Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dunkirk - a review

A couple of years ago on a TDY to some faraway land [I think it was Hawaii], a friend and I watched a movie about Dunkirk that was made in 1958.  As with the movie that I saw last night, the movie was simply titled Dunkirk.  It was a very good, very effective portrayal of the chaos, desperation, and uncharacteristic [for the British] improvisation that was Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] from Northern Europe in 1940.  The story’s focus is split in two – the first is one the homefront.  The British government kept the British public in the dark on the progress [or lack thereof] of the British war effort.  There was also a sense of complacency in Britain about the war, because they had been at war for eight months [the so-called “Phoney War’] where nothing really happened in Europe.  When the government starts to “requisition” private watercraft for an operation the on which the government won’t comment, that feeling of complacency starts to change.   During this part of the film. you get the figurative “big picture” about how and why things are going to Hell in a hurry. 

The second focus is on a squad of British troops lead by Cpl. Tubby Binns as they try everything they know to outwit and evade the Germans as they make their way through enemy-held territory to rejoin the BEF in northern France.  You had the sense the Germans were breathing down their necks at every opportunity.  This culminated in a very ballsy move by Binns and his troops to move right through a German camp, using the noise from a German air raid to cover their movements to avoid detection by the Germans they were trying to evade.  By the movie’s end, Binns and his troops make it back to Britain, and the split on the homefront between those who know there’s a real a war and those who think the war is a fake has disappeared.

About eighteen months ago I heard there was going to be a new movie about Dunkirk, and that it was going to be filmed in IMAX format.  Given the nature of the 1958 movie, one that I thought would be hard to top, and the technology available to tell the story again, I had very high expectations.  I had similar expectations for Pearl Harbor sixteen years ago.  Those expectations were dashed when that movie turned out to be a chick flick, and when Alec Baldwin was cast to play Jimmy Doolittle. Luckily, the new movie Dunkirk is no chick flick.

The story of the movie has a promising beginning.  British Tommies are fighting their way through the streets of Dunkirk when they are bombarded with German propaganda leaflets.  The leaflets are very simple and very effective.  They depict the disposition of German forces against the British – a sea of red in northern France, Belgium and Holland [the Germans] and a small pocket of white on the English Channel coast around the small town of Dunkirk [the British, labeled “you”].  We see the Tommies evading German sniper fire to just barely make it to the safety of the French lines, and then make it to the beach, where we see British troops patiently queueing up to wait their turn to get off the beach.   But what is missing is context, the “how did we get in this mess” part.  There is no sense that the German Wermacht is handing the Allies their collective ass in a rout.  The only sense of menace one gets is from the Luftwaffe.  The “oh shit” factor comes from the Stukas.  The movie easily captures the essence of that terror weapon from that time.  Sitting in the theater, you feel like those screaming Stukas are coming for you.

Scale.  The thing that was missing from this movie was “scale”.  Kenneth Branaugh’s character rightly stated there were almost 400,000 men stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.  But when you look at the shots of the beach, there’s lots of open sand.  Two weeks ago, I saw more people at Pensacola Beach to watch the Blue Angels perform than what I saw in the movie last night.  In the 1958 movie, the soldiers are packed into and around Dunkirk like proverbial sardines.  To provide a more recent example, Atonement captured more feel of how cramped, chaotic, grim and desperate Dunkirk was in a single, five-minute take than the new Dunkirk movie did in almost two hours. 

Dunkirk Scene from Atonement

This movie was filmed in IMAX.  The pictures are bigger, the resolution of the pictures is crisper, and the sound is better.  You can literally hear the bullets whizzing around you as the Tommies are trying to avoid being killed by the unseen Germans.  You get the sense the British are in trouble, but not that they are desperate.  The aerial sequences are outstanding.  You’re in the cockpits with the RAF as they try to keep the Luftwaffe away from the beaches.  When the bullets from the German aircraft hit the Spitfires, you can almost feel it.  There were only a handful of British aircraft portrayed in the movie, giving one the sense of a very few against the entire Luftwaffe.  Perhaps that was the intent, because from the vantage point of the ground pounders, “where was the Air Force?”  That question was asked in this movie, and it was asked in the 1958 movie.  Most of the air-to-air fighting was done away from the beaches. 

To imagine the scale of Operation Dynamo, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trapped in a very small pocket of land about the size of Hong Kong waiting to either be rescued by the British or captured by the Germans.   Almost 700 ships of all kinds [some were just pleasure boats, not ships] were needed to evacuate such an enormous mass of humanity.  That wasn’t really depicted in the new movie.  When the “cavalry” finally does appear and Kenneth Branaugh says he can see “home”, it’s underwhelming.

