Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Looking Back on 2019   Leave a comment

January 1, 2020

The beauty, for me, of being the editor of the Lighthouse Peddler is that each month I’m allowed to blather on about something. A few years ago I decided to start chronicling the passing of some great people, with a full understanding that greatness, like many things, is highly subjective. And be forewarned. There’s a lot about music in this year’s column. Here is my list of those we lost in 2019.

Art Neville died in July. I met the Neville Brothers in the 1980s when A&M released the “Yellow Moon” album. The legendary band were a joy to work with. Some 30 years ago I had the honor of getting on stage at Tipitina’s in New Orleans and introduce them to an audience of music fans. I’m happy our paths crossed but I must admit, with Art’s passing there’s a little less ‘Fiyo on the Bayou.’

João Gilberto died in July. One of the driving forces behind the creation of Bossa Nova, he helped change the rhythm of the world. And in 1964 his then wife, Astrud Gilberto became an icon with her recording of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”. You can almost feel the sand at Copacabana.

Driving a rental car in San Francisco was always fun. Really. One afternoon in the late 1970s I heard a record come on the radio and thought to myself, this is a near-perfect single. That was the moment I first heard “Two Tickets To Paradise” by Eddie Money. Since that day, whenever that song comes on the radio I’m always ready to, crank up the volume and sing along. Eddie died in September. Hopefully he made it.

A radio legend died in December. “Grizzled, irascible, foulmouthed, an outrageous, confrontational growler with a buckram face, a battered cowboy hat and a gun on his hip, he spent decades on the air doing pranks and parodies that were often brutish, tasteless or obscene and sometimes surviving alcoholism, cocaine addiction, repeated firings and a nearly fatal fall from a horse.” That’s the New York Times take on the life of Don Imus. They’re right. And I admit it. I listened to him for years when I worked in New York.

The Monkees. Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, and Mickey Dolenz were a pure Hollywood TV creation. Surrounded by great songwriters and a group of legendary musicians the Monkees became overnight teenage idols in the mid-1960s. Founding member of the band Peter Tork died this year. He was 77.

I first heard “Scatterlings” on the radio while driving in Los Angeles. An amazing song, and an amazing recording was the creation of Johnny Clegg (left). Beyond his musical talents he was a British-born singer, songwriter and guitarist who managed to fuse together Western and Af- rican influences, and found an international audience. He stood as an emblem of resistance to the apartheid authorities in his ad- opted land, South Africa where he was sometimes referred to as “the white Zulu”.

A few months ago I wrote of the death of Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar. Listen to “Miserlou”. It was as if he decided in 1963 to rethink what the electric guitar should sound like. Likewise I remembered Dr. John, The Night Tripper. He died in September.

If you listened (or purchased) records by The Captain and Tennille, you may have heard that Daryl Dragon died in January. The son of composer and conductor Carmen Dragon, Daryl was a songwriter, a keyboardist with the Beach Boys, and a bona fide success with partner (and ex-wife) Toni Tennille. For five years in the late 1970s I had the pleasure of working with them. Their music wasn’t for everyone, but they sure knew how to make hit records.

The death of Scott Engel may not turn heads everywhere, but those in the music world knew him as Scott Walker. Along with John Maus and Gary Leeds, these three American-born musicians changed their professional surnames to Walker and found success performing brilliant arrange- ments of songs like “Make It Easy on Yourself,” “Love Her,” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”. Their hits were their own version of blue-eyed soul with arrange- ments that echoed those of the Righteous Brothers. Scott Walker was always a bigger star in Britain than in the States, and lived there until his death this year.

In 1969 we were fortunate to meet three actors, free spirits all. The film “Easy Rider” brought Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson into our lives. Fonda, who died in August, managed to escape the shadow of his famous father. Peter Fonda on a motorcycle is an image for which he’ll always be remembered.

2019 was a tough year for long-time Green Bay Packer fans. Forrest Gregg died in April. Jim Taylor died in October. Zeke Bratkowski, a talented but perennial backup QB died in November. But with a slight to no one, the biggest loss this year was Bart Starr. One of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history died in May. He was a dominating force in the 1960s. He and the Pack won three N.F.L. Championships (1961, ’62 and ’65) in the pre-Super Bowl era, and then the first two Super Bowls, in January of 1967 and ’68. The 1960s was the decade where Green Bay earned the nickname Ti- tle Town.

Rutger Hauer died in July. The Dutch- born actor turned in many fine performances but his greatest may have been as the humanoid/replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner. One of my all time favorite films, Hauer was both scary and sympathetic. As the replicant Blatty neared the end of his ‘life’ he reflected on his imminent “death”. With rain pouring down, Blatty tells us that whatever he was, whatever he did, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

In 2003 Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson became an unlikely hero. He challenged the Bush/Cheney narrative about Saddam Hussein making nuclear weapons, which was the foundation of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. It was a lie, but the truth didn’t matter. We went to war and America is still paying for it. Wilson died in September. Thanks, Joe.

