Singing Out: A Little Redemption For Stephen Demetre Georgiou   Leave a comment

By Any Other Name. . .

January 1, 2017

Music is one of life’s universal experiences. Styles and genres may differ, but the idea of some type of music being a central ingredient in each of our lives is a reasonable assumption. Usually for better and occasionally for worse, something about a particular passage or verse connects and begins to echo within the chambers of our brain. Recently, for me, the “better” was a chance listening of a track from the 1980s, “Waiting For A Star To Fall”, a wonderful hit record performed by songwriters George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam (aka Boy Meets Girl). However we’ve all experienced the “worse”, that is some piece of music we’d prefer doesn’t echo or get stuck in our heads. Consider “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz” a tune written as an Alka Seltzer commercial a half-century ago. (My apologies if the plops are once again echoing through your brain.) Technically the phenomenon is referred to as an earworm, a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through your mind long after it has stopped playing. Advertising agencies love it when the song stays with you because, obviously, you remember the product, and that’s the whole point of advertising.

In 1991 the advertising agency Campbell Ewald selected a particular recording for an ongoing campaign for Chevy trucks. Many of us then (and certainly now) are familiar with Bob Seger’s classic recording “Like A Rock”. Rolling Stone tells the tale of Chevy and Seger’s 1991 connection to sports television:

. . . when you tuned in to watch any football game, from the middle of the country to the East and the West, you couldn’t escape Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” commercial. . . . [To] an entire generation of sports fans who saw the commercial in their formative years while watching their home team on network TV long after the 1970s success of albums like Night Moves and Stranger in Town, [“Like A Rock”] became Seger’s defining song and also the one that evokes the strongest memories of a time in sports and America that feels so long ago.

With Seger providing the ‘soundtrack’, viewers saw slow-motion shots of Chevy trucks effortlessly getting through mud, snow, and water, towing a gigantic load, or climbing a steep hill; along with numerous American flags, good-looking men, strong women, and lovable children. The images became synonymous with Seger’s song. For more than a decade, while some listeners and viewers grew tired of “Like A Rock” many more loved it.

These days ad agencies look for hit records from any decade to make the case for the product they’re selling, yet they will evaluate every recording for any possible risk. That being said, I could not have been more pleasantly surprised to see the latest television commercial for Jeep’s Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Summit models. As high-tech as these new vehicles are, the Jeep commercial opens with a phonograph. Viewers see a tonearm drop, and the needle settles into a groove on a vinyl record. Yet the juxtaposition of a 2017 Jeep and a 1970s phonograph provide a perfect connection for the music and the product.

Included in the Jeep commercial’s many visuals are two jeeps—one red, one silver, a variety of twenty and thirty-something young adults singing along with the radio, or backpacking; and women doing yoga or boxing for exercise. There’s a series of headshots—a well-dressed Black woman with a buzzcut, and a white male with shoulder-length hair and beard—followed by a split screen of both. Two Jeep SUVs: the male driver of one exits his car and heads for a BBQ diner; the other driver heads toward a vegetarian restaurant. There is (no surprise) an American flag, plus B&W footage of WWII-era jeeps. Numerous bumper stickers declare “I’m With America”, “I Love Animals”, “I’d Rather Be Hunting”, and “America: With Us Or Against Us”. Then a stylized representation of the word “Together” (with cross, crescent, and Star of David,) is followed by “Make Love Not War” and “Support Our Troops”. Finally there are two
together-sticker12stickers, one with a Republican elephant and the other with Democratic donkey. The commercial’s tagline is “What unites us is stronger than what divides us”.

