Archive for the ‘In Concert’ Category

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

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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 . . . .

Hail, Farewell   Leave a comment

January 1, 2018

    I’ve been writing for the Lighthouse Peddler for years now, yet each month I wonder what idea, event, or emotion will surface as the stimulus for an essay. Without fail my mind’s journey almost always touches on the arts in general, or some specific musician or filmmaker or event. Most months I’m as surprised as anyone by the topic that becomes central to my column. And then, like a gift from the mysterious muse, the keys of my MacBook begin to make noise and a few hours later I read what I’ve written.

     In January we may be pleased that the old year is over (this year’s old year in particular) and we’re ready to focus on the year ahead. However, whatever we thought of the year just ended, we invariably find ourselves looking in the rear view mirror. Satchel Paige became almost as famous for one of his quotes as for his baseball career. He cautioned, “Don’t look back: Something may be gaining on you.”

     Ignoring Paige’s advice, we’re once again publishing a list of 60 notable people who died in 2017 and are worth remembering. Our list could easily have been 200, and paring the names was no easy task. (The ’60′ are on page 4 of this issue.) What follows are thoughts on some of those who made our short list.

     Writer Frank Deford is gone. I loved Deford. He hit my radar when he created the short-lived National Sports Daily. After the Daily folded a year and a half later, Deford continued as a commentator for NPR, and became a prolific writer, including 18 books. About 15 years ago, a dear friend in Connecticut (where we all then lived) arranged for a meeting where she graciously introduced me to her friend Frank; I was like a teenager meeting his favorite rock star backstage. Composure regained, we talked a bit about his writing style, his books, and the state of sports in America. It’s a wonderful memory. Others from the literary world we lost in 2017 include William Peter Blatty, who introduced us to the fictional MacNeil family in The Exorcist. Daughter Regan became possessed by Satan and Blatty later, along with director William Friedkin, scared the living daylights out of us with the film.

   And then there was Jimmy Breslin, the poster-child for writers in New York’s newspaper world. In his obit, the New York Times said “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers.”

     Actor John Hurt left us, and I thought about his career and the wide range of characters he portrayed. He was supremely impactful in his central role as John Merrick, the Elephant Man; and he was also credible in the film Contact, in a semi-cameo role as the billionaire S. R. Hadden, the character who articulated the obvious (and painfully true) first rule in government spending: “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?”.    Mary Tyler Moore got her TV start as wife Laura Petrie Mary 7659660192_56085e863f_zon the Dick Van Dyke Show. However, she became everyone’s best friend, or the friend everyone wished they had, as Mary Richards, her character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Set in the Twin Cities, the show was so successful that today there’s a statue of Moore in downtown Minneapolis.    And we lost Sam Shepard, whose rugged good looks and believability on screen made him credible whether he was in front of the camera, behind the camera, or delivering a newly-authored play. Shepard’s brief on-screen appearance early in the film The Pelican Brief is a testimonial to his ability to imbue his character into the moment, and then stay with us through the balance of the film.

     Comedians we lost in 2017 include Bill Dana, whose alter-ego was the highly politically incorrect ‘astronaut’ Jose Jimenez. Pointing to his space helmet, Milton Berle once asked Dana (in character as Jimenez) “What is this called, a crash helmet?” Jimenez replied in his unusual accent, “Oh, I hope not”.

     We also lost the  World’s Foremost Authority, Professor Irwin Corey. To understand his authority, one really should look for a YouTube video clip. Shelley Berman died this year. He was often referred to as a bit of a tortured soul. He probably was but he was brilliant. We’ll not see his equal anytime soon. Don Rickles was the delightfully savage comedian whose mission was to regularly insult almost anyone and everyone. And yet unlike some who casually brandish insults today, almost no one was offended by Rickles.

      John Anderson was my congressman when we lived outside Chicago. Although a member of the GOP, Anderson was refreshing, interesting, and intelligent. He ran for president in 1980 first as a republican, and then as an independent. It was the latter candidacy that led me to support him. When we had a chance conversation at a campaign event in Los Angeles that year, it reaffirmed my belief that Anderson was a good choice. He received 6.6% of the popular vote, including mine.    And let’s say goodbye to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee who became an accidental mayor by virtue of the seat left open by the departing Gavin Newsome. No one really disliked Lee. And surprisingly (to me, anyway), in the City of San Francisco, he was the first Asian-American to hold that office.

