Grappling with Woodstock in 2019

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Nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fucking awful—Joan Baez, on America during the age of Trump

The Woodstock 50 extravaganza crashed like an overburdened shuttle copter somewhere between Maryland and organizer Michael Lang’s attorney’s offices. But Woodstock Nation crashed many years ago.

First, the planned anniversary concert. It was a dumb idea from the get-go. Not only since you can’t replicate—or pretend you’re not replicating while trying to replicate—the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair festival, either musically or sociologically. But doing so in an age when the host country of America is a global village idiot is beyond laughable.

Maybe it’s come down to getting stoned on corporate-sponsor beer and flashing the peace sign while posing for social media selfies. The peace sign used to mean something, but I guess we needed a war to remind us.

And Woodstock Nation? I’ve seen the documentary of the original Woodstock multiple times. It is a strange experience for one who shares the ideals of many of the organizers and festivalgoers, in theory if not always in practice.

The music, of course, is always a rush.  Richie Havens singing of “Handsome Johnny” marching to the Concord war, with skeletal scaffolding and descending chopper framing his intensity. Or Joe Cocker screaming his lungs out in front of his half-million friends.  And a former army paratrooper, delivering the most searing and honest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner”…honest because there were no words or sentimentalities to muck it up, and the song is open to interpretation, although I think I know what he was saying.

But outside of that…well, one minute I have tears welling up at the innocent promise of that incredible weekend. And in the next, my head is in my hands, sad and disgusted at how that promise was frittered away, with hard drugs, disco, and Reaganonomics, with yuppies snoring and snorting and stashing their wealth while the vulgarians stampeded through the gate.

No, I didn’t expect a subculture could change the world overnight, or do it without making mistakes along the way. But like Baez said, no one could have foreseen the backlash that caused this.

In 1969, I was too young to pilgrimage to Bethel without being listed a missing child or runaway.  But like many, I’ve visited numerous times in my mind: pitching a tent in green trees behind Filippini Pond; hammering nails through the night to prepare the stage; rolling joints backstage with Jerry Garcia; serving granola and smiles with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm; searching for Holly and Wheat Germ’s medicine bag…all the while unearthing directional arrows for the adult path ahead of me.

Now that I’m a grandfather and see nothing but a landscape of mud and garbage awaiting my grandkids, I ask myself: have we lost all our directional arrows?  Are we insane, stupid, greedy, or all the above? To find “the garden,” will I have to wait till I mix my ashes with those of Richie Havens?  And if so, will the vulgarians put up a gun shop or Chick-fil-A along Hurd Road in view of Richie and me?

All we can do is continue to hope for fewer slogans chanted and more trees planted. Hope for fewer concealed-carry classes and more Kundalini yoga classes.  Fewer Animal Farms and more Hog Farms.  Fewer police forces and more Please Forces.

Then, maybe after another 50 years, we’ll have finally gotten ourselves back to the garden.

By then, I’ll be long time gone.

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Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

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longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

Day in 1973

The day that Doris Day died, I did something irrational. Instead of driving straight home from work, I went out of my way and visited her childhood home.

Maybe I was half-expecting a small crowd of mourners. Elderly men and women in overcoats on a damp, overcast evening, sharing their grief over the passing of another icon from their youth.

Of course, no one was there but me. The red-brick house appeared shuttered, as did the entire neighborhood. I wondered, Do the current residents know they are living in Doris Day’s house? It’s a much different neighborhood now than in 1922, when she was born. An interstate highway rips through the center of Evanston, Ohio, now part of downtown Cincinnati. You can see the semi trucks from her front yard. Most of the residents are African-American, not German-American.

Perhaps I was the only visitor all day. But I like to think that my sentimental journey provided a smile for the girl christened Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff, wherever she might be right now while tossing pastel pillows back and forth with Rock Hudson.

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The former Kappelhoff home, Cincinnati, Ohio

I was only a year old in 1959 when the movie Pillow Talk was released. As the 1960s progressed, I knew little about what was happening in the world. I received news of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, and the Watts riots via “trickle down” effect. The Cold War, for me, was Boris and Natasha from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. I’m not really a child of the Sixties. Much as I often hate to admit, I’m a child of the Silent Majority.

Doris Day was a Silent Majority cultural icon. She was conservative 1950s who spilled into the 1960s before they became “The Sixties.” She was middle-class, nuclear-family, Caucasian America; traditional, familial, uncomplicated, and safe. With her ever-present smile, twinkling eyes, golden-blonde bob haircut and California tan, she was sunshine and, in my imagination, is always clothed in canary yellow. The ending of her film Move Over, Darling says everything: she jumps in the backyard swimming pool—fully clothed—to join her husband (James Garner) and two kids. Their laughter and splashing, after finally being reunited, are as good an antidote to late 20th and early 21st century anxiety and cynicism as you’re likely to find.

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The nuclear family in Move Over, Darling (1963)

Day’s close friends called her “Clara Bixby.” Rock Hudson, her romantic co-star in three of her most well-known films, called her “Eunice.” To her parents she was Doris Kappelhoff, and to everyone else, Doris Day. Names that are simple, non-glitz, and (though she hated the term) girl-next-door. And despite her great beauty, difficult personal life, and professed dislike of her chaste image, that’s how she presented herself in her movies.  It’s telling that she turned down the juicy role of “Mrs. Robinson” in Mike Nichols’  The Graduate because she found the script “vulgar and offensive.”

Doris’s father was a philanderer who walked out on the family when she was young. (One night, in her bedroom, little Doris was a traumatized earwitness to her father’s sexual relations with a party guest in the next room.) She was married four times. Her first husband, a jazz trombonist, tried to force her to abort their unborn child, then beat her when she was eight months pregnant. She divorced her second husband, a saxophonist, because he was jealous of her success. She was married to her third husband, Martin Melcher, for 17 years. But despite producing some of her best films, his blind faith in a fraudulent attorney left her bankrupt when he died. (She fought for years to finally obtain a $6 million decision.) Her fourth husband divorced her because he was jealous of her “animal friends.”

There was the tragedy of Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS. They were good friends offscreen, and his last public appearance was in 1985 when, looking extremely frail and telling her he had no appetite, he visited “Eunice” at her home and was filmed for the short-lived cable show, Doris Day’s Best Friends.

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Dramatic turn in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Her biggest sorrow was the death of her only child, Terry Melcher, from melanoma in 2004. They were only 20 years apart and like brother and sister. Melcher was a talented music producer, working with the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, assisting with music for his mother’s movies, and producing the 1968-73 sitcom The Doris Day Show. He came close to producing songs by Charles Manson, but backed out after visiting The Family at their ranch. The house Melcher had earlier shared with actress Candice Bergen was the site of the 1969 Tate murders (although Manson denied he was targeting Melcher).

By the mid-1970s, Day had had her fill of Hollywood. She moved up the California coast to Carmel Valley, taking in stray pets and establishing the Doris Day Animal Foundation. She was also part-owner of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn. In the last few decades, she politely but steadfastly refused requests for appearances, even after receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

That’s the private Day. Doris Day the entertainer took her alliterative stage name in 1939 after a song, “Day After Day.”