All of this is memorable. But here’s the real interesting part. The music playing underneath all of this, that many of the participants are singing along to is “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”. This track from thirty years ago is perfect for the television commercial but is also a surprising choice. As many of my friends know, I spent almost 20 years at A&M Records. And although already a Cat Stevens fan going back to his 1967 single “Matthew & Son”, it wasn’t until about 1972 or ’73 that I met him in Chicago on one of his concert tour stops. I realized that there was something on every Cat Stevens album released between 1967 and 1990 for me to like. In fact I liked his music so much that two A&M senior staffers—me and Jeff Gold—convinced label president Gil Friesen to let us create a deluxe retrospective CD release covering Steven’s entire career. Great idea.

As we began to develop ideas on what music would be included, who would design the package, how we’d market it and so on, something completely unexpected changed our plans. The trajectory of Cat Stevens’ career changed, as did the worldview of the artist, born Stephen Demetre Georgiou, reborn as Cat Stevens, and reborn again as Yusuf Islam. Caught up in the emotion of the controversy erupting from the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and the subsequent condemnation of Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was Yusuf Islam’s reported support for Khomeini’s death threats against Rushdie. Radio stations all over the world opted to discard or destroy any copies of Cat Stevens’ music in their libraries, they condemned him on the air, and Stevens disappeared from much of the public media. The project Jeff and I had begun working on was never completed.

After the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center in New York, and then the September 11 attacks in 2001, this country saw the beginning of the demonization of a religion, instead of a focus on the perpetrators. Emblematic of the manufactured fear after 9/11, Georgiou/Stevens/Islam was not even allowed to travel to the United States (in 2004 he was detained after a flight from London and immediately img-cat-stevens_155554724126returned to the UK.) He has subsequently been allowed in to the United States to tour and perform, but it’s a far cry from the crowds of the 1970s who attended his SRO concerts. Yet today his original 1984 recording of “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” is the foundational backdrop for a television commercial selling two new 2017 Jeep models.

Redemption is a powerful thing, but the United States seems divided like nothing we’ve seen in 150 years. Like attempting to unring a bell, Cat Stevens will never outlive the venom spewed in the wake of the Rushdie mess. Like it or not he owns both his actual and fictional (manufactured) quotes. But even in a divided America, I am reminded that in 1972 Cat Stevens wrote and recorded “Morning Has Broken”, a much-loved gem of his glory years. Within that wonderful song is this passage:  “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning, God’s recreation of the new day.” Happily, every day is a new creation, a re-creation. And so may it be for all of us. It’s better if we sing out. Particularly in these troubling political times.

Posted January 1, 2017 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

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

Tagged with ,

Stories of Heroes, Despots, Killers, Musicians, and Things That Go Bump. . . .   Leave a comment

About Some Of My Favorite Books

October 1, 2016

For two decades I was a road warrior, traveling on company business around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many of those road trips were the long-haul variety, to New York or Toronto, London or Tokyo. A constant traveling companion for me on those journeys was a book, sometimes two. Books were excellent companions for frequent flyers, all of us happily oblivious in those pre-smartphone days, with no hint of the on-board tech-driven in-flight annoyances to come. With the Lighthouse Peddler’s  regular book contributor Joel Crockett taking a well-deserved leave from writing for a few months, I decided try and fill his shoes by reconsidering some of those literary traveling companions of mine.

Crafting a story based on fact can sometimes be more difficult than it seems. Subsequently adapting that non-fiction story for film can be even more daunting. I recall seeing a preview for the soon-to-be-released film All The President’s Men (1976) and couldn’t wait to see it. A friend of mine was surprised that I had such anticipation for the film adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the fall of Richard Nixon. My friend said, “why would you want to see that film?  Everybody knows how it ends.” But that is what separates many/most of those aspiring to literary success from successful writers.

In the early 1980s I found myself on a Pan Am flight to London clutching The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. My copy of this classic, Wolfe’s 8th book, shows the wear and tear of all that travel. When I pulled it out of the bookshelf in our home this weekend, an Eastern Airlines “seat occupied” card fell out of the pages. Eastern was once one of the “Big Four” domestic airlines, and like Pan Am, it had a glorious history, only to be eclipsed by a dramatically changed travel industry. Coincidentally, the glory days of Eastern Airlines and Pan Am paralleled many of NASA’s as well.