I.M. Pei died this year. A brilliant architect. I visited Paris numerous times begin- ning in 1975 and, in addition to the restaurants and the sights, loved the museums. I’ll only add that with Pei’s glass pyramid as its new entrance, the Louvre for better or worse will never be the same.

We lost some names from the world of television. Actor David Hedison died in July. And humorist and creative force Mar- shall Efron died in September. Maybe you can see some of his stuff on YouTube. Try “Great American Dream Machine”. Efron was one of a kind. And Sylvia Chase, Sander Vanocur, and Cokie Roberts died in 2019. All were forces in national news and political news reporting.

2008 was one of those years. I mean one of those fire years. While answering phones at KZYX public radio during the fall Pledge Drive we took a call and a pledge from a seemingly unlikely caller. He lived in the area, was already a supporter of the station and wanted to help a little more. His name was René Auberjonois. Better known to some as Father Mulcahy in the original film M*A*S*H. To others he was Clayton Endicott II from the sitcom Benson. To me he will always be Odo from Start Trek: Deep Space Nine. He was 79.

There are, obviously, many more who could be added to this list. But I have just one more name to mention: Jim Swindel. Most of you, I assume, are thinking “Jim who?” Jim was one of those people born to succeed in the music business. He wasn’t a pop musician, songwriter or producer although he touched all of it. I hired Jim to work for A&M in the late ’70s. He was smart, and he was the consummate ‘people person’. Walk into a room and Jim would meet one or more people who would come to appreciate his gifts. After A&M he worked for Island, Virgin, Qwest and Arista and never changed. Some people like to say of someone they liked or loved, “he was the best”. In this case it was all true. I attended a memorial for Jim in San Francisco in October. The place was packed. It’s rare when we can say ‘that person was one of a kind’. Jim was smart, charming, and a friend. I miss him.

Warming Warning, Revisited   Leave a comment

Working in the music industry at the dawn of the 1980s I remember having mixed emotions about the state of popular music. My memory is that the best seller charts were beginning to reflect two concurrent trends.

 

     First, rhythm was more than a backbeat with disco and dance music taking an increasing share of the record-buying audience. Nothing necessarily bad about that but, frankly, A&M wasn’t a cutting edge dance/disco music label. Having ended the ‘70s with breakthroughs by artists like Supertramp and Peter Frampton, our artists tended to be more traditional pop/rock. However, in 1979 A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert came roaring back on the charts with a huge instrumental dance hit record titled “Rise”. The tempo of “Rise” was noticeably slower than disco. Herb told us that he wanted  to “make a dance record, not a disco record.” He defined the difference as much in BPM—beats per minute—as musicality.

 

     The second trend was an influence of more synthesized recordings, many coming from the U.K. Think groups like Culture Club, Thompson Twins or Human League. Added to the evolving style of music was an obvious and open approach to fashion and sexuality. There was a more obvious use of makeup—for male and female performers—and a greater flair in wardrobe and hair. Along with a renewed influence in music, UK/European musicians (many of them with their 1970’s mullet hairstyle) brought their music and fashion to America in the ’80s.

 

     Songwriters have long incorprated social change into songs including issues of war, civil rights, and feminism. For example, there’s Pete Seeger (“Where Have All The Flowers Gone”), Bob Dylan (The Times They Are a’ Changing”), Helen Reddy (I Am Woman”) and Peter Gabriel (“Biko”). And another interesting topic was starting to rise to the consciousness of the public through the news, although not necessarily in song. To be honest, the size of the audience actually hearing this news was almost microscopic compared to the general population.
     A television listing appeared in Britain’s ITV Network’s evening programming on December 8, 1981. Scheduled to follow “Brideshead Revisited” at 9:00pm and the local news at 10:00pm was a program titled “Warming Warning”. Here’s how it was described in the newspaper listing:

 

     “A documentary about the serious effects our polluting of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide will have on the climate. Scientists are worried that at the present rate the Earth will be two degrees warmer by the middle of the next century with disastrous consequences for the polar regions. It is estimated that if the Ross Ice Shelf were to break up it could lead to an ice surge which would raise sea levels by up to twenty feet thus putting two million people, in London alone, at risk.”
     Produced in Britain by (the now defunct) Thames Television, it’s highly unlikely you or anyone you know ever saw “Warming Warning” in 1981.

 

     Most people, understandably, believe “climate change” is a recent topic, perhaps in the lexicon for 10-20 years. And millions continue to deny climate change is real, with many of those believing it’s a hoax.