Claustrophobia.  The claustrophobia you sense in the new movie is more on a micro level rather than a macro level.  It comes on the ships once the troops were evacuated.  One gets the sense that the thing that will kill the evacuees would be drowning below decks on the ships that get attacked by the Luftwaffe and the U-Boats.  You’re in the cockpit of one RAF pilot who had to ditch his Spitfire.  The water is rushing in but the pilot can’t get out because his canopy is jammed.  But fear not – without giving away too much of the plot, this guy lives.

There are two enemies in this movie – the Germans and the English Channel.  The Channel is ever-present, but one never really gets the sense that the Germans are closing in, tightening the noose around the BEF with each passing hour.  In the 1958 movie, you saw Germans.  You saw their faces, your heard their voices, you felt the approach of their tanks outside of Dunkirk.  The new movie doesn’t have that.  You don’t see any Germans at all until the last frames of the movie.

Shell shock – Cillian Murphy is a British private who is rescued [by one of the civilian boats requisitioned by the Royal Navy] from the remnants of a sunken ship.  Not only has he been chased out of France by the Germans, he nearly died after a U-Boat sank the ship that got him out of France.  He’s seen a lot of bad stuff, he’s been “in the shit”, and he’s seen enough. He doesn’t make any bones about wanting to go home.  But when he found out the boat he was on is going in the opposite direction, he freaks, with some unfortunate consequences.  When he asks the boat captain why he, a civilian, is doing such a thing to deliberately go into harm’s way, the boat captain has the best line in the movie - “Men my age dictate this war, why should we not fight it?”


Conclusion.  The new version of Dunkirk proves to me that “newer” doesn’t always mean “better.”  This movie has been hailed by some critics as a “masterpiece.”  The bar for such a distinction must be pretty low these days.  I’ve seen masterpieces, and Dunkirk [2017] is not one of them.  It isn’t crap either.  For me it is a case of missed opportunities and heightened expectations.  While Dunkirk is not a masterpiece, it isn’t crap either.  It is a good movie that could have been great.  Save your money and wait for pay per view.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Jason Isbell - Tony's Picks

It’s hard to put Jason Isbell into a neat, tidy little box.  What kind of music does he play – rock, alt-country, folk, soul, or Americana [whatever that is]?  He lives in Nashville.  He’s worked with country producer Dave Cobb for his last three records [Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and his latest The Nashville Sound], the same guy who produces Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.  But on tour, he’s playing Whipping Post, a very “un-country” song.  Sometimes he’ll play quiet, acoustic songs, other songs will have fiddles, the familiar twang of Telecasters and steel guitars. To further complicate things, sometimes he and the 400 Unit will sound like Neil Young & Crazy Horse [don't laugh - he released a very convincing cover of Like a Hurricane in 2012].  He’s all of the above.  Soulfully country-ish, he mixes his rock ‘n roll influences, intertwining his music with Southern themes of home, family, hard work with more universal topics of addiction, loneliness, loss, heartbreak, love and redemption.  But I think the quality that best exemplifies Jason Isbell’s music is empathy.  He can easily put himself in someone else’s shoes and know what they’re feeling about, well, anything.

I first heard of Jason Isbell when he was in the band Drive-By Truckers.  He first filled in for a no-show guitarist for DBT’s Southern Rock Opera tour, and stuck around for three albums with them [Decoration Day, The Dirty South, A Blessing and a Curse].  Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, DBT had three guitar players, each of whom was also a songwriter [himself, Patterson Hood, and Mike Cooley].  Excellent storytellers all, but Isbell's songs stand out.  Isbell was in DBT for six years [2001-07], after which time his hard partying and heavy drinking caught up with him and he got fired from the band.  Too bad for them – he was their best singer and guitarist, and a damn fine songwriter.  He went from writing two or three songs per DBT album to having to write an entire album's worth of material.  Some of it was very good, some of it not so much.  Then he met Amanda Shires.  A singer-songwriter in her own right [and a pretty good one] who also plays violin and guitar, the two started to work together on Isbell's Here We Rest.  They fell in love, he said to her once too often that he needed to go to rehab, she took him up on it and he dried out.  Now sober, it seems like everything Jason Isbell writes or touches turns to gold, starting with Southeastern [2013].  He and Shires married the day after he finished Southeastern.  Two years later he followed that with Something More Than Free, and just a couple of weeks ago came The Nashville Sound.  He’s on a winning streak.