Doris Day Posing with Hand on Chin

“Clara,” in 1949 (Bettman Archive/Getty Images)

She became a popular ballad singer with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, scoring a huge hit with the WWII homecoming theme, “Sentimental Journey.” She had a confident and clean singing style, modeling herself after Ella Fitzgerald. She was a natural. In a rare audio interview with Turner Classic Movies, she said she never experienced stage fright, either while singing or acting.

As great a recording artist as she was, though, it is her 1950s musicals and 1960s romantic comedies that she is remembered for, especially the latter. They’re G-rated, but sophisticated; light and fluffy confections, with upbeat music, colorful clothing, and animated opening graphics, maybe a little Day singing, and lots of playful romance. (Called “sex comedies” when they were filmed, the word “sex” referred more to gender than physical lovemaking.) The plots generally revolve around a trite and temporary misunderstanding between Day and her partner.

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Classic Day expression from Lover Come Back (1961)

These innocent predicaments allow Day to skillfully shift emotions between domestic contentedness and exasperation or outrage. The humor comes because you know what will transpire before Day’s character does. Then, when the revelation hits, you get to see her puff her cheeks, swivel her head sideways, plant her hands on her hips, and stomp away briskly, her back stiff as a board.

While Day is the undisputed focal point in these movies, a key humorous element is her leading men. As a foil for her, they had to be handsome, but in a warm, non-threatening way. Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers), James Garner (The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling), and Rod Taylor (Do Not Disturb and The Glass Bottom Boat) all fit the bill, because they have a puckish playfulness, especially Hudson, who was extremely adept at light comedy.

But it is Doris Day who carries these films. The great Steve Allen called her “one of the very best comedy actresses of all time” but one who “hasn’t gotten the critical appreciation to which she is entitled.” Steve, you are correct on both counts.  And longitudes predicts she will ultimately get this recognition.

Since her recent death at age 97, some male writers have grappled with just how sexy was this “World’s Oldest Virgin,” as she was mockingly labeled (though she actually advocated living together before marriage…four marriages might have something to do with that). Sex and sexuality are an obsession in our post-sexual revolution age, when mere pillow “talk” is considered boring. I won’t dwell on this topic, other than to assure the aforesaid writers that—while I never knew Day before she was a virgin—in my testosterone-soaked eyes she was hot, in both looks and personality, and she got hotter as she got older. Anne Bancroft is talented and beautiful, but it’s a shame adolescent males couldn’t enjoy Clara as “Mrs. Robinson.” And if you writers don’t agree, you can click this.

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One of Day’s most fun flicks, The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

***

As with The Lawrence Welk Show and Petticoat Junction, which I’ve also profiled on longitudes, Doris Day’s films are a safe harbor for me. They carry me back to a time of innocence, to family and fireside. It’s not because I’m a “male animal” who pines for the days when women were merely Pollyannaish partners to the “stronger sex.” (My career-minded wife and liberated daughter also love her films and introduced me to several. My macho son, on the other hand, is a different story.) It’s more because they are uncomplicated, wholesome, funny, and fun. They are a shelter from the storm, and we all need shelter, especially in these turbulent, less rational times.

While I’m thankful for the “The Sixties” and the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Grateful Dead, détente, civil rights, equal rights, gay rights, copyrights, etc., I’m also thankful for animal rights and Doris Kappelhoff of Greenlawn Avenue in Evanston, Ohio for the safe harbor she’s given us.

Que será, será!

***

After retiring from the spotlight in the 1970s, Doris Day devoted herself to the cause of animal welfare. I gave a small donation. If you’d also like to help, here’s the link: Doris Day Animal Foundation.

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(Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty)

Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, 1955-2019

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“The typical trajectory for a rock artist goes like this: Start out raw, risk-taking, totally true to yourself, then gradually get ground down by the industry into making ever more spirit-sapped and radio-ingratiating records. Far less common is the reverse: a career whose public story commences at the showbiz heart of mainstream pop, then torpedoes fame and fortune by embarking on a series of increasingly weird adventures in sound.” —National Public Radio, in an obituary for Mark Hollis on February 28, 2019

NPR is right. There are not many rock artists who deliberately sabotage a successful career to pursue a strange and less commercial musical path. It would be like ditching a six-figure salary as an attorney to sell homegrown produce from a roadside stand.

Scott Walker (Walker Brothers), who died in March, is one such musician. Syd Barrett was never exactly “showbiz,” but his two post-Pink Floyd solo records have people scratching their heads to this day.

Mark Hollis, lead singer of the 1980s English synth-pop band Talk Talk, is another who stepped off the carousel. Although details are sketchy, Hollis died February 25 at age 64.

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My music era is the mid-1960s to the mid-70s. I can count on four fingers the punk rock bands I like, and I generally dismiss the entire synthesizer-sapped and overproduced 1980s. A few names stand out: XTC, Prefab Sprout, China Crisis…and Talk Talk, led by singer Mark Hollis. I liked this band’s bouncy New Romantic sound and songs written by Hollis and non-performing member Tim Friese-Greene. The rhythm section of Paul Webb (bass) and Lee Harris (drums) defines the word “punchy” and is sorely underrated. And I especially liked Hollis’s odd singing style. His voice sounded like Bryan Ferry’s, only with a frog stuck in his throat.

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Early Talk Talk. L to R: Hollis, Harris, Webb (Photo: Picture Alliance/Photoshot)

Talk Talk made five albums between 1982 and 1991. The first two, The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984) produced seven singles and established Talk Talk as a sort of thinking man’s Duran Duran, with whom they recorded on EMI and toured (and shared similar redundant name). The single “It’s My Life” hit number 31 on the American charts, and “Such a Shame” became a hit in continental Europe.

The first clue that EMI might have a “difficult” artist on its hands was the promo video for “It’s My Life.” (Remember, this is the visual image-obsessed 1980s when everyone needed MTV and VH1 to listen to music…or record companies believed they did.) In the original version of this song video, Hollis refused to move his lips to the vocalized words, then winked at the end. EMI fumed when they saw it. They forced him to do it over.  The second time, he practically jumped through the camera, spitting out the lyric.

Then, the 1986 album The Colour of Spring presented a more reflective and sedate Talk Talk, slightly at odds with its earlier pop leanings. Ironically, this record went to number 8 in the UK charts, the group’s highest position. It was propelled by the powerful singles “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living in Another World.”

Examining the titles for these two songs, alongside “It’s My Life,” provides further clues that Hollis might have some misgivings about his pop stardom.it's my life

A scintillating 1986 concert from Montreux, Switzerland shows the band had by then closeted the stock designer costumes that New Wavers wore, and Hollis is bedecked in jeans, rumpled shirt…and sandals. He also hides behind sunglasses, clutches the mic stand, and keeps his head bowed for almost the entire show.