 

     British journalist and writer Leo Hickman wrote about the documentary in 2017. In part he said that the broadcast of “Warming Warning” in 1981 “was among the earliest occasions—possibly the earliest—anywhere in the world where a major broadcaster aired a documentary dedicated solely to the topic of human-caused climate change. The documentary was broadcast seven years before Dr. James Hansen’s famous ‘it is already happening now’ Senate testimony in 1988, nine years before the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report was published, and 25 years before Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was released. . . .”

 

     A decade after Dr. Hansen’s warning, and almost two decades after “Warming OCT 2019 Gen ProtestWarning” first aired in the U.K., the topic had reached the American congress. That is not to suggest United States senators were sitting around a campfire, arms locked, singing “Kumbaya”. The world was, in fact, talking about climate change and discussing the need to address the issue. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol—so named for having been adopted at a conference in Kyoto, Japan—was an international treaty which extended the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, committing signatory states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 

     President Bill Clinton never got the United States Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and President George W. Bush had no interest in raising the issue, much less push for ratification. While Clinton failed, in part, due to a minor distraction known as the Clinton Impeachment, Bush could easily have gotten this through the senate had he wished. But, Bush decided to allow the most conservative (i.e., anti-climate change) members of his administration to influence the GOP writ large, and by the time the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act came up for a vote in 2005, it was defeated on a bipartisan basis, 60-38. To be fair, the American government did  not stand alone. We bravely and  boldly stood with Kazakhstan; the only two nations to ignore the Kyoto Accord and formally deny Climate Change.
     By the time President Obama had secured a second term, maybe people believed the United States could now join the world in an effort to fight climate change. The new opportunity was for America to be a party to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. President Obama committed the U.S. to joining almost 200 other nations of the world and work toward change. Obama’s good intentions—again, a treaty that was never ratified—was a casualty of the 2016 presidential election. It took the current occupant of the Oval Office less than six months to decide that America would, indeed, withdraw from the Paris Accord. And here we are.
     This past week an estimated 4 million people marched to draw attention to climate change as part of the September 2019 Climate Strike. And one can assume the estimate of 4 million is all about big cities and ignores the dozens, hundreds or even thousands of OCT 2019 Gualala Protestsmall towns and rural enclaves where people also stood for the Climate Strike. 16-year old Greta Thunberg’s dramatic call to action (and the Swedish teen’s authentic passion) were virtually impossible to dismiss. Some did, but Thunberg spoke for many. (Watch her on YouTube).

 

And on a more personal note, the Climate Strike was clearly front and center on Mendocino’s south coast. As I walked and talked with fellow climate-strikers, and with representatives of organizations, I was struck by how many of my friends and neighbors were on the green. Smiles were everywhere. This wasn’t a group of angry people. But that is not to say they aren’t serious, concerned or committed. They are. And we should be too. I live on the coast. I see the Pacific Ocean every day. You can’t live in Gualala, Sea Ranch, Anchor Bay, Point Arena, Manchester, Elk, Stewart’s Point or in any other town and not be thinking about our ocean, our planet, and climate change. I’m happy we’re aware, active, and thinking. But we need more. The world needs to seize the moment.
David Steffen
© 2019 David Steffen

We Were Going Down To Yasgur’s Farm. . . .   Leave a comment

August 1, 2019

 

  It was a random concert some fifty years ago, with an audience—almost all strangers but some of those strangers would become and remain friends. To this day. In travel terms, it might as well have been happening in a ‘galaxy far far away’, considering the distance from Milwaukee to Bethel, New York. But I was in the right place at the right time to hear about an amazing concert event and be in a position  to get in my car and drive to the event.

 

     Sitting in the studio at WZMF-FM radio in Milwaukee I would sometimes answer the phones. We were a station with a small staff so we all did a little of everything. In fact, I remember we all had 3rd Class FCC licenses. We needed this basic permit as we were required to take transmitter readings. Test qualifications for the permit: breathing, ability to sign ones name, answer a few questions, and pay the fee.

One morning in July I received a phone call from a potential advertiser. They were putting on a rock concert and thought advertising their event on Milwaukee’s “Original Album Rock Radio Station” would be a good idea. Duh. So I took down the information and by the time I got off the air George, our intrepid ad sales guru, was in the office. George was one of those guys who could sell one-pound boxes of sand to people sitting on a beach. He called the concert promoter, got the information, and in short order (the concert was about a month away) spots were on the air. A lot of spots. It seemed like woodstock_posterevery couple of hours another 60-second commercial aired promoting this concert. On a closer listen to the ads I realized that it was more than a concert. It would be a multi-day rock music festival, and it was taking place ‘out of town’. Still, it sounded great and I’m thinking “I gotta go.”