     Musicians who’ve left us include the great singer Al Jarreau, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, southern icon Gregg Allman, jazz drummer Grady Tate, diva Roberta Peters, Jon Hendricks of the famed Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and Americana legend Rosalie Sorrels. Tate, for the record, was one of those unusual drummers who put his instrument aside, to become a vocalist. His baritone was a genuine gift to the genre. He even delivered on the theme song from M*A*S*H, “Suicide Is Painless”.  In addition Glen Campbell died after a long career that found him starting as a studio side-musician (guitarist for hire), before rising to stardom (including television) with the songs of John Hartford (“Gentle On My Mind”) and Jimmy Webb (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”). chuck-berry-duck-walking-7 CR (1)And the icon of Rock ’n’ Roll, Chuck Berry finally proved he was mortal in 2017, although his music will continue for decades and generations to come. My older brother bought a copy of “School Day” in 1957 and I’m sure it’s somewhere in my collection to this day. I saw Berry twice. First in 1972, when he was in Chicago for a concert date built on the success of a quirky #1 hit titled “My Ding-A-Ling”. The second time was a Connecticut casino show in the late 1990s. He was already showing his age but he could still take a moment to play his guitar while doing his patented ‘duckwalk. Don’t know what that is? YouTube it.

     I trust I’m not alone in suggesting that we’ll miss these people. We may not hold them all in the same regard, but I’ll guarantee that someone on this list was a favorite of yours too. To all of them I can only quote from Chuck Berry: “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

Van Gogh and Van Zandt: Art & Art   Leave a comment

The Personal and Lasting Nature of Art

March 1, 2017

I like art of all kinds. Music, films, graphic art, paintings (oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc), and I like to visit art museums. It’s not like I spend enormous amounts of time or money these days driving from one museum to the next. Rather it’s my long-held interest in exploring as I’ve traveled. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Louvre and Jeu de Paume, MOMA, Chicago’s Art Institute, and many others. Sometimes the attraction to the art and artist is by chance, and sometimes by design. I recall standing in front of Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and feeling drawn into that scene from three and a half centuries ago, like I am standing among the burghers. But Amsterdam is also home to the Van Gogh Museum, and there are few things to leave as lasting an impression on a visitor as being immersed into the works of Van Gogh. The artist was born 164 years ago this month (March 30, 1853).

593px-van_gogh_self-portrait_with_straw_hat_1887-detroitAmsterdam’s original Van Gogh Museum building had a mezzanine, where you could walk the long, somewhat narrow pathway, with the art hanging on the wall, and a railing
 behind you overlooking the main gallery. The exhibit space enabled one to see an abbreviated progression of the artist’s works. Regardless of the brilliance of his art, hanging and viewing an original or reprint of any number of Van Gogh’s images may be a bit disconcerting. There were many self portraits, and a few years before he died he painted Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887). The intensity of the eyes speaks volumes of the intensity of the artist. In spite of, or because of his artistic intensity, Van Gogh died July 27, 1890, three days after shooting himself with a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver. He was 37. Obviously his brilliant art has survived and thrived for more than a century since his passing.

Music, as regular readers of my column know, has been a passion for most of my life. I sometimes write about musicians I’ve seen, or heard, or met, or all three. One of those musicians was a somewhat soft-spoken troubadour named Townes van Zandt. Before I even met Townes, I knew he was something special. His songwriting was soulful, introspective and speculative. I just happened to ‘discover’ his music while working first, at a college radio station, then a commercial station, and later promoting releases from RCA Records, the big label which happened to distribute the independent Poppy Records label, whose creative owner Kevin Eggers signed a relatively unknown guy named Townes to a recording contract and began releasing new albums. Did you follow that?

It’s best to hear the melody that accompanies the lyrics he wrote, but even without the music, the lyrics alone will provide a little insight into what I’m talking about. Townes’ songs would often quietly break through almost any objective listener’s wall of suspicion and become embedded in their psyche. “Kathleen”, from Our Mother The Mountain, reflects the epitome of a song you could get in your head and have difficulty removing:

“It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.”