By the fourth record, Spirit of Eden (1988), Talk Talk was practically another band.

Today, Spirit of Eden and its follow-up Laughing Stock (1991) are regarded by some critics as shining examples of ambient or minimal music. The singing is sparse, as is the instrumentation. Tone and mood are emphasized over rhythm and structure. It’s an approach that probably dates back to avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, and was explored later by Brian Eno. Lately, it’s been interpreted again and renamed “post-rock.”

While I find this music relaxing, and I’ve dabbled at the edges of ambient music with certain jazz and prog rock records, I don’t usually find it engaging. But in writing this essay, I’ve listened to Spirit of Eden several times, and we’re now engaged. Whether most critics who praise Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock do so more for Hollis’s artistic courage than the music itself, I can’t say. But I have no doubt Hollis was serious about capturing some magic with sound, and not merely trying to cultivate a legacy as an “enigmatic artiste.”

But while the usual adjectives and nouns for this music are “sparse,” “atmospheric,” “mood,” and “ambient,” the word that counted for EMI was non-commercial. After Spirit of Eden, the band and the company “parted ways,” as they say, not long after battling in court. Talk Talk signed with the smaller Polydor-Verve label for Laughing Stock. Then the band broke up. In 1998, Hollis released a self-titled solo LP, furthering Talk Talk’s minimalist approach. All three records are highly praised but, of course, they only assisted Hollis with his disappearing act.eden

Hollis gave few interviews, but in one of them he said something quite simple (minimalist) but also quite profound: “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” Hollis was talking about music, but he could have been talking about life.

After his solo album, Hollis, who’d been crouching at the edge of the carousel platform for over a decade, took the leap. Beyond minimalism, the only place to go was total silence. He left music to be a full-time husband and father in rural England, later moving his family to Wimbledon, London. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

For the next 21 years, Hollis guarded his privacy. He made some minor contributions to other peoples’ music, but he insisted his name not be used.

R.I.P. Mark Hollis.

(Thanks to WordPress blogger moulty58 for alerting me to Hollis’s death, and to Wikipedia for quotes and information.)

(For further reading about Mark Hollis, Talk Talk, and in particular the making of “Laughing Stock” and how art intersects with commerce, I highly recommend reading an article in “The Quietus,” located here.)

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Basking in the Land of the Zombies

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If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the worldTom Petty, 1997

Thanks, Tom, longitudes agrees.

Here’s a list of reasons why the Zombies would own the world, plus some tidbits about a beloved band on the eve of their long-overdue induction into the seriously flawed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in the same induction “class” as…wait for it…Janet Jackson):

  • Hailed from the city of St Albans, Hertfordshire, north of London
  • Formed in 1961 when the members were just 15; broke up in 1967
  • Consisted of five schoolmates: Rod Argent (keyboards), Chris White (bass), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals), Hugh Grundy (drums), and Paul Atkinson (guitar)
  • Lineup remained intact, and friends, throughout career
  • Won a song contest in 1964, then signed to Decca Records by infamous Dick Rowe (aka MWTDB, or “Man Who Turned Down Beatles”)
  • Covered American R&B songs in beginning, like most early ’60s Brit bands, but soon concentrated on self-compositions
  • Two U.S. number one singles with “She’s Not There” (1964) and “Time of the Season” (1969)
  • A U.S. number three single with “Tell Her No” (1965)
  • A critically acclaimed album, Odessey and Oracle (1968), released just after they disbanded (U.S.-released only through efforts of Al Kooper)
  • Appeared briefly in Otto Preminger-directed movie starring Laurence Olivier, entitled Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
  • More popular in America than their homeland (part of the “British Invasion“)
  • The first pop band in which electric piano was the main instrument
  • A lead singer (Blunstone) with a distinctive, smoky voice and movie-star looks
  • Not just one, but two songwriters of exceptional talent (Argent and White)
  • Didn’t do drugs
  • Didn’t destroy hotel rooms
  • Didn’t impregnate groupies
  • Didn’t follow gurus or dabble in occult
  • Did perfect the two-and-a-half-minute pop symphony
  • Did amass a cornucopia of non-charting symphonies that remains undiscovered outside of Zombie enthusiasts.
'Thank Your Lucky Stars' TV Programme, 1961 - 1966

The Zombies.  L to R: Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson (Photo: Fremantle Media/REX/Shutterstock)

I’ll confess, though, that I was also a bit late joining the Zombie cavalcade. For years, I’d considered them a three-hit wonder: five middle-class English geeks in matching suits who made a few classic singles…brief candles who flickered momentarily during a whirlwind era.

Thankfully, I evolved.  While vacationing in Florida in 1986 with my brother, Steve, he played a 90-minute cassette of Zombies songs while we basked on the beach. The cassette included their three hits, of course, but it also had a beaucoup of superb songs I’d never heard. It was a eureka moment. “This band is more than meets the ear!” I remarked to the startled bikini strutting nearby, between applications of Panama Jack SPF-15 while scoping the “scenery” with binoculars.

(To this day, I never visit the beach without bringing along the five Zombies…and SPF-30, if not the binoculars.)

The Zombies only recorded for four years, disbanding in December 1967 just when the rock “revolution” was occurring. Thus, their beat-band and media-perpetuated square image—executive outfits and librarian glasses—remained static, while select other British Invasion bands had an opportunity to become “heavy.” This fact undoubtedly hurt their standing with the emerging hard rock crowd and the rock music press that followed.

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Odessey and Oracle album from 1968, with “Time of the Season” (and colorful artwork by Terry Quirk)

They also lacked a distinctive lyricist, right when words were becoming important in rock. After their initial success in 1964-65, the public seemed to turn away, despite their cranking out numerous carefully crafted songs.

Amazingly, “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit over a year after they broke up, reaching #1 on Cashbox 50 years ago this March 29 (coincidentally, the same day as the Hall of Fame induction spectacle). By that time, leader Argent had formed his hard/progressive rock band, Argent, with White along as a co-writer (notably on the Top 5 single “Hold Your Head Up” from 1972). Columbia Records begged him to reunite the Zombies to capitalize on the success of “Time of the Season.” But to his everlasting credit, he refused.

Like Argent, Blunstone continued as a recording artist, finding great solo success in Europe.  Chris White continued writing and producing, and Atkinson and Grundy became music A&R reps.  Atkinson sadly died in 2004, but the other four miraculously reunited in 2008 for the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, performing the entire record on stage for the first time ever…and, unlike most such reunion affairs, the singing and musicianship was immaculate. Presently, Argent and Blunstone record and tour together under the Zombies name.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter

(Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage)

If melody and harmony still count for something in popular music, the Zombies earned their PhD, and they’re at the top of the iceberg of 1960s British Invasion bands. Only the Beatles and Hollies achieved their harmonic depth, and only the Beatles managed such caramel-coated melodies and marbled arrangements. While their lyrics were less clever or astute than, say, Lennon-McCartney or Ray Davies (the Kinks), they blossomed on Odessey; one only has to look closely at the words to Rod Argent’s “Care of Cell 44” or “A Rose for Emily,” or Chris White’s plaintive song about a soldier’s emotions during WWI, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

If you’re unfamiliar with the Zombies beyond their three hits, and you’d like your own eureka moment, I humbly recommend Odessey and Oracle (especially vinyl), one of the great lost jewels of the ‘60s, and the Zombies’ singular contribution to the canon of classic rock albums (despite the misspelled title!). If this tickles your fancy, then proceed to the affectionately compiled CD box set Zombie Heaven, or newly released vinyl set Complete Studio Recordings; pure pop bliss of the like we will never hear again. You’ll be as pleasantly surprised as me when I heard that cassette, on the beach, way back in 1986.