     More than 30 acts were signed to perform including Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie (Safka), Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald (and the Fish), Santana, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, and Jimi Hendrix. Tickets were priced at $18 advance, $24 at the gate. If you were driving to the show you’d fill your car’s tank with gasoline that cost just 35¢ a gallon. The festival lasted three days and drew about 500,000 people. And while there was no significant security force to mind the masses, the festival was relatively peaceful. It was reported that two people died (insulin killed one and a tractor the other). Two babies were born.  Chaos was part of the mix but so was a sense of humanity and mutual good vibes.

 

     All in attendance will attest to Woodstock delivering an amazing three days of peace, love and great music. August 15, 16, & 17, 1969 branded everyone of an age (and certainly all who attended) as the Woodstock Generation. I know that I felt it then and feel it now. And like most of the people you meet who tell you how great it was to be at Woodstock, most of those people weren’t there. An unscientific fact is that if everyone who says they were at Woodstock were actually at Max Yasgur’s farm that summer, the number attending would have equalled the population of Philadelphia. But in reality it was nearer half a million. The festival was documented with a feature film and multiple soundtrack albums. And my memories of Woodstock are crystal clear. After all, I saw the film and listened to the albums. And truth be told, I was NOT there. (To my credit I’ve never told anyone that I was there. Honest.)

 

     On the surface Woodstock seemed like a very good idea. Create a live music event with every big name in music, advertise it all over the country while still in the glow of the “Summer of Love”, put tickets on sale, and wait for the money to roll in. The festival was an absolute success, except for turning a profit. It wouldn’t be the first time that a successful idea can go awry. After all, it’s been proven that idiots can go bankrupt operating a casino. At least Woodstock had a successful film and series of albums. And an amazing amount of good feelings. So let’s celebrate. Music is in us and we are in music.

 

     I was fortunate enough to have worked with four HITH-remembering-richie-havens-ten-things-you-may-not-know-about-woodstock-Eof the Woodstock performers, promoting and marketing their music: Melanie’s “Gather Me” album. That was in, ah, no, really. . . 1971. (Geeeeez). Three of Joan Baez’s albums in the 1970s including “Diamonds and Rust”); Joe Cocker (including “I Can Stand A Little Rain” in 1974); and Richie Havens (“The End of the Beginning” in 1976.) Richie and I reconnected when I booked him for a sold-out concert performance at Arena Theater in Point Arena in 2007.
My good fortune of working with, listening to, and connecting with Havens, Baez, Cocker and Melanie is cherished. But in reality, we are all connected just by listening. And perhaps there is something to playwright John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”. Or the variations, as in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, “Six Degrees of der Kommissar” or your own life experience. We are all connected. What we do and say and how we live is all connected. And thinking of Woodstock, maybe we all were, in fact, at Max Yasgur’s farm. At least when we’re within those six degrees. Peace and love, man.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

 

NOTE: I met and worked with Henry Diltz 25 years ago on a video project. The above image of Richie Havens is probably one of his. Henry’s been a great photographer and historian for half a century. Thanks Henry. (He’ll be 81 on September 6.)

 

Amazing Days   Leave a comment

May 1, 2019

To paraphrase Billy Shears, “it was (almost)forty years ago today.” A band came to the Agora Theater near Cleveland in 1979, and with the luck of the draw, I happened to be there.

 

     Four years after that performance my friend Gil called me up and invited me to lunch. I was a marketing person and he was president of A&M Records (and my boss) so I immediately knew three things: Lunch would be delicious, Gil would be paying, and I would learn something. From my earliest days in the music business and having been taught a few things by a master of promotion, Augie Blume, I was always interested in learning from anyone I worked with or worked for. And that day in 1983 was one of those “holy shit” moments. In a very good way.

 

     The pace of change in recording technology was poised to accelerate in the 1980s, exciting and confounding us all at the same time. But tech didn’t matter that day. We were already accustomed to hearing what a record sounded like in the car. After all, as radio remained the primary driver of new music in the ‘80s, and commuter traffic was just beginning to feel unbearable, generations of music lovers had been trained to listen in the car. The A&M studios even had a car—actually about two-thirds of a 1960s convertible—set up inside the studio building for musicians and producers to listen to their new music while sitting in a car. (The car radio was tied directly to the adjacent studio so you could record, go out to the lobby, sit in the car and listen.)

 

     Gil drove us to the restaurant in West Hollywood but the conversation would come later. The good news, as it turns out, was that he couldn’t wait to put a tape in his cassette player. He turned to me and said, with a proverbial ‘shit eating grin’ on his face, “I’d like your opinion of this”.