Regardless of whom she represented for the singer (girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, lover, prostitute) Kathleen was therapy of one kind or another. Recorded in a slightly more energetic delivery is “Come Tomorrow” from Delta Momma Blues. Some fans and critics dislike the recorder and the small string accompaniment to “Come Tomorrow”. Those same critics probably don’t like the accompaniment to “Kathleen” either. These are superficial critiques. As always the underlying song is the central element.

“Well, it’s strange how many tortured mornings, Fell upon us with no warning, Lookin’ for a smile to beg and borrow, It’s over now, there is no returning, A thousand bridges sadly burning, And light the way I have to walk alone, Come tomorrow.”

Many of van Zandt’s other songs were also in the tortured soul subset.

Each songwriter works within the confines of their own inherent or self-imposed comfort zone. Perhaps all of his boundaries were defined within the confines of soulful lament, regardless of tempo. Nevertheless, Townes was able to reach people with his music. Other musicians knew the value of his writing, as when Emmylou Harris included “If I Needed You” on her Duets album (in this case singing along with Don Williams.) The first verse is quintessential Townes:

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Clearly his best known song is the story of “Pancho & Lefty”. Perhaps Townes was knowingly or subliminally channeling the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or maybe this was just a wistful dream from his childhood in Texas. I loved Townes’ recording, but to be honest, I loved the version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard even more. The song is wonderful, colorful, daring and sad. And that, unfortunately, could also describe his too short life. Townes died at age 52, January 1, 1997. A year after his death, writer Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly:

late-great-tvz-0001Townes never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century.

I never met van Gogh, but I did meet van Zandt. These two artistic supernovae—creative minds, from two different times, and two different worlds—died a century apart. Yet art can transcend borders, languages, cultures, and time. We should not dwell on how they lived or how they died. Instead, focus on the fact that long after their passing, both continue to touch so many people with their passion, their art.

David Steffen

 

 

Note: In March 1970 Townes was passing through Milwaukee on a performance and promotion tour, arriving near his birthday (March 7). To help promote his new album and celebrate his 26th birthday I organized a dinner. Looking back on that evening I recognize that celebrating with Townes was more img-1serendipitous than a matter of brilliant planning. The dinner party, seen in this photograph included (l-r) Townes’ road manager Vin Scelsa, local radio host Bob Reitman, me, radio host John Houghton, Townes, radio programmer Steve Stevens, and RCA Records promotion manager John Hager.

© David Steffen 2017

Honey, It’s Always About The Sax   Leave a comment

Back on Baker Street

September 1, 2016

I’m a passable musician, which means I play just well enough these days to be acceptable, i.e. sufficiently proficient to pass myself off as a musician. This is not meant to be some self-deprecating, aw shucks sort of evaluation. As the character of SFPD detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan once stated, “a man’s just got to know his limitations”. Don’t get me wrong. My days of playing guitar, electric bass, and piano were thoroughly enjoyable, but surrounded by so many talented musicians over the last thirty-plus years I’ve chosen to spend more time listening to others, and less time applying my talents to any instrument.

Over the years I’ve picked up other’s instruments as often as my own, usually to help a friend move his stuff from apartment ‘a‘ to apartment ‘b’. Although having never taken a saxophone lesson or attempted to play the sax in some random moment, just picking up a friend’s alto sax provided a bit of an epiphany. The design, the aesthetics, the mechanical features ooze an obvious sensuality. One’s eye can unexpectedly travel from the mouthpiece, down the neck to the bow and up to the bell. Between the beginning and the end of that journey there exists a landscape with reeds, keys, screws, pins, tone holes, guards, and probably a myriad of other components I didn’t know were there. And when the saxophone is played by someone who knows what they’re doing, the sound that comes out of that bell hits you. It’s like a massage, where a qualified individual plays various parts of your back to make your senses come to life. Music can have that effect. It reaches into your being without coming in physical contact. And certain recordings or live performances can pass through the dermis and take up residence, even if just for five or ten minutes at a time.

