Archive for the ‘Music History’ Category

Desert Island Files   Leave a comment

March 1, 2018

Many of us have taken a vacation camping in a redwood forest or along one of California’s great coastal parks; perhaps you’ve been to a riverfront, lakefront, or oceanfront hotel or inn. Maybe there was an island vacation you never forgot or dreamed of exploring. Sitting in a remote location under the influence of amazing scenery can lead us to think about the ultimate getaway, or at least my idea of the ultimate getaway: a desert island. A vacation for a week or two is one thing. The idea of a permanent island getaway isn’t for everyone but the imagery is alluring to many. I recall sitting at a bar overlooking the Caribbean in 1975 thinking I could live here. I had the same feeling a few years later in Hawaii. Great idea. Then reality smacked me along side the head and I got back to thinking about earning a living.

Over the years the idea was refreshed when I started reading about people who had compiled their list of desert island discs. In the glory days of vinyl singles and LP records the idea of hauling a collection of 500, 2000 or more vinyl records of any size became IMG_0443obviously impractical. At one or two LP records per pound, we were charged with thinking about just the records we couldn’t live without. This was no abstract stream of consciousness. Even the idea of 100 albums or singles or both was a bit daunting when you had to think about the turntable, speakers, amplifier, needle and cartridge, cables, electricity, and the shipping weight. As I said, daunting. Nevertheless I thought about a list, my list, which brings me to a somewhat (I hope) interactive idea. From time to time I’ll be writing about tracks or complete albums or both that will be on my Desert Island Disc list (or perhaps Desert Island “digital file” list). I’ll keep adding to my list and, I encourage you to email a track, or an album, or both and I’ll publish them, as appropriate. Yes, you must tell me why, but be brief. And when I publish yours, I’ll only use your initials and town, as in “DS/Gualala”. So here goes.

• 1950s: Marty Robbins was born in Arizona but staked his claim in Nashville. One of his biggest hits was “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”, which spent 26 weeks on the charts, peaking at #2. Many of his songs were often stories, like “Big Iron” and “Ballad of the Alamo”. A third story/song was a 1959 single titled “El Paso”, about a cowboy—presumably white—who falls in love with a Mexican girl, Felina. He gets in a gunfight over Felina and, to get to the point, the gunfight ends badly. If it sounds corny, it is. And wonderfully so. El Paso spent 22 weeks on the charts and peaked at #1.

• 1960s: Ral Donner’s career was probably doomed from the start. He sounded way too much like Elvis and recorded for a small label (Gone Records). Donner did achieve a measure of success getting five singles to chart on Billboard’s Hot-100 chart. His biggest hit was “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It)” which peaked at #4. However, my favorite was 1961’s “She’s Everything”. The session was easily described as modest. Best guess is guitar, organ, bass, drums, and a couple of male background singers. The lyrics have the singer telling his first love that his current love is “everything I wanted you to be”, hence the title.

• 1970s: B.W. Stevenson had a total of four singles make the Hot-100. Two of them got my attention. “Shambala” and “My Maria” in 1973. The first single was covered by Three Dog Night and essentially killed the Stevenson version which peaked at #66. However, “My Maria”, release about two months later, rose all the way to #9, spending nine weeks on the charts. “My Maria” was catchy from the opening riff, and then nails it with a falsetto as he sings “Maria” during the bridge.

• 1980s: My 1980s pick is an unusual recording. It combines a hit act—The Pet Shop Boys—with a pop music legend, Dusty Springfield. Pet Shop Boys had launched their chart success with “West End Girls” in 1986. But it was the decision, two years later, to bring Springfield in to sing the bridge that I absolutely loved. The “boy’s” lament is sung by the band:

You always wanted a lover
I only wanted a job
I’ve always worked for a living
How am I gonna get through?
How am I gonna get through?
To which Springfield responds,
Since you went away
I’ve been hanging around
I’ve been wondering why I’m feeling down
You went away, it should make me feel better but I don’t know
How I’m gonna get through?
(What have I, what have I,
what have I done to deserve this?)
How I’m gonna get through?