While it may defy logic why it’s taken so long for the Zombies to enter the dubious Hall, and while they disappeared from the rock radar way too early, this is certainly their year, and it took a long time to come.  And below is a link to my favorite Zombies song, the moody 1965 B-side “Don’t Go Away,” written by Chris White. Note the velvety “oohs” and “aahs,” and unusual A-B-C-C-A-B structure.

Mark it on your calendar: March 29, 2019 is worldwide Day of the Zombies.

 

Bright Flower at Woodstock: An Interview with Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band

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It is Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the helicopter whirs in the smoky grey sky above the farmlands of upstate New York, U.S.A., a small group of musicians huddle inside in anticipation of another festival. They peer hesitantly through the large hole in the side of the copter. The machine suddenly turns and dips sideways. The musicians grip each other, momentarily startled…not just from the sudden turn, but also the ground below. The kelly green farmland has changed. It is now a massive multi-colored tapestry. A very large mosaic, a blanket of miniscule, colored dots on the earth’s canvas. Could tha’ be the same festival c’rowd?, the musicians undoubtedly wonder. ‘Tis a bit lairger!

The blanket below, indeed, is a crowd of people. They’re gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival, in White Lake, Bethel, New York, and road gypsies are still arriving. The merry little foursome from the British Isles, who squirmed through traffic jams for a sneak preview the day before, and are now returning by air for its Saturday performance, has no way of knowing that the three-day event, which will climax at a then-record half million people—whom it will soon sit in front of—will become a defining moment in cultural history.

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Who are the musicians? They are two confident and prodigiously talented Scotsmen; a liquid-eyed, slightly detached Scotswoman who is missing a front tooth; and a slender, raven-haired English sprite with a mild overbite and a glowing smile. They are accompanied by a hip, young, Harvard-educated American manager/producer. The musicians are, collectively, The Incredible String Band. The Englishwoman, formerly a student at the University of York—where she was head of the mountaineering club—has only recently learned how to play bass guitar. Her name is Rose Simpson.

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In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since Woodstock. There will be facsimile festivals, with musicians and concert-goers unborn when the original occurred, many of whom will be clueless as to the 1969 event’s significance, and its repercussions (positive and negative). There will be, and already are, retrospectives, tributes, nostalgic paeans, and a few critics lobbing grenades at something that still eludes, confuses, or enrages them. As that American manager, Joe Boyd, aptly told Scotland’s The Herald on the festival’s 40th anniversary: “Right-wing politicians still turn purple with rage when we talk about the Sixties. So we must have been doing something right.”

One of those right things is the music of the Incredible String Band (ISB). This band recorded twelve albums between 1966 and 1975. More esoteric than their British folk-rock peers, with serpentine arrangements and weird, off-key phrasings, their early records on Elektra are undefinable, showcasing a potent concoction of original songs imbued with Celtic balladry, English folk, Indian raga, American blues and country, Middle Eastern flourishes, Middle Earth imagistic lyrics…and often with a sly humorous sheen. And sometimes all in one song. The ISB influenced Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who occasionally dabbled in folk. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney praised them, and Judy Collins and Jackson Browne covered them. The ISB were antecedents of the World Music trends made popular by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but offered a rich lyricism.woodstock poster3

The Incredible String Band’s most fruitful years were 1966 through 1971. This fertile period produced the highly regarded folk-psychedelic relic, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), and two aural masterpieces: the evocatively titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (early 1968) and the sprawling Wee Tam and The Big Huge (late 1968). The core group were just two people: string wizards Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. But from ’68 to ’71, two others were official members, coloring the tunes with percussion and rhythm, providing ringing vocals, and mesmerizing audiences with their woodland-witch charm: Williamson’s girlfriend, Christina McKechnie (try “K’dist-INE-a Mc-CAKE-nee”), who went by the name “Licorice,” or “Liccy,” or…well…”Lic”; and Heron’s partner, Rose.

In most of the photos and videos I’ve seen of ISB, Rose practically jumps out. It’s not only her dark beauty. It’s also a look that appears to say, “I’m here accidentally, but I’m having a groovy time!” Intrigued by her, I recently got in touch. She is now writing a memoir tentatively called Scattering Brightness, and was kind enough to share her insider, fly-on-the-wall story of ISB with me, including their moment…This Moment, “different from any before it”…at Woodstock.

Here, then, is longitudes interview with the Rose of Woodstock.

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longitudes: Rose, until you met Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band in early 1968, you were leading a fairly conventional life in northern England. You were studying English at University of York, and headed the school mountaineering club. How did you become acquainted with ISB, which at that time consisted of Mike, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie?

Rose: I went to Scotland to do some snow climbing on the mountains. The snow was avalanching, so we stayed with a climbing lady, Mary Stewart, and spent time there. Robin and Lic were living there, and Mike was visiting.

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“The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.” Rose is in center, clutching the tree branch.

longitudes: Mary Stewart’s children are pictured on the sleeve of the ISB’s third, acclaimed LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. And I believe you’re one of the older “forest hippies.” Did you participate in any of the music on this record?

Rose: I think I maybe joined in on a chorus or two as one of the various people who were around, but certainly not in any formal way.

longitudes: But after a while, you did become a regular band member, contributing vocals, bass guitar, and more. How did this occur?

Rose: Mike bought me the little silver Syrian drum, and I played that at home alongside him. I’d learned violin a bit—badly—at school. Mike and Robin were playing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lic and I were with them, and we just sort of joined in, wandered on the stage with them, and carried on just as we would back home. Then, one day, Mike appeared with the Paul McCartney bass and suggested I play that, too. That was a major delight for me! Vocals were more problematic, because I was not tuneful. Joe Boyd and careful mixing helped that out. I did improve as time went by.

longitudes: ISB manager/producer Boyd, in his revealing 2010 book White Bicycles, said that “One of the most remarkable acts of pure will I have witnessed was Rose’s evolution into the ISB’s bass player.” How long did it take you to learn to play bass?

Rose: I can’t remember, I just enjoyed doing it, and it just happened along the way. I like learning new stuff. Still.

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The Incredible String Band. L to R: Mike, Rose, Licorice, Robin

longitudes: Robin and Mike wrote incredibly exotic songs and were extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists. Since you were so close to them, how did they create their amazing music? Did they crawl into a hobbit hole, cast spells, then woodshed for months on end?