The saxophone is certainly not the only instrument that can evoke feelings, including those of an erotic nature but it is, perhaps, more likely than other instruments to strike a nerve. With all due respect to my friends who are fabulous on the guitar, or the piano, or the bass, or the drums, or any other instrument, it ain’t about your musicianship. I was fortunate enough to see the late Clarence Clemons perform with the E Street Band on four occasions, and still appreciate hearing him wail on Springsteen’s catalog of recordings. But seeing him on stage you know this man and the saxophone were one complete

candy-dulfer

Candy Dulfer

expression of great music. The Dutch jazz musician Candy Dulfer is another player who can speak through her instrument, creating a perfect mood as exemplified in the title track from the film score for Lily Was Here (1989). Or Tim Cappello stepping out on “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, Tina Turner’s hit from the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). These players may not be in the same stratosphere as John Coltrane, but Coltrane wasn’t like these players either. Clearly the artistry in A Love Supreme resides in another realm from tracks like “Born To Run” or “Lily Was Here” or “We Don’t Need Another Hero”. Yet music, happily, is not a zero-sum game. We’re allowed to like a variety of styles, multiple genres, many musicians, and so on.

As 1973 began, A&M Records looked like it was starting the year off right. One of the first A&M singles released that year was “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, the UK duo of  Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty. The track was a worldwide hit. Here in the States the single debuted at #86 in Billboard on March 3, 1973, peaking at #6 on May 12. The band never repeated that success, and reportedly spent the next three years fighting about records, royalties, creative differences—you know, just another day in the music business. But one-half of the band hit it big almost five years to the day later with the release of the single “Baker Street”. Gerry Rafferty’s solo recording peaked at #2 on June 24, 1978 and stayed there for six weeks. To be sure, #2 wasn’t bad, but still the single deserved better. Unfortunately it was the dawn of the dance/disco age, and Rafferty got stuck behind a #1 hit by Andy Gibb. Gibb’s brothers had a band you may have heard of: The Bee Gees, and the Bee Gees were on a hot streak due primarily to the success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. Nevertheless brother Andy’s totally forgettable hit “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” from reaching number one for those six weeks, and Billboard Magazine and the American public should be forever embarrased by that bit of music history.

“Baker Street” was a moment in time. Rafferty (who died in 2011) had penned a terrific song. The message of the song included common themes many of us have experienced, as reflected in the lyrics (below). But the recording is memorable for more than the lyrics, the rich guitar, the

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Gerry Rafferty

synthesizer, and the other rhythmic elements. What got everyone to pay attention was the saxophone. As the track begins, the instrumentation is almost ethereal for 20 seconds or so, and then that alto sax lights up the experience for another 30-40 seconds. Rafferty doesn’t begin singing until we’re one minute into the track; after a minute of Rafferty, the alto once again opens up. And that’s the basic rotation of the six minutes of music:

Instrumental•vocal•instrumental•vocal•instrumental•instrumental •instrumental.

You get the drift. Rafferty is the recording artist and the songwriter, and the driving force behind the project. Yet the real star of “Baker Street” is Raphael Ravenscroft (1954-2014), the then 23-year old saxophonist, hired as a studio musician. During the recording

Ravenscroft530c5e568e184129630f6a706700eb04

Raphael Ravenscroft

session Ravenscroft “only” created the riff that almost 40 years later continues to instantly identify the recording as “Baker Street”. He earned union scale of about $50 (£27) for the session, and yet it is his sax solo that provides instant recognition when we hear “Baker Street”. The recording would be significantly less without Ravenscroft.

If the saxophone has been heretofore a bit under-appreciated in your world, expand your horizons. Consider what this instrument brings to the performance, to the recording. Whether it’s Clarence Clemons, Candy Dulfer, Tim Cappello, or Raphael Ravenscroft, without their contributions, these recordings—at the very least—would have been less than they are. Like chocolate ice cream or lobster tail, a Chevy Camaro or BMW, or a glass of Coca Cola or wine at sunset on the Mendocino Coast, we know the good stuff when we taste it, drink it, drive it, savor it or hear it. Enjoy it now. Go back and listen once again, or discover a recording you should know. There’s no time like the present and few recordings are as durable and as wonderful as “Baker Street”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands

And then he’ll settle down, it’s a quiet little town

And forget about everything

But you know he’ll always keep moving

You know he’s never gonna stop moving

‘Cause he’s rollin’, He’s the rolling stone

And when you wake up it’s a new morning

The sun is shining, it’s a new morning

And you’re going, you’re going home

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