It’s absolutely great 80s pop music, but these two artists working together create a fabulous (and memorable) track. “What Have I Done To Deserve This” peaked at #2 in 1987.

1990s: I can easily select “Good Riddance” (Time Of Your Life), a 1997 release by Green Day. Their success on the charts, on tour, and even on Broadway is well documented. But this one song—which was heard on the final episode of Seinfeld (and I believe it also found its way onto a final-season episode of Murphy Brown) is great pop-music songwriting, and a brilliant sad and yet hopeful boy-to-girl song. The lyrics are simple, poignant, emotional, and complete:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right,
I hope you had the time of your life.
So take the photographs, and still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right,
I hope you had the time of your life.

The song and recording are about moving on and it’s become a staple of proms across the country. Rolling Stone declared “Good Riddance” one of the “20 Best Graduation Songs of the Last 20 Years”.

So there you go. Five tracks that are on my Desert Island list. Give them a listen. One or more may end up on your list as well. After all, whether dreamily looking out over the Mendocino Coast, or on your own desert island, music is a part of our lives, and I highly recommend that any of these tracks be placed in your luggage.

David Steffen

©2018 David Steffen

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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”.

The Farmers Market   Leave a comment

Fresh Food. Mmmmmmm.

October 1, 2017

     I don’t really recall my first visit to a farmers’ market. It was probably a local outdoor summer market when we lived in Wonder Lake, Illinois. (Yes, the town is actually called Wonder Lake, and there really is a lake.) In those days McHenry County was one of those postcard-esque pastoral places oozing with charm, farms, lakes, streams, and people (like us) who worked in Chicago but wanted to enjoy living in the country. Our home was an 800 square foot A-frame situated between the Lake and Nippersink Creek. We lived there for two years, and thought about whether we’d find something as charming in Los Angeles. (A&M Records was moving me to California to work out of the ‘home office’ in Hollywood. But that’s another story.)

In a way, we were hearing the distant voice of newspaperman Horace Greely who encouraged one and all to “Go west.” In part his thoughts were wrapped up in an idea of what to do with an abundance of veterans of the American Civil War, finding themselves all too often displaced. The publisher of the New York Tribune may have had another motivation for encouraging westward movement: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

With our own move west, we were ready to see what change would bring, but were nevertheless apprehensive. Once we began looking for a home, we learned that Greely was at least part right. Housing prices were high and headed higher still. The food wasn’t bad but there was plenty of dust in the Santa Clarita Valley, about an hour north of my office in Hollywood. As for the morals, most of my extended family who today live in the midwest would probably chime in that Hollywood’s morals are still deplorable.

Our home purchase budget was limited as we entered the red-hot southern California real estate market of the 1970s. It was not unusual to look at a $60-70,000 tract house on Actor-William-S.-Hart-as--007Saturday, think about it for a few days, and find out five days later that the price had gone up by $2000. So we jumped in. As lovely as it was, Wonder Lake had no real claim to fame. Our new hometown, Newhall, was probably best known as the home of the William S. Hart estate, now a park. Hart was an early silent film star, making many movies and making lots of money between 1915 and 1925.

While working in Hollywood, one of my good friends from Chicago was now also in Hollywood and also working for A&M. Jayne Neches (later Neches-Simon) and I were going to have lunch, and as to “where”, she had a suggestion to make.  We drove south from the A&M offices at Sunset and LaBrea to the general area of 3rd & Fairfax, the location of L.A.’s Farmers Market. Ignore Amish men and women selling produce in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, or any other example of an “original farmers market”. In Hollywood, history is created anew all of the time. And the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax was (and is still) touted as the “original”. When we got there, Jayne looked for a parking space on Fairfax and then opted to have the valet park her car. Yes. Although there was street parking in the area, Jayne found the one (?) lot that had valet parking. As Randy Newman sang, “I Love L. A.” Today that Farmers Market has somewhere close to 100 merchants, offering cell phones, stickers, and keys, and restaurants ranging from Moishe’s Restaurant to Mr. Marcel Pain Vin Et Fromage. It’s like the Galleria Mall from Sherman Oaks was picked up, moved, and re-branded as a farmers market.