The Right Stuff is an amazing book. Most people, these days, are at least familiar with NASA and know some history of the early space program, and the lives of those early pioneers. There was Chuck Yeager; not destined to be an astronaut but a legend nonetheless. Gus img_1782Grissom, Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and all of the other wannabe ‘spacemen’ are here. Wolfe’s recounting ranges from stool specimens to test flights, and then the final glory of being selected to sit on top of a rocket and be hurled into space and history. The Right Stuff was a ‘page-turner’ as they say. I recall a British Pan Am flight attendant, observing my reading material on that London flight. She simply looked at me and said, “powerful stuff, that!”. Understatement of the day. And Wolfe told this amazing story in just over 400 pages.

In 2001 I did some reading as part of my graduate research in New York for a class taught by Professor Robin Blackburn, a regular guest lecturer from London, on the subject of the slave trade. In addition to Blackburn’s own fine books—The Making of New World Slavery (1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988)—I selected img_1787Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The subtitle pretty much says it all: “A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”. In just 318 pages, one gains a thorough understanding of the contemptible nature, the arrogance, and the greed of many of our European Ancestors, and the baggage left behind on three continents. I loved King Leopold’s Ghost. There is imagery in and between the lines to give you pause, but then perhaps the slave trade and colonial exploitation should continue to give pause to us all.

I rarely read fiction, but another college assignment back in 2000 was The Killer Angels, the gripping and historically accurate look at the Battle of Gettysburg. My copy of Michael Shaara’s book is a pocket-sized, inexpensive hard cover edition. But once again, a writer proves that using more words is not always a necessity. How those words are put together is the test. Like All The President’s Men, we all know (or should know) how the Gettysburg story ends, yet Shaara take’s the horror and the drama and refines it into an amazing literary work. The imagery is outstanding. As the days of fighting took their toll, the Battle of Gettysburg was nearing its conclusion. “[General Robert E.] Lee came out of the mists. He was tall and gray on that marvelous horse, riding majestically forward in the gray light of morning outlined against the sky.” Shaara writes so well that you’d swear he was sitting on a bluff overlooking the bloody fields. In July of 1863 the American Civil War was at its turning point. Many more lives would be lost, with sacrifices on both sides. Books like The Killer Angels speak to George Santayana’s mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The more casual we speak of war, the more likely we are to reaffirm Santayana’s words.

If Wolfe, Hochschild, and Shaara don’t interest you, there are plenty of other good books around, probably in stock at your local independent book seller. Here are a few more older titles that I recommend:

The Last Lion, William Manchester’s trilogy on the life of Winston Churchill. I found volume one fabulous, volume two a little slow at times but worth the read. I picked up a copy of the final volume at Four-Eyed Frog some months back and its nearing the top of my reading pile.

Lawrence In Arabia is Scott Anderson’s look at the great Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence. Note the title emphasis: in, not of. This is about the complexities of the man and his img_1785adventures, and not simply the T.E. we saw in the grandeur of David Lean’s marvelous 1962 film. The pages are filled with the real dirt and grit that Lawrence lived. And Anderson knows how to tell the story.

Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musician’s And Their World by Gene Lees. This book came out of a reading assignment some twenty years ago. Lees takes a look at some well known (and less well known) musicians from the world of Jazz. There’s Shorty Pederstein (. . . me either), Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Frank Rosolino, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, and others. You will absolutely learn something about Jazz, Jazz musicians, and the desire to express oneself through music. This book is a bit tougher to find, but it’s worth it.

