Milton not long after I began playing music professionally, a little over 10 years ago.   Since then, I’ve been asked about my name more times than I ever imagined I would be.   As a self-promoting musician, I play in different towns as often as I can.  When I’m able to, I often do an interview for a local paper or radio station to talk about one of my gigs or my latest record.  Countless times, I’ve received a lead off question in those interviews about my name.  Usually, some reporter who has never heard of me, reads the Bio page on my website and whatever else he can find on me in a Google search.  He then hits record on his recording device and starts right in with with “So… Your name is Milton.  Is that your real name?” or maybe even “So… Why Milton?”   Lots of people have come up to me during the intermission at one of my shows and introduced themselves by saying “Hi.  Milton isn’t your real name. Is it?”  I always wonder if people do that to Sting or Elton John.

If I’ve ever been hesitant to talk about my name, it’s not because I’m ashamed in any way of the fact that my given name is Marc Joseph Rosenthal, 3rd son of Elizabeth and Samuel Rosenthal or that I was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up at 85 Colonial Avenue in Larchmont, NY.  I just really want to promote my record and/or my show and talk about the music.  I chose Milton as an artistic name for a number of reasons, sound or otherwise, that I’ll say more about.  But for whatever reason, I chose to put Milton as the name on my work and I therefore want a listener or reader to check out the music, see the show, hear the interview and remember “Milton”, not “Marc Rosenthal”.  My old friends and family members know me as Marc and still call me Marc.  My music colleagues and more recent friends know me as Milton.  Some old friends just like calling me Milton or Milty or Milt because they think it’s fun.  I certainly don’t mind anyone knowing that my name is Marc.  I know that Ringo Starr’s real name is Richard Starkey.  I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t go up to him and say “Hey, Rich!”

.…So…Why Milton?

The short answer is “I don’t know”.   Here’s the long answer…

First of all, there was the saturation of the name Marc or Mark Rosenthal.  When I was growing up, my orthodontist had two patients named Marc Rosenthal and one named Mark Rosenthal with a K.  That seemed like plenty of Marc Rosenthal’s to me.  Let me give you some other better known members of the club.

1.There’s a rather famous editorial illustrator named Marc Rosenthal.

2.There was a writer for Punk Magazine, rather prominent on New York’s original punk music scene, named Mark Rosenthal.

3.There’s a screenwriter who wrote the re-make of Planet of the Apes and several other movies named Mark Rosenthal

4.There’s a longtime TV weatherman in Boston named Mark Rosenthal.  If you Google him, you’ll find that he and his wife called 911 last year when they got lost in an apple orchard.

5.There’s a zoo curator in Chicago, Illinois named Mark Rosenthal.  He had an account at the bookstore where I worked in Chicago in 1997.  We shook hands once when he was in the store.

6.There’s an actor named Mark Rosenthal.  I remember seeing a photo of him in the Times when he was in Marvin’s Room on Broadway.  One of my mother’s friends called her to congratulate her on my success.  I was starring in High School plays at the time.  Mark also had a bit part in the movie “Uncle Buck”.

7.There’s also an upper official of the Motor Vehicle Operators’ Union called Mark Rosenthal.  He’s a big guy.

I guess we Marc/Mark Rosenthals have done ok out there .

…and now a word or two about this particular Marc Rosenthal…

I was named after my maternal grandfather, Marc Robbins.  Grandpa Marc was the patriarch of my Mom’s side of the family.  He was the second child of several born to poor immigrant parents on the Lower East Side in 1898.  He died a successful retired doctor in a nice house by the ocean in Rockaway Beach when I was about 13.  Grandpa was actually born Itzhak Rabinowitz.  I guess he was a name changer too.  I only knew my grandfather when he was far along with Alzheimer’s disease.  I remember that he liked to drink a glass of Scotch in the evening, he liked watching sporting events on TV and he got particularly upset about us kids walking in the house without hosing off our sandy feet from the beach.  Everyone in the family was fiercely proud of grandpa Marc.  He was known to be smart and stubborn and a hard ass.  I was proud to be named after him but I  felt that it was a lot to live up to.  I couldn’t imagine being a hard ass like him.  I liked the idea but I felt far more soft-assed.  Still, I went about my business being Marc Rosenthal in my first few years playing music.  I even released an album or two as Marc Rosenthal when I started playing gigs after college.  A friend from college who had moved to the Boston area got up early to see me on TV one morning, when he saw my name in the local listing.  He was impressed that I had gotten a spot on the local network morning show at such a young age.  He was a little disappointed to find that it was just an ad for Boston’s famed weatherman.

Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You

Just around the turn of the century, I had been playing with a rock band called Manhattan Heroes (named after a Cuban sandwich shop in Chelsea) and using my own name when I decided to go solo.  I wasn’t feeling like making any more electric rock records at that time and I wanted to be my own independent artist.  I had a vision of retracing my roots and showcasing my writing, making acoustic music with very little instrumentation.  I recorded a few songs for a demo at a friend’s studio in Brookyln and printed up labels on my home computer.  I started sending them to clubs and following up.  I had my heart set on playing at a new little club on Allen Street called the Living Room where I had seen a friend play.  After sending my CD and calling several times, I was told to please stop calling.  They were “not interested”.  I was pretty close to stepping on my hat.  …Then I remembered good old Milty Rose.

At some point during my childhood, I learned all of my friends’ middle names.  A few times at the beginning of the school year, the teachers might read our full names off the class roster.  I loved learning all of my friends’ middle names: David Alexander Klagsbrun, Thomas Alan Pardo, Joshua Lansing Polk, David Harry Goodman.  My friend Josh Moses was Joshua Milton Moses.  I really liked his middle name.  I liked the way it looked in print.  Milton sounded like the Lower East Side to me.  It sounded like someone my grandfather might have known.  As a kid I had read  books about the Marx Brothers (who were roughly my grandfather’s age) and I learned all of their real names.  Samuel, Adolph, Julius, Milton and Herbert.  Milton just always seemed like an old time entertainer to me and I very much wanted to be an old time entertainer.  I imagined myself a Tin Pan Alley songwriter from the 20’s called Milty Rose, banging away at an upright piano in a tenement, turning out five standards a day.

There was a bit of cool around Milton too in my mind.  When in high school I had discovered old jazz records with Milt Jackson or Milt Hinton on them, I couldn’t help but dig a dude called Milt.  The fact that someone could be called Milt and play the blues in smoky clubs with John Coltrane and Miles Davis was just about the best thing I had ever heard of.  I wanted to be so cool.   There was a blues singer with a righteous version of “Stormy Monday” on a Chess Blues cassette I bought somewhere called Little Milton.  I wanted to be Big Milton.  In college, I learned about John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.  When I was introduced to Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead one night a few years ago, he immediately assumed I was named for the great poet.   I think a lot of people think I’m trying to say something about John Milton.  I must admit I’ve still never gotten through John Milton’s epic poem in its entirety.  But there always did seem to be some great combination of gravitas and good humor in the name Milton attached to a piece of art.  Milton Glaser was the guy who made the world famous I ❤ New York Logo.  Milton Berle was the Vaudevillian turned TV star who was known by millions of Americans as “Uncle Milty”.  If I could somehow conjure up English Literature, smoky nightclub blues, Tin Pan Alley, New York City, entertainers of old, and my friend Josh, I would be happy every time I saw my name and I would no longer be Marc Rosenthal #48.

   

My best buddy Mike was a graphic designer (and still is a most excellent one).  He knew about my alter-ego Milty Rose and actually might have been the first person to call me Milt.  I called him up one day and asked him to try re-designing my booking materials.  At first I thought to call myself Milty Rose.  But when I saw the single word Milton in writing it just looked right to me.  From that moment on, everything I did in music, I did with the name Milton.  I soon got myself booked at the very club that turned down Marc Rosenthal and within a year I had signed a record deal as Milton and my songs were even being played on the radio.  People who met me on gigs just started calling me Milton and I started liking it.

I’ve had some trouble with the name Milton too.  It’s not the easiest name to search for online.  Besides, the famed poet, there are many, many people, places and companies named Milton and I don’t use a last name that might help to narrow down a search.  There’s a band from Wisconsin called Milton who played on the Warped tour.  I know about them because I’ve seen their bio in the program of a show I was playing.  Someone on the venue’s staff didn’t check his facts too well.  There’s a Spanish Language singer named Milton.  You can sometimes see his stuff listed as part of my discography on I-Tunes and other websites.  If you’re looking or an album of mine and you hear some vaguely techno music with a Spanish speaking lead singer, chances are, it ain’t me.  There’s also an album by the world famous Brazillian musician Milton Nascimento that’s just called “Milton”.  It comes up a fair amount when you search for me online.  Most of all, when you search online for “Milton”, you get any one of 100+ towns of the same name in this country and the UK.  Maybe one of my Mom’s friends will call her to congratulate her on my having a town named after me at such a young age.

