Monday, May 24, 2010

Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

With all the hoopla surrounding the recent re-release of Exile on Main St, one hears the rehash of all the accolades that have piled up over the last 38 years as Exile being the best Stones album ever recorded. With respect to those many who have pronounced Exile as the best thing ever committed to vinyl, let me just say this: YOU’RE…ALL…WRONG! The best album the Stones recorded was the one that came immediately before Exile, namely Sticky Fingers. Like Exile, Sticky Fingers has a mixture of blues [You Gotta Move, Sway], country [Wild Horses, Dead Flowers], R&B soul [the Stax-soundalike I Got the Blues], a world-weary ballad [Moonlight Mile], and lots of rock ‘n’ roll. As with many great Stones songs, the lead-off track Brown Sugar derives its greatness from a memorable riff. Lyrical references to interracial sex, slave rape, and losing one’s virginity abound [drug reference implied: “Brown Sugar” is another name for heroin]. Sway is one of two showcases for new guy Mick Taylor. This slow blues features a bottleneck slide solo in the middle of the song with Mick Taylor soloing for over a minute at the end, which is a lot considering the song is less than four minutes long. Wild Horses, according to Mick Jagger, is not about his old flame Marianne Faithfull. Keith Richards originally wrote the song about the pain of being separated from his son Marlon, originally wrote the melody and played the song in “Nashville tuning.” The heavier strings of an acoustic guitar [EADG] are replaced with lighter-gauge strings and tuned an octave higher, hence the song’s distinctive acoustic sound. In my opinion, the only bum note on Sticky Fingers is the only cover, Fred McDowell’s You Gotta Move. Mick Taylor’s acoustic Delta blues slide is authentic enough, but Mick Jagger’s singing doesn’t make it. He sounds so...English. Then there’s Bitch – there’s the riff, the horns, and Charlie Watts kicking the band’s ass. What else needs to be said? It’s a great track.

Sticky Fingers has several songs with a drug reference or two. Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ [drug reference: “You got cocaine eyes…”] is the second of two showcases for Mick Taylor. Play this one back-to-back [this one first] with Sister Morphine. The classic Keith Richards human-riff rhythm playing sets the table, and then keeps the song going while first Bobby Keys delivers a blistering sax solo, to be followed by Mick Taylor soloing out of his mind. By the time it’s over after seven minutes of jamming, you think the song was over too soon. It ends with you wanting more. Sister Morphine is best heard while driving around Los Angeles at night. If you can’t get to LA, just turn off all the lights, sit back and enjoy this very dark and scary drug overdose tale. Can you imagine being in a hospital bed and seeing the hallucination of your doctor not having a face? Spooky stuff…Ry Cooder plays the slide guitar, Jack Nitzsche on piano. Both of these contributions contribute to the scary atmosphere [which seems to work better for me after dark]. Dead Flowers is a light-hearted, country-flavored tongue planted firmly in cheek ode to an ex [drug reference: “I'll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon…”]. Moonlight Mile [drug reference: “head full of snow...”] is one of the best ballads the Stones ever recorded. It’s about life as a coked-up rock star keeping up appearances on the road that gently closes Sticky Fingers. It’s an oriental-sounding piece with a string section courtesy of Paul Buckmaster. There’s no Keith in sight on this one – there doesn’t need to be as both Micks have the musical end covered very well.

So there you have it. Exile on Main St has gotten all the notoriety of being the best thing the Stones have ever done. For me, Exile is more like the Beatles’ White Album, a sprawling work that covers many musical bases, just not all of them equally well. As good as Exile is [and make no mistake, it is an outstanding piece of work], Sticky Fingers is a more coherent work with it being a single album. What Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper are for the Beatles [concise, coherent statements of purpose], Sticky Fingers serves the same purpose for the Rolling Stones.

Sister Morphine - video by ChristineHate

Bitch - video by morenaspin

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ronnie James Dio Remembered

Sunday morning I saw the sad news on Facebook that my favorite heavy metal singer, Ronnie James Dio, had lost his fight with stomach cancer and passed away at the age of 67. Last fall he was diagnosed with the disease and immediately began treatment in Houston. He first noticed pains in his stomach during rehearsals for a European tour for his own band, Dio. His current band Heaven & Hell were on a break while guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Vinny Appice had wrist and shoulder surgeries respectively. Since Heaven & Hell were on a break, Ronnie wanted to tour with his own band while his other bandmates got much-need paint and body work done. But due to what became a diagnosis of stomach cancer, Ronnie canceled his own tour to concentrate on killing cancer. As early as March of this year, prognosis for a full recovery for Ronnie was good, good enough to start booking European tour dates this summer. Most if not all of his fans [including me] thought he would slay this dragon, but it was not to be. I’ve had two very good friends kick cancer’s ass in the past three years and I thought Ronnie would too. I learned from Tony Iommi a couple of weeks ago [on May 4th, again via a Facebook post] that Heaven & Hell had to cancel their 2010 European tour because of Ronnie’s health. This told me “uh oh, something’s not right here” and on Sunday morning the worst outcome imaginable for Ronnie and his family came to pass. He passed peacefully at a Houston hospital. I’ve seen many posts on websites related to Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Dio and Heaven & Hell with the usual “he will be missed.” Screw that – I miss him now. When I got the news, it was raining outside and the first thing that came to mind was “the sky is crying.”

How did I come to know the singer who was Ronnie James Dio? The first time I ever heard him was in an animated movie from the early 1980s called “Heavy Metal.” Black Sabbath did a song for the soundtrack called The Mob Rules. A great song, I bought the first two Black Sabbath albums he did, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. Having been a Black Sabbath fan during the Ozzy Osbourne years, I was pleasantly surprised that Ronnie more than made up for Ozzy’s departure in 1979 and began to put his own stamp on Black Sabbath. But this version of Black Sabbath was not to last. They recorded a live album entitled Live Evil, but they argued over the mixing of the guitars, bass and vocals and soon enough Ronnie James Dio was on his own to form his own band, which he simply called Dio. When this happened I thought I had missed my opportunity to see Black Sabbath live at its best [more on that later]. Ronnie put together Dio quickly. He brought Vinny Appice with him from Black Sabbath, and he brought in Jimmy Bain from their days in Ritchie Blackmore’s band Rainbow. And he brought in a new up-and-coming guitarist from Ireland named Vivian Campbell. They recorded their debut album Holy Diver in early 1983 and went on tour. When Holy Diver was released, I also discovered Ronnie’s back catalog with Rainbow. That catalog consisted of three albums: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rising, and Long Live Rock and Roll. After I found these heavy metal gems I found out that Dio was going to tour with Aerosmith in the summer of 1983. Since they were going to open for Aerosmith, would they play songs from Black Sabbath and Rainbow in addition to stuff from Holy Diver? I got my answer when I saw Dio for the first time in July 1983 [or was it August?]. I was not disappointed when I heard the first strains of Man on the Silver Mountain, Rainbow’s first well-known song. He also played Black Sabbath’s Children of the Sea. I was very happy to hear Ronnie was not going to ignore his past. The new stuff from Holy Diver rocked just as well and just as hard. He was a hard act to follow for Aerosmith that night.

So life went on for me in Southern Colorado. I met a great lady who would end up being my wife [she is to this day]. When I met her I asked her what music she liked [here’s a hint: a mural of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover, painted by her, was on the wall behind her in the living in which she was living]. At the time she was working her way through school as a cocktail waitress at one of the local hotels. As we spent more and more time together, she told me that while Dio was in town for the concert I saw, he was at that same hotel and that she worked and she got an autograph from Ronnie. She still has it today. As fortune would have it, we both heard his then-new single while driving somewhere: The Last In Line. We decided right then and there we would go see him when the next tour rolled through Colorado. We got tickets to see Dio at Red Rocks in August 1984. There is no better place anywhere to see a concert than at Red Rocks. Dio headlined the show while Twisted Sister opened. The day didn’t start out too well. It rained all day, it rained through about half of the concert. I was sick with a 102 degree fever [later in the week I was diagnosed with mononucleosis]. I had a COBOL final exam the next morning [I got a ‘B’ if you’re keeping score – good enough]. But I was determined to see the show with Carol, and we did. All the crappiness was worth it.

After Dio’s third album Sacred Heart, there began the personnel shuffle. Original guitarist Vivian Campbell was out. His parting with Dio was not a happy one. I was more interested in starting my life with Carol [we got married in 1987, then I went to Air Force officer training]. Then as if from nowhere came the announcement in 1991 that Ronnie James Dio would get back together with Black Sabbath. Great news for all Sabbath fans! They recorded the album Dehumanizer, released in June 1992. Gone were the fantasies of rainbows, dragons, wizards and kings. The topics here are technology, insanity, the perils of televangelism and other more-earthly concerns. This was skull-crushing riffage at its best. It was a helluva lot better than the “hair metal” crap that came before [Poison, Cinderella, Dokken, Motley Crüe, Bon Jovi, etc]. And even better, Carol and I got to see our favorite lineup of Black Sabbath [Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice] at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. Was it worth the 10-year wait? Damn right it was. It was one of the two loudest shows Carol and I ever saw [the other was the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne in San Jose, 1999]. We definitely suffered hearing damage from that show. Yes, once again it was worth it [wouldn’t do it today though]. Two months after that show I shipped out to Korea for a year. A month after I got to Korea I heard Ronnie left the band again. Tony and Geezer wanted to play at Ozzy Osbourne’s “retirement” shows in Costa Mesa in mid-November. Ronnie disagreed and refused to do the shows. Rob Halford filled in for him on vocals. I thought “damn, they blew it again.” But to me Dehumanizer nicely wrapped up some “unfinished business” with the Mob Rules lineup. I got to see them live and thought “ok, we’re good.” I thought the Dio chapter of Black Sabbath had closed for good. However…fast forward to 2006.

The original Black Sabbath [the band with Ozzy] put out a box set of their original eight albums called The Black Box several years ago. Then Rhino Records wanted to remind Black Sabbath fans that there was more to Black Sabbath than Ozzy, so they wanted to put out The Dio Years. Rhino approached Tony Iommi about whether there was any leftover Dio-era stuff still in the can. Tony told them “no,” but he had an idea. He went to see a Dio show when they came around to Tony’s hometown of Birmingham, England and made a proposition to Dio – would you like to write and record some new songs for The Dio Years? Much to my astonishment, Dio said yes. They recorded three new tunes for The Dio Years and hit the road for a short, ten-date tour of North America. Instead of calling themselves “Black Sabbath,” the Dio-era lineup dubbed themselves Heaven & Hell, after the first album they recorded together. The final date was to be a show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. When word got out about the show at RCMH, the place sold out in 30 minutes! Not only that, the band filmed the show for DVD release and recorded the soundtrack for an accompanying 2-cd set. We Sabbath fans got more than we bargained for, but we didn’t complain. Then a funny thing happened…these guys, who had broken up twice, discovered they were playing well together, enjoyed what they were doing, and actually enjoyed each other’s company. The problems of the past didn’t come back. Then they booked several more tours for 2007. They ended up touring most of that year. Then they toured some more in 2008. When that was done, they all thought “what a shame to end it all now – wanna do an album?” They all thought “sure, let’s do it!” So they did it. Under the name Heaven & Hell, they recorded The Devil You Know. They picked up where they left off with Dehumanizer and gave us fans exactly what we wanted short of a full studio album from the original Sabbath. The Devil You Know is pure headbanging, skull-crushing, face-melting, ear-splitting heaven [no pun intended].

Heaven & Hell hit the road in 2009. Many friends of mine from the Tony Iommi message board went to see them, but not me. Having seen the RCMH DVD was good enough for me, and no hearing damage either. But it was very gratifying to see a new generation of fans for the Dio-era of Black Sabbath. It was great to know the old fans who hadn’t given up the faith were happy as well. I lived vicariously through my message board mates. Just to read the pure joy expressed in the words of who saw them made me happy. The band then took a well-deserved break in the fall of 2009. Ronnie James Dio wanted to do a European tour with his own band, but during rehearsals something was wrong. It was painful for Ronnie to sing. The pain was in his stomach. He went to the Mayo Clinic to get checked out. The diagnosis – stomach cancer. Cancel the European tour. We all assumed Ronnie would slay this dragon. We got word that Heaven & Hell booked summer tour dates for 2010. All looked like Ronnie was getting better and would conquer cancer. But then came that Facebook message from Tony Iommi two weeks ago announcing the tour was canceled – Ronnie was too sick. Uh oh…Then Sunday morning while looking up the usual Facebook nonsense I saw the words “RIP Ronnie James Dio 1942-2010.” Damn – Ronnie lost the fight….

I looked all over the web to see what his contemporaries had to say about Ronnie’s passing. Before I share them with you, allow me to indulge in some thoughts of my own. If this had happened thirty years ago when I was but a teenager, I would have cried for Ronnie as I cried for John Lennon after his murder. But I’m a chronological adult now [I refuse to grow up!]. Dying is a part of living. Ronnie’s music was exhilarating. Sometimes you felt his anger, sometimes you felt his sorrow and pain, sometimes he took you on trips of fantasy and wonder, but it was all good. He was part of my youth, he was part of my adulthood. To all of this I can just simply write “Rest in Peace Ronnie – well done and thank you."

“Yesterday 16th May my dear, dear friend Ronnie James Dio passed away at 7.45am LA time. I’ve been in total shock I just can’t believe he’s gone. Ronnie was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, we had some fantastic times together. Ronnie loved what he did, making music and performing on stage. He loved his fans so much. He was a kind man and would put himself out to help others. I can honestly say it’s truly been an honor to play at his side for all these years, his music will live on forever. Our thoughts are with Wendy Dio who stood by Ronnie until the end, he loved her very much. The man with the magic voice is a star amongst stars, a true professional. I’ll miss you so much my dear friend. RIP.” – Tony Iommi [Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell]

"Ronnie had a unique and wonderful voice. He will be sadly missed in the rock and roll world." - Ritchie Blackmore [Deep Purple, Rainbow]

"Goodbye my dear friend." - Geezer Butler [Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell]

“It is with huge sadness we hear that Ronnie has lost his battle against stomach cancer, and our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife Wendy and family at this terrible time. From his earlier years in Elf, Black Sabbath and Dio, right through to his most recent days fronting Heaven and Hell, Ronnie, time and again, proved his genius as a frontman, always giving his all to his fans and his music. Ronnie was not only an incredibly gifted singer but also a wonderfully warm, intelligent and generous person and this shone through both on and off stage leaving a positive mark on everyone he came into contact with. A longstanding friend of Maiden, we played many shows together over the years and we will all miss him greatly. The world has lost an irreplaceable talent and, first and foremost, one of the finest human beings you could ever wish to meet.” - Steve, Bruce, Adrian, Dave, Janick, Nicko and Rod [Iron Maiden]

“We are filled with great sadness at the terrible news about our friend Ronnie James Dio - our condolences and love go to Wendy and Ronnie's family - Ronnie was a wonderful man and will be sorely missed.” - ROB, GLENN, K.K., IAN & SCOTT [Judas Priest]

“A huge part of my life just disappeared. Words are not enough, emotions are too much. My sincere condolences to Ronnie's family and friends.”- Roger Glover [Deep Purple, Rainbow]

"Ronnie James Dio was undoubtedly one of heavy metal's greatest performers and will continue to influence the world of heavy metal forever. He was certainly a very big influence on QUEENSRŸCHE and along the way became a cherished friend too. We will all miss him greatly, but Ronnie will live on every time we raise our metal horns high! The man on the silver mountain will always be our rainbow in the dark." – Members of Queensrÿche

"Ronnie was one of the kindest souls I have ever met and his talent was beyond inspirational to so many of us. I still have this image of him standing on stage in front of 100,000 belting out 'Man on the Silver Mountain' and remember the shivers it sent up my spine. He will be missed by all of us.” – Nikki Sixx [Motley Crüe]

"R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio. I only got to meet him once and I can honestly say he was the nicest person I have ever met in music. Ronnie was a true gentleman, and obviously one of the best rock singers there will ever be. What a sad loss today.” Billy Corgan [Smashing Pumpkins]

"Rest in peace, Ronnie James Dio. Horns at half mast. Such a huge loss...So many memories of Ronnie. Toured together many times. He always had a kind word and a smile and he LOVED the Yankees. In 2004 on the DIO/ANTHRAX tour I would get the Yankee score every inning for Ronnie while he was on stage. He was so into it. Saw Black Sabbath on the 'Black & Blue' tour [featuring BLACK SABBATH and BLUE ÖYSTER CULT] at Madison Square Garden [in New York City] in 1980. First row center. Ronnie was king of the world. Top 3 shows of all time." – Scott Ian [Anthrax]

"Rest in peace, Ronnie James Dio... one of the greatest of all time. Looks like Dime [late PANTERA guitarist 'Dimebag' Darrell Abbott], Randy [Rhoads; late OZZY OSBOURNE guitarist], Cliff [Burton; late METALLICA bassist] and Bonzo [late LED ZEPPELIN drummer John Bonham] just scored the ultimate singer. This is one of the saddest days in metal ever." – Mike Portnoy [Dream Theater]

"[I was] so very sad to hear of Ronnie's passing... My thoughts, prayers and condolence to his family and friends." – David Coverdale [Whitesnake, Deep Purple]

"It is a very sad day today... I have lost a very dear friend. Ronnie was a true leader of heavy metal, an icon and a visionary... There will never be another like him. Ronnie gave me wisdom, and showed me great compassion when he was in ELF, all those years ago, when we were on tour together in my time in DEEP PURPLE. He was a beautiful soul, kind, considerate and a wonderful teacher. Some day I'll be bringing your microphone up there with me, and we'll sing a song, and share a Vindaloo together...
I'll miss you mate." – Glenn Hughes [Deep Purple, Trapeze]

"Dio was a shining light of rock/metal authenticity. He was a completely dedicated artist with massive talent. It's likely that his vital contributions will continue to inspire well into the future. He is now legend. But more than all this, Ronnie was a really cool guy. I mean reeeally cool. God bless you, brutha." – Steve Vai

"I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Ronnie James Dio. Metal has truly lost one of its greatest voices. My heart goes out to his family and to his many fans. Love and respect.” – Ozzy Osbourne

"I'm truly upset, especially since he seemed to be rallying at the Golden Gods show. Bon Voyage, Ronnie, rest in peace. I'm devastated" - Lemmy Kilmister [Motörhead]

"Backstage at the venue [in Brandon, South Dakota during Rollins' spoken-word tour]. Listening to RAINBOW, tonight's walk-in CD is burning away in my laptop. All Dio all night. Ronnie James Dio, the great vocalist of ELF, RAINBOW, BLACK SABBATH, DIO and HEAVEN & HELL passed away [Sunday] morning. What a loss. I have been getting mail all afternoon about it. [Saturday night], there was an Internet rumor of his passing and it was great to hear that it wasn't true. I came back from the gym a few hours ago and Angel, our merch man, told me that it was indeed true. What a voice, what a loss. Dio's passing made me think of my old bandmates in BLACK FLAG as we used to listen to those records quite a bit. Damn, at least he left some amazing records behind. The metal world is stunned, I am sure. Ronnie James Dio, one of the greatest singers ever." – Henry Rollins

"It's a shock to hear that Ronnie has gone. Even though we had all known he was battling with cancer for some time, he was such a wiry fighter, and of such an amazingly optimistic nature, I think I assumed he would go on forever. Well, he fought to the very end... was gearing up to go back out on tour. I know this will be a very hard blow for my friend Tony Iommi. When I last saw Ronnie in Los Angeles, he was as full of life and positivity as anybody I've ever known…and sang up a storm with HEAVEN & HELL in the Universal Amphitheatre. I don't know if he invented the devil-horn salute, but he was certainly the man who, more than ever, made it a universal symbol, a worldwide salute of metal. He was universally loved in the community of rock music, and will be sorely missed." - Brian May [Queen]

"My Dear Friend Ronnie,

Departed but not gone. Resting peacefully (for a while) but never forgotten.

I've had a sackful of mail since your passing; a sharing of grief and sorrow.

We all remember your huge voice of course - my ears are still ringing: Your wicked humour and sense of decency: The utter professionalism and personality that inspired so much respect from your friends in music.

The list goes on but the quality that stands out above all others is your enduring generosity. The one thing that we all treasure, the gift you gave us was your kindness.

We all agree you were the kindest man we ever knew.

Catch up later mate,

Cheers, ig"

Ian Gillan [Deep Purple, etc]

"Hey Ron, I never thought the day would come so suddenly. Ronnie was everything to me. He was my best friend, he was my brother. I sat behind him on my drums each night and played, watching him sing, hearing his roaring voice thru my monitors. Every night he sent chills down my spine with his singing, inspiring me to push it further and play the best I can to the limit. I always knew how lucky I was to be in a band with him, but to become friends was even more special. When I met Ronnie I was a kid, 21 years old, eyes wide opened. He took me under his wing, he showed me the way, he was the greatest teacher and inspiration in my life and most of all, the greatest rock singer in the world! My heart is so broken. We are now in a world without him and I will miss him so much. I can only think of how fortunate I was to make music with him that was in his heart. Music that will remain to be listened to by all his fans all over the world, whom he adored and loved! Ronnie I love you man!!" - Vinny Appice [Dio, Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell]

I - Heaven & Hell, Bonn, Germany June 16,2009, from Dehumanizer

Gates of Babylon - Dio, New York 2004 - the old Rainbow song from Long Live Rock and Roll

Stargazer - Dio, New York 2004 - the old Rainbow song from Rising

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Warren Zevon - The Wind

One thing that cannot be denied is that with The Wind, Warren Zevon did not go gently into that good night. This is the work of somebody saying his goodbyes, not feeling sorry for himself, and having a bit of fun while doing it. Much of the LA music mafia pay their respects to Warren Zevon and appear on The Wind in one way or another. One cannot help but think of the circumstances under which this album was made, and with that in mind, I defy anybody to listen to this disc and not somehow be touched. If you can get through Keep Me In Your Heart without getting a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat, then you just aren't human. In addition to the aforementioned song, my favorites here also include Prison Grove and Rub Me Raw. Ry Cooder plays slide on the former, Joe Walsh plays slide on the latter. Having seen the VH1 documentary of the making of The Wind, I remember producer and long-time collaborator Jorge Calderón telling Warren to think of his own mesothelioma-ravaged body as the prison while he’s singing. Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmitt, Jackson Browne and Billy Bob Thornton provide chain-gang like background vocals. David Lindley pops up Numb as a Statue. Warren introduces it with “Let’s do another bad one ‘cause I love to see the blood drain from Dave’s face…” It’s always a pleasure to hear David Lindley play anything. Here Warren laments of being numbed to all feelings by his pain meds.

Warren does Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. When Guns ‘N’ Roses did it almost 20 years ago, it sounded like a clichéd heavy metal singalong. But in Warren Zevon’s case, he really was knocking on heaven’s door, so when you hear him at the end yell at God to “open up, open up,” you know the humor is still there despite the fact that he’s dying. Disorder in the House is a description of his own state-of-mind. As I read a reviewer on, it could also be a commentary on the collective state-of-mind the country was in at the time [we just went into Iraq, so he could be right on the money]. Bruce Springsteen sings with Warren as well as playing a pretty mean lead guitar [pity he doesn’t do that on his own records…]. Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam and Don Henley sing with Warren on My Dirty Life and Times, which kicks off the album. The Rest of the Night with Tom Petty has that “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we might get drafted” feel to it. Thirty years ago it would have been taken as another ode to hedonism, but with a dying man singing the song, one can’t help but think “let’s have the wake NOW while I’m alive to enjoy it.”

Not all the songs are rockers – there are three ballads as well. She’s Too Good For Me pretty much sums up what a lot of men think about the women they’re with [myself included]. El Amor de Mi Vida [“The Love of My Life”] has Jorge Calderón singing background vocals in Spanish. Emmylou Harris, probably my favorite female vocalist, sings on Stay With Me, Warren’s plea to his lover to stick around with him. Well done.

When Warren Zevon was first diagnosed with mesothelioma, he was given only a few months to live. It's kind of ironic for the man who once sang "I'll sleep when I'm dead," but in a way he lived up to that statement by getting right to work on this, his last album. I think the need to get out this last album, plus the desire to see his grandchildren born before he died, is what motivated Warren Zevon to prove the doctors wrong, at least as far as the time they had told him he had left to live. Is this Warren Zevon's best work? No [I’d give that honor to either the debut album or Excitable Boy], but it’s a damn fine piece of work that every Warren Zevon fan needs to have in his/her collection.

On a personal note, this album came out soon before my brother-in-law Roger was killed in an accident. He was a truck driver by trade and his death happened while he was on the job. While we attended his funeral, Keep Me In Your Heart kept playing through my head as if it was an infinite loop.

Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for awhile

If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for awhile

When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for awhile

There's a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done
Keep me in your heart for awhile

Keep me in your heart for awhile

Keep me in your heart for awhile

Sometimes when you're doing simple things
around the house
Maybe you'll think of me and smile

You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on
your blouse
Keep me in your heart for awhile

Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes keep the fires lit
And I will be right next to you

Engine driver's headed north to Pleasant Stream
Keep me in your heart for awhile

These wheels keep turning but they're running out
of steam
Keep me in your heart for awhile

Keep me in your heart for awhile

Keep me in your heart for awhile

Keep me in your heart for awhile
I can't help but think about the two girls he left behind, Auburn and Mikayla. Auburn was almost a teenager [she's a college sophomore now], and Mikayla was still in grade school [she's a high school junior now]. Whenever I hear Keep Me In Your Heart, I think of them and hope that their memories of their father are happy ones. I love them dearly and I hope they keep their father in their own hearts forever.

As a postscript, many of Warren's friends got together to record a tribute under the guiding hand of Warren's son, Jordan. It's title: Enjoy Every Sandwich. That title comes from something Warren said on his last appearance on David Letterman's show. When asked by Dave what he'd learned since he received his terminal diagnosis, he told Dave that one should "enjoy every sandwich." If you can find it, get it. The Wind is like a long goodbye from a friend, and Enjoy Every Sandwich is like a fun Irish wake for that same friend.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Peter Frampton: Thank You Mr. Churchill/Fingerprints

When one hears the name Peter Frampton, one thinks of the rock-god, long-flowing blonde locks from the megahit live album Frampton Comes Alive! from 1976. He’s done two live albums since then [Frampton Comes Alive II and Live in Detroit, both very solid efforts]. Since 1976 his studio creations have been mixed affairs, with some fairly good songs mixed with some very forgettable ones. Despite his uneven material, he has always been a great guitarist. This brings us to his latest studio release, Thank You Mr. Churchill. Unlike studio albums of the past, this one is fairly autobiographical, with some commentary on outside events. The first track, the title track, thanks Winston Churchill for bringing his father home from the Second World War so he could meet his mother and conceive Peter Frampton. Solution is about people’s perception of him and how different he is from the public perception. Vaudeville Nanna And The Banjolele is about him picking up his first instrument, a banjolele which was left for him to be found by his grandmother [“Nanna”]. His grandmother loved Vaudeville, so in his mind, Vaudeville plus Nanna plus banjolele equals Peter Frampton. Asleep at the Wheel is a piece about the North Korean kidnapping of a Japanese girl, Megumi Yokota, a Japanese girl kidnapped more than thirty years ago by North Koreans to help train their spies to pass for Japanese citizens. Suite Liberté: A. Megumi B. Hurla Watu is an instrumental companion piece to Asleep at the Wheel that would not have been out of place on his previous release, the instrumental Fingerprints from 2006. Restraint is him feeling on edge about the recent Wall Street situation, people living in the lap of luxury on other peoples’ money. Invisible Man is a song that Frampton and his songwriting partner Gordon Kennedy put together with as many Motown titles as they could think of as an homage to the Funk Brothers, that anonymous band [hence the title] of Motown studio musicians who played on more hits than the Beatles. As a bonus, some of the Funk Brothers play on it. The last song, Black Ice, sounds to me like it is the most personal song on the CD. He’s working on his eighth year of sobriety and it talks about the journey to sobriety and of the one person in his life who has helped him get there.

All told, this is one of Peter Frampton’s strongest studio efforts. Not only are his usual guitar chops well intact, he’s finally got some well-written songs with some lyrical bite to match his musicianship. Thank You Mr. Churchill is a worthy follow-up to his last CD, the Grammy-winning Fingerprints. Speaking of which…

Sobriety has been very good to Peter Frampton. Thank You Mr Churchill is the second record he has made while sober; Fingerprints is the first. Peter Frampton is quite fond of it, to wit: “This has been the CD I've been waiting to make all my life. Every track has been a wonderful challenge, pushing me to raise my own bar again and again.” Guests include Warren Haynes [the Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule], some members of the Rolling Stones, the Shadows and Pearl Jam. Blooze is the track that features the slide guitar of Warren Haynes. As one can surmise, it’s a blues-based rocker that features Frampton and Haynes swapping leads. Cornerstones is another blues-based rocker that features Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Double Nickel is a laid-back number that features the talents of veteran Nashville steel guitar player Paul Frankilin. If you own any Dire Straits or Mark Knopfler CDs, you’ve heard his work. Mike McCready and Matt Cameron from Pearl Jam play on two songs – the first an instrumental version of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun. Frampton’s talk-box [think “Do You Feel Like We Do”] is the “vocal” on the song. The second song is a Frampton/McCready improvisation called Blowin’ Smoke – very rock-ish. My Cup of Tea features Hank Marvin and Brian Bennet from the Shadows, a big British instrumental group from the early 1960s. Hank Marvin is one of Peter Frampton’s biggest influences, and he cites Marvin as his reason for getting into music in the first place. Smoky pays tribute to jazz greats like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. The last song finds Peter Frampton teaming with John Jorgenson on Souvenirs de Nos Pères (Memories of Our Fathers), a gypsy-sounding number reminiscent of Django Reinhardt. It’s quite entertaining.

Both Thank You Mr. Churchill and Fingerprints represent Peter Frampton’s finest work since his 1970s heyday. To quote Bob Dylan, “it’s all good.” If you’re a fan and you’re not sure whether to buy them, buy them both. I did – you won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Beatles: Let It Be

The last Beatles album of original material was released this week 40 years ago. It was not the last Beatles album to be recorded: Abbey Road has that honor, but it was released before Let It Be. All old Beatles fans like me know the premise behind the album. The Beatles, after producing works that could never be produced in a live setting [Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour], wanted to abandon all studio trickery and return to their roots. They wanted to record songs live in the studio with no overdubbing. According to the plan, not only were they going to record their new songs this way, they were going to film all the rehearsals and eventually play a live show. In keeping with the intent of returning to their roots, the project had the name Get Back. The timing of this project was awful, however. Just a few months before, the Beatles finished recording The White Album. The sessions for that album took five months, which was an unheard of amount at that time. John Lennon was in the throes of heroin addiction and was not enthusiastic about the project. To put it more bluntly, here’s what John Lennon thought of the album:

When Spector came around, it was like, 'Well, all right, if you want to work with us, go and do your audition, man.' And he worked like a pig on it. He'd always wanted to work with The Beatles and he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit - and with a lousy feeling to it - ever. And he made something out of it. It wasn't fantastic, but I heard it, I didn't puke. I was so relieved after six months of this black cloud hanging over, this was going to go out. I thought it would be good to go out, the shitty version, because it would break The Beatles, it would break the myth. That's us with no trousers on and no glossy paint over the cover and no sort of hype. 'This is what we're like with our trousers off. So would you please end the game now?' But that didn't happen, and we ended up doing Abbey Road quickly and putting out something to preserve the myth. - John Lennon, 1970, Lennon Remembers

Since I didn’t participate in the recording of the album, I don’t have such a jaundiced view of it. Some of it is very good, the rest is only average, but “shit” it is not. In fact, the sessions that produced this album, despite the acrimony attested to them, were very productive. Most of the songs included on the album were recorded in the span of about ten days.

The songs:

Two of Us – for the longest time I thought this song was about Lennon and McCartney. The lines “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…” and “you and me chasing paper, getting nowhere…” clinched the deal for me. With John and Paul singing harmony for most of the song, I thought it was about them, but no. It was only much later that I learned this was a song Paul wrote about his fondness for getting lost in the country with his girlfriend [Linda Eastman, who later became the first Mrs. McCartney]. Interestingly, it was during the rehearsal of this song at Twickenham Studios that led to George Harrison quitting the Beatles for a short spell.

Dig a Pony – this is one of the few original Lennon songs on the album as he was in the middle of a dry spell. This one was recorded on the rooftop of Apple, one of three to be included on the album. There’s not much to this one – even Lennon agrees:

I was just having fun with words. It was literally a nonsense song. You just take words and you stick them together, and you see if they have any meaning. Some of them do and some of them don't. – John Lennon, 1972

Across the Universe – this one is a Lennon original that was originally recorded in February 1968 before the Beatles went on holiday with the Maharishi in India. It was done during the same sessions as Lady Madonna, Hey Bulldog, and George’s vocal for The Inner Light [Lady Madonna’s flip side]. It was the first song he wrote since I Am the Walrus. This song appeared first on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund called No One's Gonna Change Our World. There is a clip of John rehearsing the song in the Let It Be movie, so since it was in the movie, the Beatles decided to include it on the album. The movie version was pretty crappy and uninspired, so the original was resurrected and given the full Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” treatment, complete with orchestra and choir. Joe Satriani once cited this as one of his favorite songs like this – when the clown says something serious, you notice, or something along those lines. For the longest time I had no idea what Jai Guru Deva Om [जय गुरुदेव ॐ ] meant, so I looked it up. In Sanskrit, it’s loosely translated as “Praise to the teacher.” It was one of John’s favorite songs. I think it’s similar to his #9 Dream from his 1974 Walls and Bridges album. It has that same mystical, ethereal vibe to it.

I Me Mine – this song has the distinction of being the last Beatles song recorded before they broke up. A George Harrison song, only George, Paul and Ringo played on it. Unbeknownst to the general public, John Lennon quit the Beatles immediately after the release of Abbey Road in September 1969. Prior to one of the takes, George made a telling comment about John’s absence:

You all will have read that Dave Dee is no longer with us. But Mickey and Tich and I would just like to carry on the good work that's always gone down in number two.

The Beatles did not record this song during the original Get Back sessions, but like Across the Universe, since there was a rehearsal clip of it in the movie [John can be seen waltzing with Yoko while George plays] it would be on the album.

Dig It – a throwaway jam. No other comment necessary.

Let It Be – the last Beatles single before the breakup. This is the same take as the single, but with a few differences courtesy of Phil Spector. The album version includes a different, grittier guitar solo from George, reverberation added to Ringo’s hi-hat, and two trumpets, two trombones, and cellos. I think the single version is much better. For the single the guitar solo from George was recorded through a rotating Leslie speaker, the reverb on Ringo’s hi-hat was removed, as were the brass and the cellos, making it a much uncluttered, cleaner-sounding recording. The re-mixed version from Let It Be…Naked is closer to the single version.

Maggie Mae – this one is a traditional Liverpool folk song about a prostitute who robbed a sailor. John sang it in his most pronounced Liverpudlian accent. A whopping 38 seconds long, only Her Majesty from Abbey Road is a shorter Beatles song.

I’ve Got a Feeling – taken from the rooftop concert on January 30th, this song sees the Beatles rediscovering their inner rock stars. If anybody ever has any doubts about whether the Beatles could cut it live, one needs to look no further than this song. In my opinion it’s one of their most underrated songs. The guitar intro is John’s. Paul is in full-throated tonsil-shredding form in places. George’s playing is flawless. His entrance kicks in like a mule. This is really two songs put together. Paul’s I’ve Got a Feeling is another song for Linda, the girl he’s been looking for all along. The other is John’s Everybody Had a Hard Year. John really did have a hard year in 1968 [most problems were of his own making]. He divorced his first wife Cynthia, Yoko had a miscarriage, both he and Yoko were busted for marijuana possession, and he started using heroin. The rooftop performance is flawless.

One After 909 – another song from the rooftop. This is one of the first songs John ever wrote. The Beatles originally recorded it in 1963, but were unhappy with the result. The Beatles resurrected the song for Get Back/Let It Be, and it’s obvious in hearing it that they had much fun playing it. More evidence the Beatles were a pretty good little group live.

The Long and Winding Road
– this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, Paul was the one who had the most enthusiasm about having the Beatles continue as a group. He envisioned this song as a simple piano ballad. However, when John Lennon asked Phil Spector to produce Let It Be out of the many hours of tapes from the sessions, Phil Spector added horns, harps, and a women’s choir to The Long and Winding Road. When Paul got an advanced copy of his song, he wasn’t pleased with the result. He demanded that several changes be made to the “Spector-ized” version, but none were made. It was when Paul realized he had no control over his own music that prompted him to quit the Beatles. Listen to the re-mixed version on Let It Be…Naked and you’ll find that McCartney was right. It was a pretty good song that didn’t need Spector’s schmaltz.

For You Blue – written by George for his wife Pattie, originally titled George’s Blues (Because You’re Sweet and Lovely), this features John playing the lap steel, Paul on the piano and George playing acoustic guitar. Immediately prior to the song, one can hear John saying "Queen says no to pot-smoking FBI members." According to George: It's a simple 12-bar song following all the normal 12-bar principles, except that it's happy-go-lucky! Of note, Paul sang this song at the Concert for George in 2002.

Get Back – like Let It Be, another classic from Paul McCartney. When you listen to the recording it sounds like it was one of the songs recorded on the rooftop, but it wasn’t. Splices of dialog from the rooftop concert were added to a studio take by Phil Spector to make it seem like a rooftop take, including John singing “Sweet Loretta fart she thought she was a cleaner, but she was a frying pan…” At the end [also from the rooftop] John says "I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition." In 1970, when Jann Wenner interviewed John Lennon for Lennon Remembers, John stated that if George was the “invisible vocalist” in the Beatles, then he was the “invisible guitarist.” John didn’t play lead too many times, but he did on Get Back. In addition to John’s two solos, Billy Preston got to play an electric piano solo in the middle. Such was his contribution that Get Back was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, as was the flip side Don’t Let Me Down. Let It Be should also have been so credited [Billy Preston plays the church-sounding Hammond organ on the song], but I digress.

All things considered, this album wasn’t the pile of shit that John Lennon made it out to be. But there are thoughts of “what might have been…” To wit, there are several songs from John and George that were rehearsed during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. John’s songs include Child of Nature [which became Jealous Guy on Imagine] and Gimme Some Truth [also from Imagine]. When one listens to the Fly on the Wall disc from Let It Be…Naked, one can hear John’s Piano Melody, which sounds like the beginnings of the song Imagine. George’s songs that didn’t make Let It Be include All Things Must Pass, Isn’t It a Pity, Let It Down, and Hear Me Lord, all of which appeared on George’s album All Things Must Pass. Paul had two songs left off as well – Teddy Boy and Junk, both of which appeared on Paul’s debut album McCartney. There is one song missing that the Beatles recorded properly – John’s Don’t Let Me Down. I have no idea why this song was left off the album. Let It Be…Naked corrected this crass mistake. Were I to compile Let It Be, it would have included the single versions of Get Back, Let It Be, and Don’t Let Me Down, in addition to the aforementioned songs that got left off. Hell, I might even throw in Old Brown Shoe and The Ballad of John and Yoko. It could have been a masterpiece – instead it was the Beatles epitaph. Oh well, such is life. I like it anyway.

I've Got a Feeling - from the Apple Rooftop, January 30, 1969

One After 909 - from the Apple Rooftop, January 30, 1969

Get Back - rehearsal with John Lennon on lead vocal

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Neil Young - Ohio

Forty years ago today on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students. Several days prior to the shooting, Richard Nixon announced that US forces had invaded Cambodia in order to cut-off supplies for the Viet Cong. There were protests aplenty at Kent State over the weekend before the shootings. Governor Jim Rhodes had called out the National Guard to quell the protests, but by the time May 4th came around, student anger over the Cambodian incursion had subsided. The students were angry at the continued presence of the National Guard on their campus and things got ugly. There was to be a rally at noon on May 4th, but the rally was banned by the National Guard. This ban was met with a violent reaction – students started throwing rocks at the Guardsmen, the Guardsmen reacted to the rocks with teargas. The teargas dispersed the students, but some students threw more rocks and some spent teargas cannisters. The wind shifted directions and blew the teargas back at the Guardsmen. Shortly thereafter, the Guardsmen, who had already been ordered by their Commanding General to lock and load their weapons, opened fire. Sixty-seven rounds and thirteen seconds later, four young men and women lay dead on the campus of Kent State.

Allison Krause - Age: 19
William Schroeder - Age: 19
Jeffrey Miller - Age: 20
Sandra Scheuer - Age: 20

Neil Young and David Crosby were staying at a house near San Francisco when these events took place. Shortly thereafter Neil Young started looking through a copy of Life Magazine and he saw the iconic photo of a young lady kneeling over a dead student screaming “Why?” Neil started writing “Ohio” immediately. Crosby called Stephen Stills and Graham Nash and told them to book the studio for that same night and that he and Neil would be down in LA as soon as they could.

To quote David Crosby:

It’s very personal with him. He’s not very political in the sense of “politics.” He doesn’t like them, he doesn’t trust politicians very much. But if you show him a picture of that girl kneeling over that kid in the pool of blood at Kent State, then he writes “Ohio.” It’s very personal, I watched him do it. He was pissed…and sad.

Neil Young wrote this in the liner notes for Decade:

It's still hard to believe I had to write this song. It's ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the most important lesson ever learned at an American place of learning. David Crosby cried after this take.

Of note, Crosby Stills Nash & Young had a single [Teach Your Children] that was climbing the charts, but the guys wanted to put out the single as quickly as possible. They killed their own single with another, but they didn’t care about those consequences. Neil Young had called out Richard Nixon by name. What happened at Kent State was a terrible tragedy, and Neil pointed the finger of blame right at Nixon. That stuff just wasn’t done in those days, but Neil Young did it when no one else would. That's just another reason to like Neil Young.