My wife taught me years ago that there remains a tactile wonder when turning the pages of a book. Just browsing the aisles of the Four-Eyed Frog or other bookstores we’re aware that there isn’t really any such connection when reading with the glowing screen of a Kindle or an iPad. But however you choose to read, do it again. Even if it’s for the first time. And don’t wait for a long flight to London.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

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

286249-gerry

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

The Roaring Current of Change   Leave a comment

The Roaring Current Of Change

August 1, 2016

Working with successful musicians for three decades, I learned a great deal about the changing nature of music and technology. For instance, when I began marketing music, I entered a record  industry that was dominated by the LP vinyl record.  By the time I began teaching grad students in 1998, the music industry was in another transition: CDs to digital downloads.

One of my lectures to those students at New York University focused on technological change, and how to recognize change,and then adapt, adopt, or ignore it. Between the start of the recording industry (1889) and 1950, consumers had two choices: cylinders (through the 1920s) and discs; the latter became those heavy 78-rpm records our parents or grandparents owned. In post WWII America, the pace of change began to accelerate. During the next 50 years the recording industry went from mono to stereo to multi-track, and consumers had more than 20 choices including vinyl singles and albums, a variety of tape formats, then DATs, compact discs, DVDs, and MP3s.

As I began writing my first book* I recalled attending a lecture some twenty years earlier where I first heard of Alvin Toffler. (The author died June 27th). Toffler, in his 1970 book future_shockFuture Shock picked up a cue from economist and futurist Kenneth Boulding, and put forth the idea of the accelerated rate of change in society, and its impact on the human race. Although written half a century ago (and mindful of we who travel at a slower intellectual speed than Toffler or Boulding,) I present his illustration. Toffler wrote that the Twentieth Century

“‘. . . represents The Great Median Strip running down the center of human history. Thus [Boulding] asserts, ‘The world of today . . . is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar’s. I was born in the middle of human history. To date, roughly, almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before.’

This startling statement can be illustrated in a number of ways. It has been observed, for example, that if the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. ZOMBIE 54d1c448004ee_-_esq-ape-man-dwiqis-zombiesOnly during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another—as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.”

In the 1970s Gordon E. Moore put forth a theory that became an accepted axiom in the tech industry: Moore’s Law. The shorthand version is this: “Computer processor speeds or overall processing power will double every two years.” When we use a computer to search the internet, or to save a document, or to copy a data file, or to connect to a network, speed is almost everything. For those who remember the days of dialing up Prodigy, CompuServe, or AOL while using a 1200 baud modem, we learned to be patient. Then we upgraded to a 2400 baud modem and thought, “Holy shit, this is soooo fast.” It really wasn’t but in relation to that 1200 baud modem it was almost Star Trekian. Now consider the 2400 baud modem compared with today’s basic DSL broadband connection. Using DSL, a 20mb (megabyte) data file will download in about 9 minutes. With a 2400 Baud modem the file would download in 18 HOURS. Moore was proven correct, at least for the next thirty years.

News media, social media and online discussions have not been immune to the impact of speed. More and more people can find information, and find discussions in which to participate. In 1990 Michael Godwin developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” He makes the point that the Nazi/Hitler reference occurs regardless of the discussion’s topic or scope. And ultimately the comparison shifts from an online discussion and goes mainstream. On December 8, 2015, the New York Daily News, not a fan of Donald Trump, ran a story by Shaun King titled “Donald Trump Has Gone Full Blown Nazi On Us”.  King’s opening paragraph got right to the point: “As Donald Trump’s lead in the polls continues to grow, so does his bigotry, sexism, xenophobia—so bad, in fact, that major media outlets have taken to comparing the billionaire blowhard to Adolf Hitler, another narcissist who managed to make millions of people feel increasingly unsafe.” Clearly, more people having access to a discussion does not necessarily assure an elevated level of discourse.