Note:

You can check out the brilliant design work of Mike Joyce at:

http://www.stereotype-design.com

And

http://www.swissted.com

This blog post was written at the Brooklyn Lyceum Café and the Jefferson Market Library in Manhattan.  I had my computer’s music collection on random shuffle.  Songs were played by these artists, in this order.

George Harrison – Beethoven- Alan Lomax’s Sicily recordings- The Skatalites-  Art Neville- Me – Ella Fitzgerald – Billy Joel – Jimmy Reed – Randy Newman – Herbie Hancock- Jimi Hendrix with The Isley Brothers-  Al Green – The Beatles – Sly & The Family Stone – Benny Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra- Harry Belafonte – The Temptations- Dion- The Kinks – Howlin’ Wolf- Billie Holiday- Paul Westerberg- Lee Dorsey-  ELO – Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band- James Booker- Bill Clifton- Them- Desmond Dekker – Etta James- The Beatles – Little Richard – The Skatalites- War – Thelonious Monk – Dave Tarras- Muddy Waters – Tommy Roe – Roscoe Holcomb – Howard Tate – Beck –Professor Longhair – Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto – The Staple Singers

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The First Time I heard… Part 1:

Richie Havens’ Record

8th Grade, in the fall or early winter.  Jerry Leoni’s house, around the corner from my house in Larchmont, NY.  The record belonged to his parents.  It was with a stack of lp records next to an old dusty record player, within the closed glass doors of a shelving unit in their living room.  Jerry’s family was kind of serious and religious.  I was very pleasantly surprised when Jerry’s mom heard us listening to the record and told us she had bought the record in the 60’s because she loved Richie Havens’ “groovy voice”.  I had seen clips of Richie Havens on MTV’s Closet Classics and in the Woodstock movie.  I too thought his voice was groovy.  That fall and winter I was heavily crushed out on a girl I had met at sleep away camp in the summer.   I would walk home from Jerry’s in the cold, daydreaming about her, daydreaming about being an artist and a rock star, daydreaming about how good the record sounded.  Richie Havens’ Record  is kind of a strange bootleg album of pre-fame demo recordings.  It might be my favorite record by the guy.  The first track on the album is a rousing spiritual called “I’m on My Way” with great call and response vocals traded between Richie and his longtime pal and sideman Paul Williams.  The song hit me right in the chest, where all of my young longing and lust for life lived.  Eventually I would sing “I’m on My Way” as part of my early coffee house act in Chicago.  Back in 8th grade, I was a little shy about asking to hear the record at Jerry’s.  I secretly longed to listen to it every time I went over there.  Luckily, I was just discovering Greenwich Village and its wonders at that time.  Richie Havens’ Record was one of the first records I hunted down and found in a Village record shop.  I held it and stared at it and re-read the liner notes all the way home on the train, unable to believe my good fortune.

  

If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

Magical Mystery Tour

This is Boston Not L.A.

I heard these three records at three different times, all on family visits to my Aunt Peggy’s house in Lexington, MA.  The first record was by the Mamas and the Papas and it featured the song “California Dreaming”.  I was in about second or third grade.  It was sitting on a record player in my cousin David’s room.  I was a little afraid of my cousin and the possible castigation that might come from pestering an older kid or touching his stuff.  But when he went elsewhere with my older brothers I played “California Dreaming” over and over on that record player.  Mid-way through the song I would get nervous and stand by the door and make sure no one was coming.  I can still see the carpet in that room and smell the fireplace downstairs in that big old house.  I sure loved that song and the harmonies on the chorus.  A year or so later I discovered an unbelievably cool little clubhouse room, reachable by ladder only, out in the garage at that house.  There was a little record player in there and a copy of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.  I was probably in about 4th grade.  I found the sound of “Hello, Goodbye” to be as joyous a sensation as the zip line my cousin had across his back yard.  I’d sneak up to the clubhouse and play that record over and over.   In the 80’s, David turned my brothers on to new wave music, the Doctor Demento radio show, Boston’s famed Newburry Comics record store and a whole mess of other cool, older kid things.  One day I was in loitering in his room, feeling awfully young and self-conscious.   I tried to act cool while he showed his friends and my brothers a punk rock record he had bought.  It was so fast and distorted, I couldn’t make out a word that the singers were singing.  On one song I could swear the singer was just yelling “fit-i-fa-fit-i-fa-fit-i-fa-fit-i-fa”.  Turns out he was singing about slam dancing.  He was saying “gonna slam, gonna slam…”.  The record was a compilation of Boston area hardcore punk bands called “This is Boston, Not L.A.”  The front cover had a photo of teenagers, slam dancing.  The back cover had stick figures on it.  It was independent, cheap and angry in a way I had never experienced a record to be.  My brothers fell in love with the record and played songs from the album in their first band.  I remember some of the bands on the album:  Jerry’s Kids, The Freeze, The Proletariat, Gang Green, Decadence.  The music was frightening to me at the time but it also seemed so full of good intentions and maverick defiance.