Rose: They were both very different, and circumstances changed (their) techniques. Robin was more fluid and automatic. Sometimes he dreamed songs, he said, and they came complete and finished. He didn’t really spend hours repeating and reworking, but enjoyed the spontaneity. Mike was more of a craftsman, and he did want the space and silence to work. But for both, the music was their language, and that’s how they talked through the days. They didn’t need to make spells, it was just them. Very rarely they deliberately sat down and made new music, and then it usually wasn’t their best. Obviously, working a song out together was more planned and deliberate, but the original songs flowed from their days.

longitudes: You, yourself, progressed musically as well, and for the band’s fourth record, the double LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge, you play a delightful fiddle on the Cajun-influenced song “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Can you recall any details about participating on this song?

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Mike and Robin, Scottish mystics and gifted artists, pictured on “Wee Tam and the Big Huge”

Rose: I could play it tomorrow! The songs became so automatic. I always loved that, because it was so much a celebration of home and a homely relationship that had a spiritual dimension, too. I also used to enjoy how Robin’s fiddle playing spun and danced around my own. So I ended up sounding much better than I was because of his skill. It also reminded me of a holiday we took together in log cabins in New Mexico one time between gigs.

longitudes: Speaking of band social dynamics, manager Boyd says you and Liccy—Robin’s girlfriend, a percussionist, and the other backup singer, who had a languid soprano—had very different personalities. Liccy seems very mysterious. How close were you to her offstage?

Rose: Very close in daily living and the physical proximity of touring. Very far away in understanding and personality. But I admired her, too, and never did manage to break through her mystery.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned joining ISB on stage at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. ISB concerts were, from what I’ve heard, intimate gatherings, and you had a devoted following, including at Bill Graham’s Fillmore ballrooms in the states. Audience members sometimes left gifts onstage, and Boyd said they especially adored you. Can you describe a typical ISB concert?

Rose: (They were) like an evening at home, with all our stuff around, talking to each other and the audience, laughing, sometimes crying together, colour and lights all making magic around us. We were closer onstage than off it, really. I so adored their music, and watching them play, that I felt also part of the audience in some ways. And I had a great fellow-feeling with the audience, because I was pleased and happy they were there. It was the highest high, I used to say. I always felt, in the good times, that being onstage you saw the best of us all, with the daily nonsense stripped away. And it was natural for all of us, not a performance of someone else, but a projection of the people we would have liked to be all the time. But then, life gets in the way of utopias.

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Rose, with McCartney bass on her lap

longitudes: “Utopia” is a key word. Younger people today, or those who might have more traditional backgrounds (both then and now), might have trouble understanding the appeal of Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, TM, organic and communal living, casual nudity and sex, and, of course, hallucinogen use. The ISB—one of the most hippie of all the hippie bands, on either side of the Atlantic—was at the vortex of all of this. But it wasn’t all youthful naiveté and hedonism, was it?

Rose: It was naiveté, but informed naiveté. We all knew very well what a tough old life it was. But if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, then it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” We had read all the poets, etc., inspired by (what you listed) above. We understood the theory of it all, in a vague way, and we were already influenced by a post WW1 generation who had also been faced with world chaos and destruction, and saw the way forward through the same things as we did. We didn’t think through where that had taken them.

It definitely wasn’t hedonism for us, not when ISB was what we all now think of it as. We took drugs to enhance visions and learn universal truths. Sex was the way to union with the physical forces which moved the universe, as well as affirming human bonds. Nudity was unashamed closeness to each other and the physical world of nature. Communal living should realize the theories. OK, it didn’t work, and the glory fell victim to the outside world, but we did mean it and did believe it.

longitudes: You verbalize this well, and it’s a good preface to my next topic. On August 16, 1969, ISB performed at the Woodstock festival. (You may have been the only Englishwoman there!) You were slotted to perform with the acoustic acts, such as Richie Havens and Joan Baez, at 11 pm on Friday. However, due to a threat of rain that night, and the fact that Mike and Robin wanted to plug in, ISB insisted on performing Saturday, and ended up sandwiched between two raucous blues bands, Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Boyd says one of his life regrets is that he didn’t force ISB to perform on Friday, when you might have made the cut for the soundtrack or film, which would have reinvigorated your career. Do you agree with his thoughts?

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Backstage, probably soon after arriving at Max Yasgur’s farm on Friday, August 15, 1969 (Photo: Epic Rights, Inc.)

Rose: Yes, definitely. But also “reinvigorated” is a good choice of words. We were getting worn out by touring, fame was influencing the way we were, spoiling us and our relationships with each other and the audience. So, if we had gone back to ISB as it was when I met them, willing to try anything, and happy with acoustic, we could have done it. For that one time, and on that unique occasion, we could have lived again how it was…So it wasn’t Joe’s fault that Mike and Robin wouldn’t bend to circumstance and throw themselves on the kindness of the unknown masses. “Career” isn’t a good word. We had lives, not careers, but by then that was changing/changed, and soon it began to alter the whole nature of the band.

“It was naiveté, but informed naiveté…if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.”

longitudes: A few of the six songs you did for Woodstock are now on the internet. The music isn’t as strong as on ISB records, but I thought the performances had a sweetness, and showed a gentler, more pleasant side of the hippie counterculture, which at the time was such a threat to so many people. What is your remembrance of your time on stage that hot August day in 1969?

Rose: As a group, we just wanted to get it over with. We knew that it wouldn’t work with all the audience hyped up on volume and power and superb musicianship, after a (Friday) night of chaos and confusion. We had another gig in New York that night and had to get out and away. We did sort of recognize that this was special, and that the New World was dawning in some ways, but we, too, had had an awful sleepless cold and miserable night. As a group, we weren’t doing drugs to get over that. But still, to see that audience and hear a bit of what they were achieving was wonderful and amazing.

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Rose, in sheer chiffon dress, during ISB’s set at Woodstock festival

We were also sweet and gentle most of the time, and that was how we saw the hippie culture. We always worked, were not parasitic, and cared for our immediate environment and each other. We hoped for an end to war and the outrageous exploitations of capitalism, for equality amongst all people and genders, and care for the natural world as part of ourselves. As well as seeing ourselves as part of the eternal cosmic flows, etc. The time onstage was just another gig, bigger audience, but that didn’t make much difference. We didn’t get the fellowship and affection, but then that was our fault.

longitudes: Despite the difficulties ISB had, do you have any anecdotes about being backstage at Woodstock, such as meeting other musicians, which readers are probably curious about?

Rose: Not really, apart from spending the night in a wet tent with loads of people. I was told John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) was one of them, but can’t confirm. There are anecdotes, but I don’t have time right now to think it out! We didn’t, in general, hobnob much with other bands when we were on tour.

longitudes: A couple years after Woodstock, you played bass on Mike’s 1971 all-star solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, and accompanied drummer Keith Moon of the Who. Moonie is considered one of the greatest and most flamboyant drummers in rock. That sounds like it might have been a rattling experience.