Back on earth in Mendocino County, we have numerous farmers markets, and guess what? Almost every stand—produce, bread, coffee, meats, plants, jams, and more—is owned by a local person selling local food or local products. Go figure.

IMG_0313     Last week’s Saturday market was one of those fantastic coastal days. (By the way, we get a lot of those days here on the Mendocino coast, but don’t tell anyone.) The sun was shining, and all of the usual people had set up their tables. Donna had her jams, vegetables, and seaweed products; Allan was offering grapes, green apples, leafy goodies, and micro-greens while Astrid was selling tarts and waffles cooked fresh at the market. A young couple (sorry, didn’t get their names) were selling fresh bread, and I do mean fresh. The plant lady was there selling house and small garden plants perfect for our climate, which means they don’t require an excessive amount of water. Tom was selling his Little Green Bean coffee. A musician was playing his battery-powered electric keyboard, the handmade jewelry stand was open. Wing and Zoe of Westside Farm  had set up their tables (above, right), and Abby and Sammy from Oz Farm (left, below) were getting their IMG_0316goods ready. Both Westside and Oz displayed their beautiful food as if there was a competition to see who could make their produce for a photo shoot. On this Saturday, it was a tie.

The market officially opens at 9:30am, and we reluctantly recognize the official start time. That doesn’t hold back the ‘drool factor’  as the regular shoppers begin to gather near  the tables, all the while voicing varying levels of desire. “I want her heirloom tomatoes.” “I want those bell peppers.” “Did you see those raspberries?” “The apples look amazing.” At 9:15am the early shoppers—me included—hover like sharks waiting for the right moment to strike. Then all at once, at exactly 9:30am, there’s a mild frenzy, almost always good natured. Having spent my $40 budget for the week on large garlic, fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, green beans, rainbow chard, winesap apples, basil, and Russian kale (holy shit, I actually bought kale. My mother would be so proud and also probably dumbfounded). As always I get a cup of Tom’s coffee to go. By 10:30 the second wave of sleepier shoppers show up, but the early shoppers have already headed home. We got the good stuff.

The glitz of the stores at 3rd and Fairfax belie the reality of just what constitutes a farmers market. As corporate farms continue to pump out tons of red this, green that, and yellow somethin’ else, they’re often just selling ‘stuff’ that may look good as in, for example, tasteless rock-hard tomatoes from Florida. Here on the coast we continue to lament the last day of the farmers market around November 1, and start counting the days until our fresh local food returns in April or May. To Allan, and Astrid, and Donna, and Abby and Sammi, and Wing, and Zoe, Tom, and everyone else, thank you.

David Steffen

©2017 David Steffen

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

 

Haven’t I Heard That Before?   Leave a comment

A Chance Conversation On Creativity

May 1, 2017

Intellectuals around us may dwell on a long accepted conclusion that our perception in the world is driven by a cerebral battle: “left brain” vs. “right brain”. The left brain is thought to be our realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical side, while the right brain is our creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic side.

A million years ago—OK less than that but far more years than I’d care to recount—I traveled to New York on a high school class trip. Flying from Milwaukee to New York was in and of itself a stimulating experience. Of course there were a few must-see tourist stops including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. At Radio City Music Hall I witnessed a performance by the world-famous Rockettes. These were (and are) talented women who can probably out- dance most men. If that claim is surprising to some, remember Bob Thaves classic 1982 quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:
“Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards. . . and in high heels.”

Beyond talent, what hormonally-challenged high school senior boy or girl then (or even now) wouldn’t remember a chorus line made up of thirty beautiful long-legged women? Thinking about the Rockettes is not simply to revisit a teenage fantasy. The reality is that the beauty, talent, physical strength, and the choreography that embodied their routine then and now is not to be taken lightly.

The arts—dance, theater, graphic art, music, film, prose, poetry, etc—stimulate. Creativity is all around us, appealing to our individual and collective humanity, and penetrating that left-brain/right brain battle in a variety of aural, visual, and emotional layers. Within every human being there is a creative receptor—we take in external stimuli; creativity to simultaneously evaluate and appreciate. And we possess a creative generator which enables us to export our creativity. The receptor is that internal recognition of like, love, dislike, or antipathy. The generator is our ability to share our creativity with others. None of this is to suggest that everyone has a creative talent that can result in commercial success. We wish.