Here are my favorite Isbell songs …

Dress Blues [Sirens of the Ditch, 2007]
“Dress Blues,” from Jason Isbell’s debut solo album was based on the real-life death of Matthew Conley, a high school acquaintance from Isbell’s hometown who died in the Iraq War. The song was recently covered on Zac Brown Band’s hit album Jekyll + Hyde'You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleepin' in your dress blues.'

Elephant [Southeastern, 2013]
This is a sad ballad of a woman battling and dying from cancer and the friend, the song’s narrator, who spends her last days with her. ‘Elephant’ refers to ‘the elephant in the room’ the two people don’t want to talk about – the friend dying of cancer. 

According to Isbell - "It's not a song about what happens to people with cancer. It's a song about having a friend with an illness that can't be cured and about being the right kind of friend in that situation. People don't want to be treated differently because they're sick. They don't want that cloud always hanging over the conversation. They want to live out what life they have left. You have to fight your instincts to be overly sympathetic; you have to treat them as if they're the same people."

Cover Me Up [Southeastern, 2013]
Isbell’s straightforward song about getting sober and opening himself up to wife Amanda Shires is one of his best — simply because it is so vulnerable and deeply felt. “That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal,” he told NPR in 2013.

Stockholm [Southeastern, 2013]
“Stockholm” is the musical twin of Cover Me Up.  She helped him replace his old love of booze (which he was shackled too) and made him see what true love really could be.  He gave the song its name because that’s where he wrote it.

Decoration Day [Decoration Day, 2003]
From his first album with Drive By Truckers, the song tells of a sort of modern day Hatfields & McCoys feud between two families by the name of the Hills and Lawsons and the history of that feud. The feud had been going on so long the people involved don’t remember what started it.
  
Tour of Duty [Here We Rest, 2011]
Unlike the subject of Dress Blues, this veteran came home from war.  We learn of a soldier’s return home and all of the things he wants to do now that he’s back like enjoy his family, eat oysters and not relive the nightmare that was his war service. “I've done my tour of duty; now I'm home and I ain't leaving here again.

Songs That She Sang in the Shower [Southeastern, 2013]
The narrator of the song recalls losing a love to his own stupidity and excesses. The one thing he absolutely can’t stand since she’s gone is to hear or remember all of the songs she used to sing in the shower, like Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine, or Dusty Springfield’s Breakfast In Bed.  My ex liked the Eagles…now you know why I’m like The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

Outfit [Decoration Day, 2003]
Another gem from DBT’s Decoration Day. The song about a father’s advice to his son leaving home. 
Don't call what you're wearing an outfit, don't ever say your car is broke
Don't worry about losing your accent, a southern man tells better jokes 
Have fun, stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away

Alabama Pines [Here We Rest, 2011]
“Alabama Pines” is loneliness and desolation defined that truly speaks those who’ve experienced similar things to what the song’s narrator is going through. If you don’t like the sound of Isbell’s voice after this song, you never will.
  
Go It Alone [Here We Rest, 2011]
This is Isbell plugged in, in bar-band country-blues mode. The guy in the song has to press restart on his life — in part because he’s lost a woman, presumably due to divorce [he split with first wife Shona Tucker before getting the boot from DBT].  “I’m realizing just how far I had to fall / And taking it home to go it alone again.”  He hadn’t “hit bottom” yet, but he could see it coming.

Speed Trap Town [Something More Than Free, 2015]
There are lots of these places in the South, where nothing really happens and the only way the town makes money to issue speeding tickets to outsiders who are just passing through.  These are small places that might have one traffic light, but probably not.  “Everybody knows you in a speed trap town…”  The protagonist gets the feeling it’s time he left the small town where he grew up:

Well it's a Thursday night but there's a high school game
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name
These 5A bastards run a shallow cross
It's a boy's last dream and a man's first loss
And it never did occur to me to leave 'til tonight
And there's no one left to ask if I'm alright
I'll sleep until I'm straight enough to drive, then decide
If there's anything that can't be left behind

Traveling Alone [Something More Than Free, 2015]
Anyone who travels a lot for a living [truckers, touring musicians, software testers for the Air Force] knows the loneliness of the road, especially when you’re traveling by yourself and longing for a companion: “I know every town worth passing through/But what good does knowing do with no one to show it to?” Isbell nailed it.