 

Astral Weeks

Rumours

Joao Gilberto

Hot summer youth, night driving alone in a Honda Accord with the windows down.  These were three cassettes that I bought at the new Tower Records on Central Avenue in Yonkers during my senior year in High School.  I drove there in my parents’ Accord, not particularly confident with the stick shift.  All three were in the bargain bin at Tower.  They just looked like fun to me.  Van Morrison’s Moodance had been an obsession of mine throughout junior and senior year.  Astral Weeks just looked more trippy, and harder to explain (and it is).  The cover of Fleetwood Mac’s magnum opus had been familiar to me from countless rock music books.  I had heard Joao Gilberto singing with his wife and Stan Getz’s lovely saxophone on the song, “the Girl from Ipanema” somewhere by that point.  There was a tape deck in my parents’ car. All three cassettes became the soundtrack to that summer for me.  My friends were listening to Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction.  That’s stuff was ok to me, but I couldn’t possibly get enough of “Go Your Own Way”, “Falsa Bahiana” and “Madame George”.  I broke up with my high school sweetheart that summer and the anger of Lindsey Buckingham’s break-up songs was perfect for me.  The wonder of Astral Weeks was exactly as dreamy and in love with life as I felt that summer.  I wanted to go “On that train to Dublin up to Sandy Row” with Richard Davis’ upright bass accompanying me all the way there.  Jobim’s “Aguas De Marco” is about as poetic and in love with life as it gets.  The 1973 Verve record features just Gilberto’s voice, his acoustic guitar, a drummer named Sonny Carr playing a groovy hi-hat.  One day that summer my dad’s bike broke down in the middle of a long distance ride in the Berkshires.  I had to make an emergency road trip to pick him up, my first solo highway trip in a car.  I had my tapes.  The hills and the trees made me sigh with joy.  I played my new obsessions for my dad on the ride home.  Dad couldn’t really get with Astral Weeks, but he couldn’t help but love the harmonies and guitars on Rumours.

The Best of Nina Simone

Curtis Fuller with Red Garland

Freezing cold winter mornings in Chicago.  I would open up the shop and the register at the Lincoln Park bookshop, where I was working.  The peace of those solitary mornings was wonderful.  My hands were freezing.  My cup of coffee never quite lasted long enough.  There were a few beaten up CD’s that sat upon the CD player behind the register.  I was poor, lonely and far from home, struggling to write songs and perform them in front of tiny, indifferent audiences.  Curtis Fuller’s trombone signing “Stormy Weather” felt like the soundtrack to the film noir version of my young life.  Nina Simone’s version of the Bee Gees “In The Morning” made me feel like there was hope for us all.  Her version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne took me to another world each time.  I would even tear up a little every time she sang “There are heroes in the seaweed”.

   

Plenty, Plenty Soul

In The Heat of the Night

Volunteered Slavery

The Best Of Charles Mingus

 

The first cool breezes toward the end of summer, the sinking premonitory feeling of school’s return, floating between chapters of a story.   Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine comes to mind.  My parents had rented a cottage in Martha’s Vineyard for a long weekend and I went with them.  My brothers were away at college.  I spent a fair amount of time wandering around town by myself on that trip.  One day I wandered into the Vineyard Haven public library and found that they were selling off their entire collection of lp records for 50 cents each.  I bought the ones that looked coolest to me.  Some guy in his 40’s saw me buying them and pointed to Roland Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery.  “…A classic!” was all he said.  He was right.  I had never heard anyone play a flute like that, I still haven’t.  It was wildly exciting, full of alienation, anger and joy all at once.  To my surprise, Roland Kirk also played on Quincy Jones’ music from the film “In The Heat of The Night”.  I’m still not over the majestic, earthy beauty of title track, sung by none other than the great Ray Charles and featuring the smoking soul organ of Billy Preston.  Mingus’ “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” was also full of dark mystery and jubilation.  The heavily swinging blues of Milt Jackson’s Plenty, Plenty Soul really drove me wild too.  I fell in love with Art Blakey’s powerhouse drumming.  Music was never quite the same for me after that.  It was like I had been dabbling with drugs and then graduated to the harder stuff.   Who were these people?  Who was this impossibly cool dude name Milt?  I wanted to know.

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