In the 1960s, anti-drug efforts included the phrase “Speed Kills”. It was used to warn people about the abuse of methamphetamine hydrochloride, best known by one of its trade names, Methedrine, aka “Speed”. Decades later safe driving advocates adopted the same phrase to encourage drivers to slow down: “Speed Kills”. The message today is not as literal or as oblique as some might think. In theory, a fast internet requires less time for us to sit on our hands and wonder what we’ll be reading when the page finally finishes loading. Today the pages load quickly, if not instantly. All of that increased internet speed provides the time to help reinforce one’s core beliefs, since it’s easier to quickly find people with whom one agrees. Far too many people enter an informed myopia. For example, observing the crowds adoring a self-aggrandizing ass like Donald Trump speaks volumes about how all of that increased internet speed helps many buy-into the snake-oil Trump is selling: xenophobia, religious bigotry, sexism, race-baiting, misogyny, birtherism, racial profiling, jingoism, and more. Google, Facebook, and other social nets develop algorithms in an attempt to “please” their users by giving them primarily (or only) information that the computer determines is “what they want to know”.

Social media strategist John McElhenney put the echo-chamber like this: “We’ve heard it called many things: Confirmation bias. Influence bubble. Like-minded people flock together. Some interesting data is being pulled from the clouds to determine the linkage between us and our political views. And even more data is being organized and sold to allow businesses to sell you more products and services. Ad infinitum.” Make no mistake. Politicians and political organizations are selling something and they hope you’re buying.

Senator Ransom Stoddard, in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, comes clean to the local newspaper editor about the shooting of the outlaw Valance but the editor decides to not print the true story. The senator asks him, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” to which the editor replies “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Many people in this information age may get more information from more sources, but they tend to select or are guided to like-minded sources. Inevitably, rumors and lies become fact and truth, reinforced within a noisy echo chamber. It’s all part of what Toffler called the roaring current of change. And it’s up to each of us to stop look and listen. We must get outside of our bubble, outside of our comfort zone, and engage.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

*From Edison To Marconi: The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music

 

Ice Cream and Idiocracy   Leave a comment

Turbulent Times and Irrationality

July 1, 2016

    The Fourth of July is one of those holidays I can’t ignore. Like Christmas, the 4th was always a special day when I was growing up, and to some degree it remains special. I remember the parades—both watching and marching, although the latter was more of a walk along with other kids from my elementary school. But I did appreciate the little ice cream cup we were all given as we arrived in the park, and of course, on more than one Independence Day, my small group of friends would race back to the groups still marching and join them just to receive another ice cream cup. Ah, petty-crime in Milwaukee.

As I began working in the music industry (1970), I had no idea it would become a career. I promoted new records released by the RCA Records label (and others), and my timing couldn’t have been much better. RCA was enjoying a renaissance with Elvis Presley’s return to making hit records, Jose Feliciano had become a star with a remake of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, the Friends of Distinction were on the charts with “Grazing In The Grass”, Guess Who was about to release American Woman,  and the Jefferson Airplane continued to soar. Even Perry Como was back on the charts with an appropriately titled hit single: “It’s Impossible”.  Of the artists I worked with in those early years, Jose Feliciano remains a favorite. He was talented, pleasant, smart, articulate, and friendly.

His 1968 breakthrough hit cover of the Doors’ classic peaked at #2. As almost always happened following a hit single, opportunities arose for the twenty-three year old Feliciano to parlay his success with “Light My Fire” into something greater. Publicists often consider every opportunity to put their artist in the spotlight . . . any spotlight. And one of those publicity moments was presented to the star. Based on the suggestion of Detroit sportscaster Ernie Harwell, Feliciano was offered the chance to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game. And not just any game. There were 53,000 fans at Tiger Stadium for game 5 of the 1968 World Series; and millions watching or listening around the world. It was Detroit vs. Saint Louis. For the record, the pitchers were Mickey Lolich of the Tigers, who earned the win—final score was 5-3—and Joe Hoerneas of the Cardinals, who was handed the loss. In almost every respect it was a publicist’s dream. I said “almost”. Feliciano sang the anthem as he sang almost everything, with an honest, genuine, heartfelt soul. And that’s where the trouble began.

