Deadhead at last!

So many bands, so little time. How do you know the bad stuff from the good stuff?  How do you know if you’ll like it, and what if you don’t?  How does that reflect on me?

Why don’t I like Styx or REO Speedwagon?  Note: There’s probably an easy answer for those two.  Why didn’t I like the Grateful Dead?

The Dead, come on?  I like other psychedelic music from the 60’s.  Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, you name it I’ve at least heard it–maybe, probably.  But the Dead, for the longest time I simply couldn’t learn to love.

And I think it’s because of their improvisational style that has much more in common with jazz than with rock.  At least with their earlier work, which has a few lyrics thrown into prolonged jamming, and the listener has to decide if that’s what they like. For the longest time I didn’t.

An really there are two Deads.  There is the jam band that appears on three of the records I have: Anthem for the Sun, Live Dead, and Blues for Allah. It’s this version that I think most of us think of when we think of the Grateful Dead. It’s the band we would have heard in a concert hall or stadium show (think Autzen Stadium in Eugene.) It’ s a show best heard stoned. No, I haven’t, not in the last 37 years. But the thought has crossed my mind. It’s the version that allows Jerry Garcia to just run wild and carry the sound.  When he’s on, all is right with world.  When he’s not, the band simply isn’t as strong.

And then there’s the other Dead. This band plays carefully structured songs in an Americana style, the Dead of Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and Terrapin Station. It’s studio goodness, with some great songs.  My favorite is “Box of Rain,” but it’s everybody’s favorite–for good reason.  Allmusic calls it a perfect song. But I also love “Uncle John’s Band.”  I’m sure the Dead performed these songs in their lively nomadic excursions to one end of the world and back, but they seem at odds with their live performances.  It doesn’t make them any less good.

I have come to enjoy their music as I write this listen to

“come hear Uncle John’s Band

by the river side

We got some things to talk about

here beside the rising tide. ”

Great stuff, and I’m proud to say I’m a Deadhead, even if I’m forty or more years too late.

I currently have four Grateful Dead records

But there are a few more I’d really like to add.

But I’m glad I’ve finally come around to realize what a wonderful band the Grateful Dead were-representative of not only of a certain time but of all time.

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No! I’ve had enough.

I’d been working with my sophomores as they prepared their first study guides for tomorrow’s test. An e-mail came across my screen from my wife. Lots of things on our plate so I made sure to check it.  “Did you hear about Petty?”  A brief bombshell.

I immediately opened my Facebook account to see my niece Alex had already posted the news. Tom Petty was dead. CBS news was reporting that Petty was dead. Though the news was certainly muddled, and the final act was reported prematurely, he suffered a massive heart attack, and  though he was revived and  he was taken off life support and died last night.

I don’t even know what to say.  There are not enough words to express my sense of loss with Petty’s death.  I’ve been a fan since the first time I heard “Breakdown” in college in 1976. I’ve never stopped listening or admiring his work. I attended his final concert in Seattle six weeks ago.

Petty as I saw him in August, aging but omnipotent; Petty as I want to remember him, singing “Breakdown,” and “American Girl”; Petty with the original Heartbreakers-Stan Lynch on drums, Ron Blair bass, Mike Campbell lead guitar, and Benmont Tench keyboards. 

There is something basic and authentic about his songs. He was a great storyteller, and in that telling, he always spoke directly to the listener in a way that is both real and hopeful.  With apologies to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, I believe Tom’s accessibility and authenticity makes him the most important American rock and roller of the last forty years. Only the loss of McCartney, or Dylan or Springsteen could rival Petty’s death. Maybe Jagger AND Richards.

I am still badly shaken by Chris Cornell’s suicide.  What a loss. But losing Tom Petty is like tearing out a piece of my soul.  I know it is unseemly that so much sentiment and so many pixels are spilled on a dead rock star, when more people were killed in Las Vegas on Sunday night than the number of American casualties in the three-week battle to capture Fallujah in 2004.

But anyone who knows me well knows my favorite rock song is “The Waiting.”  Mike Campbell’s guitar solo in the same song rivals David Gilmour’s in “Comfortably Numb” for my greatest admiration. My favorite Tom Petty songs would make a list a foot long, exceeded only by the Beatles.

Yes, another rock star is gone, but it feels like we’ve lost something more.  Petty was the real deal. He never made “Miss You,” “I Was Made For Loving You,” or “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” to cash in on disco.  There was a certain rock purity to him that made Tom Petty with his Heartbreakers special.  Petty worshiped the guitar.  When I saw him in concert in August he changed guitars for each song.  Campbell, his constant partner in crime, is a brilliant guitarist, capable of searing solos while never wasting a note. Benmont Tench, the band’s keyboardist, is as good as any, while never losing sight of the song’s mission.