Herb Alpert (with his partner Jerry Moss) was the co-founder of A&M Records. I’ve known Herb and his wife Lani Hall for forty years. We’re not close friends or even social friends, but nevertheless, we are friends. After the sale of A&M Records in 1990 I moved to New York to work for another label. Quite unexpectedly in the mid-1990s I ran into Herb and Lani at London’s Heathrow Airport. It turned out we were all flying to New York on the same British Airways flight. Herb always strikes me as a shy person with a successful public persona wrapped around his outside. And to be certain, whether in private or in public his friendly manner and inherent integrity come through. I’d add that a conversation with Herb, even a chance encounter, offers an opportunity to renew the friendship, and to learn something from an old friend.

That evening at Heathrow we had a conversation that, duh, touched on the creative process. One of the topics was the 1976 copyright infringement lawsuit brought against the late George Harrison by the songwriter of the Chiffons’ 1960s hit single “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison lost the suit.) The question for Herb was “with millions of songs under copyright, just how much is distinctly (or distinctively) new in any new musical composition, in any new song? His response, as I recall, went something like this: “Listen. Think about a piano FULL SHARPS AND FLATSkeyboard. There may be 88 keys, but there are just 12 notes; that is, 12 in each octave, including sharps and flats. So almost all “new” music is derivative to some extent because songwriters have just 12 notes to work with.” Herb was not suggesting that all, many, or even some new songs may be ripping off songs that came before them. Just like the multitude of simple three and four-chord hits of the 1950s and 1960s, if one listens closely enough a connection can often be made between any number of songs, but that doesn’t lead to a conclusion that there was a theft of intellectual property.

When we think of art, we enter another realm of original thought and outside influence. If your taste is in oils, chalks, acrylics, and watercolors, you might consider the Campbell Soup can. Designed in 1902, it became iconic on the shelves of grocery stores and yet CampbellsCollage_0became new again sixty years later when Andy Warhol created a painting of the Campbell Soup can as art. To many, Warhol wasn’t being original, or cutting edge but was lazy, “copying” an instantly recognizable image. The blog Food Republic put it this way: “While Andy Warhol can be credited for establishing the classic Campbell’s soup can as an iconographic pop art emblem, he never would have appropriated its imagery had it not already been iconic in its own right.” Appropriating (borrowing, copying, taking, etc.) an idea and remaking it is old stuff.

We take in information all of those worldly influences and what comes out is our view of the world, or a tree, or a dog, or a pop song. But was it simply left brain vs right? An article in Scientific American took aim at the creativity:

. . . the entire creative process from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification con- sists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depend- ing on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task. Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.

So whether it’s the Rockettes, George Harrison, the Chiffons, or Andy Warhol, we might do well to remember T.S. Elliot reflecting on poetry: “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

That’s my take on popular music in all genres and forms. If you are influenced by a composition and make something better, even wonderful, you’re borrowing and no harm, no foul. If you were influenced and “defaced” what you borrowed, well that’s another matter altogether. My only caveat is to always credit the source of the inspiration.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2017

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

Facebook, Rhubarb, Tower Records, And The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame   Leave a comment

November 1, 2016

To put things in perspective, I’m a late bloomer when it comes to actually using Facebook. Until about six months ago I avoided Facebook much as I did rhubarb as a child. My mother, grandmother, older sister and others in my family constantly told me “rhubarb is delicious. As a side dish, as a pie.” Peach pie I get. Rhubarb pie, not so much. Honestly, I can’t even believe any self-respecting rabbit would touch Rhubarb. And so it was with me and Facebook. For years I avoided, resisted, ignored it. But unlike rhubarb, I finally got around to paying attention and have come to accept Facebook’s place in our lives.

