Critiquing the Critics

The Wall Street Journal not only honored Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday (see my last post), but the same issue had an article entitled “Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records.” The sub-title was “Sales of LPs soared during the pandemic as younger listeners discovered their nostalgic and sensory appeal.”

For years I’ve tried to get my millennial son to understand this. Maybe it’s finally kicking in.

On that note, when I was even younger than Nick is now, I made the discovery of music appreciation books, guides, and encyclopedias. They assisted me when, as a teenager, I began compiling my (now massive) record collection that I hope to one day bestow on Nick.  They helped me peel back layers to reveal all sorts of juicy musical fruit under the outer skin.

Paul Gambaccini

Just recently I revisited an old book that I’d once pored over while wasting time in Walden Books at the local mall.  It’s called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It was compiled way back in 1978 during the Pleistocene Age, when the publication of rock music books began catching up with magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. The compiler was a venerable BBC presenter named Paul Gambaccini (an interesting man, in more ways than one).

Rock critics you say?  Someone once called them frustrated rock musicians.  Musician Lou Reed was more succinct.  He called them “scum.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones.  In their defense, rock critics provide potential purchasers with insights into music that circumvent “record company advertising (and) the squeals of the loudest fans.”  It’s nice to have a temperate and unbiased guide before one contributes one’s hard-earned cash to Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records. 

Most rock fans, especially in the U.S., get their music from the radio or television.  But deejays and “veejays” have always been at the mercy of their employer, or corporate wankers like Fufkin.

Rock critics cut through the hype (sometimes) and were helpful when I became a serious listener in the 1970s. Rock Critics’ Choice in particular introduced me to artists I might otherwise never have heard.  The other book so beneficial to me over the years has been The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express.

(Last month, during one of my late-night vinyl appreciation sessions, I joyously re-listened to Edgar Broughton Band’s album Oora, which Illustrated Encyclopedia had led me to.  Talk about a great unknown record.)

Anyway, back to Rock Critics’ Choice…compiler Gambaccini queried about 50 of his print and radio colleagues, asking them to list what they consider the ten greatest rock albums, in order of greatness.  He defined “greatness” as whatever criteria the particular critic wanted to use.  He permitted “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections. (Not sure I’d allow that.)  For fair and diverse representation, he consulted critics who were male, female, young, old, white, black, American, British, Canadian, French, Jamaican, and Eskimo.

He then tallied the results and assigned points to each album.  (I assume an album in the first position got 10 points, and tenth position got one point.)

Unlike those ubiquitous Rolling Stone lists, quoted everywhere and which are heavy on mainstream rock and dripping with set-in-stone conceit, Gambaccini’s book is looser and more democratic. It permits diversity (both critic and music) and honors both rock establishment (i.e. classic rock) as well as cult artists.

I found his ultimate Top 200 list predictable in some ways, but surprising in others.

Predictably, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones dominated the top positions.  Also predictably, older critics leaned toward early rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the like).  There were a lot of soul records, ala Otis Redding, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, etc.  Some choices teetered over the boundaries of rock (Huey “Piano” Smith, B.B. King, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).

The book also had some truly oddball choices.  For example, a minor South African actress named Genevieve Waїte (note deliberate umlaut over the “i”) made one and only one album in 1975 called Romance Is On The Rise.  It made two critics’ lists, clocking in overall at number 98.  It’s actually more of a John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) album with his then-wife doing the singing.  She sounds like a disco version of Cyndi Lauper trying to imitate Billie Holiday.  I concluded Genevieve must have been a flavor of the moment.

Michael Nesmith, who got off to a dubious musical start with the Monkees, actually had talent. One critic, however—as his number one greatest album of all time—selected Nesmith’s solo country-rock effort And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘.  Though I’ve yet to hear it, this offbeat choice also raised my incredulous eyebrow.

Another critic chose as his list topper a collection by the R&B group The “5” Royales (note deliberate quotation marks around the numeral). I appreciate certain fifties music from a historical perspective, but this elicited more head scratching. My guess is that the Royales’ song “Dedicated to the One I Love” might have been playing in this particular critic’s Buick Roadmaster the first time he got laid.

One cheeky rebel without a cause listed a bootleg album, by Bob Dylan and the Band.

The book’s lone Canadian critic, for both his number one and number three picks, listed Supertramp albums.  Yes, you heard right. Respectfully, sir, I have to take issue with your thinking.

Another critic, the late Robert Shelton, had no less than three Bob Dylan albums in his top ten.  But considering Shelton virtually launched Dylan’s career in 1961 with his New York Times review of a performance at Gerdes Folk City—and considering it’s Bob Dylan, not Supertramp—I can forgive Shelton’s zeal.

Rock Critics’ Choice is an enjoyable little book—great bathroom reading—and like I said, when it came out in 1978 it prodded me to explore music I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.  The book’s only negative is its vintage.  Although punk bands like the Clash and Ramones are represented, it was published before new wave, alternative, indie, thrash, grunge, rap, hip-hop, and other assorted popular flavors of rock.

But if you’re a baby boomer like me whose era was the late fifties through the mid-seventies, this book provides pleasurable non-think entertainment, and spurs one to make one’s own list.  My own top 10 “greatest” list had five albums that made the top 20 of Rock Critics’ Choice: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (ranked number 3 in RCC), Rubber Soul by The Beatles (number 5), Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (number 12), The Velvet Underground And Nico by the Velvet Underground (number 14), and Forever Changes by Love (number 16).

My champion pick, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was listed by many of Gambaccini’s cohorts and made number 14, but only one picked it to top her list: New York critic Lisa Robinson.  Lou Reed and I like her.

Of course, the term “greatest” is entirely subjective (excepting Muhammad Ali, who truly was The Greatest). But if you have a pre-1979 rock album or albums you consider deserving of this descriptor, and wish to share them here, leave a comment and I’ll see where they rank in Rock Critics’ Choice.

(And the vinyl just keeps on spinnin’…)

A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock

February was a somber month for fans of the progressive rock music genre.  Both Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum died.  Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aims a jaundiced eye at progressive rock (fondly called “prog rock” or just “prog”), this music coincided with my hormones becoming jumpy and has enhanced my life. 

Brooker was the lead singer and main arranger in Procol Harum, and multi-instrumentalist McDonald was the chief musical force behind King Crimson’s first and best album, In The Court Of The Crimson King.  (He later helped start Foreigner.  For me, that’s like going from champagne to club soda.)

Prog rock might loosely be defined as music that evolved from Sixties psychedelic and that mixed straight rock with classical, jazz, folk, ambient sounds, or tape looping, often with an English or European veneer.  Arrangements became longer and more complex than previously, and lyrics—if there were any—flowed with florid poetry, science fiction, fantasy, and the mythological.  Electric guitar was still prominent, but keyboards, Mellotron, brass, woodwinds, and strings became equally important. 

Debate continues as to when and where prog began, but I date it to the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed album and Procol Harum’s grandiose single “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” both from the year 1967.

Prog fell out of fashion starting in the mid-1970s.  The biggest groups, like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Genesis, began overreaching themselves.  Punk rock also helped deflate the balloon, with its return to short, fast-paced songs and simple chords and lyrics.  Today, there’s a small but enthusiastic cult of prog-rock fans who help keep the flame burning. Most of them, like me, have thick eyeglass lenses and thinning hair.

In honor of Messrs. McDonald and Brooker, here are my 15 favourite progressive rock albums, in order of increasing obscurity. (Note my British spelling of “favorite.”):

Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon (1973).  A powerful album, musically and lyrically, and a sonic wet dream that no respectable record collection should be without.  A rock-music masterpiece. If you’re a young person, DO NOT listen to this album with the songs digitally splintered up. It flows, like a river.

Genesis, Foxtrot (1972) or Selling England By The Pound (1973).  Peter Gabriel was still the focal point of Genesis at this time, especially onstage.  Early Genesis emphasized melody and were like a musical version of Lewis Carroll, which is why I love them.

Emerson Lake & Palmer, Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970).  THE supergroup of prog, with a sinister and heavy edge. Keith Emerson had fronted the Nice, Greg Lake was King Crimson’s original singer, and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer was with hard rockers Atomic Rooster.  ELP’s first four studio albums are prog classics.

King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969).  Some say true prog-rock started here.  Guitarist Robert Fripp was the only constant in the ever-changing Crimson, but arranger Ian McDonald is all over this stunning debut, which Pete Townshend of the Who called “an uncanny masterpiece.”

Procol Harum, Shine On Brightly (1968) or A Salty Dog (1969).  Why Procol isn’t in that museum in Cleveland is, well, “beyond these things.” Procol has a sound all its own. Imagine Mary Shelley married to Howlin’ Wolf. These two classic LPs feature guitar-god Robin Trower, who went on to a successful solo career.  (I saw him four times and my ears still ring.)

Renaissance, Ashes Are Burning

Renaissance, Turn Of The Cards (1974).  Renaissance came closer to a straight classical sound than any other prog band.  Lead singer Annie Haslam has a voice like a bell. Notable song on this LP: the timely ”Mother Russia.” I also recommend Ashes Are Burning.

Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts (1971).  Led by histrionic vocalist Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf was more dark and apocalyptic than other English prog bands.  Pawn Hearts was produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.

Caravan, In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971).  Caravan was part of the “Canterbury Scene,” which grew out of a musical collective in Kent called Wilde Flowers.  The Canterbury Scene musicians were more ingenuous and witty than their non-Canterbury peers.  Serious prog fans know of them; why others do not is as mysterious as why David Crosby is still alive.

Soft Machine, Volume Two (1969) or Third (1970).  The first Canterbury band to record, they got their hallucinogenic start at Joe Boyd’s underground club UFO along with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.  Volume Two is more psych-sounding, while Third is a double album of very heavy prog.

Kevin Ayers, Joy Of A Toy (1969).  A founder of Soft Machine along with Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen (Gong).  Some Ayers fans think his third album, Whatevershebringswesing, is his best.  It’s excellent, but I prefer this solo debut, more whimsical and psychedelic than most prog, and with shorter songs.

Egg, Egg (1970) or The Polite Force (1971).  An organ-dominated three-piece (no guitars!) with a Goth sound not unlike ELP’s.  Bass player and singer Hugo Montgomery (Mont) Campbell wrote most of their best music.  They’re on the fringes of the Canterbury Scene, so they have to be good.

McDonald and Giles, McDonald And Giles (1970).  Very under-appreciated spinoff from King Crimson.  Crimson lost its melodic element when Ian McDonald split, taking inventive percussionist Michael Giles with him.  If you love Crimson’s first album (see above), you must get this, which continues the pastoral side of Crimson.

Curved Air, Second Album (1971).  Critics didn’t like this band much, but their second album is quite good, very dreamlike.  Key musicians were singer Sonja Kristina and violinist Darryl Way.  A later lineup included drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police.  (He and Kristina married.)

Jade Warrior, Floating World (1974).  A two-man group, their all-instrumental albums on Island Records are the best, with lots of Oriental flourishes.  Both Kites and Waves are also good, the latter with Steve Winwood guesting on ivories.

Gryphon, Gryphon (1973).  This unique and obscure band once opened shows for Yes.  Their musical zeitgeist were the Renaissance and Middle Ages, and they played every instrument in the cosmos.  (Ever hear of a crumhorn?)  I prefer the eponymous debut to their other records because it has playful lyrics and vocals.

***

Why no albums by Yes, some of you ask?  Good question.  Yes might be prog’s signature group.  I liked Yes in high school and college, especially the Close To The Edge album.  Maybe I became oversaturated with their music, plus I discovered lesser-known artists who intrigued me much more.  I will admit, they were masters of their respective instruments.  But these days, instrumental virtuosity doesn’t float my boat like it once did. I just like a good song.

There are many other progressive rock groups, most of them British: Moody Blues, Nice, Hawkwind, Family, Strawbs, Colosseum, Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Eno, Phil Manzanera/801, Gentle Giant, Electric Light Orchestra (which evolved from the Move), Barclay James Harvest, Camel, and Canterbury offshoots like Daevid Allen/Gong, Steve Hillage, Hugh Hopper, Mike Oldfield, Robert Wyatt/Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, and National Health. 

Germany produced denser, more machine-like bands (not surprisingly): Nektar, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust, Can, and Amon Düül. 

Italy had Premiata Formeria Marconi (P.F.M.).

France spouted Magma (and Gong lived communally in France).

Holland had Focus, featuring guitarist Jan Akkerman.

Japan had Stomu Yamashta and Far East Family Band.

North America produced Kansas, Styx, and Happy the Man (all U.S.) and Audience (Canada). 

Johnny-come-lately progressive rockers include Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, The Alan Parsons Project, Kate Bush, Sky, Marillion (a Genesis clone), Klaatu, Starcastle, Porcupine Tree, supergroups U.K. and Asia, and Rush, who began as a hard-rock trio.

Some folks consider Jethro Tull, Traffic, and Frank Zappa to be progressive rock, though I might question that categorization.  Same thing with “glam” bands like Roxy Music, Queen, and David Bowie.  Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Lindisfarne might be classified as prog, but I’ve always considered them English folk rock. 

Did I leave any out?  What are some of your favorite progressive rock bands?

Lastly, thanks for the music, Ian and Gary. Here’s a prog-rock taste test: a demo of King Crimson’s beautiful “I Talk to the Wind,” written by McDonald and lyricist Pete Sinfield. The singer is Judy Dyble, formerly of Fairport Convention. (Greg Lake would soon replace her in Crimson.)

Cruising With Peter Tosh, Jesus, and Syd Barrett

I did it again. I succumbed to another Caribbean cruise.

Cruises fascinate and frustrate me.  I love them and hate them. The complete and utter hedonism of these things is alternately seductive and disturbing. 

On a cruise ship, you don’t have to do anything. Just dress and undress.  The cooking and cleaning are taken care of. The staff pampers you. The food is delicious. The entertainment options are diverse. Relaxing at the pool, casino, bar, lounge, and library is at your fingertips. Depending on mood, you can cruise in warm sunshine or near Alaskan glacial ice.

But for all the positives there are negatives. The entertainment (music, comedy acts, games, trivia contests, Las Vegas-styled shows) is homogenized and cheesy and caters to the lowest common denominator (LCD) of tourist.  Our daughter Holly said it best: “Cruises are like a bad song you can’t get out of your head.  You just have to accept it and try to hum along.”

Tiki-tacky tourist trap that played awful music

And the physiognomy, fashion sense, and behavior of some of those LCD tourists can be a bit jarring, to put it politely. On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy scoping eccentrics, you’ll be in people-watcher heaven.

There’s also the incessant cheerfulness of the low-paid but extremely hardworking staff, most of whom hail from poor countries. It can be guilt-inducing to privileged Americans like me who are prone to cynicism.

And witnessing dirt poverty in certain ports of call, then trying to balance it against all the hedonism I alluded to earlier, can make a thoughtful person think long and hard about life’s inequities.

Even leaving out the guilt feelings, worst of all—for me, anyway–is awareness that cruise ships today are giant pollution factories, spewing massive amounts of carbon into the sky and treating the oceans as dumping grounds for their excess sludge.

Greenhouse Effect? What Greenhouse Effect?

I’ve written about the pros and cons of cruises elsewhere on longitudes (click here for starters), so I won’t belabor the negatives.  Suffice to say I’ve now done five cruises.  And once again I’ve sworn there won’t be any more.  The most recent was a few weeks ago.  Moping around the house after our beloved dog Sheba died, my wife, for whom a cruise is the ultimate vacation, suggested a Caribbean excursion as grief therapy.  On the heels of the worst days of COVID, they’re very inexpensive right now.  So in a moment of weakness, I sighed and acquiesced.

Surprisingly, this latest cruise to Cozumel, Honduras, and the eastern Mexican coast, on the Royal Caribbean ship Allure of the Seas, was slightly less guilt-inducing than I expected. It truly helped our mental state. Other than just a few moments of mistiness, we temporarily forgot about Sheba.

Looking down on Roatan, Honduras

The biggest surprise was the music. If you get one good band on a cruise, you’re doing well. This cruise had not one but three: the poolside reggae band Ignite which, every afternoon, honored my request to play Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” dedicating it each time to “PEE-ter” (no, not that Peter, this Peter). Last I checked, Ignite was still employed by Royal Caribbean.

Also the Latin lounge act Mirage, which subbed for Ignite at the pool one day and, during “Black Magic Woman,” boldly ripped into a six-minute guitar solo. (Of course, I and one other guy were the only ones who applauded afterwards.)

Four ‘n’ More: Valerio, Simone, Luigi, and Giovanni

And best of all, an Italian jazz quartet named Four ‘n’ More that played everything from Cole Porter to Antonio Carlos Jobim and were far too talented to be stuck on an American cruise ship. Despite only a few people in attendance, we caught their act every evening after finishing our Crème Brûlée.

(Question: why do cruise ship bands have such unimaginative names?)

Another surprise was the comedy show. I forget the name, but the Allure act was a male-female tandem who specialized in adult comedy. Now, my view is that most adult-oriented humor is either hit or miss. When it’s good, it’s very good. Think George Carlin or Richard Pryor. But most contemporary comedians fall way short of Carlin and Pryor, and when adult humor is bad, it can be a real turnoff.

However, this cruise apparently wasn’t afraid to deviate from the Branson, Missouri formula and to actually challenge its audience with sex-related jokes. Were they good? I don’t know. The act came on after our bedtime.

Formal night. The privileged American relaxes and anticipates Crème Brûlée and Italian jazz.

All cruises offer “shore excursions,” like snorkeling, sunbathing opportunities, jeep or bus tours, and bicycle trips that, for an extra fee, enable one to “experience the local culture.” Translated, this means “helping a few industrious brown-skinned locals try to earn a living wage through servicing the wealthy and overweight Caucasian tourists.”

Lynn and I skipped these. Not because we didn’t want to help the locals who lined the street trying to sell something, but because, as our Venezuelan-born, ukulele-strumming friend Jesus (pronounced Hay-SOOS) said with a smile, “They want to hook me! Jesus is not the fish, I am the fisher man!” So although we didn’t get hooked, we did buy some gifts for our granddaughters from those few locals licensed to operate a stall near the dock.

Lynn and our pal Jesus conversing while returning to ship. A true eccentric, Jesus carried his blue ukulele and harmonica everywhere, even into the dining room.

Back at the pool by noon, we were usually able to find unoccupied outdoor recliners close to Ignite.

I always bring a good book on vacation. For a Caribbean cruise, you want something light and cheery. This is why I brought a biography of Syd Barrett, the tragic leader of Pink Floyd who lost his mind and ended up living alone in his mother’s Cambridge basement for three decades before dying of pancreatic cancer.

I kept hoping some ancient English acidhead would see my book, start raving about Syd, and we could then strike up a lifetime friendship. But it was not to be. There were many “ancients” on board—the number of military veteran ball caps was astounding—but only a few English accents, and I don’t think many ex-acidheads go on cruises. I know that poor Syd never did.

***

Our adventure in paradise lasted six nights. As I said above, after losing our dog it was just what the doctor ordered. It also coincided with our 35th anniversary and my formal retirement from the nine-to-five. (And unlike some of those characters trying to hook me on the streets of Puerto Wherever, I feel lucky I can retire.) So Allure of the Seas did allure us, and did serve a purpose.

However, while Lynn plans many more cruises with her friends (the “Cruise Chicks,” I call them), my cruising days are over. For good. I swear. Just knowing that those fumes belched out of those stacks, even while the ship was in port, while all were at play, turned my stomach. I think it was Jesus who said, “They know not what they do.”

No, not that Jesus. The other one.

The ingredients for a great vacation, even on a cruise ship: beer, book, body lotion, and willful forgetfulness

The Doobie Brothers: Born With it in Their Souls

Been wanting to write about this band for a while.  They recently began their 50th anniversary tour—postponed a year due to COVID—so it’s a good time to finally put pen to paper.

During the Doobies’ heyday when I was in high school and college, I liked them, but not enormously so.  Their music rang from AM and FM dials so often, and they appeared so frequently on TV shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, there was no need for me to spend money on their records.  I was also a rock music snob (even more so than today).  Oversaturation and commercial success had the little snob creature inside my ears forewarning me, “Nooo, Pete!  This band is too commercial!  Not dark enough.  Not hip enough for you.”

My rock music palette then was headed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Velvet Underground, and so on.  Heavy shit, man.

But time and tide have plastered a thin layer of duct tape over the snob creature’s mouth.  Like with Petticoat Junction, I take scant heed of relevancy, image, the charts, my peers’ judgment, or the opinions of critics like Robert Christgau.  As my WordPress compatriot Cincinnati Babyhead would say, their music takes me.  It grabs me.  And that’s what matters.  Remember the days when melody, harmony, musicianship, lyrics, and good vibes meant something?

Like the band Genesis, there are two eras in the Doobie Brothers’ history.  The first era was dominated by guitarist Tom Johnston, and the second by keyboardist Michael McDonald.  The cement that held both of them together was finger-style guitarist Patrick Simmons, the only member who’s been with the band its entire ride.  All three of these blokes are top-notch singers, songwriters, and musicians.  Now, really.  How many groups can boast that?

The Johnston period was characterized by pumping “chunka-chunka” guitar-based songs, whereas McDonald brought a smoother, blue-eyed soul sound to the group.  Both eras have their adherents.  While I prefer the Johnston era, there are a lot of McDonald-era songs I love as well.

The Doobies formed in San Jose, California in 1970.  Influenced by Haight-Ashbury legends Moby Grape, they started out as a foursome: Johnston, Simmons, drummer John Hartman, and bassist Dave Shogren.  Their big audience at the start were local bikers, and they took their name from a comment by a friend: “You guys smoke so much dope, you should call yourselves The Doobie Brothers.”  Laughter all around the hazy living room.  But the name stuck. 

Their self-titled debut album (1971) had some decent songs, especially “Nobody,” but the engineering and production were muffed, and the LP is all but forgotten today.  Shogren then quit, and the other three brought in two guys: bassist Tiran Porter and second drummer Michael Hossack.  This five-piece was taken under the wing of fledgling Warner Bros. producer Ted Templeman, who’d been with the minor West Coast group Harpers Bizarre.

Producer Ted Templeman

Toulouse Street (1972) was a major improvement over the debut, propelled by “Listen to the Music,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” and one of my personal fave Doobies tunes, Simmons’ spooky “Toulouse Street.”  The band burned through the record charts and never looked back.

The next three Doobies albums continued the hit parade and seemed to get better and better: The Captain And Me (1973), What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits (1974), and arguably their artistic high point, Stampede (1975).  By the time of Stampede, drummer Hossack had been replaced by Keith Knudsen.  Also joining was ex-Steely Dan flash guitarist Jeff Baxter.

Around this time co-leader Johnston was getting burned out, and was suffering from a severe stomach ulcer.  Baxter recommended keyboardist Michael McDonald, whom he knew from the Dan, as a possible reinforcement.  Simmons heard McDonald sing.  His jaw dropped.  He then practically begged a wary Templeman to give him an audition. When Templeman finally heard McDonald sing an abbreviated version of “Takin’ it to The Streets,” his jaw dropped.  Both guys realized they had a chance to nab a Ray Charles-styled vocalist.  The fact he could also write hit songs was an accidental bonus.

McDonald and Simmons steered the band through the final four Doobies albums: Takin’ It To The Streets (1976), Livin’ On The Fault Line (1977), Minute By Minute (1978), and One Step Closer (1980).  While Tom Johnston had been the lynchpin of the Doobies sound early on, and written and sung most of their biggest songs, by the time of Fault Line he was pretty much in the shadows.  He officially left in ‘77.  The band then hit a commercial zenith with the thrice-platinum album Minute By Minute. But it was becoming slicker with each record, straying ever-closer to homogenous L.A. territory and further from its earthier Northern California roots.

Simmons realized how far the Doobies had drifted.  One night in ‘81 he called McDonald to say he was leaving the group that he’d begun with Johnston, that the music just wasn’t the same.  McDonald, being the decent man that he is, completely empathized with Simmons.  After only one rehearsal without Simmons, he and the others decided to retire the band.

But you can’t keep a good band down.  The Doobies did a Vietnam vets charity concert in 1987, which stimulated more get-togethers, and they haven’t stopped touring since 1993.  They’ve released six more albums since One Step Closer, including this year’s Liberté.  The core of the band today is Johnston, Simmons, and multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined in 1979 (see header photo).

The Doobies in 1977. L to R: Knudsen, Hartman, Johnston, Baxter, Simmons, McDonald, Porter

I had the good fortune of seeing the Doobies live in 1978, right when Minute By Minute was climbing the charts.  It was at my alma mater, Ohio University (no, not The Ohio State University).  They actually performed in my dormitory.  Seriously.  Our rooms were on the perimeter of a large circular assembly center that housed the basketball and graduation arena.  Although I didn’t have a ticket, a small group of us gathered in a darkened stairwell and broke through a locked door, then quickly blended with the crowd.  (I don’t advocate breaking and entering as a hobby.  But, shit.  With the fact that my digs were hosting the band?  And the money my parents and I were spending?)

Anyway, my two big memories were Simmons and Baxter sitting side-by-side on the edge of the stage, rocking and trading guitar licks; and the song “It Keeps You Runnin’” (from the Takin’ It album), with its hypnotic chorus…which altered my consciousness even more than it was already altered.  I was a Doobies convert that night.

By the way, the 50th Anniversary Tour will include not only Simmons and Johnston, but also McDonald and Little Feat ivory wizard Bill Payne.  Here’s the leadoff track from Stampede, the Simmons (music) and Johnston (lyrics) collaboration “Sweet Maxine,” which exemplifies the sound of early Doobies.  If this don’t get you either bopping or air-guitaring…well, you just weren’t born with it in your soul.

A Climb on the Hollywood Sign

Our son could have chosen to live anywhere.  He’s personable and well-educated.  Of all the places he chose to live, he chose southern California.

Now, I’m not one of those narrow Midwesterners who associates Los Angeles—the “City of Angels”—with all things evil.  I know all about the goofy liberalism, Botox, taxes, crime, homelessness, air pollution, traffic congestion, and everything else that makes this neck of the country so disreputable.

But I choose to concentrate on the positive. This includes year-round sunshine.  Ocean surf and beaches.  Great restaurants.  Beautiful and historic homes. A hundred years of high-quality motion pictures (aka films, aka movies).  Classic rock ‘n’ roll. And what red-blooded American male doesn’t like California Girls!

So here are a few pics from our recent vacation to visit our son in one of the most golden places in the Golden State. Come along if you dare!

***

First is the header picture, a photo of the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, site of the famous 1955 “youth” picture starring, among others, James Dean and Natalie Wood: Rebel Without a Cause. I did an 8 or 9-mile hike through Griffith Park. The views were stunning: Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the San Fernando Valley on the other.

At the other end of the park is the famous Hollywood Sign. I climbed up Mt. Lee to reach this point. It’s one of the world’s great symbols, 45-foot-tall white capital letters that overlook the buzzing hub of the world film industry. Originally spelled “Hollywoodland” to advertise a realty firm, the most significant letter for me is the Peg Entwistle memorial “H.” (To learn what happened, click here.)

We also visited Venice Beach and nearby Santa Monica Pier. Venice Beach is noteworthy not only for it’s expansive beach and vagabond, free-spirited spirit, it’s also where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek accidentally met one day in 1965 and conceived one of my favorite bands, The Doors. “Moonlight Drive” was in my head.

My son Nick and I visited the enclave of Hawthorne, home of the Wilson brothers (Brian, Dennis, and Carl), who formed the Beach Boys in 1961. Their house was demolished to make room for a freeway, but a plaque commemorates where it all started.

Would a trip to Los Angeles be complete without a jaunt to Sunset Boulevard and the haunts of some of the greatest rock music bands in history? I think not. We visited Ciro’s, where The Byrds invented folk-rock and dominated the pop music world for a while, although the venue is now a comedy club. I also visited the former site of Bido Lito’s, on Cosmo Alley, where another fave band, Love, ruled the local underground scene for a short while in 1965-66.

Then there’s the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where The Doors gained notoriety before their revolutionary first album, released 1967. (The Doors being heavily influenced by Love.)

Hollywood Walk of Fame? Sure! And I finally got to meet my favorite actor, the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, and my favorite actress, the very naughty B-movie star, Gloria Grahame.

But the best part of all is visiting with family. Lynn and I capped off our SoCal sojourn with stunning seafood, thanks to our son and tour guide Nick and his girlfriend Elsa, at Moonshadows in Malibu, where the ocean waves literally lapped the restaurant.

Other visits included Laurel Canyon, famed hippie and music enclave of the ’60s and early ’70s; Robin Drive and Poinsettia Place, which featured in the classic Peter Sellers movie The Party (click here for a review); views of both Warner Brothers and Disney studios and the cylindrical Capital Records building; Doug Weston’s famed Troubadour club; and a lunchtime visit to legendary burger joint In-N-Out Burger.

***

Thanks so much for joining me in my travelogue of Los Angeles, California! As Jim Morrison once sang, “This is the end, beautiful friend.”

Top 10 Desert Isle Albums

Image result for velvet underground and nico

Why ruin a good thing?  Last time I listed the ten songs I would want on a deserted isle.  Now it’s time for the top ten albums.

I came of age in the rock era, so my list is skewered toward rock music. But I also snuck in some jazz, blues, country, and even Easy Listening.  After all, one needs a well-rounded diet to supplement the coconuts and sand crab.

Drum roll, please…let me know your thoughts, yea or nay, and some of your own choices!

Mom saw this in 1966 and wanted to know why I couldn’t dress like the Beatles
  1. The Beatles, Beatles VI.  Several of my favorite Beatles songs are on this collection of singles, B-sides, and album cuts on the North American Capitol label: “Yes it Is,” “Eight Days a Week,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and my fave Beatles cover song, Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love.”  It also has sentimental charm, being the second rock album I ever bought, and every time I listen to it I’m transported back to my salad days.
  2. The Beatles, Rubber Soul (Capitol).  The first rock album I ever bought.  Like above, it’s a North America-only release with shuffled songs, but it’s another personal time machine.  I could be pressured into substituting the official EMI Rubber Soul that contains “Nowhere Man,” but I give this Capitol version a slight edge due to the inclusion of “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
  3. Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground and Nico.  I don’t doubt that if Lou Reed had died in 1970, he’d be ranked with John Lennon and Bob Dylan.  The best word to describe this record is “uncompromising.”  This is serious rock music for adults, filled with beauty, danger, and poetry.  The “banana album” directly influenced dozens of later, more successful artists, yet it was so daring and intense in 1967 that it was totally ignored.
  4. The Doors, The Doors.  Like the record above, a thrilling debut album that threatened the peace and love vibes of the time, and where every song is a knockout.  The Doors made a lot of great music after this, but never attained the same heights.
  5. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited.  After the 1960s he continued to make good music (especially Blood on the Tracks) but his creative peak were three albums in the mid-sixties: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  This is my favorite of the three (not surprisingly the first Dylan I ever bought, back in college).  Try as you might, there’s no way to categorize this ragged hybrid of rock, blues, folk, and free-form verse that churns like a rickety steam engine and will be talked about as long as recorded music exists.
  6. Beach Boys, Pet Sounds.  Actually a Brian Wilson solo album with the group name slapped on it, he was trying to top the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and when Beatle Paul heard it he hatched the idea for Sgt. Pepper.  Four of Wilson’s greatest songs are here: “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” “God Only Knows,” and “Caroline No,” plus two beautiful instrumentals.  The only wrong move was inclusion of “Sloop John B,” which is starkly out of place, but acceptable on a desert isle.
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Brian Wilson and a friend
  1. Burt Bacharach, The Look of Love.  A three-CD boxed set.  Until buying this in 2008, I mainly associated Bacharach with his popular Dionne Warwick songs and film work (and the dentist’s office).  His Warwick songs are legendary, but just a few keys on his grand piano.  There’s a thing called “The Bacharach Sound,” and you can hear it on everything from “The Blob” (theme song to the 1958 cult monster movie starring a young Steve McQueen) on up to his 1998 collaboration with Elvis Costello.  The best description of this Sound came from his late daughter, Nikki, who said experiencing it is like “going to heaven on a velvet slide.”
  2. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.  Lots of jazz experts call this the greatest jazz album ever.  I’m more into rock, but I have a modest jazz collection, and I’m not going to disagree.  Kind of Blue was a studio improv experiment for Miles that explored modality, setting the stage for John Coltrane’s later work.  Like Joni Mitchell’s records, it’s best appreciated alone, late at night, in a dark room, with no distractions.
  3. Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings.  I also have a modest blues collection, and there are few musical experiences as wrenching as a listening session with the king of Delta Blues.  He was an anomaly, dragged to only two recording sessions during the Great Depression when very few black musicians were active, then dying mysteriously.  Not only was Johnson a guitar virtuoso who sang like he was wrestling with all sorts of crazy demons, but as a blues lyricist he’s unparalleled.  He’s as close to an existential experience as you can get in blues.
  4. Paul Groueff, Vest Pocket Soul.  I’m cheating here.  This guy actually hasn’t released a record (yet).  A few years ago I accidentally discovered his online Myspace page.  He’d uploaded 11 demos there, and after listening I was so impressed I wrote to him, then managed to find an app to extract and download his tunes to my computer, then ripped them to CD.  Groueff is hard to describe: a cross between Tim Buckley and Gordon Lightfoot might come close.  He’s not only an extremely talented guitarist, he’s also a fine writer/arranger, and his voice often ascends to a plaintive falsetto, creating what I call a “high, lonesome, Montana” sound. I think his Myspace page is now defunct.  And since he lives in an isolated cabin with no address on a mountain outside Bozeman, the only way to get his music is through Longitudes Records.

Honorable Mentions:  Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits; Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon; Small Faces, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake; Kevin Ayers, Joy of a Toy; Neil Young, After the Goldrush; Zombies, Odessey and Oracle; Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland; Love, Love; Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas; Steely Dan, Katy Lied; Pentangle, Sweet Child; Bill Evans, The Village Vanguard Sessions; Lindisfarne, Nicely Out of Tune; Genesis, Foxtrot; and any of several Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and additional Beatles, Dylan, and Velvets albums.  

Off to the dentist’s office on a velvet slide…

Top 10 Desert Isle Songs

My blogging friend Mike at Ticket 2 Ride recently listed what he considered the ten best British rock bands.  For me, lists are like catnip to a feline. I’m an inveterate critic and love them.  “Best of” lists are great to create, and stimulate debate (rhyme intentional).

Taking Mike’s cue, I decided to formulate my own list, but instead advertise the ten songs I’d want if I become stranded on a desert isle—assuming my isle has electricity.

If stranded, I’d want lots of melody accompanying my surf and sun, and all of these songs are very melodic.  All except one were recorded in the 1960s.  Yes, I’m a product of my time!

So here goes…the soundtrack of my head and heart, listed in order of preference:

  1. “Light My Fire” by the Doors.  The lyrics are juvenile (“wallow in the mire,” “love become a funeral pyre”).  But Ray Manzarek’s gothic organ, Robbie Krieger’s acid-dripped flamenco guitar, John Densmore’s jazzy snare, and Jim Morrison’s other-worldly vocals still give me chills since hearing this song on AM radio in 1967.  A bossa nova version by Jose Feliciano also was popular, and I can actually play that one on acoustic guitar, minus the solo…and acid.
  2. “’Til I Die” by the Beach Boys.  Written by Brian Wilson (of course).  Even Beach Boys fans rarely mention this obscure jewel, featured on the Surf’s Up album released not long after Wilson’s masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Classic layered group vocals, an unusual calliope organ, simple but penetrating words, sad and haunting melody, and beautiful fadeout coda. It’s a heart-piercing song.
  3. “Yes it Is” by the Beatles.  A John Lennon composition, the B-side to the “Ticket to Ride” single, with perhaps my all-time favorite vocal harmonizing.  It’s one of only three studio songs by the group where John, Paul, and George sang live three-part harmony (the other two being “This Boy” and “Because”).  Lennon dismissed it as a failed attempt to redo “This Boy,” but I think it’s a better song, colored by George’s volume pedal guitar.
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Burt Bacharach, in a familiar pose
  1. “A House is Not a Home” by Burt Bacharach-Hal David, sung by Brook Benton.  Okay, I’m a romantic, a softy, and this oft-covered Bacharach-David classic always chokes me up.  A Dionne Warwick version was released the same time, and both are good, with a very tricky bridge vocal, but I prefer Benton’s deep, aching rendition (and being male, the lyric hits me so much harder).  Luther Vandross did yet another, more exaggerated R&B version in 1981, and it became a big hit, but Benton’s interpretation has much more integrity.
  1. “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb, sung by Glen Campbell. Webb was a master of melody. He also wrote “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” for Campbell, as well as “Up, Up, and Away” for the 5th Dimension.  In addition to the melancholy arrangement and velvety strings, I love Campbell’s twangy guitar break.
  2. “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces.  The British mod group’s only hit in America, reaching #16 in early 1968.  A lovely song for summer and a perfect example of “flower psychedelia.”  Ronnie Lane wrote most of it, but singer Steve Marriott contributed the memorable “It’s all too beautiful” section.  One of rock’s greatest bands, compatriots of the Who, but unfairly overlooked in the states.
  3. “Orange Skies” by Love.  Another luscious summer song by the first integrated rock band (along with Butterfield Blues Band).  Like Small Faces, a seriously overlooked group, from L.A., who directly inspired the Doors.  Singer Arthur Lee was the leader, but guitarist Bryan MacLean, a former roadie for the Byrds, wrote several memorable songs, including this ingenuous beauty about “orange skies, carnivals, and cotton candy.”
  4. “Penny Lane” by the Beatles.  I prefer mid-period Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night through Rubber Soul era), but a late-period Lennon-McCartney song is imperative, and this is my favorite, half of a double-A-side single and one of the two greatest singles ever released (the other being “Paperback Writer”/“Rain”).  Many people prefer the flip side, John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but I like this Paul song for its buoyant melody and George Martin’s elegant orchestration.  (BTW, I rode a bus through the real Penny Lane a few years ago…on my way to Strawberry Fields.)
  5. “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder.  Do you have a song where you remember the exact place and time you first heard it?  I heard this in the waiting room of the allergist’s office on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in early 1969.  (I told my friends about it later that day, but they didn’t appreciate my enthusiasm.)  It was the first 45 rpm single I ever bought, and I still have it stashed somewhere. I think everyone loves Stevie Wonder.
  6. “Anyway,” music by Maggie and Suzzy Roche.  I discovered this minor miracle of a song by two of the three singing Roche sisters about 10 years ago.  I upload it to Facebook every Christmas.  The lyrics (author unknown) are a sort of non-denominational “prayer” about being honest, hardworking, forgiving, and maintaining faith.  The music consists of about seven or eight small, dissimilar arrangements that build in intensity, and end in a warm wash of mellotron.  Took me a couple listens, but now I’m hooked for life.

Like most lists, mine has many honorable mentions (in case a large wave pounds my Top 10 into the sand). Here are a few: “Don’t Go Away” by the Zombies; “You Baby” by the Turtles; “I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas and Papas; “Urge for Going” by Joni Mitchell (the Tom Rush version); “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake; “Running from Home” by Bert Jansch; “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank (the Jansch version); and easily a half-dozen more Beatles and Bacharach songs.

Hopefully some of these songs will strike a “chord,” or perhaps lead you to investigation. Now, it’s your turn.  Click on “Comments” and send me your own desert isle list.

The State of Donald Trump – Repost

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NOTE: I originally published this essay in June 2016. This was before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and even before both parties’ national conventions. I’m republishing now, not so much as an “I told you so,” but more because it crystallizes the oft-used quote, “In a democracy you get the government you deserve.”

Or as Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Ours is a democracy, albeit shaky, so maybe we deserved the last four years, as well as the chilling and uncertain state of our future. Maybe we needed a “reality check”?

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

***

The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now, since Republican senators refuse to hold hearings on Merrick Garland,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think the outrage might be justified, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

fascist killing machine

Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

source of our liberty

An Ohio Yankee Camps at John Lennon’s House

Mendips map2

The address is 251 Menlove Avenue.

John Lennon lived here between the ages of five and 22. It was the semi-detached home of his indomitable Aunt Mimi, and her husband, George Smith. They called their middle-class domicile “Mendips.”

Lennon’s father had abandoned his wife and son. His mother, Julia Stanley Lennon, handed him over to be raised by her eldest sister Mary (Mimi) because she was ill-equipped to do so. It didn’t help that Lennon was a troublemaker who exhibited symptoms of ADHD. (And those were pre-Ritalin days.) Even as an adult his acid tongue burned more than a few people who ventured too closely.

When Lennon was 14, his beloved Uncle George died. Then, when he was 17, his world upended when his mother was struck and killed by a car driven by an off-duty policeman. It happened while Julia was crossing Menlove, a divided highway, just moments after she had left Mimi’s house. She was walking toward the northbound bus stop.

This is just opposite of where the southbound Liverpool city bus dropped me off.

As I alluded to in my last post, I didn’t have a map with me. So, as with Blanche DuBois on her streetcar named desire, I had to “rely on the kindness of strangers.” Such independence is good, however. It means you have to be bold and ask questions and engage with the locals. If the lady sitting behind me on the bus hadn’t overheard me ask the torpid driver several times about Mendips—then nudged me to get off at The Vineries—I might have ended up in Clock Face.

Mendips on Menlove Ave.

View of Mendips from northbound bus stop. Julia Lennon was killed near here in 1958 (11 days after Ohio Yankee was hatched.)

Not knowing where to go, I wandered across busy Menlove (carefully) and down The Vineries. A small sedan pulled up in front of a house, and a woman got out. I walked over briskly and asked if she could point me toward Mendips.

“Oh, it’s right around the corner, other side of the road. It’s the house with a blue plaque on it. You’ll probably see a crowd outside!” I thanked her and turned to leave, but she insisted on accompanying me to the corner to point out the house.

“Where you from, love?” she asked with a beaming smile. I told her North America.

“Well, I know that!” she said with a laugh, obviously recognizing my accent. “Where exactly?”

“From Ohio,” I said sheepishly. “In…er…America.”

I anticipated a dirty look or an “I’m so sorry.” But instead she told me she once visited America, and my state was one of the few she didn’t get to. I told her she must visit Ohio…but off the top of my head I couldn’t think of a reason why.

“Oh, you’re in luck!” she said, pointing across the street. “Only a few people!”

We said goodbye and I re-crossed Menlove, arriving at Lennon’s home as it started to drizzle and as the few visitors were packing into their car. Then a young guy appeared out of nowhere, phone at his ear, excitedly giving a play-by-play of his Beatles tour to his dad back home. We exchanged photo poses, and I learned he was from Colorado.

Pete and John2

Lennon and me. Seventeen years, one ocean, and worlds of talent apart.

Then Colorado guy left, and another car pulled up. About five or six people got out, all of them Asian except the tour guide.

“This is where John lived with his Aunt Mimi…” the guide dryly recited, as the crowd leaned in closely. I got the impression they either struggled with English, or didn’t know much about The Beatles.

The guide noticed me take a couple steps back. “It’s okay, you can listen,” he said. How thoughtful of him.

Tour guide wrapped up Mendips in two minutes, and while he and his charges walked toward their car, I asked if it wouldn’t be out of line to ask which way to Strawberry Field, which I knew was near Mendips.

“I’ll tell you, but you really should take my tour to properly see all the sites.” My bad angel wanted to tell him to go jump in the Mersey. But my good angel overruled and said He’s just trying to earn a living.

I left modest Mendips just before the jumbo, rainbow-painted Magical Mystery Tour bus arrived. Strawberry Field is only a half mile from where Lennon lived, on a hilly, shaded side street called Beaconsfield Road. It was a Salvation Army home for orphans, and Lennon used to climb the surrounding wall to play with the kids. Each year, the home had a big festival, and Mimi would later describe how Lennon always pestered her with “Hurry, Mimi, or we’ll be late for the festival!”

Strawberry Field gate

Strawberry Field. The gate is a replica of the original.

(This the same bloke who claimed The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, posed full frontal au naturel for an album cover, and made Nixon’s Enemies List.)

As the drizzle continued, I came upon a well-dressed man coming down the hill and asked him where Strawberry Field was. He told me I’d just passed it. So I backstepped until I saw the graffiti-framed strawberry-red gate marking the entrance. But other than the gate, which was locked, there wasn’t much to observe, since the Victorian building that once sheltered the children was torn down in 2005. There was only a partially built visitor center, and construction materials littered the grounds. (The tourist center opened in September of this year.)

I then walked down Vale Road, which Lennon once bicycled on, toward Woolton Village. After asking a few folks for directions, including one teen with a Scouse twang not unlike George Harrison’s, I located St. Peter’s Church, where John’s skiffle band The Quarry Men performed at a garden fete on July 6, 1957.

As the story goes, Lennon’s friend Ivan Vaughan introduced him that day (maybe the preceding evening, depending on the storyteller) to a younger chap named Paul McCartney, who lived in nearby Allerton and also played guitar. Paul knew the chords and lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” He showed John, who was suitably impressed, and John offered him a position in The Quarry Men. This was the watershed moment that birthed The Beatles and, truly, altered the course of pop cultural history.

St. Peters Church_Woolton

St. Peter’s Church in Woolton. The plaque is under the left window.

I was the only one in the darkened lot outside the church, standing under a small plaque commemorating that meeting of future musical giants. I often think the adjective “surreal” is overused, but I can’t think of another word to describe how I felt.

After wandering around the quaint streets of Woolton, and eating a quick supper in the Istanbul Barbecue and Bistro, I returned to the bus stop at Mendips, intending to catch a bus back to the Travelodge in Liverpool. But I felt like I was glued to the house where “Please Please Me” and “I’ll Get You” were written. It was a kind of sanctuary. Protected by the National Trust along with the other three Beatle homes, I was glad it had avoided the fate of the Cavern Club, Brian Epstein’s old record store, and the Salvation Army home at Strawberry Field.

I joked to myself that, had I brought my tent along, I might have pitched it. The rain had stopped, and it appeared the Tragical History Tour bus was stationed in Liverpool for the night.

My dawdling at Mendips was rewarded when a tiny car pulled up, parked on the grassy berm, and a tiny man scurried over to the gate while jingling his car keys. He gazed at Aunt Mimi’s house for about 30 seconds. Then he abruptly turned and headed back toward his car. Strange, I thought. No keepsake photo of the house?

“Sir, would you like me to take your photo?” I asked, same as with Ken the Heartbeat on Mathew Street.

“Oh no, that’s okay, but thank you,” he said in a soft Liverpudlian accent. “I just pop in once in a while. I live just down the road in the village.”

This revelation led to a long and interesting conversation. He said his name was “John,” and he’d lived in the area all his life. He told me about the Cavern Club days, and how his wife (then girlfriend) was one of the groupies known as “Beatle-ettes.”

Woolton Village

The Grapes Inn in Woolton Village, the oldest pub in town

“Me mates and I used to tear up their Beatle photos, we were so jealous!” he laughed.

John told me he was allowed unlimited entrance into all four Beatle homes. He described how, a while back, he discovered an old guitar in his attic. It was a rare Framus model similar to what Paul used before he became a Beatle. John had given it to his grandson, but suggested his grandson might want to donate it to the National Trust.

“He’s a good lad. We met with Colin of the Trust over a cuppa. Colin was overjoyed. He said they’d been looking for that same Framus model for a long time. So in gratitude, he’s allowed us to enter any of the four homes for free!” (I got the impression John was no longer jealous.)

John actually offered to drive me over to Allerton to see Paul’s home. But it was getting late, and I needed to hail a ride back to Liverpool, so I thanked him but declined.

Anyway, I plan a Round Two in Liverpool. Not only are Liverpudlians friendly, but I’ll visit Paul’s house in Allerton. I’ll also seek out the roundabout at Penny Lane, located between Woolton and Liverpool, which I only glanced at through the bus window. Maybe Quarry Bank High School. There’s also John Rigby’s granddaughter, one Eleanor, buried in the St. Peter’s Church cemetery, which in my delirium I totally forgot about.  And, of course, George and Ringo.

I only wish I’d gotten John’s last name. If I had, I’d “pop in” to see him, and then the two of us could day trip over to Aunt Mimi’s for a “cuppa.”

This is the end of my “Ohio Yankee” series about my visit to Scotland and Liverpool.  Thanks for joining me.

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An Ohio Yankee Visits Liverpool, England

cilla

[An Apology: in my last post, I wanted to humorously discuss absurdity and pettiness in the office. (For you young people, it happens more often than you might think.)  Sort of a Dilbert-styled satire with a casual nod to the classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”  But my wife, who reads my stuff occasionally when she has the stomach for it, characteristically sidestepped the gist of my essay and, instead, took exception to my reference to urinals.  Also, my friend Tad politely noted some double entendres that were—believe me—entirely unintentional.  Anyway, I’m sorry if I offended anyone, and I promise today’s post will go nowhere near porcelain fixtures.  No guarantees about double entendres, though.]

When I decided to fly to Glasgow to visit my daughter’s family, one of my first actions was to open my world atlas and check the distance from Glasgow to Liverpool, England. In 1964, my friend John Hire and I became fans of an exciting musical group from Liverpool. I think this was concurrent to John instructing me about his older sister’s body parts.

I’ve been marveling at and studying The Beatles’ music…and the physical attributes of the opposite sex…ever since.

But in addition to visiting the home of The Beatles, I was also curious about Liverpool as a famed seaport city. During the 19th century, Liverpool was a thriving port for American merchant ships delivering cotton to textile factories in northern England, and also a busy departure city for immigrants. In the 20th century, U.S. naval sailors took shore leave in the city and sold their blues and early rock ‘n’ roll records to working-class English youth hungry for anything with a backbeat.