Just as importantly, rock has lost a gentleman. Tom Petty was a good person.  He had a level of humility in his service to his fans, and his role of protector and projector of rock and roll as a genre.  His last album was in 2014.  Though he said he would no longer tour, there were certainly more to come. Not many can say the same.  Springsteen. Dylan. Dave Grohl. Queens of the Stone Age.  What’s left in American rock that isn’t on a perpetual oldies tour? How many don’t own an AARP card?

Well enough already.  And God, if you’re listening, please stop. I can’t take any more.

The Guess Who Live at the Paramount

Guess who live at the paramount

I don’t know that the Guess Who is as well remembered as, say, I remember them. Or as well as they deserved. For a stretch of about four years, the Winnipeg-based group had a string of hits and successful albums in Canada and the United States. “American Woman” was the only Canadian single to grace #1 in the American Hot 100 in 1970.

After 1970 the band began a series of line-up shuffles that would eventually see Randy Bachman leave to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and in 1975, after a series of disappointing records, singer and leader Burton Cummings left to for a solo career and the band dissolved.

In 1972 the band traveled to Seattle and recorded their show at the Paramount Theater.  The record was generally well received.  I found a copy of The Guess Who Live at the Paramount this summer in Mount Vernon, and finally had a chance to spin it today.

This is a good record, with some interesting versions of Guess Who songs. Side A has five songs, including “Albert Flasher,” “New Mother Nature,” “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon,” “Glace Bay Blues,” and “Pain Train.”  They are all great.  “New Mother Nature” sounds a bit naked without being paired with “No Sugar Tonight” as it was on the American Woman album. But all the songs were solid.  “Runnin Back to Saskatoon” and “Pain Train,” were the strongest in my estimation

Side B was limited to a 17 minute version of “American Woman” and “Travelin’ Off Across the Sky.”  Both songs had their moment.  The live version of Guess Who’s biggest hit is a nice piece of psychedelic improvisation.  But let’s face it, 17 minutes of anything is at least twice too long.   “. . . Off Across the Sky” was quite good.

The record shows the band’s easy rapport with crowd, led by Cummings. It also gives the listener a deeper dive into The Guess Who’s catalog, as few of the songs were on singles.  None were utter clunkers.  I’d call it a solid listen, and definitely worth another.

Chuck: A Little Gift From Rock and Roll Heaven

Chuck

When Chuck Berry died March 18th of this year, there was no hand wringing.  He was 90 and he’d lived a long and full life. Hell, the same fellow who played “Maybelline” in 1955 was still showing up to jam with the fellas at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis once a month.

So, when the King of Rock and Roll passed, his legacy was so much more than secure. The gift he left to rock and roll was evident in his own achievements, and the accomplishments of the Beatles, the Rolling Stone and the Yardbirds.  Because, let’s face it, if you couldn’t play “Johnny B. Goode,” you couldn’t rock and roll. Chuck Berry was like Perseus. The Greek god brought fire to warm the homes and cook the meat for humanity. Berry brought fire to excite their souls.

So when Chuck appeared in record stores in June, the first new material Berry released in 39 years, it was a gift and a reminder of Chuck at his best. Well, almost his best. Ten songs, eight of them original.

No it’s not all perfect.  But the first two songs, “Wonderful Woman,” and “Big Boys” are flat out rockers. Chuck’s playing and singing is strong.  He covers “3/4 Time Enchiladas,” a Tony Joe White song with some great barroom raunch. The rest of the record is a solid mix of blues and balladry, and includes the song-poem “Dutchman.”

If the album has a weakness, it is the two songs derived from his own earlier work, “Lady B. Goode,” and “Jamaica Moon.”  Sorry, they just seem a little too close to the original for me to take seriously.  The latter sounds almost like a parody of the earlier “Havana Moon.”

But this was good stuff, very enjoyable.  It was also a pleasure to see the additional credits on the album.  Berry is surrounded by family, including his son, Charles Berry, Jr., and his grandson, Charles Berry III.  Daughter, Ingrid Berry, joins him on vocals.

His band is top-notch, especially, the piano work of Robert Lohr.  Special guests, Austin guitarist Gary Clark, Jr., and Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave axe god Tom Morello appear on “Big Boys” to add just a bit more guitar depth to a great guitar rock song.