In February 1972 I was working for Summit Distribution, a record distributor in Chicago. Harold Childs, the Senior VP of Promotion for Los Angeles-based A&M Records had spent the day in Chicago interviewing candidates for the local promotion job. As it happens, I was the last interview of the day and Harold was running late. He ended up interviewing me in the back of a 1972 Oldsmobile headed to O’Hare Airport so that he could catch his flight back to Los Angeles. As we parted company on the ramp outside the Continental Airlines terminal, I walked back to the Olds and thought to myself, this interview went nowhere. Lo and behold, Harold’s office called the next day and invited me to come to Los Angeles and have another go at the interview. I could only assume that the other six interviews had been absolute crap, or that I must really be awesome. OK, the latter never crossed my mind but I was determined to succeed where candidates number one through six had failed. To my pleasant surprise the visit to A&M’s Hollywood offices was a success. When I returned to Chicago I was working for A&M.

While visiting sunny southern California that week I took my first turn through a Tower Records store. Of course, it was Tower Sunset—not the biggest store in the chain but certainly the most famous, and Tower was different from other record stores. Walking through the front door it was obvious that I had entered the epicenter of every rock n’ roll musician’s wet dream. Stacks and stacks of vinyl records; bin upon bin of vinyl catalog, plenty of tapes, 45-rpm singles, posters, books, and atmosphere. It was the equivalent of standing outside a great Italian bakery where the aromas were irresistible. I understood immediately the importance of Tower Records and the man behind this record store chain: Russ Solomon.

Russ has always been a welcoming sort of guy and once secured, his friendship is durable. In fact, shortly after moving back to California in 2007 I drove to Sacramento to have lunch with him. It was a reminder of how we often spoke—at one of the stores, or at the chain’s headquarters in Sacramento, over dinner, or in the parking lot of one of the Tower stores. One such visit began with a flight from Burbank to Sacramento, followed by a drive to a dock on the American River to join some friends aboard a cabin cruiser. We spent the afternoon cruising up (down?) the American, before adjourning to a thoroughly enjoyable dinner at the Solomon home. It was so enjoyable, that some time after midnight I managed to curl up and go to sleep on the floor of a hallway between the living area and the guest bathroom. I slept like a rock, and recall flying back to Burbank the next day feeling almost totally refreshed, and quickly wrote Russ a thank you note telling him how comfortable his floor had been.

 

john_battenberg_800x481

(John Battenberg)

Tower Records was one of the single most important elements in the makeup of the American Music Industry for more than three decades. Why the Tower chain no longer exists is not a mystery. Like music since the late 1980s, Tower’s aisles and stacks of records and tapes have been compressed. Instead of the square footage in Hollywood, or Greenwich Village, or Mountain View, or Ginza, or Piccadilly Circus, the recordings were shrunk as digital files; so many megabytes and gigabytes of digital files on your iPod and later your iPhone. But for those three plus decades, Tower was the World’s Mecca for recorded music. And the man who created Tower, I’m happy to say, has been a friend of mine.

About a month ago I read a Facebook posting about getting the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to add Russ Solomon to its list of honored inductees. My reaction was essentially, “WTF?”. Russ isn’t in the there? His absence from the hall lies somewhere between an unfortunate oversight and abject stupidity. He deserves a place in the Hall not simply based on the fondness so many of us feel for Russ but for the way he helped change the face of retailing music from a “store” to a marketing Mecca for the music industry. For all of you who have memories of walking into a Tower Store somewhere in the world, stop for a moment and recall the visuals, the artists, and our collective love of music. Tower was an indispensable ingredient in the success of the music business’s greatest decades.

The reality is Russ doesn’t need the Hall. The Hall needs Russ. The opening of the original Tower store in Sacramento was a seminal moment in popular music. In fact, Tower is one of the places where Rock Music’s Hall was created, and the members of the board, and the people who manage the Hall in Cleveland should wake up. Now is the time. Russ was as important to the music industry and to the Hall as each of the 310 names already inscribed on those walls in Cleveland. And he has always been a lot more fun. Vote him in. Then have a piece of peach pie. And from those of us who love you Russ, play on!

Posted November 5, 2016 by Jazzdavid in Media, Music History, Popular Music, Uncategorized

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