American writer Herman Melville (“Bartleby,” Moby-Dick) was a young merchant sailor who visited Liverpool in 1839 and wrote stirringly, in his book Redburn, about the profound poverty of this mecca of the Industrial Revolution:

Every variety of want and suffering here met the eye, and every vice showed here its victims…Old women, rather mummies, drying up with slow starving and age; young girls, incurably sick, who ought to have been in the hospital; sturdy men, with the gallows in their eyes, and a whining lie in their mouths; young boys, hollow-eyed and decrepit; and puny mothers, holding up puny babes in the glare of the sun, formed the main features of the scene…But these were diversified by instances of peculiar suffering, vice, or art in attracting charity, which, to me at least, who had never seen such things before, seemed to the last degree uncommon and monstrous.

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Ohio Yankee, looking for ferries on the Mersey

“Uncommon and monstrous.” Hard to believe it’s the same city. Liverpool in 2019 barely resembles the city of Melville’s time, or even when the Fab Four were growing up. The dock that existed in 1839 is now below ground about 200 yards inland from the River Mersey, the water having been “reclaimed” by land. In 2008 Liverpool was recognized a European Capital of Culture by the European Union (EU), which helped encourage urban renewal, exemplified by Liverpool ONE shopping complex. Liverpool is now a top tourist destination in the UK.

Since I had a limited amount of time in Liverpool, I listed my top priorities. John Lennon’s boyhood home at Mendips, Menlove Avenue, Woolton was the bullseye. If you don’t know who John Lennon is, he’s famous for being the only person to have his name on a major British airport.

Second to this was the Cavern Club, where The Beatles first made a name in 1961-63 while playing an astonishing 292 dates (little wonder that ensemble was so tight). Third was the location of Old Dock. Fourth was St. Peter’s Church in Woolton Village, where John and Paul McCartney first met at a garden fete on July 6, 1957. And if I had time, Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, and Paul’s boyhood home in Allerton.

st. george's

St. George’s Hall, from Lime Street station

I exited Lime Street Railway station and was confronted by the neoclassical splendor of St. George’s Hall and a sea of people and buses.  I poked around Liverpool City Centre toward what I hoped would be the Mersey. It took me a while, but I eventually found Albert Dock and Merseyside Maritime Museum. The museum receptionist told me about the reclaiming that turned Mersey water into land, and that the only way to see the original 1716 Thomas Steers’ dock, the world’s first commercial wet dock (later called Old Dock), was to take an underground tour. I didn’t have the time or inclination, but I did manage to get a peep at history through a viewing window on a plaza near the Hilton Hotel.

Staring through a glass capsule in the middle of a hotel plaza while a musician absentmindedly played Beatles songs on a cheesy organ, it was a minor struggle envisioning 20-year-old Melville squeezing his way through emaciated beggars and cripples in 1839 after disembarking his vessel St. Lawrence. But for a fleeting second, I was there.

Old Liverpool Dock

Old Dock…buried under the edifice of a luxury hotel

Close to Old Dock is Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is located, although I didn’t immediately know it. I just wandered through streets and alleyways until stumbling upon a small crowd in a curving pedestrian alley. Then…boom. There was John Lennon, lounging against a wall.

Or, at least, a life-sized statue of him. It was positioned next to a sign indicating this was the CAVERN PUB. Not to be confused with Cavern Club…but so many businesses in this area try to link themselves with The Beatles, the proprietors may want you to be confused, just to get your business. There was also a wall of bricks with numerous band names inscribed on them, some famous, some unknown. Each band had performed at one time at the Cavern Club, which existed from 1957 till 1973.

I saw a man gazing at the wall for a long time. He appeared somewhat misty-eyed. I asked if he wanted me to take his photo.  He thanked me but declined. After chatting with him a little, I learned his name was Ken, and he was looking for his band’s brick. He said he was once in a group called the Heartbeats, and it had performed at the Cavern Club on three occasions in 1966.

Liverpool Ken of the Heartbeats

Ken the Heartbeat, in front of Mathew Street Wall of Fame

Ken let me snap his photo with my own camera.  After he left, I spent a good ten minutes looking for his brick myself, but with no luck. Ken was very nice, and I really wanted to find his brick.  But it must have tumbled through the cracks of time.  (NOTE: a Manchester band called the Heartbeats did exist in the Sixties, and they later became Herman’s Hermits. But Ken never said anything about being a pre-Hermit.)

Getting back to the Cavern Club…the Club, not Pub, is actually across the alley and downwind about a hundred feet. Or, at least, a facsimile of the original club. Believe it or not, the Liverpool home of The Beatles was demolished in 1973 to make room for a proposed underground (subway) air shaft, which never materialized. The basement club was later resurrected, but with a different entrance location, interior, and stage.

I don’t consider many things sacred, but on the stupidity scale, a demolition project like this ranks with a construction project on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The original entrance is marked by a black-and-white mural with photos and a club history. Another statue is here: Cilla Black (1943-2015), who was a Cavern Club hat-check girl, then began jumping onstage to sing, then became friends with The Beatles, then forged a very successful recording and television career.

While near Mathew Street, I tried to locate the site of the record store which genius Beatles manager Brian Epstein (1934-1967) owned when he first heard about the group. It was on busy Whitechapel Street. I asked a few people, but all appeared under the age of 75 and didn’t know anything. (Some, sadly, didn’t even know the name Brian Epstein.) As for the store, it may have been swallowed by a London or U.S. land shark wearing designer clothing.

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Brian Epstein

Well, if I’m gonna visit Johnny L. at Mendips, I’d better get scooting. I made one more trip to Albert Dock, to the office of the “Magical Mystery Tour” (which conducts a guided bus tour) to get a map of Beatle sites. The price of the map was typically outrageous, and the tour folks typically tried to sell me a tour ticket, since “It’s really the only way to properly see all the sites.” I smiled and told them You say ‘Yes’ but I say ‘No,’ then headed to the city bus station for my own ticket to ride.

But not before dropping into the spanking new Museum of Liverpool. As if on cue, the museum was at that moment hosting a limited-run exhibit devoted to John and Yoko. I spent about a half hour here. Yoko had a big hand in the presentation, much of which was devoted to her and John’s social activism, which I was already fairly knowledgeable about (bagism, hairism, bedism, and other peace-isms).

What really hit me was coming off the elevator, turning the corner, and hearing “Imagine” at the moment I stepped up to the photo below.

Though a deserved classic, “Imagine” isn’t one of my favorite Lennon songs. But I must say, I got a little choked up. (I kept my tears in check, though, as I didn’t want the security guard embracing me.)

There was also a large wall with upwards of a hundred handwritten notes. A pencil and a pile of blank pieces of white paper were on a small table with a sign encouraging people to scribble anything about Lennon, The Beatles, the world, universe, jelly babies, or anything one had a mind to. All the notes would eventually be delivered to Yoko.

I kept it simple and just told Yoko that her late husband’s group has been a bright piece of an Ohio boy’s life since 1964, when he lived on 142 Sherbrook Road.

Then I walked toward the elevator.  I descended, left the museum, and made my way…a sentimental old man in a foreign city, haunted by memories…to 251 Menlove Avenue.

 

John and Yoko exhibit, Liverpool 2