 

     From the opening rimshot through the first 16 seconds (about 6-8 bars) the style suggested Gil could have been playing a song from 1962, constructed with a simple four-chord progression. But the quality of the production, the precision of the players and the voice singing the opening line confirmed that this was no 2-track golden oldie. 18 seconds into the tape the voice of Sting confirmed I was listening to a new track by Police. “It was Synchr“Every Breath You Take”, the first track I heard from the forthcoming “Synchronicity” album. Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, and Sting would not again achieve this level of success as a group. At that moment the trajectory of their recordings had hit their zenith. We all expected future recordings from the trio but this was their real parting shot. And it was a shot heard round the world.

 

     As the playback finished Gil asked, “what do you think?”  My answer was to ask him to play it again. And he did. His next question was simply “Well?”. My thoughts went something like this. The song was musically simple, lyrically dark, and absolutely Police. It’s simplicity made it instantly familiar. As we walked into the restaurant (and having heard only one track) I couldn’t figure out if the single was simply an entree to a spectacular album, or if Police had run out of true creativity. But I knew “Every Breath You Take” was a hit. Gil smiled, agreed, and we proceeded to have lunch. On the way back I asked him about the rest of the album. He only said “Don’t worry. It’s all there.” A few days later I received my own advance cassette of the complete album. The collection of songs reinforced my opinion that this band was hitting on all cylinders.

 

     To their credit, the “Synchroncity” album was not a collection of songs in the vein of “Every Breath You Take”. They covered the Police spectrum. “Synchronicity I” (side 1, cut 1) could have been a track from an early album. It was simultaneously raw and slick. Yet “Synchronicity II” was clearly the band mixing their patented power-playing and power-vocalizing with lyrics that were not part of every day songwriting. In this case the lyrics lamented the worst parts of a white-collar or factory worker’s daily grind, i.e. regularly receiving “a humiliating kick in the crotch”. Or when the lyrics draw a comparison (through recurring passages) of being something (or someone) who ‘crawls from the slime at the bottom of a dark Scottish lach’. More imagery emerged with “crossing picket lines”, and seeing the “factory belching filth” into the air. By the end of the song the employee returns home to his cottage at the shore of the Scottish lake with a realization that it is he who rises from the slime.

 

     Consider next who is actually in control in the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. Sting makes references to fringe ideas and characters to make his point. No generic demon will suffice, so he calls on a name from Faust, “Mephistopheles ”. Similarly he evokes the names of sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis from Greek Mythology. The names provide perfect rhythm and mystery and can be interpreted as Sting digging deep into lyricism or trying to prove he’s an intellectual. While it can be read either way, I’d lean to the former.

 

     The tracks “Tea In The Sahara” and “Murder By Numbers” were strong signals as to where Sting’s songwriting was heading, signals borne out with the release of his first solo album “Dream Of The Blue Turtles” in 1985.

 

     The band released a total of five albums: “Outlandos d’Amour (1979); “Reggatta de Blanc” (1980); Zenyatta Mondatta (1981); “Ghost in the Machine” (1982),  and “Synchronicity” (1983). (Yes, I’m ignoring “Brimstone & Treacle”.) They didn’t say it in 1983 but it became apparent that Police, as a band, was history. A gigantic tour delighted fans around the world. There was a moment in September ’83, standing and watching the concert at Hollywood Park in Inglewood (Los Angeles) that I finally had a feel for what it might have been like to see The Beatles at Shea in 1965. Amplification and adoring fans. But it was an event.

 

     For the next year the venues filled with masses of fans, ticket prices helped maximize everyone’s profit (not a bad thing), and we (A&M Records) continued to sell hundreds of thousands, and then millions of albums (the last I heard the “Synchronicity” album sold 8 million in North America). And then, inevitably, the band’s dissolution began. It was one wildly successful artist I was involved with from first album to last. What each of them did later is important, and each found measures of critical and financial success. Forty years after the release of “Outlandos d’Amour”,  there have been many memories. But those “Synchronicity” days were truly amazing days.

 

David Steffen

© 2019 David Steffen

Passing The Baton   Leave a comment

January 1, 2019

The start of a new year is always a demarcation line. It’s the most obvious moment—aside from our birthdays—where each of us knows another year has passed. Carl Reiner was quoted as saying “Each morning when I wake up I check the obituaries. If I don’t see my name I already feel better.” Yes we’re all a little older, but that’s how things work.

I looked at the list of all the “notables” who’ve passed and wonder how each of these famous—or infamous—people have affected, touched, or otherwise changed my life. It’s always surprising to me that I can find a personal connection to many of them. So here are my thoughts on those we lost in 2018.