Anyone following American politics since 1994 knows what polarization is, and in 1968 those who heard Feliciano sing were polarized. Half of the people loved Feliciano’s performance, and half hated it. To take advantage of the half-public who loved the performance, RCA Records released a 45-RPM single. It may have been the first time in recorded music history that the National Anthem was on the Billboard charts. The downside of this publicity opportunity was the half-public who hated the performance. According to the New York Times, (October 8, 1968), when asked about the moment, the blind, Puerto Rican born American said “America is young now, and I thought maybe the anthem could be revived now. This country has given me so many opportunities. I owe everything I have to this country. I wanted to contribute something to this country, express my gratification for what it has done for me.” Baseball great Tony Kubek liked it: “I think he did one heckuva job”. A Tigers fan had a different take: “It was a disgrace. An Insult.” She said she would be writing her senator.

Two weeks later the RCA Records single arrived at radio stations and in record stores. Radio stations followed the public divide. Many stations played it. However, many others, like Milwaukee’s WOKY did not. That station’s Program Director George Wilson told me a couple of years later that he believed “the performance was inappropriate and unacceptable.”

As a college student and programmer at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s WUWM radio station at the time, everyone would agree that 1968 was a most turbulent time. Consider some of the events of the year: • January: North Korea captured the patrol boat USS Pueblo. • The Tet Offensive was launched. • February: Richard Nixon began his political comeback. • The American  military in Vietnam declared that it had destroyed a town in order to save it. A phrase that cannot be erased from our memories. • Walter Cronkite, anchor of the CBS Evening News, and dubbed “the most trusted man in America”, urged President Johnson to throw in the towel in Vietnam. • March: Senator Eugene McCarthy came within 230 votes of beating a sitting president in the New Hampshire primary. • Senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race. • The U.S. Army’s Charlie Company rampaged through the Vietnamese village of My Lai. • Martin Luther King led a march through Memphis. • April: Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to not stand for reelection. Martin Luther King was assassinated. • May: Peace Talks were begun between the U.S. and Vietnam. •  June: Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. • August: The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. • The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, helped along by the Chicago Police, turned into a riot—a disaster for the Democrats, but fascinating viewing on television. • September: Senator Hubert Humphrey received the Democratic nomination for president. There was so much more that fateful year, but time and space is limited.

And what of Jose Feliciano? After the release of “The Star Spangled Banner” and its five weeks on the Billboard chart, Feliciano continued to record and tour. His 1970 Christmas album, Feliz Navidad is considered a classic of the genre. He even returned to Detroit in May 2010 to reprise his 1968 performance in honor of Ernie Harwell, who died that week. No one contacted their senator, governor, or anyone else to complain. I guess forty-two years was a sufficient amount of time for America’s haters of 1968 to get over Feliciano’s original performance, or maybe they just died with a grudge.

The Fourth of July is always worth time to reflect. Whether it’s the memories of ice cream as a child, of a parade, or a unique and memorable performance, or a performer with whom we connected—literally, personally, emotionally, or even viscerally. Politics today is, as some say, not for sissies or wimps. You’ve got to have a belief system that will overcome any idiocy, or worse, an idiocracy.

Joel Stein wrote in May 2016’s Time Magazine, that “[America has] Become an Idiocracy . . . And it only took two-and-a-half centuries. Eight years ago, with the publication of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, our country had a debate about whether its citizens were becoming less intelligent. This year, we had a debate about how big Donald Trump’s penis is. While we have not resolved the latter, we have answered the former. Former means first, and latter means second.”

From bitching about a wonderful, authentic, performance of the song set to Francis Scott Key’s poem, we have arrived at July 4, 2016. The election isn’t until November 7th. May God have mercy on our souls. And by the way, Thank You Jose. If you get to Mendonoma, I’ll be there. I’ll probably even have some ice cream for you.

%d bloggers like this: