Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lemmy Kilmister - RIP

His vocals sounded like barbed wire soaked in gasoline.  His three-piece band was the loudest in the world.  He was revered throughout the metal community not only for his uncompromising music, but also his brutal honesty, his uncanny wit, and his gregarious nature.  He was a loveable rogue. Lemmy Kilmister died December 28, 2015.  The rock press had several reports of Lemmy's recent health problems.  He had problems with diabetes and he had a pacemaker.  Earlier this year he couldn’t finish a Motörhead show in Austin, and couldn’t play in Salt Lake City or Denver because he couldn’t breathe.  Time, it seemed, had finally caught up with him.  I figured either diabetes or heart disease would get him in the end, but cancer came out of nowhere and took him away from us.  Nobody lives forever, but it was/is still a bit of a surprise to hear of his passing.  By all accounts that I’ve read [including his autobiograhy White Line Fever], Lemmy never feared death.  If he did, he never expressed it.  Once when asked of his greatest achievement, he responded “not dying.” 

Given the substances he ingested, the gallons of Jack Daniels and Coke consumed, the number of women he slept with [the number of which really doesn’t matter], he figured he led a good life and had no complaints and no regrets.  His wish that death would come quickly was granted.  Two days after receiving his death sentence, he didn’t waste any time dying.  He didn’t linger.  He was at home in Hollywood with his favorite video game from the Rainbow Bar & Grill, surrounded by his beloved World War II memorabilia, of which there was plenty.  I’m sure when the time came, he was still wearing his boots.  He said he would never retire, and he was true to his word.  His last show was December 11, only 17 days before the end came.  He had a fascination with all things German, so it is appropriate that his last show was in Berlin. 

Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead were synonymous.  He is truly irreplaceable.  Mikkey Dee said so himself when he announced that Motörhead were finished without Lemmy.  The lineup with Lemmy, Fast Eddie Clarke and Philthy Animal Taylor [who passed away in November] is considered the “classic” Motörhead lineup.  They released five studio albums and one live album in a seven-year stretch [1975-82].  The albums Motörhead, Overkill, Bomber, Ace of Spades, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, and Iron Fist established the template from which Motörhead seldom veered for forty years.  Lemmy said at the beginning of many a Motörhead show “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll!”  The metalheads adored him, and the punks claimed him as a kindred spirit.  In Los Angeles, he was rock royalty.

My first Motörhead albumOrgasmatron [1986].  I bought it on cassette when it was new.  I came to Motörhead later than some, when the band had been in existence for only eleven years.  The only studio albums I don’t own are the self-titled debut album, and March Or Die [1992].

Favorite Motörhead studio albumBastards [1993].  This was Motörhead’s first full album with drummer Mikkey Dee.  The band was in its two-guitar period [Phil Campbell and Würzel], the songs were impressive, and the production was top-notch.  At the time, it was Motörhead’s best-sounding album.  For quite some time, Bastards wasn’t available anywhere except Germany.  I had to get my copy from Amazon.

Favorite live albumNo Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith [1981], of course!  After purchasing practically the entire Motörhead catalog, this one sticks out as a live “best of” from the early period.  It’s a great Motörhead primer for the uninitiated.  However, Everything Louder Than Everyone Else [1999] is pretty damn good.  It’s more intense than No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, probably because it was recorded in a small venue in Hamburg, and the band was better [Lemmy, Mikkey Dee, and Phil Campbell].  Lemmy preferred Everything Louder Than Everyone Else for those reasons.

Favorite Motörhead song – For most people, it’s Ace of Spades.  For me, it’s Overkill.  The band liked it so much they played it through three times.  Well, it is called Overkill.  Of note, this was the last song from the last Motörhead show in Berlin.  [We Are] the Road Crew is a close second.

Lemmy Bass Tone – Motörhead didn’t have a proper bass player.  Lemmy was a rhythm guitarist whose weapon of choice just happened to be a Rickenbacker bass.  Paul McCartney, Roger Glover, John Entwistle [RIP] and Chris Squire [RIP] used Rickenbackers, but they never sounded the way Lemmy made them sound.  Lemmy was quoted as saying that if Motörhead moved in next door, your lawn would die.  The best description of Motörhead’s sound came from Jarvis Cocker of Pulp -

“It’s the aural equivalent of being in a sandstorm.”

Words – Lemmy had a way with words and could always be counted on for a clever turn of a phrase.  There are too many examples to list, so here’s a sample from On Your Feet or On Your Knees

Shut up, I'm talkin' to you
It's on television so it can't be true
And I can't play that game no more
Wake up and play it through
Kill the many to save the few
I know what the blind man sees
On your feet or on your knees

The rest has already been written about Lemmy and 
Motörhead.  The man is dead, but to paraphrase Jerry Wexler's words at Duane Allman's funeral, the music is imperishable.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tony's Music Picks 2015

I haven’t done one of these for a few years, but this year I thought it was time.  Here are my album picks [of new music] for 2015:
Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart3 Pears was a welcome return to form for Dwight Yoakam in 2012.  Second Hand Heart is equally awesome, and even louder.  Country radio lost interest in Dwight Yoakam a long time ago.  You’re more likely to hear Second Hand Heart on NPR.  That’s country radio’s loss.    He’s not looking for a hit anymore, so he just plays what he wants.  Here he goes back to the cowpunk days of the 1980s when he shared the stage with such roots acts like The Blasters and Los Lobos as well as the punks in X.  DY stays the old-school course he set a long time ago, and the world is a better place for it.  Standout songs:  In Another World, She, Liar, Second Hand Heart.  Play it loud!

Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart – It’s been 23 years since Keith Richards graced us with a solo album [1992’s superb Main Offender].  When the Rolling Stones record new stuff, you can spot the “Keith songs” immediately.  They’re the ones that don’t try to sound “contemporary” [that’s Mick’s department].  So when Keef decides he wants to put out new stuff, you grab it while it’s available because that’s the old-school stuff that hold its age better.  The Human Riff shows he still knows how to come up with no-frills rock ‘n’ roll.  Keef even goes back past when the Stones were teenagers with a faithful acoustic cover of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.  Keef loves reggae, and here he’s included Love Overdue from Gregory Isaacs, and it isn’t bad for a white guy.  Robbed Blind is a country-ish acoustic ballad complete with steel guitar [courtesy of Larry Campbell].  Standout songs:  Heartstopper, Trouble, Amnesia, Blues in the Morning, Substantial Damage.
David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock – Pink Floyd released The Endless River last year and having Rattle That Lock follow so quickly thereafter is a minor miracle.  DG used the usual suspects to make Rattle That Lock that he did to make 2006’s On An Island.  Given that, Rattle That Lock is a bit more upbeat than its predecessor.  The music for the title track was inspired by a jingle DG heard while waiting for a train in France.  But the lyrics are a bit more seriously.  His wife and lyricist Polly Samson drew her inspiration from the second book of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  There’s a waltz with Faces of Stone, a lament from DG about his mother who succumbed to dementia.  When you listen it sounds like something you would hear while dining at a French sidewalk café.  A Boat Lies Waiting is a piano ballad that is an ode to the late Richard Wright.  It’s an old demo DG made that evokes Wright’s Us And Them.  If you listen closely, Wright himself can be heard saying “it’s like going to sea – it’s lovely” [he was an avid sailor].  David Crosby and Graham Nash once again loan their harmonies – their voices and Gilmour’s work brilliantly.  If you want guitar heroics, they can be found on In Any Tongue.

Buddy Guy – Born to Play Guitar – With the passing of BB King, the “King of the Blues” throne is vacant, but the blues does have a new elder statesman in Buddy Guy.  Buddy is the last giant standing.  He’s 79 years old now, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to Born To Play Guitar.  Picking up where they left off with Buddy Guy’s last album the award winning Rhythm and Blues the team of Guy and Tom Hambridge have crafted another marvel of modern blues Usually BG plays with guests who have no business being near the blues, but not so this album.  Hear he hosts the likes of Billy Gibbons, Doyle Bramhall II, Kim Wilson, and Van Morrison.  And as usual, Buddy Guy is an assassin on a Stratocaster.  Jimi Hendrix wanted to be Buddy Guy, and if he was still alive he might be making records like this one.  Buddy Guy once explained that Muddy Waters’ final request to him was “keep the damn blues alive”. He’s still doing just that.
Warren Haynes – Ashes & Dust – Warren Haynes is a great bunch of musical guys.  One Warren Haynes is the leader of Gov’t Mule, a fearless, muscular, take-no-prisoners blues rock outfit.  Another Warren spent 21 years with the Allman Brothers Band, weaving his magic first with the legendary Dickey Betts and then with Derek Trucks, all the while staring down the ghost of Duane Allman.  A third Warren put out a terrific soul/R&B album in 2011 called Man In Motion.  Now we have Warren in another guise, that of a rootsy, acoustic-leaning folky who sings about salt-of-the-Earth blue collar Americans trying to survive.  Warren teams up with newgrass/Americana band Railroad Earth to create Ashes & Dust, which I could best describe as “Appalachian.”  While there are plenty of acoustic instruments on Ashes & Dust [fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, banjo, acoustic guitar], Warren still plays plenty of electric guitar.  There are still enough guitar solos to satisfy the jam band crowd, but here they are more restrained and relaxed, not like the face-melting solos he does with Gov’t Mule. 
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell used to be in the Drive-By Truckers.  He wrote two of my favorite songs from that group – Danko/Manuel and Goddamn Lonely Love.  But he barely remembers his tenure in the band [2001-07].  An alcoholic who had quite the fondness for Jack Daniel’s, his first marriage to Shonna Tucker unraveled.  After his departure from DBT, he made some records that were ok but didn’t set the world on fire.  After his marriage to Amanda Shires, he went to rehab and sobered up [he remains so today], and made the best album of his career, Southeastern.  It was a masterpiece full of tales of loss, forgiveness, newfound sobriety and second chances.  I read somewhere that Southeastern was described as what happens after you’ve hit bottom and you’ve gotten back up off the deck.  With Something More Than Free Isbell turns his focus outward.  He didn’t want to write about himself with this song cycle.  Here he wrote and sings about working class people from his native northern Alabama.  Like his former bandmate Patterson Hood, Isbell is focusing on what adulthood is really like - marriage, jobs, bills, parents, children, belief, doubt, illness, learning and loss.  He’s come a long way from the young twenty-something he was in the Drive-By Truckers – he’s grown up and he’s now got two masterworks under his belt.
Sonny Landreth – Bound By the Blues – I haven’t heard much about Sonny Landreth.  The little bits that I have heard from his musical peers have one theme – Sonny Landreth is probably the best slide guitarist in the business.  Considering that Ry Cooder is still walking this Earth that’s a bold statement.  So after having seen the man himself on the bill of every Eric Clapton Crossroads festival, I finally broke down and bought me some Sonny.  I got Bound By the Blues and loved what I heard, so now I have six albums from Sonny [plus one he recorded with John Hiatt].  I don’t know if he’s the best slide guitarist there is, but he’s a damn fine one.

Steve Earle – Terraplane – Steve Earle has the blues.  He’s had some bluesy songs on past albums, but this time he goes all-in with an entire album of blues.  These aren’t the sad blues the Mississippi Delta, but more of the bar-stomping Texas variety.  Here he pays homage to the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson [whom Earle name-checks on The Tennessee Kid], SRV, Freddie King and ZZ Top.  In some places he plays solo; in others he goes the full-band route.  The Dukes sound like they were born to play the blues.  Standout songs:  Baby's Just as Mean as Me, the aforementioned The Tennessee Kid, Go-Go Boots Are Back, Better Off Alone.
Los Lobos – Gates of Gold – Los Lobos have been around since 1973.  They have yet to make a bad album.  On previous albums there have been an overarching theme, but on Gates of Gold I can’t find one.  But you expect a few things with each Los Lobos release – smoking guitar playing from David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, lo-fi production, a couple of songs with Spanish vocals, a traditional Mexican song or two.  And so it is with Gates of Gold.  This is more of the same from Los Lobos, and that’s all I want.  Standout songs:  Made to Break Your Heart, Mis-Treater Boogie Blues, Too Small Heart.

Billy Gibbons – Perfectamundo – Billy Gibbons goes to Cuba – without ZZ Top!  The Rev. Willie G was inspired to make this record when he got an invitation to play a festival in Cuba.  He didn’t have any material or a band to play there, so he made this album instead.  It sounds like ZZ Top meets Santana.  It has that sort of Afro-Cuban flavor to it, with timbales, congas, bongos, acoustic piano and Hammond B-3.  One can hear auto tuned vocals in places [BG doesn’t need it, he just messes with it], and there are some rap sections that are best left unheard.  Overall, this album is as good as it is unexpected.  Other than the hip-hop rap shit, my only other complaint about Perfectamundo is that at 39 minutes, it’s too damn short.  Standout songs:  Got Love If You Want It, Pickin’ Up Chicks on Dowling Street, Piedras Negras, Hombre Sin Nombre.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Keith Richards

Keith Richards – he’s the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones.  Because of all the substance abuse to which he’d subjected himself, for years he was at the top of everybody’s list of “rock star most likely to die.”  When he refused to die, then he became the guy most likely survive a nuclear holocaust [him and the cockroaches].  During all that time, he’s got rhythm guitar playing down to an art form.  He’s not in the engine room – he is the engine room.  Bill Wyman once said [and Ron Wood concurred]:  Our band does not follow the drummer; our drummer follows the rhythm guitarist.   All of the blogs I’ve written about guitar players featured lead guitarists, until now.

Rhythm.  He’s not a flashy guitar player, but he does know his limitations.  According to Keef:  “As a guitar player I know what I can do. It doesn't matter about the B.B. Kings, Eric Claptons and Mick Taylors, 'cause they do what they do - but I know they can't do what I do. They can play as many notes under the sun but they just can't hold that rhythm down, BABY. I know what I can do and what I can't. Everything I do is strongly based on rhythm 'cause that's what I'm best at. I've tried being a great guitar player and, like Chuck Berry, I have failed.”  He’s made two contributions to rhythm guitar – one is the use of open tunings to play rhythm instead of just slide.  The other is to blur the line between rhythm and lead. 

Don Was:  “His rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. But in the Stones’ case, Keith is doing what the lead guitar player normally does.” 

Keef likes playing with other guitar players.  He calls what he does with Ron Wood “an ancient form of weaving.”  Keef’s take on guitar playing:  “See, this lead and rhythm thing – there’s no such thing. You play guitar. In a good band, it should swap and shift. You know, licks will come from there and that one will pick up the rhythm. And then you swirl it around, and you don’t have to think lead and rhythm. What we are looking for is to break the barriers down. And that’s why I love playing with Woody.
Best example:  Beast of Burden [Some Girls, 1978]

Open Tunings.  Before 1968, the Rolling Stones were the “bad boy” alternative to the Beatles.  After they strayed from their blues roots they played pop songs just like everyone else, including said Mop Tops.  That changed in 1968, when Keef discovered open tunings.  He thought he had gone as far as he could with the guitar in standard tuning.  Then he discovered the Open E and Open D tunings.  While Ry Cooder worked with the Stones, Keef nicked the Open G from him.  That’s when the Stones started to sound like “the Stones.”  This was something that set them apart from everyone else.  This began the Stones’ Golden Age [Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, & Exile on Main St.], as the list of songs below shows.  You might recognize a few…  Try to play these songs in standard tuning and it just sounds wrong. 

According to Keef -  “The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve got only three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart.  It’s tuned GDGBD.  Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate.  Only three notes, but because of the different octaves, it fills the gap between bass and top notes with sound.  It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring.  I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers.  The notes are there already.  You can leave certain strings wide open.  It’s finding the spaces in between that makes the open tuning work.  And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you’re not playing.” 

As a bonus, chords in open tunings are easy to play, even for knuckle-draggers like me.  Thank you Keef!

Open D
You Got the Silver / Prodigal Son / Stray Cat Blues

Open E
Jumping Jack Flash / Street Fighting Man / Gimme Shelter / You Can’t Always Get What You Want / Salt of the Earth / Jig-Saw Puzzle

Open G
Honky Tonk Women / Hand of Fate / If You Can’t Rock Me / Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ / Brown Sugar / Turd on the Run / Ventilator Blues / Rip This Joint / Casino Boogie / Tumbling Dice / All Down the Line / Soul Survivor / Silver Train / Hey Negrita / Crazy Mama / Before They Make Me Run / Start Me Up / Undercover of the Night / It Must Be Hell / One Hit [To The Body] / Hold On To Your Hat / Sparks Will Fly / Tops / Low Down / It Won’t Take Long / Wicked As It Seems / Love Is Strong / You Got Me Rocking / Doom and Gloom / Sad Sad Sad / Mixed Emotions

The Riff.  Keith Richards has written many, many riffs.  The only person I can think of who has written more memorable riffs is Tony Iommi.  Satisfaction may be Keith’s most memorable riff, [though I think The Last Time is more interesting].  Perhaps not coincidentally, the list of songs in open tunings [above] also presented the best riffs.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash / Street Fighting Man / Honky Tonk Women / Midnight Rambler / Gimme Shelter / Satisfaction / Can’t You Hear Me Knocking / Start Me Up / Bitch / Rocks Off / Tumbling Dice / All Down the Line / Soul Survivor / Dancing with Mr. D / Get Off of My Cloud / Paint It Black / 19th Nervous Breakdown / Ventilator Blues / Hand of Fate / Beast of Burden / Shattered / Dance Little Sister

The acoustic.  The acoustic guitar is everywhere in Keith Richards’ work.  As he wrote in Life:  “I firmly believe if you want to be a guitar player, you better start on acoustic and then graduate to electric. Don’t think you’re going to be Townshend or Hendrix just because you can go wee wee wah wah, and all the electronic tricks of the trade. First you’ve got to know that fucker. And you go to bed with it. If there’s no babe around, you sleep with it. She’s just the right shape.”

It was there in the Stones’ earliest works, like their cover of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away, or the rhythm of Satisfaction or The Last Time.  On some songs it shadows the electric, like on Brown Sugar and One Hit [To The Body].  He could play it quietly, like on I Am Waiting of Play With Fire.  Or he could play it into a tiny cassette recorder and make it sound like an electric, like he did with Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Street Fighting Man.  When the Rolling Stones began their career they played electric Chicago blues.  After their flirtation with trippy psychedelia on Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones went farther back in time to pay homage to the Delta blues that inspired the Chicago bluesmen.  That work is all over Beggars Banquet and continued to a lesser extent through Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers.  In the late-1960s Gram Parson introduced him to country music.  This influence can be heard on Country Honk, Sweet Virginia, Sweet Black Angel, Torn and Frayed, and Dead Flowers.  It’s present in his solo album Talk Is Cheap [You Don’t Move Me and Locked Away] and can be heard all over Voodoo Lounge.  Tony’s favorite KR acoustic song:  Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971].

He wrote the coolest intro in the history of rock n’ roll.   There’s only one song in the entire Stones catalog that fits this description – Gimme Shelter.  In his memoir, Keith Richards recalled he wrote the song on a dark and stormy night while he was at home alone.  His paramour Anita Pallenberg was away filming Performance with Mick Jagger.  Keef just knew something sexually was happening between them - a reflection of his inner turmoil gave birth to this song.

Lead Guitar.  Keef has played his share of leads.  Brian Jones lost interest in guitar in the mid-1960.  That’s why you hear him playing all sorts of other instruments – sitar [Paint It Black, Street Fighting Man], marimba [Under My Thumb], mellotron [all over Their Satanic Majesties Request], recorder [Ruby Tuesday], organ [Let’s Spend the Night Together], dulcimer [I Am Waiting], harpsichord [Lady Jane], etc.  Somebody had to do all the guitar parts, so it was up to Keef to play them all, including the leads.  He played the leads on all of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed.
Tony’s favorite KR lead:  Gimme Shelter [Let It Bleed, 1969].

He got schooled by Chuck Berry.  Keef’s biggest influence was Chuck Berry.  He’s often said that he ripped off every lick that Chuck Berry played.  Keef was the musical director for the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.  The film chronicled two 1986 concerts that celebrated Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday.  In rehearsals it all started as an argument over the volume setting on Chuck’s on-stage amp and how it would sound on film.  Then the band rehearsed Carol – Chuck kept riding Keef hard about getting the intro right. This went on for about five minutes.  He could have hit Chuck, but he just took it for the film [see below].  Keef had the last laugh, though.  Unbeknownst to Chuck, Keef slaved Chuck’s amp to another amp two sub-basements below the stage, and the sound that came out of that amp was what got captured on the film.

The slide.  In the beginning, the Rolling Stones were a blues band, mostly of the electric Chicago variety.  Brian Jones was the blues purist, and he played bottleneck slide [check out Little Red Rooster from The Rolling Stones, Now! - 1965].  When Brian Jones became too debilitated to play guitar because of his nasty habits, that left Keef to pick up the slack.  Sometimes that meant he played the slide.  There were a few songs from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed where he played slide [see below].  Keef doesn’t play slide much anymore because he doesn’t have to.  Ron Wood [and Mick Taylor before him] covered that well enough. 

Parachute Woman / Jig-Saw Puzzle / Salt of the Earth / Let It Bleed / Midnight Rambler / You Got the Silver / Monkey Man / Ventilator Blues

The bass.  Keith Richards is not a bass player, but he wrote and played the neatest bass line found in classic rock [IMHO anyway…] on Live With Me [Let It Bleed, 1969].  Sometimes he would play the bass because Bill Wyman was either late to the session or didn’t show up at all.  Here are some songs on which the man played the bass:

Jumpin’ Jack Flash / Street Fighting Man / Sympathy for the Devil / Live With Me / Let’s Spend the Night Together / Connection / Heartbreaker / Casino Boogie / Happy / Soul Survivor / 100 Years Ago / Silver Train / Hide Your Love / If You Can’t Rock Me / Crazy Mama / Before They Make Me Run / Some Girls / All About You / Little T&A / Pretty Beat Up / Sleep Tonight / Brand New Car / Suck on the Jugular / Oh No, Not You Again / Infamy

Keith Richards on what is needed to play guitar:  “Five strings, three chords, two hands and one asshole.”

Monday, November 16, 2015

Neil Young - Albums Ranked By Me

Some of my on-line friends who are musically inclined [you know who you are] have been discussing the collected works of Neil Young lately.  Videos have been posted, favorite albums discussed.  I've been a fan since my freshman year in college.  I have almost every studio album he's done under his own name [all but three].  So I've heard the good, the bad, and the shitty.  He released his first album in 1968 after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield.  That's 47 years if you're counting, so there's a fairly large sample size [37].  Some albums are great, and there is an equal number of "what was he thinking" unadulterated crap.  To cut to the chase, here's my list:

1.      After the Gold Rush [1970] – After a couple of years with Crosby, Stills and Nash, NY shows them what real songwriting sounds like.  There is not a single bad song on this album.  My favorites are Tell Me Why, Birds, and When You Dance You Can Really Love [Crazy Horse’s last great cut with Danny Whitten].  Southern Man needs no explanation.

2.      Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [1969] – The first album with Crazy Horse.  Songs include Cinnamon Girl, Down by the River, and Cowgirl in the Sand, classics all.

3.      Rust Never Sleeps [1979] – The first half is acoustic, the second half is with Crazy Horse.  Rust Never Sleeps is packed with great songs.  RNS is bookended by acoustic and electric versions of the same song [My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)].  Pocahontas is wacky with its references to Marlon Brando, the Astrodome and television.  Powderfinger is my favorite from this album.  Sedan Delivery and Welfare Mothers are goofy, dumb songs that only NY & Crazy Horse can get away with.  I hope he hurries up and releases the remastered version of this. 

4.      On the Beach [1974] – If you want to record an album while you’re stoned, this is what it would sound like.  Revolution Blues is NY’s ode to Charles Manson.  The title track is a woozy meditation on stardom.  Ambulance Blues is practically a note-for-note copy of Bert Jansch’s Needle of Death.  The only bum song here is See the Sky About to Rain, a Harvest-era holdover.  This record has a great vibe of doom.

5.      Tonight’s the Night [1975] – This is a tequila-fueled wake for Danny Whitten [Crazy Horse guitarist] and Bruce Berry [CSN&Y roadie].  Guitars are out-of-tune and vocals are off-key [Neil Young off-key?  Say it isn’t so!].  Who cares?  This one keeps getting better with age.

6.      Zuma [1975] – NY finally emerges from the Tonight’s the Night ditch.  NY’s first album with Crazy Horse since Danny Whitten’s death.  Frank Sampedro replaced Whitten on guitar.  Cortez the Killer is here. Danger Bird is another good long song.  The rest are short and sound [dare I say] happy.

7.      Comes a Time [1978] – It sounds like Harvest and Harvest Moon, but the songs are better [Goin’ Back, Comes a Time, Look Out for My Love, Lotta Love, Peace of Mind, Human Highway].  Nicolette Larson [RIP] is the female voice.  Ian & Sylvia’s Four Strong Winds closes the album [a great song, BTW].

8.      Freedom [1989] – The 1980s was a lost decade for Neil Young, but he finally hit the jackpot at the end of the decade.  Like Rust Never Sleeps, Freedom is bookended by acoustic and electric versions of the same song – in this case Rockin’ in the Free World.  There's a lot of stuff in between that's very, very good.

9.      Ragged Glory [1990] – NY followed Freedom with this – two excellent albums in a row.  NY was finally out of his 1980s funk.  This is NY & Crazy Horse at their garage-band best.  I listened to it over and over again when I was deployed to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield.

10.  Harvest [1972] – NY finds the middle of the road in 1972 with Heart of Gold and Old ManAlabama is the son of Southern Man, much to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s annoyance.  Here he also cements his reputation as an acoustic folk hippie.  He later said that traveling in the middle of the road became a bore so he headed for the ditch.  A rougher ride, but he met more interesting people there.

11.  Harvest Moon [1992]The 20-years-later follow-up to Harvest, so you know what to expect.  Standouts include Unknown Legend, From Hank to Hendrix, and War of Man.

12.  Mirror Ball [1995] – NY & Pearl Jam.  Four excellent songs [Song X, Act of Love, Downtown, Scenery], one superb song [Peace and Love – vocal cameo by Eddie Vedder].  These Seattle guys provide the Crazy Horse vibe without the Crazy Horse sloppiness.

13.  Sleeps With Angels [1994] As I wrote in 2012, NY & Crazy Horse decided to throw me and their fans a filthy breaking ball with Sleeps With Angels.  It is one of the most subdued performances from them.  It is one of the most musically diverse albums Neil Young recorded with Crazy Horse.  This album is a lost nugget in the huge Neil Young discography.

14.  Neil Young [1968] – The solo career after the demise of Buffalo Springfield begins here.  Classics like The Loner and The Old Laughing Lady are found here.  I’ve Been Waiting For You is a good one as well.

15.  Psychedelic Pill [2014] – So far, this is the last one with Crazy Horse.  On Psychedelic Pill there are two kinds of songs – short, pleasant songs that might get played on the radio, and monster epic jams, of which there are three.  As with all NY & Crazy Horse albums, the less NY sings and the more the band plays, the better the album.  Walk Like a Giant is the NY & Crazy Horse song I’d been waiting on for two decades.

16.  Broken Arrow [1996] – NY & Crazy Horse’s first album without producer David Briggs.  Three really long songs and a few short ones.

17.  Le Noise [2010] – NY goes completely solo.  He’s the only musician on the album.

18.  Prairie Wind [2005] – This is another album cut in the Harvest mold.  It’s not bad, but it isn’t great either.

19.  American Stars & Bars [1977] – Three words: Like a Hurricane.

20.  Chrome Dreams II [2007] – This is a sequel to a NY album that never came out.  There’s a pretty good eighteen-minute version of Ordinary People from the This Note’s For You era.  No Hidden Path is a fourteen-minute Crazy Horse-ish workout.  The first two songs [Beautiful Bluebird, Boxcar] would not be out of place on Harvest.

21.  Re-ac-tor [1981] Two excellent songs [Southern Pacific, Shots], one good song [Motor City].  There’s a bonehead of a song called T-Bone.  The whole song is the line No mashed potato/Ain’t got no T-bone repeated over the same monotonous riff – for nine minutes.

22.  Hawks & Doves [1980] – Mostly acoustic.  It sounds like the country album Old Ways should have been.  Not bad, not essential either.

23.  Trans [1982] – NY’s first album for Geffen Records.  Synthesizers and vocoders are everywhere.  This is an interesting work and the songs don’t suck, but this is one you can listen to maybe once a year.

24.  Greendale [2003] – A concept album about a fictitious small town in Northern California.  Themes include environmentalism, corruption and mass media.  Some songs are pretty good, others are just “meh.”

25.  Fork in the Road [2009] – NY sings about cars.  I like the title song, which is a rant against MP3s [“sounds like shit”].  There’s a song that decries social activism [Just Singing a Song].  Too bad he didn’t take his own advice.

26.  Americana [2012] – A non-essential warm-up for NY & Crazy Horse before Psychedelic Pill.

27.  This Note’s For You [1988] – NY tries his hand at big band “power swing.”  The all-digital production sucks the life out of these songs, which sound much better live on the newly-released Bluenote Café.  This spawned a great video that spoofed Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Spuds McKenzie, and excoriates big company sponsors. 

28.  Silver & Gold [2000] – An acoustic snoozer.

29.  Are You Passionate [2002] – Recorded with Booker T & the MGs [minus Steve Cropper].  NY tried and failed to record soul music.  There’s one good song, and it’s with Crazy Horse [Goin’ Home].

30.  Landing On Water [1986] – Two good songs – Touch the Night and Hippie Dream.  Shitcan the rest.

31.  Life [1987] – This album has two redeeming features – the hilarious Mideast Vacation and Inca Queen.  The rest of this album is indescribably bad.

32.  Old Ways [1985] – NY was pissed off at his record company because they sued him for making music that wasn’t commercial enough and not “representative” of past NY music.  He made this pseudo-country record after he did the computer record [Trans] and a 1950s pastiche [Everybody’s Rockin’].  Run away from this one screaming!

33.  Everybody’s Rockin’ [1983] – This album has no redeeming social value – none.

34.  Living With War [2006] – NY bashes you over the head about the Iraq War until you cry “uncle.”  He and CSN were genuinely surprised that not everybody in their audience agreed with them.  I might like this album if the songs were better, but this is a 42-minute tirade.  I hate this album.

Not Rated [I haven’t heard them]
1.      A Letter Home [2014]
2.      Storytone [2014]
3.      The Monsanto Years [2015]

Monday, September 21, 2015

Love & Mercy

The movie begins with an extreme close-up of an ear – Brian Wilson’s ear. This is the ear that Bob Dylan’s says ought to be donated to the Smithsonian after Brian Wilson passes on. Then there’s a young Brian Wilson [Paul Dano], contemplating the source of his musical inspiration. Full of self-doubt, he asks himself “what if I lose it and never get it back?” Was Brian Wilson’s battle with mental illness the spark that spurred him to make his “pocket symphonies to God”? Did his illness enable him to hear sounds in his head that only he could understand and translate into music? Do you have to be crazy to create good art?

One Sunday morning in August, Carol and I were watching CBS Sunday Morning. About halfway through the program, there was a blurb about Brian Wilson. This program doesn’t have musicians I like unless they have something new to sell, and this time it was no different. Except that instead of one new thing to sell, there were two. The first thing was Brian’s new album, No Pier Pressure. The second was a movie about Brian Wilson’s life, titled Love & Mercy. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for theaters where it might be showing. I went to Newport News, Virginia for a week on business. The closest showing was in Washington DC. Then I took my son Greg back to college in Colorado. The movie wasn’t there. Then I was in Baltimore for two weeks – still no joy. Then last weekend while searching through the newest releases on Pay Per View, there it was. Finally!

Love & Mercy [the title of a song from Brian Wilson's first solo album] is a well-done movie about the struggles of Beach Boy mastermind Brian Wilson. Brian Wilson’s struggles with drugs and mental illness are well-documented. Some of the episodes that happened are such that the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” comes to mind. Unlike most musical biopics, this movie looks at two specific periods of Brian Wilson’s life – the 1960s and the 1980s. Instead of running completely through one period and then on to the other, the film volleys between the two eras. Paul Dano is the young Brian Wilson, who is quite convincing. John Cusack is the 1980s version of Brian Wilson. For the first time in I don’t know how long, John Cusack acts in this movie. He’s playing someone else instead of John Cusack. Dano and Cusack don’t look remotely like each other, but that’s a small complaint. Dano plays the childlike innocence angle very well, who had the determination to be better than the Beatles, but who is also full of self-doubt. Dano’s Wilson is the one that descends into the madness. Cusack’s Wilson is the one who hasn’t quite escaped the madness, but he’s getting there.
Brian Wilson was once asked about the stories told in Love & Mercy and he gave a one-word answer – “accurate.” Having read most of what there is to read about Brian Wilson’s story, I can’t argue with his assessment. The touchstones are there – the nervous breakdown on the airplane, the cause of Brian’s deafness in his right ear [supposedly], the piano in the sandbox, the tent in the living room, the painstaking recording process during the Pet Sounds sessions, the craziness that was the SMiLE sessions [especially the Mrs O’Leary’s Cow session]. There was Brian’s paranoia [thinking his house was bugged by both Phil Spector and his father]. There’s the drive to create an entire album that was greater than The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. The arguments with Mike Love over lyrics and the direction of the band are front and center.

We see a Brian Wilson who is most comfortable in a recording studio. He revels in the tedium of recording take after take of little bits of music to make sure it’s perfect. Mike Love doesn’t like it. He’s the only one of the other Beach Boys to argue with Brian about the direction of the band. He complains there aren’t any hits on Pet Sounds, and even the happy songs are sad. He also complains none of the other Beach Boys actually played on Pet Sounds [Ed. Note – except for the odd guitar part or percussion bit, that criticism is true]. Brian says there’s so much stuff that he needs to get out, but Mike criticizes that as “selfish” and having let the band down. There’s a part where Brian is in his swimming pool while Mike and the other Beach Boys argue about direction. As Brian’s paranoia grows, we notice that’s he’s literally in the deep end of the pool, as well as metaphorically. The studio musicians [“The Wrecking Crew”] like working for Brian. Drummer Hal Blaine tells Brian that of all the musicians they’ve worked with, he’s the best, but that’s small consolation for Brian.

A telling point in the “young” Brian Wilson’s story comes in either late 1966 or early 1967. He’s having dinner with his wife and friends. After the ‘commercial flop’ that was Pet Sounds, the song Good Vibrations was a #1 single. His father Murry had been telling him that he had passed his peak, that he was a “has been.” But Brian made Good Vibrations his way [the fragmented same way he made Pet Sounds], and it was a chart topper during the era of The Beatles. In what should have been a moment of triumph [an “I told you so” moment, if you will], he had a panic attack during dinner. All he could hear was the constant chatter of his dinner guests, and the clinking of silverware on plates that grew louder and louder until he could take it no longer. Afterwards, he has a meeting with the rest of the band in his swimming pool. As if to make the point absolutely clear, Brian is in the deep end [as in “going off the deep end…”].

The first time we see the 1980s Brian Wilson is in a Cadillac dealership. A shoeless Brian [he didn't want to get sand in the car] is sitting in a car on the showroom floor when he’s approached by Melinda Ledbetter [Elizabeth Banks]. She gets in the car and Brian starts talking in non sequiturs [including his jogging habits a little bit about his brother having recently died]. Soon Brian is joined by Dr. Eugene Landy and two minions. Then Landy lets slip to Elizabeth that she was talking to Brian Wilson. She knew the name – many in Southern California knew the name. Instead of giving her his phone number he handed her a piece of paper with three words on it: Lonely, Scared, Frightened. She asked him if he really stayed in bed for two years, and he said “no, it was more like three.” She was intrigued by his honesty. As she gets to know Brian, she finds that Brian is practically a prisoner in his own home. She also finds that Landy prescribes copious amounts of psychotropic drugs [the wrong ones, it turns out] in order to keep Brian under his control.

There are two villains in the movie – Brian’s father Murry and Dr. Eugene Landy. Both figures have “asshole” written all over them. A strange bit of the story involves the dynamic between Brian and Murry. Murry was a bit of a domineering control freak. Brian fired Murray as their manager [which Murry never hesitates to re-hash time and again], but yet he still wanted his father’s approval when he played his new songs to Murry. Brian asked Murry his opinion of a new song called God Only Knows. Murry didn’t like it. He thought it was “wishy washy.” During a recording session, Murry brought an acetate of a new group he was producing called the Sunrays. He thought they were the next big thing, and the Beach Boys should be more like them because they’re “has-beens.” The final betrayal by Murray when he sold the Beach Boys catalog from under them comes at the same time that SMiLE collapsed [Ed. Note – the sale actually happened in 1969; SMiLE collapsed in May 1967].

Landy is played by Paul Giamatti. Landy is Brian’s psychiatrist, nutritionist, legal guardian and overall gatekeeper/warden. He also has an explosive temper. He has total control over all of Brian’s affairs. The operative word here is control. After Brian and Melinda start dating, he asks Melinda to visit him in his office. Here he tells Melinda what she’s “getting into” – that Brian is a paranoid schizophrenic who needs to be controlled, and that as Brian’s guardian he is the control. He even asks Melinda to telephone him with all the details after every meeting she has with Brian. In his desire for absolute control over all aspects of Brian’s life, he has his ever-present minions go out on double-dates with Brian and Melinda. In one scene, Brian complains about being hungry. Landy tells him he only thinks he’s hungry and he’ll have to wait his turn to be served lunch. Melinda is willing to share, but Landy will have none of it. When Brian grabs Melinda’s hamburger and stuffs half of it in his face, Landy starts screaming at him. When he sensed that Brian and Melinda were getting too close, Landy told Melinda that it’s over between her and Brian. Brian confessed to Melinda that he’s scared of Landy - “He is my legal guardian, he can do things to me.” Cusack is very good at going from being casual about his past to being absolutely terrified of Landy.

Melinda knows that Landy is up to no good, but she needed proof. The housekeeper provided the proof with a copy of a power of attorney, one that Landy has doctored to suit his own ends. Once she had the proof, Melinda made a call to Carl Wilson. The next scene we see is one where Landy goes to the auto dealership where Melinda works. A process server saw Landy there and gave him the “you’ve been served” spiel. Landy exploded in a rage and starts yelling every expletive in the book at the closed door of her office. The more he screams, the more she knows she has won. Then suddenly she opened the door and she just looked at Landy as if to say “go ahead – say that to my face.” Landy went silent and disappeared.

Sometime after Landy disappeared from the scene, we see Brian walking down a street in Beverly Hills. He crosses the street and nearly gets run over by…Melinda! Brian told her Landy was gone and he wanted to go on a drive with her. The last scene shows Brian and Melinda pulled over on some dead-end street. At the end of the dead-end is a freeway where Brian’s childhood home used to be. He wanted Melinda to see it, but he had no idea it was gone. But no matter, Brian is away from the evil Dr. Landy and tells Melinda he wants to be with her. Cue the song Wouldn’t It Be Nice

The film ends with the real Brian Wilson singing Love & Mercy. He’s married to Melinda, and Eugene Landy is long gone. I love happy endings…

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tony's Picks - The Beach Boys

It’s all Carol’s fault.  One Sunday morning not too long ago we were watching CBS Sunday Morning, just like we do practically every Sunday morning.  I say it’s her fault because she records it on the DVR and we watch it after we get up for the day.  This particular show had a blurb on Brian Wilson.  There’s a movie out about two periods in his life called Love & Mercy.  Someday I’ll see the movie, even though I already know the story line.  Having seen the feature about the movie, it got me thinking about the bits of his music that I like.  There’s more to Brian Wilson’s music with the Beach Boys than just girls, cars, surfing, and the beach.  Long ago, I used to think “every time I hear the Beach Boys I thank God for The Beatles.”  Then I heard Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney says heavily influenced the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  A handful of very personal songs from Pet Sounds are here [and without a surfing/beach/car song in sight].

California Girls [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] – Brian Wilson cites this as his favorite Beach Boys song.  Allegedly the music came to Brian Wilson after taking his first acid trip.  The Wrecking Crew is all over this one.  This is where Brian Wilson starts to rely more and more on the Wrecking Crew to make Beach Boys records while the rest of the band was on tour.

Do It Again [20/20, 1969] – After years of not singing about girls/cars/surfing/etc, here’s a back-to-basics blast of nostalgia.  Check out the funky echo delay on the drums at the beginning.  Brian Wilson said in the 20/20 liner notes that he wanted his falsetto to imitate the sound of a trumpet.  The Beach Boys’ career as a nostalgia act begins here.

Don’t Worry Baby [Shut Down Volume 2, 1964] – Here Brian Wilson channels Phil Spector’s production Be My Baby.

Please Let Me Wonder [The Beach Boys Today! 1965] – Harmonies galore!  This song just sounds great with the fat bass sound and the guitar-organ interplay.

The Warmth of the Sun [Shut Down Volume 2, 1964] – Several years ago Capitol Records released a Beach Boys compilation with the imaginative title of Beach Boys Classics, but these classics were selected by Brian Wilson himself.  Most of the tracks he selected are well-known, others not so well-known.  In the liner note for this album, he wrote that he came up with this song the night JFK was assassinated.