What did you think about when you heard the name—nothing else, just the name—Stephen Hiillenburg? It didn’t mean anything to me. It turns out he was important to me for the simple(?) fact that he created the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. My daughter Caitie and I—Caitie was about 10 years old at the time—were driving to Indiana (from Connecticut) to visit family. After a long day on the interstates we were entertaining ourselves by watching TV in our motel room, and that was the moment SpongeBob came into our lives. We laughed for a couple of hours and both became huge fans of the underwater hero. Thanks Stephen.

Robin Leach died last year. In some ways he too was a character worth remembering. In the end, almost all of the overstuffed, vacuous, self-important wealthy people he interviewed became laughable, at least to me.

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     On the musical side we lost some greats, both household names and lesser-knowns. Before getting into the music business I had heard South African musician Hugh Masekela’s hit single “Grazing in the Grass”. Little more than a year later I was promoting the Friends of Distinction, an RCA act who did a vocal cover of Masekela’s hit, creating a hit of their own. Years later I met Hugh when he recorded an album with my former boss Herb Alpert. Small world indeed.

Another music icon I had the pleasure of meeting was Charles Neville. I was in New Orleans and at Tipitina’s for a performance by the Neville Brothers. It was 1988 or ’89 and that band of brothers were amazing.

Lorraine Gordon died. She kept the flame of New York’s Village Vanguard alive after the death of her husband Max. I made many stops at the club to see some of the greatest live music acts in a somewhat intimate setting.

Joe Jackson, father of, yes, those Jacksons died in June. I recall meeting Joe in the late 1980s as A&M Records had increasingly amazing success with Janet Jackson. In business meetings or casual settings Joe had the ability to smile and scare the hell out of you simultaneously. Clearly a dysfunctional family at times, but they changed the music business.

Aretha Franklin died. I could only smile when I saw the photographs and video of the line of pink Cadillacs lining up to pay tribute at her funeral in Detroit.

Bluesman Otis Rush, founding member of Jefferson Airplane Marty Balin, jazz great Sonny Fortune all died. As did Morgana King, and Nancy Wilson. I first heard Wilson’s 1964 recording of “How Glad I Am” while in high school. It’s a great record a half-century later.

And ABC’s Keith Jackson died. His voice was one of the most comfortable ways of listening to a sporting event. I noticed the passing of disc jockey Dan Ingram. He was one of those Top-40 radio voices that transcended the music. Ingram was, like Casey Kasem, Larry Lujack, the Real Don Steele, and others who came to us as if from the ether. Cousin Brucie is still with us (on Sirius XM) thank goodness.

     Hollywood gave up some significant names in 2018. Penny Marshall became a successful film director but I will always remember her as Laverne DeFazio on television’s “Laverne & Shirley”. Lyricist Norman Gimbel died. He wrote the lyrics to the “Happy Days” TV show theme music. It’s more likely he’d like us to remember another set of lyrics he wrote: “The Girl from Ipanema”.

 

     Burt Reynolds died. His epitaph should read something like “He did it his way”. Clint Walker died. A classic ‘bigger than life’ actor in many westerns, I remember him a little more for two small things he did. First, he starred in a made-for-TV movie titled “Yuma”. A small screen film but he helped make it memorable. The other thing was his Christmas recording of “Silver Bells”.

Clint dollarkgrhqng0e1fwr7.jpg Yes, Clint Walker sang, and I had the single on my jukebox to prove it. Margot Kidder died. I attended a John Anderson for President fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1980, and ran into a friend who was dating Margot. In typical fashion I didn’t realize who she was.
Steven Bochco gave us “Hill Street Blues”, “LA Law” and more. Taylor 5bc24ef9708ec.image.jpg

Jim Taylor died. He was one of the most formidable running backs in the NFL during the Lombardi years with the Green Bay Packers.

Stan Lee. He single-handedly changed the comic book industry. Carl Kasell died. He spent years at NPR doing the news with absolute professionalism. Then, semi-retired, he became the perfect comedic companion to Peter Sagal on radio’s news quiz “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. And Tom Wolfe died. He wrote “The Right Stuff”. That’s all I need to know.

Stephen Hawking died. He outlived and outlasted many others not so severely afflicted as he. And as Penny said to Leonard on “Big Bang Theory”, “He’s that really smart guy, right?” Right!.

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     My Friend Russ Solomon died. He only created Tower Records. I wrote a column a few years ago decrying the fact that Russ was not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He reinvented music retailing. And others followed.

There were, obviously, many more famous and near-famous deaths in 2018. To those I met, worked with, never met, and worshipped from afar, you touched my life and so many others. Let’s all raise a glass to them.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

Photos from top to bottom: Nancy Wilson; Clint Walker; Jim Taylor; Russ Solomon.

The Legacy of Richard Monsour   Leave a comment

April 1, 2019

There are few better days than the one when parents give their 12-year-old son his first guitar. It didn’t matter the brand, or whether acoustic or electric. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if it was used. That was the Christmas I remember. I received a 6-string Harmony electric guitar. That’s the “instrument” that began my journey. In the decades that followed I acquired an Eko electric 12-string, a Martin D12-35, a Fender Precision Bass, a Louden 6-string guitar, and my dream guitar: a Fender Telecaster. I purchased the Tele’ some 35 years after that Harmony guitar, and it’s my go-to instrument when I feel like making noise today.

Like most boys my age I learned to play listening to records and figuring out just what those players were doing. Over the next 8 years I formed or was a part of 8 different bands in Milwaukee. We performed regularly, made a little money, and attained a modicum of respect. We even did a little recording in the basement. By the time I was in college my days of performing faded and playing was a hobby. No matter. I would always have the memories; and my Tele’.
The guitarists that captured my attention are names that many people today aren’t familiar with. Of course there was Chuck Berry who “taught” every kid how to play “Johnny B. Goode” just by listening to those Chess 45s. But what about the others?

There was Duane Eddy. Born in 1938, Eddy crafted a sound that we still refer to as “twang”. He performed most of his lead guitar work using just the two bass strings on his six-string guitar. Songs like “Rebel Rouser”, “Cannonball”, and “Forty Miles of Bad Road” might have suggested to our parents that every Eddy record was the same. But, of course, they weren’t as more melodic outings like “The Lonely One”, and “Because They’re Young” softened the edge a bit. With help from Lee Hazlewood—yes that Lee Hazlewood—Eddy put together a string of hits that solidified his career, and we could sit next to our record player and ‘twang along with Duane’.

Rockabilly legend Carl Perkins was one of the young artists that Sam Phillips signed to Sun Records in Memphis. The roster was amazing. In a short time, Phillips could take credit for signing, recording, and releasing Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Perkins recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” and his finger-picking style made him a hero in England before the Beatles invaded America.

Bo Diddley had a style that was blues, R&B, and African rhythm all rolled into one superb player. His style differed from some of his contemporaries with his use of the tremolo option on his amp. Forget anyone who paints Bo Diddley as a one-trick pony. The man made all of us sit around a circle and try and figure out just how the hell he did that.

I noticed the sound coming from Ricky Nelson’s lead guitarist during his regular television appearances. It was so ‘simple’ you just knew you couldn’t easily replicate James Burton’s sound. How were we to know that Burton replaced his standard electric guitar strings with four banjo strings. By the time Burton was playing lead guitar for Elvis I knew he was a guitarist with a sound so clean and simple I’d have to quit my day job just to have the time to figure it out.

I met Les Paul and saw him perform in New York in 1993. I knew of Paul from his legendary recordings with wife Mary Ford as they were favorites of my mother. Paul is known in the music industry as much for his recording innovations as for his playing; but that sound, those licks, were pure Les Paul.

Carl Wilson was a solid guitarist and with brother Brian, the two were clearly the standout musicians in the Wilson family. The Beach Boys might have eventually figured out just how to create their surf sound, but it’s doubtful it would have happened as quickly without the help of Richard Monsour. In turn, Monsour might not have had his greatest success without the influence of his Lebanese father. It was from that influence that Monsour learned to play the ukulele and the guitar. He would take the stage-name Dick Dale, find alliteration useful in naming his band The Del-Tones, and lead the creation of the soon-to-be-defined “surf sound”. The New York Times described Dale’s legacy as having defined “the sound of surf guitar as a musical expression of the elemental surge of the ocean, with its savage waves, its volatile crosscurrents and its tidal undertow. He played melodies that crisscrossed the beat with the determination of a surfer riding through choppy waves, forging a triumphant path above deep turbulence.” An elegant way of confirming Dale’s musical style.

Dick DaleFew could have predicted that this Boston-born transplant to southern California would be the person to create an entire sound based on the thunder of the waves. And just as unlikely, the song that drove his ‘creation’ was, in fact, a recreation of an Arabic song from the early twentieth century (or even earlier). “Misirlou” was that song. Perhaps no one really understood the song’s Middle-eastern origins, particularly since most of the earliest live performances faded from memory, although three recorded versions seem to have had some success between 1941 and 1953. “Misirlou” was recorded by The Beach Boys, The Ventures, The Surfaris, The Bobby Fuller Four and played by every local band looking to imitate the young California sound while playing in Cleveland, or Denver, or, say, Milwaukee. With the success of “Misirlou”, Dick Dale was anointed the King of the Surf Guitar. And why not.