Rose: I remember him playing, but don’t think I played with him on that LP. I did play with Dave (Mattacks) from Fairport (Convention, another Boyd-managed band), I know, and I was at the Keith Moon session, but his drumming was a solo effort with earphones, not a group effort. If I did play that track, it would have been separate, anyway. He was totally out of it when he came in, dragged through the door almost. But at the drum kit it was like a switch threw, and he was absolutely there, and as perfect and creative as his reputation confirms.

longitudes: Steve Winwood was impressed enough by your bass playing that he wanted you to play on one of his albums, I’m guessing with his band Traffic. Why didn’t you accept his offer?

Rose: I wasn’t a competent enough musician and Joe knew it. Joe put him off, not me, but I was grateful.

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Robin, Liccy, and Rose, onstage during Woodstock. (Note Robin’s harlequin pants and his guitar paintings.)

longitudes: Going back a bit…at the end of 1968, the band, always spiritually inclined, became converts to L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology, which eventually had a profound effect on the group and its music. Could you please touch on this experience?

Rose: I can tell you I was never a convert. I went along with them for a while, because it was that or leave ISB. I never wanted to do that. In the end, I could stand it no longer and left. I didn’t and don’t have any time for cults, and that was not a good one in my eyes. It is also uncomfortable to say these things publicly, because it does bring repercussions…and that’s not ungrounded paranoia.

longitudes: Thank you for your candor with this delicate subject. Then you left ISB in 1971, after the Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending album?

Rose: Yes. They had changed in a direction I didn’t find OK, and they couldn’t accept my non-compliance with Scientology. I was running fast and loose for a while, before.

“ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives…The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay.”

longitudes: Today, Robin and Mike continue to make music, separately. But Liccy disappeared mysteriously around 1990, and even her family has been unable to locate her. Mark Ellen of Mojo magazine wrote (probably apocryphally) that Liccy was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona desert. Robin thinks she’s a happy mother of three, with her cult of choice. What are your thoughts?

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Liccy and Mike, scattering brightness at Bickershaw Festival, near Manchester, England, 1972 (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Rose: Could be any of those. I tend to think it ended unhappily and that it did end. Lic was a musician in her way, and would have taken the opportunities that have arisen since to resurface and pursue that life. So I think she probably fell apart under the pressures of a life she was unsuited for. She was not one to accept compromises and would find an ordinary life where she couldn’t pursue her own ways (to be) a difficult one. Years with ISB probably didn’t help that, either. But she definitely could be living in some corner somewhere as a different person. Only trouble is that you need money to stay alive, and that means social contact on their terms, not yours, which was not her forte.

longitudes: Since leaving ISB, you raised a daughter, earned a PhD, became fluent in French, German, and Welsh, and were Mayoress in the seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. A staggering journey. You’re now writing a memoir with the working title Scattering Brightness. Without revealing too much, what can we expect from this book, and—pardon the pun—is the hippie bloom still on the “Rose” that once flowered with a group called Incredible String Band?

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Manager Joe Boyd, Rose, Mike, Liccy (Photo: Joe Boyd Collection)

Rose: My whole aim in writing the memoir was to make the record straight. Other people write me as part of their lives, but I did have one of my own, too, and that was different from theirs. ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives. For a girl, at a time when women had very limited freedoms of expression unless they had some social privileges—which I didn’t, at first—it was a strange life to be part of a famous band on tour. I worked it out for myself one way or another and enjoyed it a lot. I can’t see much hippie bloom on a woman my age, but I’m not going to paint it on, either.

Just as then, I value authenticity and what I think is truth (as opposed) to physical experience. I also know that memories are constructed from imaginative interpretation of events, too, however much I try to get it straight. I guess I have written what I would want my granddaughter to know if she ever decided to run off and join a band. It isn’t a magic life, although it may be a wonderful and exciting one. The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay. I don’t want to concentrate on that or destroy lovely dreams or illusions, but I just want to make us real. That should bring people closer, not distance them. They should know us better and see the weaknesses as well as all the strengths they generously attributed to us. And I don’t usurp any of the creative talent and charisma that belonged to Mike and Robin. They were the music of ISB, but Lic and I were part of the band, and we earned our keep.

longitudes: Thank you, Rose, for your time.

Rose: You’re welcome.

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(I’d like to also thank Joe Boyd, for helping arrange this interview…dedicated to Licorice.)

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Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

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Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

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Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

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Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.

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Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.

***

While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

molly stewart by mel zimmer

Photo by Mel Zimmer

 

 

Fleetwood Mac: The Forgotten Years (Re-Post)

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NOTE: I just learned Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac died Friday, at age 68.  Kirwan was an important member of the band before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in late 1974.  He played a luscious vibrato guitar, and more importantly, wrote some of the band’s best songs.  Sadly, he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and left the band in 1972.  Until he died Friday, he seemed to be a forgotten man.  Longitudes loves good songwriters like Kirwan (they’re in short supply these days).  So, I’m re-posting this 2014 essay about the Mac.  Thanks for your beautiful songs, Danny.

***

On a recent Sunday while drinking my coffee, I turned the TV to the long-running television program, “CBS Sunday Morning,” hosted by Charles Osgood. This enjoyable show always has at least one segment devoted to popular culture. Past shows have included interviews with Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. This particular show included a puff piece on the pop-rock band Fleetwood Mac. The rationale was drummer Mick Fleetwood’s recent (and 2nd) autobiography, which coincides with the band’s 61st (or maybe 62nd) reunion tour.

Full disclosure here: Fleetwood Mac isn’t one of my favorite bands. Their songs are tuneful, albeit in an effete sort of way. But “the Mac’s” unthreatening, southern California brand of rock was perfect ear sweetener for the somnolent mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, and there’s still nostalgia for that stuff amongst baby boomers. So I wasn’t too surprised to see them profiled on TV alongside segments devoted to the wedding of George Clooney and “The Timeless Allure of Swing Dancing.”

What really stuck in my craw, though, was the narrator using a sweeping statement, during a buildup to the gilded Buckingham-Nicks years, that “other band members came and went.” There was no mention of founder Peter Green. No mention of Danny KirwanJeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch… forget it. Seven different band members, eight years, and nine albums brushed aside.

So, once again, I feel the need to set the record straight. Nothing against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. But there was a band called Fleetwood Mac that existed long before those two joined in 1974 to help catapult them to superstardom. They were English. They had a curious and colorful biography, and they were very talented.

 ***

Fleetwood Mac sprouted in 1967 from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an English blues band that featured virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton was, and is, one of the most formidable blues guitarists in history. When Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers to form the legendary Cream, his place was taken by a guy named Peter Green. Not only did Green have a great first name, he also had the challenge of replacing a guitar god. Most rock critics would agree that he more than met the challenge. John Mayall felt so, too, and after only one album with Green, he encouraged Green to “go thither into the world” and form his own band.

Green did just that. Before long he selected bass player John McVie (also from the Bluesbreakers) and a drummer named Mick Fleetwood, whom he knew from two earlier bands. For added punch, he added Elmore James-influenced slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Being a humble guy, leader Green named the band after his rhythm section… neither of whom were songwriters!

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

This early version of Fleetwood Mac released three studio albums: FLEETWOOD MAC, MR. WONDERFUL, and the double album THEN PLAY ON. At this juncture their music emphasized blues-based rock, and they had a reputation for being a dynamic live act. Green was a powerful guitarist and had a distinctive guttural voice that perfectly complemented his blistering guitar licks. He was also a skilled songwriter, going from the sublime (“Man of the World” and “Albatross)” to the earthy [“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)”] and “Oh Well”) to the mysterious (“Black Magic Woman,” which was covered by West Coast band Santana and became their signature song). Jeremy Spencer was also notable. He often closed the band’s shows by doing old rock ‘n’ roll numbers and mimicking people like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The band was a regular attraction at 60s-era ballrooms like the Shrine Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Boston Tea Party.

Then the first tragedy occurred. Like so many creative artists from that era, Green began experimenting with LSD. And like Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) before him, he became a casualty of the drug. He began wearing long robes on stage and drifting off into endless guitar solos. Although the undisputed leader of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had to leave the band he had founded. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and entered a mental hospital. In the late 1970s, there was a rumor he was working as a gravedigger.

Some people seem to pull an ace out of their sleeve just when it’s needed. Fleetwood Mac’s ace was a guitarist named Danny Kirwan, whom Green had enlisted before the THEN PLAY ON album. Although Kirwan wasn’t the singer or instrumentalist that Green was, he was (at least to these ears) the best songwriter the band ever had. Kirwan guided the band through the next three records: KILN HOUSE, FUTURE GAMES, and BARE TREES.

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

Kirwan played a unique vibrato guitar and was responsible for some of the group’s most melodic songs, gorgeous gems like “Dragonfly,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy,” “Earl Grey,” “Woman of a Thousand Years,” “Bare Trees,” “Sunny Side of Heaven,” “Dust,” and others. For support, Kirwan leaned on John McVie’s wife, Christine Perfect McVie, who’d sung for the blues band Chicken Shack and joined the Mac during the KILN HOUSE sessions (and who created the striking artwork for that album sleeve). One of her songs, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from the BARE TREES sessions, became a staple of the band’s repertoire.

Kirwan, however, was always a little unstable. He was a heavy drinker and frequently succumbed to major mood swings. He was fired in 1973 after one particularly violent outburst. He later made three solo albums, the first two of which are very good (though not many people have heard them…they’re available for listening on YouTube, including the lovely “Cascades“).

Spencer, too, had quit in 1971 during a tour. While in Los Angeles, he’d gone out to buy a magazine, then disappeared for several days. The group later discovered he’d met a stranger on the street corner, who’d convinced him to renounce his former life and convert to a religious cult known as the Children of God.

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Fleetwood Mac circa 1972. From left to right, John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood

Fleetwood Mac’s seventh and eighth studio albums were PENGUIN and MYSTERY TO ME. They were a bit of a letdown after the creative Green and Kirwan years, but the latter LP had at least one great song in “Hypnotized,” which became a favorite on American FM radio. This tune was written and sung by Bob Welch, an unknown Californian who’d joined the Mac just after KILN HOUSE. Welch wasn’t on a songwriting par with Kirwan, but he helped in three ways: he provided vocal and writing support; he eased them into the American market with radio-friendly material like “Sentimental Lady” (which Welch later re-recorded as a solo artist, becoming a Top 10 hit); and – most significantly – he convinced them to move their offices from London to Los Angeles.

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BARE TREES, one of Fleetwood Mac’s best records

Welch was the last significant member to join Fleetwood Mac, until Nicks and Buckingham in ’74. He quit the band after the ninth album, HEROES ARE HARD TO FIND, when he became tired of touring, as well as fighting a legal battle over ownership of the band’s name (in another strange twist in the band’s history, Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davies, to fulfill a contract obligation, sent out a fake Fleetwood Mac on tour in 1974; Fleetwood later claimed he knew nothing about the ruse. This fake band later changed their name to Stretch and had a No. 16 hit with “Why Did You Do It?” which was aimed at Fleetwood).

In late ’74, Fleetwood made the acquaintance of American Lindsay Buckingham, who’d recorded an album with his then-girlfriend, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks. He asked Buckingham to join the band to replace Welch. Buckingham agreed, but only if he could bring along Nicks. Fleetwood nodded “Yes,” and Fleetwood Mac’s long mystery train finally rolled toward that nebulous place where English blues musicians, Wall Street mercantilists, and inaugurated U.S. presidents get together to harmonize.

 ***

Today, founding member Peter Green keeps a low profile. But as late as 2010, he was doing short tours with his own band. In its list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine placed him at No. 38. Mojo Magazine ranked him No. 3.

Jeremy Spencer is still associated with the Children of God (now called Family International). He’s lived all over the world, has jammed privately with both Fleetwood and John McVie, and in 2009 appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Bob Welch took his own life in 2012. His widow said he was in intense pain after recently undergoing unsuccessful spinal surgery. She thinks his pain medication may have also contributed to his suicide. In 1998, Welch was not included with other band members for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). He’d earlier filed a lawsuit against the band for underpayment of royalties, and he believed that Fleetwood and the McVie’s convinced the hall to blackball him.

Not much is known about Danny Kirwan. According to Wikipedia, his mental health declined after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1973 (he was supposedly homeless for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s). Unlike Welch, Kirwan was inducted into the RnRHoF with other members.  But he didn’t show up at the ceremony. John McVie was quoted as saying that a Fleetwood Mac reunion with Green and Spencer is a possibility, “but I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart.”

 

first album

The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

50 years

cover

Longitudes certainly enjoys 50th anniversary specials. But can you blame me? I was a nipper in the 1960s, so I have fond memories of that time. And in 1968, I lived in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown music ruled the world, and the Detroit Tigers took the World Series. I can claim that I actually knew hitting legend Al Kaline, because his kid got shot up by the same allergist as me.

1968 was a violent year in America, but there are some good things that occurred.

However… this latest installment in ‘60s nostalgia boards the QE2 to sail “across the pond.” It profiles a record by a Brit band that pulled the difficult trick of marrying style with substance, which are usually mutually exclusive, and very few rocksters have been able to combine both. Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Hendrix, Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash come to mind. All made great music but were also visually dazzling.

Another is the Small Faces, a limey band that literally “carried the colours,” at least in England, for the mid-’60s British Invasion jump-started by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Four working-class geezers, three of whom hailed from London’s rough East End, the Small Faces were the prototypical Mod band.

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The Small Faces. L to R: Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

“Mod,” short for modern, was an English youth movement that began in 1959, similar to American subcultures like beat or hippie, but smaller, and less threatening to the status quo. Mods wore flashy clothes, drove Vespa scooters, listened to soul music, and took speed drugs. Mod gave an identity to English working-class kids. Pete Townshend documented Mod culture with the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia.

The Small Faces were Mod to the core, but could also play instruments. The band members were lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie (“Plonk”) Lane, drummer Kenney Jones, and organist Ian McLagan (who replaced Jimmy Winston early on). All four stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall. (Eric Clapton, upon meeting them for the first time, said they all looked like little “haw-bits.”) Their short stature, mischievousness, and stylish Carnaby Street threads made them the most eye-catching band in England for a time, especially beloved by screaming young girls (“birds”).

For music fans, between 1965 and 1968 the songwriting team of Marriott-Lane churned out a basketful of sophisticated pop hits in the UK, one quasi-hit in the U.S. (“Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 in ‘67), and one LP masterwork, released in May ‘68. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is considered a classic by “those in the know,” but often overlooked when classic rock albums are bandied. I could give several reasons, but I’d rather just rave on.

marriott_lane

Move over, Lennon-McCartney

The first evidence that this record is a cut above most is the packaging, as visually arresting as the band’s Mod bob haircuts, tangerine and lime-green blazers, and winklepicker shoes. Ogdens’ was the first record released in a round sleeve, designed to resemble an old tobacco tin, and the name parodies an 1899 brand of tobacco. The sleeve unfolds to four circles with moody black-and-white pics of the band members (photographer Gered Mankowitz).

Musically, Ogdens’ is equally mind-blasting. After the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Ogdens’ was the first “concept album,” preceding both S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by several months. The second side is a Ronnie Lane-inspired musical fairy tale about “Happiness Stan,” who goes on a quest, assisted by a friendly fly, to find the other half of the “dangly” moon. Linking various musical snips is daft narration by English comic Stanley Unwin, who combined the Small’s cockney slang with his own nonsensical “Unwinese” speak. (Unwin supposedly influenced John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics and poetry.)

As “knees-up” as side two of Ogdens’ is, the heavy hitters are on side one. The title song opener is an instrumental that explodes with Lane’s thunderous bass, McLagan’s altered Hammond organ, and sweeping woodwinds that include cello.

“Afterglow” showcases ace-Face Marriott’s wailing voice. In a non-racial world, Marriott’s soulfulness would be held in similar regard as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. I know what some of you are thinking: he’s bloody white, mate! But I say: bollocks, mate! Great pipes is great pipes. None other than Keith Richards and Ozzie Osbourne have cited Marriott as one of their favourite singers, and those two blokes know something about singing (amongst other things, wink-wink).small faces 2

“Long Agos and Worlds Apart” is one of only two numbers Ian McLagan wrote with the band. (The other is “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire.”) Like the Who’s John Entwistle, McLagan wasn’t prolific, but his two songs are highlights of the band catalogue. He has a world-weary voice that contrasts Marriott’s full-frontal assault. This song has a loping instrumental line that I can’t determine is organ or guitar. But it’s an intoxicating arrangement, with a dollop of appropriate psychedelia.

“Rene” is an ode to a waterfront prostitute, “groping with the stokers from the coast of Kuala Lampur.” Marriott, as cockney tour guide, leads us into working-class East London. If you think you’ve suddenly ducked inside an English music hall, it’s because, before discovering rock ‘n’ roll, Marriott was a precocious child actor/singer who starred as the Artful Dodger in the London stage musical Oliver! (He was also in several films, one of which starred a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers.) “Rene” is a rousing singalong tune, the second half a chugging instrumental where our hyper tour guide goes berserk on distorted guitar and blues harp.

“Song of a Baker” is a Ronnie Lane special. Though an inner-city lad, Lane had an affinity for rural life, and later moved to an isolated farm in Wales. “Song of a Baker” is a heavy rocker, but its heart is in the country. Some of the album’s best lyrics are “I’m depending on my labour / The texture and the flavour” and “So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour / Store some salt and wait the hour.”small faces 6

Side one closes with one of the band’s best A-sides, the theatrical “Lazy Sunday.” Marriott wrote it after his neighbors had him evicted for noisemaking. He was always trying to distance himself from his acting roots (which fortunately managed to slip through in the music), and didn’t want this song on the album, but Immediate Records had final say. It’s quintessential English, slice-of-life escapism. (Think “Penny Lane,” the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park,” and the Smalls’ own “Itchycoo Park.”) The bouncy melody is broken by cockney-esque poetry like “Cor blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones, ow’s your bird’s lumbago?”

union jack

Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed there for six weeks. (America had too much on its plate in ‘68, and missed the boat.) Due to the record’s complexity, including orchestration, the group never performed it live. This fact contributed to their demise. They knew they could never top Ogdens’. Also, Marriott wanted to get into guitar-heavy, R&B-styled rock and distance himself from the teen-scream scene (though one of the special things about the Small Faces was their playful irreverence). So, he quit the Smalls seven months after the album’s release. He joined with guitar hotshot Peter Frampton (ex-Herd) to form Humble Pie. The other three were briefly adrift, but eventually hired Ron Wood and blond, sexy Rod Stewart, both much taller and recently exiled from the Jeff Beck Group, to become the Faces.small faces 3

Whilst not as artistically satisfying as the Small Faces, both Humble Pie and the Faces achieved the popular success in North America that had escaped the Smalls.

Drummer Kenney Jones is the only Small left. Steve Marriott died tragically in a house fire in 1991; Ronnie Lane succumbed to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Ian McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. If you fancy rock bios, you’ll be gobsmacked by McLagan’s book All the Rage, which is one of the best fly-on-the-wall rock bios I’ve yet read.

As for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s been rereleased several times, on CD and vinyl, with music and packaging variations. The original UK vinyl version with the round gatefold cover is the one to get. But you may have to put your home on the market, or place one of your children into indentured servitude to afford it.

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NOTE: Perhaps you noticed I didn’t mention Hall of Fame (HOF) inductions or Rolling Stone (RS) magazine lists here. It’s become fashionable to do this—as if a coterie of music-critic aristocrats with crabs in their beards decide which music is worthy of being anointed for artistic posterity. Cor blimey, I’ve even cited their shite once or twice! But never again, mate. Inductions, lists, polls, rankings, and record sales are poor indicators for determining what is “good” music and what isn’t, by gor, and a lot of these HOF and RS critics are daft, anyway (and get dafter every year). Therefore, longitudes says “rubbish” to all of it.

By the way, I’m right chuffed to say that longitudes has deemed Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake the 19th greatest rock record ever, Steve Marriott the 9th greatest rock vocalist, Marriott-Lane the 4th greatest rock songwriting duo, and the band is in the longitudes hall of fame as a separate act from the Faces, which was a totally different band, musically.

Now, are we all sitting comfy-bowl? Good, then I’ll meet you at the Crown and Anchor, mate. I’ll be wearing pink winklepickers.

small faces 5

A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

Tom Rapp 1

“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was an enormous talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

***

Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. Fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances continued off and on, and when Rapp’s father was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

Sandra Stollman

The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

Merlin_Family Photo

(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes to perform, but that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

bill o'learygetty

(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.