Something More Than Free [Something More Than Free, 2015]
Isbell must think a lot of his dad, for this isn’t the first time he’s referred to his words of wisdom in song. 

The line in the title track, ‘I’m just lucky to have the work’, comes from something my Dad always used to say. He’s only 19 years older than me and he still works really hard. I do try and stay close to the people I grew up with who maybe have a different lifestyle to the way mine is now. I’m not interested in writing about musicians or touring. The people who’re most under-represented, at least in our society, are the people who work too hard for too little reward. My Dad spoke about how he’d love to go to church with the family on Sunday but, working the other six days of the week, he’s too exhausted to get up and go. And he doesn’t drink or smoke, either. It seems like that might be something worth writing a song about. Where I grew up, the only thing people have to be proud of is the fact that they work hard every day. They don’t have wealth or social status. Calling somebody ‘a good man’ there is the equivalent of calling him a hard-worker.

24 Frames [Something More Than Free, 2015]
This is one of those songs where you think you know what he’s singing about, but not really…

“You thought God was an architect/ Now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ And everything you built was all for show/ Goes up in flames in 24 frames.”

Cumberland Gap [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Here’s young guy stuck in a place where he sees no future and knows “there’s a reason I always reach for the harder stuff.” Cumberland Gap is a historical place where Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all come together, where people traversed to “head west”.  It could be anywhere in the South, where natural beauty, the strong sense of home and familial ties keep people glued to these locations for generations.  But economic forces [probably coal mining in this case] conspire to keep them there until the resources dry up.

If We Were Vampires [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Isbell finishes a list of things he loves about his wife with a dose of reality: “If were vampires and love was a joke, we’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke … It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever, likely one of us will have to spend some days alone, maybe we’ll get 40 years together and one day I’ll be gone and one day you’ll be gone.”

Last of My Kind [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
The rural kid goes to the big city and experiences major disorientation.  Musicians can appreciate this line: “Nobody here can dance like me/Everybody's clapping on the one and the three…”

Anyone who’s gone to a big, impersonal university can relate to this:

“I tried to go to college but I didn't belong
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
Left me alone in a bad part of town
Thirty-six hours to come back down”

Did he go to school in Boulder?  I got left on the north side of town once, but that was from too much beer, not amphetamines.

Danko/Manuel [The Dirty South, 2004]
This is it, the song I think is the best one in DBT’s catalog.  If he never wrote another one, this would still qualify him as a great songwriter.  He started off writing it from the view of Richard Manuel or Rick Danko, but it evolved into a song about his own experiences.

I was reading This Wheel’s on Fire, the Levon Helm book about his time with The Band. He talks about how they had this pact on the road — it was kind of a joke —that whoever died first, they would take his body, take him home, and bury him and all of that. And that stuck with me, juxtaposed with the scene of Richard (Manuel) being found in a hotel room when they were at their lowest point, when they weren’t making a lot of money or doing a lot creatively, and Richard ended up killing himself. I thought about that and it really moved me, especially considering that I was traveling around with a band at the time and we were having some problems — problems with addiction and depression, and trying to stay relevant and get relevant in the first place. I saw a lot of myself in that book.
  
Live Oak [Southeastern, 2013]
This one asks a simple question – did you like the “drunk me” or the “sober me”? “That one originated out of sobriety. When I stopped drinking... there were so many things I had to face that I didn’t even realize were part of my makeup before.”

Seven-Mile Island [Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 2009]
The lyrics tell of an unwanted pregnancy and a dead-beat dad hoping to find himself in an Alabama cave.  Seven-Mile Island is a wildlife preserve in Alabama. 

It's a location that's right out in the middle of the Tennessee River. It's close to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I was a kid, everybody used to go out there and hunt arrowheads.  I think it's more about the father in the son, really. He's really I guess kind of despondent about the whole situation. That thing that has happened, nobody planned. So he's really looking for a way out more than anything else. I guess that's, you can say, pretty similar to the people who left their groups, the natives that left their group and for whatever reason just gave up their lives and traveled by themselves or in a smaller group. I guess that location: He was looking for kind of an asylum from what was going on his life.”

Sunstroke [Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 2009]
This one is psychedelic, a polar opposite of most of the rootsy stuff Isbell does.  This is a good headphones song.  There’s no deep meaning here [if there is it escapes me] – it’s just a cool song.

Tupelo [The Nashville Sound, 2017]
Isbell wants to get away from it all.   After he finishes his "plastic cup of real good wine" and finally sobers up, he plans to relocate to northern Mississippi, where "the summer is blistering, so there ain't no one from here that'll follow me there." Would you follow anybody to Tupelo?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Beatles Desert Island Discs - The Solo Years

Written today on a flight from Boston to Atlanta…

I listen to a podcast called Something About the Beatles.  It's produced by a couple of guys who are extremely well-versed in all things Beatle named Richard Buskin and Robert Rodriguez.  Buskin is the “John” guy, Rodriguez is the “Paul” guy. Both have written books about the Fab Four.  Each takes the piss at the other regularly, and they can be almost too snarky.  But it's all in good fun, and I find them to always be informative and usually entertaining (I’ll take informative over entertaining). Sometimes when I think each is completely off the mark and full of shit, I have to remember their opinions are just as valid as my own.

Their most recent podcast was a Desert Island Disc exercise about the solo years.  Whereas I have done this exercise with complete albums, these two gents looked at individual songs.  They went one step further and added a book they’d take with them.  When I saw the subject of this particular podcast, I thought I’d compile my own list before I heard their respective lists.  I didn't want them to sway me one way or the other.  Whereas Buskin and Rodriguez limited themselves to three songs for each Beatle [enough to fit on a vinyl LP], I just picked what I liked best based on my own listening taste. All the songs have to fit on a single CD.

I dispensed with the usual suspects, them being Imagine, My Sweet Lord, and Maybe I’m Amazed.  I’ve heard these so many times that I don’t have to hear them again - ever.  Every nuance, every note is buried in my head, so there's no need to take a recording of them to a desert island.  Having dispensed with these songs, here's my list.

  1. What Is Life - an uptempo song from George.  Who would have thought?  There's a nice role reversal where George is playing the fuzzy lead guitar and Eric Clapton is playing the rhythm.  This also works well without the vocals (from the remastered All Things Must Pass).
  2. Watching the Wheels - The lyrics always grabbed me on this one.  It doesn't sound forced, and is a concise explanation of his 5-year absence from the music scene.  His words “I just had to let it go” say a lot about a guy who once wanted to get to “the toppermost of the poppermost”.  I was 18 when Double Fantasy came out, and if you asked me then which song I would pick it would have been Woman.  But I’m 54 now and perspectives change.
  3. Too Many People - Paul takes a subtle shot at John.  To me this sounds like an angry song.  That would be typical from John but not so much from Paul.  I love the aggressive guitar solo at the end.
  4. Photograph - Ringo said it at the Concert for George, that this song has taken on new meaning since George's passing.  This is just a great song with George.
  5. When We Was Fab - I always thought this was an homage to I Am the Walrus, which is not a bad thing.  The lyric "the microscopes have magnified the tears…” to me means a complaint about Beatlemania.  That’s my interpretation, anyway.
  6. Handle With Care - Though it sounds nothing like When We Was Fab, the lyric (to me, anyway) has a similar theme.  I think back to a comment he made about Beatlemania - they gave their screams, we gave our nervous systems.  This song speaks to the fragile psyche left in the wake of Beatlemania.
  7. Tug of War - I think this is one of Paul’s strongest songs.  It starts off as an acoustic ballad, quickly switches gears to being a rocker, then settles into a big production with a superb orchestral arrangement by George Martin.
  8. It Don't Come Easy - Buskin and Rodriguez might think this song is a “usual suspect” and they're probably right.  I was 8 when this one came out.  I was too young to know the Beatles had broken up, and too young to know what that meant.  When I first heard it on the radio I thought this was a Beatles song. Was that because of Ringo’s singing or George's guitar playing?  The answer is “yes”.
  9. I Found Out - angry John.  It has angry lyrics with angry music from my favorite Lennon album.  The line that always gets me is “I heard something 'bout my ma and my pa/ They didn't want me so they made me a star”.
  10. #9 Dream - This song always reminds me of Across the Universe.  It has the Spector Wall of Sound without Spector.  Unlike most of the songs from Walls & Bridges, the saxes are nowhere to be found and it doesn't sound overproduced.
  11. The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord) - A non-preachy song on a preachy album.  Unlike ATMP, George is the only guitar player here, and he shows off a little without going overboard.
  12. Gimme Some Truth - very angry John.  Had I done this list on a different day, How Do You Sleep would be here instead of this.  The nasty slide guitar solo from George is a bonus.  How would Let It Be or Abbey Road have sounded if the Beatles had agreed to do this one?
  13. Every Night - In my opinion, this one is probably Paul’s best solo song.  Don't ask me why, it just is.
  14. Any Road - a ukulele-based song with clever lyrics.  A fun track with flawless slide guitar.
  15. Nobody Told Me (JL Anthology version) - This was a work-in-progress, but all the elements of the finished track are there.  He sounds like he's relaxed and having fun, something one didn’t hear enough of from John.  I always have a giggle and a smile when I hear “a rolly rolly rolly rolly polly” bit at the fade-out.  Apparently this was a first run-through of the songs, and given the finished product this illustrates how quickly John worked in the studio.
  16. Instant Karma - I think this one is obvious.
  17. New York City - On an album that is incredibly bad, here's a nugget that I enjoy.  I always thought of this as as The Ballad of John and Yoko, Part II.  A very uptempo song.from John, he sounds like he’s having fun, which is a rarity from John.  See Nobody Told Me above.
  18. The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp - atmosphere - this song has plenty of it, especially with Pete Drake’s keening steel guitar.
  19. Cheer Down - George’s slide is extremely tasty and well-done.  Anyone who thinks George Harrison is an underrated guitarist needs to hear this.
  20. Young Boy - A very good song from Flaming Pie.  This one screams “Beatles”, and since this was done immediately after Anthology, that was probably the point.  Outstanding guitar from Steve Miller.

There you have it.  This is heavy with John and George songs because John is my favorite Beatle, and George is my favorite ex-Beatle.  This was done off the top of my head today.  If you ask me tomorrow, this list would probably change.  Maybe there would be more songs from Paul.  To wit, which songs stumbled at the finish line?

  1. Only Mama Knows - Paul rocks like a bastard on this one.
  2. Beautiful Boy - listen to this back to back with Watching the Wheels and you get a good sense of John's headspace at the time.
  3. I’d Have You Anytime - George's tune, Dylan's words.  Clapton’s playing is superb.  Perfect.
  4. Meat City - a crazy balls to the wall track from Mind Games.  I couldn't get enough of this when I was a teenager.
  5. Beware of Darkness - This one could be on my list tomorrow.  Another perfect track from George.
  6. Flaming Pie - Paul being goofy, but it works here.
  7. Tweeter and the Monkey Man - George doesn't sing, but the slide on the 12-string is vicious.
  8. Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox) - After the blandness that was the album Mind Games, Walls & Bridges was much better.  Lyrically, this ode to May Pang always gripped me.  “Could it be that I’ve bitten my own tongue?”
  9. Here Today - no explanation necessary.
  10. I’m the Greatest - 3 Beatles on one song at the same time.  What's not to like?  Great because Ringo sang it instead of John.
  11. Woman Don't You Cry For Me - George being funky with Willie Weeks.  More great slide playing.
  12. That's the Way It Goes - one great song on Gone Troppo with even more great slide playing (a recurring theme, yes). Joe Brown did this at the Concert for George.


What Beatles book would I take with me?  None.  I’d take One Way Out, Alan Paul’s oral history of the Allman Brothers Band instead.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Funeral In Macon

I remember the first time I went to Macon, Georgia.  It was 1997-ish and I was in Warner Robins on Air Force business [some things never change].  There was a long break in the meeting I was attending.  Knowing that Macon was close by, it was finally time for me to make an Allman Brothers pilgrimage.  I had to see two places if nothing else – the Big House on Vineville Avenue, and Rose Hill Cemetery, where original Allman Brothers members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley are buried side by side.  At that time. the Big House was a private residence.  ABB “Tour Mystic” and photographer Kirk West and his wife Kirsten lived there.  If one wanted to see the inside of the house, you had to make an appointment.  The Wests have since moved out and the Big House has become quite a museum for all sorts of ABB artifacts.  I had to settle for just seeing the outside of the place.  I didn’t feel comfortable making an appointment to traipse through someone else’s home, regardless of its social and cultural importance.

Rose Hill Cemetery has been in existence since 1840.  It’s just off downtown Macon, nestled between Riverside Drive and the Ocmulgee River.  A set of railroad tracks runs parallel to the river.  The road that runs around the perimeter of the entire cemetery also runs next to railroad tracks.  On the other side of that narrow road is the final resting place of a lady named Elizabeth Reed Napier.  If that name rings a bell, it’s because that is the place where Dickey Betts wrote his instrumental from the album Idlewild South - In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.  There is a large segment of the cemetery reserved for Confederate Civil War dead.  A lot of them are buried there.  The entire cemetery is situated on a long hill, with long gentle slopes in places and steep climbs in others.  There are one-lane roads that run throughout the place, and one needs to be careful while driving through, lest they slip over the roads’ edges and have their day ruined.

I had no idea where Duane and Berry were buried when I first entered the cemetery.  I parked my rental car on one of those very narrow, single-lane, winding roads and began to explore the place on foot.  About five minutes after I set out on my quest to find Duane and Berry, a gentleman [accompanied by his wife] noticed me and asked in his most pronounced Southern accent “are you looking for the Allman Brothers?”  “Yes. sir, I sure am”.  He pointed over the road I was walking on and down the hill.  “They’re down there.”  The written word doesn’t do justice to his elocution, but suffice to say he sounded more “at home” than me, a transplanted Yankee.  The climb down the hill was a little steep, but there they were – two marble-white graves sitting side by side.  The graves gleamed in the Georgia sunlight as if they were two giant sugar cubes.  I got closer and I noticed things.  Some people left stones, others left flowers, and still others left quarters and guitar picks.  Over the years some miscreant visitors defaced the graves, forcing the Oakley family to take the step of enclosing the graves with brick and iron fencing.  I digress, but just a little.  For Peachheads everywhere, this is Mecca.  We don’t face Macon and pray five times a day, but it is the spiritual home of the band we Peachheads love and cherish.

The Allman Brothers Band has always been about family.  The Big House served as a communal home for the band’s extended family.  Berry & Linda Oakley [and their daughter Brittany (who is on the back cover of Brothers and Sisters)] lived there.  Duane Allman lived there for a time, as did Gregg, who had a brief relationship with Berry’s sister Candace.  Dickey Betts wrote Blue Sky and Ramblin’ Man there.  Like most families, they fought.  The worst fight came in 2000, when Dickey Betts and the band parted ways.  That was a sad parting for us Peachheads [angry and bitter for the participants].  But while Dickey and the band were estranged, it was good to know the children remained friends.  Devon Allman has a picture of him, Duane Betts and one of Roy Orbison’s sons in a Nashville bar from April 2016.  Devon’s comment was “A Betts, an Allman & an Orbison walk into a bar..........”   I mention this because the extended family was at the funeral.  Jaimoe and his family were there, as was percussionist Marc Quinones.  Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi and their daughter were there.  Berry Duane Oakley was there.  I remember from way back in 1989 when I saw the reunion tour in Sacramento, and Berry Duane joined the band onstage to play Southbound, but I digress [just a little].  Cher was there with her son with Gregg, Elijah Blue.  Gregg had told Dan Rather in an interview a couple of years ago that he and Cher were much better friends than they were spouses. 












Mama Louise [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]



Jaimoe [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Derek Trucks [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Chank Middleton [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Cher [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

The rest of Gregg’s clan was there [his widow Shannon, sons Michael & Devon, and daughters Delilah & Layla in addition to son Elijah Blue], including Duane’s daughter, Galadrielle.  Dickey Betts was there with his son Duane and his manager David Spero.  Mr. Spero graciously allowed me to use some of the photos in this blog.  Mama Louise from the H&H Restaurant was there.  She used to feed the band during the lean early days in Macon [I met her once – she’s a very sweet lady].  She even got a credit on the Fillmore East album [“Mama Louise:  Vittles”].  Otis Redding’s family was reported to be there as well.  Warren Haynes is in Spain on tour with Gov’t Mule, but his wife Stefani was there, as was Rose Lane Leavell, whose husband Chuck was in England fulfilling a prior obligation.  Gregg’s lifelong friend Chank Middleton and his manager Michael Lehmen delivered eulogies at the service.

Former President Jimmy Carter was there.  I’m sure this was the first time that Secret Service agents were ever present for a rock star’s funeral.  The first time Mr. Carter ran for president in the 1970s, the Allman Brothers Band played fundraisers to raise money for his then-fledgling campaign.   The Carter-Allman connection continued as Mr. Carter was on-hand to present Gregg an honorary doctorate in humanities from Macon’s Mercer College.  Mr. Carter had this to say when he learned of Gregg’s passing:

“Rosalynn and I were deeply saddened when we learned that Gregg Allman had passed. Gregg and the Allman Brothers Band were very helpful to me in my 1976 presidential campaign. Gregg Allman was better known than I was at that time.  Gregg Allman was there when I needed him and Rosalynn and I have always been grateful to him.”


The funeral service itself was held at Snow’s Memorial Chapel, the same place where Duane Allman’s funeral took place 46 years ago.  It was a private affair.  At Gregg Allman’s request, there was a “no suit” rule.  Suit jackets were allowed.  The only ties that I saw were worn by personnel from Snow’s, as that is part of the professionalism that comes with their jobs.



















Snow's Memorial Chapel [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

The procession ran from the front of Snow’s on Cherry Street.  It ran from Cherry Street to First Street, then on to Riverside Drive.  Fans by the hundreds lined both sides of the street all the way to Rose Hill Cemetery.  Gregg’s final resting place is near those of his brother Duane and Berry Oakley.  According to Michael Lehman, that was in keeping with Gregg’s wishes.  He said that a “Good Samaritan” in Macon had owned 10 plots adjacent to Duane and Berry, and would sell them at to Gregg at the cost she paid.  Gregg and his manager bought all 10 plots.


















[Courtesy of Woody Marshall/Macon.com]

Macon TV station WMAZ ran a live video feed, as did radio station Q106.  Oldest son Michael Allman also ran his own live Facebook feed from inside his limo on the way to Rose Hill.  He captured the crowds as they lined the funeral procession from Snow’s Memorial Chapel until he reached Rose Hill.  There was a twenty-minute film clip of the graveside service posted on-line.  It was from this clip that I could identify those who attended.  The clip starts with Gregg’s casket sitting in the shade of a tent.  The cemetery was filled with fans who payed their respects while keeping a respectful distance from the mourners.  The only sound you can hear is the sound of bagpipes.  Then the photographer panned to the left, and you can see the mourner’s getting out of their cars [after having passed by Elizabeth Reed Napier] to make the long, slow trek up the hill to Gregg’s final resting place.  And there he was, wearing an orange t-shirt, blue jeans and a straw cowboy hat – Dickey Betts.  For this Peachhead [and I’m sure all the others] this was a most-welcome sight.  Duane Betts and David Spero were walking beside him.  It was a beautiful, sunny day in Macon.  It looks like it was quite hot.  Dickey, Duane Betts, and David Spero seated themselves in the shade of a nearby tree, but they still felt the need to fan themselves to fight the heat.  The mourners inside the tent fanned themselves as well.

































































Delilah Allman

Shannon Allman














The Allman Clan & Cher













Duane Betts, Dickey Betts, David Spero [With permission of David Spero]























[R-L] David Spero, Berry Duane Oakley, Dickey Betts, Duane Betts, Susan Tedeschi
[Courtesy of Rj Howson, with permission from David Spero]
















[Courtesy of Associated Press]

I was struck by one final sight. After the brief gravesite service the mourner’s filed out of the tent.  There was Gregg’s casket – alone.  But he wasn’t alone – there were scores of quiet, respectful fans to watch over him until he was lowered into the ground.


After the funeral, there was a private party at the Big House.  Berry Duane Oakley and Duane Betts played.  According to someone who posted on the Allman Brothers Band website, Dickey played In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, but I can’t confirm that.  The front gates to the Big House parking lot, which bears the band’s mushroom logo and a phrase from Midnight Rider [“the road goes on forever…”] were closed.  But fans gathered in front of the gates and around the Big House to hear the music.




































The Big House [Courtesy of Woody Marshall/Macon.com]

Some final thoughts – As tense as things were between Dickey and Gregg over the last several years, there was a look of sadness on Dickey’s face.  Berry Duane Oakley and Duane Betts are almost carbon copies of their respective fathers’ younger selves.  Devon Allman looks a lot like his uncle Duane.  Within the last year Devon Allman has lost both his mother and father.  I’ve been there – I know it’s tough.  What was Berry Duane thinking about when he saw the grave of the father he never knew?  Derek Trucks lost both his uncle Butch Trucks and Gregg within four months.  It's been a tough year, and it's not even halfway over.


















Duane & Dickey Betts, David Spero, Berry Duane Oakley [top]
[Courtesy of Rj Howson, with permission from David Spero]

Duane and Dickey Betts [Courtesy of Rj Howson, with permission from David Spero]

I’ll give Gregg the last word.  From Gregg's memoir, My Cross to Bear:
"When it's all said and done, I'll go to my grave and my brother will greet me saying, 'Nice work, little brother – you did all right.  I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I've had me a blast. I wouldn't trade [my life] for nobody's, but I don't know if I'd do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I'd have to pass on it."