Thirty years after Dale’s original recording, “Misirlou” once again caught our ears as a significant theme in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” It brought renewed fame and adulation from fans, and a renewed opportunity to tour.
Last month (March 16), Dale died in Loma Linda, California at age 81.
Learning the guitar is one thing. Learning how to play is another. And carving out a new genre of music, well, that’s something else again. Dale was a realist-philosopher. In the December 13, 2015 issue of California Rocker, Dale had a little wisdom for all of us:

“Don’t worry about yesterday and don’t worry about tomorrow,” he says. “Don’t worry about yesterday because it’s used. It’s either good or it leaves you feeling bad. And don’t waste time or energy worrying about tomorrow. I could have a stroke and be dead. That’s why they call it the present. It’s a present.”

Thanks to all of them—Chuck, Bo, Carl, James, Duane, Les, and everyone else from whom we learned by stealing licks. Tonight I’ll plug my Tele’ into my Fender amp, and play a few licks. Believe me, it won’t sound anything like them but my heart is with these (and other) guitar legends. In fact, let’s all pick up our guitars, crank our amps up to 11 and give Dick Dale and all the others a lick or two. They’ve earned it.

Who Knew?   Leave a comment

February 1, 2019

Who knew? In early summer 1974 I stepped onto a westbound Continental Airlines flight to Los Angeles. This wasn’t a holiday, but a journey to a meeting of A&M Records staff members of which I was one. These meetings were a mix of solid discussion and an immersion into new music. Did I mention that we also found time to have some fun.

amrecordsThat visit to California would include great memories, but none more vivid than an evening at the Roxy Theatre. This venue was a partnership of 5 or 6 Hollywood movers, including Lou Adler. Although I had met Adler in Chicago at a Carole King concert at McCormick Place we clearly did not run in the same circles. Adler was a talented music industry person who helped create a long list of great music, including the legendary Tapestry album by King.

I learned quickly that one of the perks of working for a record label was to be treated to new music. Sometimes in the studio, occasionally in someone’s office, often at a performance. Some of the smaller club performances stay with me to this day. As it turned out, part of that A&M meeting included a special performance at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. Most members of the audience were A&M staffers, along with some wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and roxy program frontfriends of the label. When the lights dimmed and the music started to play, characters—which we assumed were the band—started to move from the stage into the audience. At the same time, another character came from behind us, walking toward the stage using the armrests on the seats to carefully get to the stage. This was our introduction to the Rocky Horror Show.

Lou Adler had purchased the North American rights to produce The Rocky Horror Show—the stage version, to begin. And the show we witnessed wasn’t a sample but a full production staged in the somewhat limited space inside the Roxy. Needless to say it was an unforgettable evening. For anyone unfamiliar with the storyline, The Rocky Horror Show was a campy sendup of 1930s and 1940s horror (and, to be fair, science fiction) films, not the least influenced by Frankenstein.

Written by Richard O’Brien, the history of contributors to its success is rather full, and can be found easily for those interested. The important factor was Adler getting a show built on Hollywood film imagery from London to Hollywood. The Rocky Horror Show Rocky RHPS-FrankOnThroneplayed for nine months in California, followed by a short stint (45 performances) in New York. While the show established the Roxy as a viable performance space, the real success was to come with a film adaption. A little more than a year after that late-spring 1974 performance I witnessed at the Roxy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived in movie theaters—in London in August 1975, and in the States in September. Once again the box office was somewhat weak, and the reviews clearly didn’t help. One reviewer wrote the production off as “”tasteless, plotless and pointless”. But the decision by one theater to begin showing the film on Friday night at midnight changed the fortunes and the history. Having worked in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, one couldn’t help but notice that Rocky Horror Picture Show seemed to be screening somewhere in America all the time. Audiences often dressed the part of their favorite characters. Sometimes theaters would give prizes to the best costumes, or free admission, or free Cokes and popcorn. Each little perk offered by the theater helped sustain the audiences as people flocked to each screening to see the Curry e4820620cb17d40bea3e89e9562458ced2661b63people as much as to see the film.

As for the music, I look back on the Roxy show and the film and concluded that the individual songs were perfect for the production, but individually few would be listened to outside of the show or the film. Of course there are at least two exceptions: “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite”. These days, whenever I hear “Sweet Transvestite” as a memory recording, it is always in the voice of Tim Curry. I met Curry a few years later while promoting and marketing his 1979 Fearless album (and the singles “Paradise Garage” and “I Do The Rock”.) I still enjoy hearing those tracks. And I’ve seen him on the screen in other films, including The Hunt For Red October. But I will always remember seeing him at the Roxy. And I will always appreciate having been an early visitor to the launch of Adler’s Roxy club, the character Frank N. Furter, and the Rocky Horror Show. It’s easy to log on to Netflicks and watch almost any film we can think of. But if and when I see The Rocky Horror Picture Show again, it will have to be at midnight, at a local theater. With all of us dressed for the event. Mmmmm. Which character will I be? Wait. I know! I’ll be . . . .
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