Chuck Berry

The album has some nice features.  The record is pressed on 180 gram vinyl.  It has a very nice lyric booklet.  It also comes with a digital download.

I have a few Chuck Berry records, but this is a very nice addition to my collection.  Chuck may not have been duckwalking across the stage when he recorded these songs, but if I can go out half so strong as Chuck, I’ll be a happy man.

One Hit Wonders: Every Mothers Son

I’m a sucker for a great song. For me a great song has to have understandable lyrics, an awesome melody with a great hook.  Maybe a super sing-a-long chorus thrown in for good measure.

Bon Jovi’s singles off Slippery When Wet are great songs.  Sing  along and sing ’em loud. “Wanted Dead or Alive”, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Livin’ On a Prayer.”  Don’t deny it.  I have video of you screamin’ these sogns in your car.  It’s on YouTube.

Wouldn’t cross the street for any of their other tunes, but “Five O’Clock World,” by the Vogues is simply super. Picked up their greatest hits for a buck.  Threw up for “Turn Around Look At Me,” but “Five O’Clock World,” now we’re talking. Remember, it was the opening theme for The Drew Carey Show.  Drew knows his shit.

On Monday I knew there was a big shipment of used LP’s coming into my friendly neighborhood Boogie Records.  I had no idea what was there, and I was deathly ill.  But because I am seriously addicted to vinyl, I took me, my germs and a twenty dollar bill to explore the vinyl meaning of life.  I allowed myself twenty minutes to spread as many cold germs as possible and retire home with my ill-gotten gains.

There was actually a lot of good if not great titles, what’s more in very nice condition. I ran off with a really nice copy of Yessongs, the 3 X LP anthology by Yes from 1973.  I also found a great copy of In City Dreams by Robin Trower.  It was a 1977 album that featured guitar genius Trower, as well as bassist vocalist James Dewar.  It has a somewhat more pop sound than the heavy, viscous guitar blues of his previous albums. Good but certainly not a classic.

Every Mother's Son

But my first choice was Every Mothers Son. That’s the name of the band and the name of the album.  They had exactly one 1967 hit, “Come and Take a Ride in My Boat.”  Never heard of it?  You might know it better by the song’s chorus,

“Come on down to my boat baby,

come and down where we can play.

Come on down to my boat baby.

Come on down,

We’ll sail away”

The rest of the record is typical of a band like, say, the Association.  Very listenable.  They boys can play.  They do a nice cover of the Buckinghams’ “Kind of a Drag.”  But nothing really stands out. While “Take a Ride . . ” has a strong rhythm track and great organ work to go with the singing, the rest of the songs have the voices, which are good, but not unique and sound like so many American bands of the period. At least before the counter-culture has fully set in and taken over the show.

But I’m a sucker for the song for the fisherman’s daughter, and whether she answers the plea. It’s way better than “Turn Around Look At Me, which just makes me seasick.

 

The Revenge of Sky Saxon

The Seeds

When I was a young ‘un, many years ago, we’d spend Sunday nights in front of the television.  By the time I was in junior high we’d discarded Disney, and were watching the NBC sitcom, “The Mothers in Law” with Kay Ballard and Eve Arden.  Kinda funny stuff for 1967, I guess, in an establishment sort of way.

One night a band called The Warts appeared on the show and they sang a song called “Pushin’ Too Hard.”  They were kinda hippie freaky, in a sort of inoffensive way, though they were portrayed as way over the establishment line and suffered the scorn and ridicule of the very strait-laced, if a bit hip families on the show.

The band was, of course, The Seeds, the mid-60’s garage rock band that achieved a top 40 hit with “Pushin’ Too Hard.” It’s been fifty years since I watched that show, but the tune never left me. So when Lorri and I were shopping at Half Price Books last Christmas, I spotted a shiny copy of The Seeds, original 1966 issue for a mere fifty bucks (???!!!) When the boss sensed my interest, she bought it for me and stuck it under the tree.  I was thrilled to get it, because if collecting vinyl isn’t about nostalgia, what is it?

Unfortunately, the album sat worshipfully on the shelf awaiting play, carefully preserved in its plastic cover. Because collecting is also about having far more vinyl than one can actually listen to.  It’s a sickness. Really.

But today, home for the third day with a germ, I finally gave The Seeds a spin.  It truly was a trip down memory lane.