The Little Girl I Once Knew [Single, 1965] - I want to get Carol Kaye’s bass sound that I hear on this song.  Production on this song is the link between what started on Summer Days (and Summer Nights) and the quantum leap in production of Pet Sounds.  My only gripe about this song is Mike Love’s incessant bow-bow-bow-bow background vocals.

Wild Honey [Wild Honey, 1967] – After the über-productions of Heroes & Villains and Good Vibrations, Wild Honey sounds like a demo in comparison.  Carl Wilson sounds like he’s having a blast singing this.  I think they recorded this one in Brian Wilson’s pool.

Sail On, Sailor [Holland, 1973] – Blondie Chaplin has the lead vocal here.  Dennis Wilson had the first go at it, then Carl.  Carl wasn’t satisfied with either attempt and suggested Blondie give it a try.  It worked rather well.  Once the hook gets in your head, it’s hard to get rid of it.

Cabin Essence [SMiLE Sessions, 2011 and 20/20, 1969] – For the Beach Boys, this song written in Brian Wilson’s sandbox is as weird as it gets.  Van Dyke Parks wrote the words, and he has no idea what they mean.  No wonder Mike Love was so confused about their meaning.  There are three distinct parts – “Home on the Range”, “Who Ran the Iron Horse”, and “The Grand Coulee Dam.”  Apparently the Iron Horse bit was about the Chinese guys who worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad.  Done as a waltz, the Beach Boys chant “who ran the Iron Horse” over and over with a six-string bass played with very fuzzy tones for accompaniment.

Surf’s Up [SMiLE Sessions, 2011, & Surf’s Up, 1971] – Van Dyke Parks wrote the words for the music that was supposed to become SMiLE.  These particular lyrics are impenetrable. When Mike Love asked Parks what they meant, Parks couldn’t tell him because he claimed he was stoned when he wrote them.  It’s all stream-of-consciousness stuff.  But, in this song the phrase “Surf’s Up” is a double entendre.  Not only did it mean what it usually means [the surf is up, time to go surfing!], it also meant the era of the Beach Boys singing about surfing are over.  Brian Wilson is in full Vienna Boys Choir mode in some parts.  Soon Mike Love and the rest of the Beach Boys not named Brian Wilson lost their patience, and Brian Wilson lost his mind. 

‘Til I Die [Surf’s Up, 1971] – Brian Wilson is in a very downer mood here.  Here he meditates on his insignificance on the planet.  He’s “a cork on the ocean…a rock in a landslide…a leaf on a windy day.”  One lyric caught me by surprise with its brutal honesty – “it kills my soul” and how “I lost my way.”  For a guy with mental illness problems, these are very lucid, self-aware statements to make.

Heroes & Villains [Smiley Smile, 1967] – After all these years, I still have no idea what this one is about.  Who are the villains – the government who wanted to draft baby brother Carl to go fight in Vietnam, the record company, or the voices in Brian Wilson’s head?  All I know is the vocal bits [between the verses] over the harpsichord are very trippy.  The vocal harmonies are stunning, despite Jimi Hendrix think the group was a “psychedelic barbershop quartet.”

God Only Knows [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Carl Wilson’s finest vocal.  Brian called it a great love song, just not one sung to a person.  The multiple voices at the end of the song singing “God only knows what I’d be without you” over and over again can’t help but make one smile.

Sloop John B [Pet Sounds, 1966] – As the Beach Boys’ resident folkie, Al Jardine suggested to Brian Wilson the idea of recording this folk song.  He liked the Kingston Trio’s take on this 1927 West Indies tune and thought the Beach Boys should have a crack at it.  This has another great bass part from Carol Kaye.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice [Pet Sounds, 1966] – The opening salvo from Pet Sounds [Hal Blaine’s drums sound like a cannon shot], this has always been in my Top 5 of favorite Beach Boys songs.

Good Vibrations [Single, 1966] – Their best – ‘nuff said.

Girl Don’t Tell Me [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] – Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal, and it’s a good one.  Not only is it his vocal, he’s singing solo.  The Beach Boys, and not The Wrecking Crew, play on this track.  Listen closely and you’ll hear similarities to The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.

Let Him Run Wild [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] - The Wrecking Crew is all over this one, too.  Phenomenal harmonies abound here.

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Brian Wilson laments that he is a misfit.  Sometimes I feel very sad…where can I turn when my fair-weather friends cop out…

I Know There’s An Answer [Pet Sounds, 1966] – But what is the question?  It began life as Hang On To Your Ego, a song with the same verses, but a different chorus. 

Caroline, No [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Brian Wilson sings solo about a sweet girl who turned bitchy.  It’s so hard to watch a sweet thing die…

Strange World [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – The best material from the final Beach Boys album comes in the last four songs, of which this one is the first.  Here, Brian marvels at the “uninvited people who’ve lost their way” while at the Santa Monica Pier, and sings to someone [presumably his wife] about how he can’t imagine life without her. Sunday morning/Skies so blue/Yo te amo/Means I love you… This would not be out of place if it was on Brian’s Lucky Old Sun album.  LA is a strange world indeed.

From There To Back Again [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – Al Jardine and Brian Wilson split lead vocal duties.  The closing suite about loneliness and aging begins here.

Pacific Coast Highway [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – As Brian Wilson drives down the PCH, he opines “Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say/ My life, I’m better off alone.”

Summer’s Gone [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – Carl and Dennis Wilson are still dead – “Old friends have gone, they’ve gone their separate ways.  Summer’s gone – it’s finally sinking in.  A reminder of Pet Sounds

Sail On, Sailor [Live] [Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour, 2013] – I saw a YouTube clip of this song with Brian Wilson taking the lead vocal.  I liked it very much, hence its inclusion here.  When it was first recorded in 1972 for Holland, Brian didn’t think he could do it.  Maybe he couldn’t then, but he sounds fine here. Still hard to get rid of the hook…