The Seeds were fronted by vocalist Sky Saxon. After Saxon the most dominant musician was keyboardist Daryl Hooper.  Hooper had the role of much-less talented Ray Manzarek of the Doors.  The others, Jack Savage on guitar and Rick Andridge played along earnestly, in an earnest sort of way.

But it was Saxon’s yowling vocals with Hooper’s diddlefarting about that gave the Seeds their signature sound. If you’ve heard “Pushin’ Too Hard” you’ve heard half the sounds on the album.  Many of the songs sound the same. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, If you’re into garage rock with a slightly psychedelic twist, you’ll like this record.  It’s very basic, challenges the status quo in a mid-sixties way that insured airplay if anybody was listening, and apparently they were.  The Seeds weren’t angry, they weren’t profane or overtly sexual, yet . . . that would come later. They just seemed stoned and out for a good time.

The Seeds recorded five records on GNP Crescendo between 1967-1968. They also had several more singles including “Mr. Farmer” and “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” If additional Seeds records fell in my lap, well, I sure wouldn’t turn them down. The Seeds disbanded in 1972, though the original members split up four years earlier.  Saxon toured with a new band and called it Sky Saxon and the Seeds.  Saxon joined the Source Family religious commune in southern California until the late 70’s.  He was involved in numerous musical projects until his death in 2009.

Lots of bands have lauded the Seeds and their influence, including The Ramones, The Bangles, The Johnny Thunders, and Yo la Tengo.  Their music is simple and fun.  Enjoy

David Weigel’s history of Progressive Rock: a review

While I was in Warrenton, I read most of David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, a history of progressive rock. Weigel’s day job is as political reporter for the Washington Post, but he came over from Slate, where they encouraged him to take on a project outside the lines.  He is a confessed prog rock fan, and he published his book this spring.

Lots of folks hate or dismiss progressive rock.  Too pompous and pretentious.  Songs too long, surrounded in too much mysticism, unfocused noodling about a big bunch of nothing. You can’t dance to it, and the lyrics are too weird to sing along.

Weigel set out on a mission to write a narrative history of progressive rock, and make a case that it was a creative “detour” in the arc of rock and roll’s long history-which has been pronounced dead more times than I can think of. While doing a pretty decent job with the first goal, I was not convinced by the second. Sort of . . . well, let me explain.

I am NOT a prog rock hater, but I do enjoy it in moderate doses. I love those great early Yes albums: The Yes Album, Time and a Word, Fragile, Trilogy, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, is one of my favorite albums. Pink Floyd-check. Yes, include some experimentation, fiddle with technology, change time signatures, but bring it in under eight minutes, wouldja?  Okay, I like “Pirates” from Works, vol. 1 at twelve or so, but that’s an exception because of its great storytelling.

Chief among Weigel’s subjects.  From upper left (clockwise)-Rush; Yes; King Crimson featuring Robert Fripp and Greg Lake; Fripp alone (kind of where he belongs); Genesis featuring Peter Gabriel (with makeup,) and Phil Collins (with hair); Emerson, Lake and Palmer. 

So there, you know where I’m coming from.  Weigel is clearly a master of his subject matter as he traces the most influential prog bands, including Soft Machine, Yes, ELP, King Crimson and Genesis, as well as prog second wave bands such as Rush and Marillion. The book is full of triumphs and disappointments, lineup changes and breakups, innovations in song structure and technology, all carefully researched through interviews with the rock press or conversations the author had with the artists.

In his dedication to telling the story Weigel seems to leave no stone unturned to tell the story of prog. It’s all there, complete with notes.  But be sure to keep some caffeine handy, because it’s nerd-city. And I say that as one who will read any book ever written about The Hundred Years War. In nerdville, it takes one to know one.  For Weigel, no factoid is too small, no anecdote too trivial, no injury or slight ignored.

And in the end this slavish attention to detail sabotages Weigel’s second goal. What this book is missing is some context and attention to what was happening outside of progressive rock?  Though he does pay attention to the rise and fall of prog devotees, no attention is paid to important questions like: Why did they stop listening?  Where did they go? Why did they go there?  And I really don’t see Weigel’s case that somehow prog was better.  Somehow it just never gets past the place that it was Eurocentric, influenced by classical music, heard mostly by guys, and that it wasn’t very commercially appealing. It doesn’t seem enough to me to lament that something cherished is dead, it’s equally important to understand what killed it.

The Show That Never Ends is not a bad book.  If you love progressive rock, there is tons of great information here.  Weigel is nothing if not a great researcher and reporter.  I was just hoping for a little more analysis, a little context to accompany the facts.    I give it a solid three and a half stars out of five.