The Doobie Brothers: Born With it in Their Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Producer Ted Templeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Desert Isle Albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 10 Desert Isle Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ohio Yankee Camps at John Lennon’s House

Mendips map2

The address is 251 Menlove Avenue.

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

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

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

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

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

Mendips on Menlove Ave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete and John2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strawberry Field gate

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

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

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

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

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

St. Peters Church_Woolton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woolton Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

50 years

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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The Velvet Underground and Nico

50 years

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Hey white boy… you chasin’ all women around? You wanna make love to the scene? Take a drag or two.

 Oh, pardon me, sir, I don’t know just where I’m going. I’m weary. I’m just looking for a dear, dear friend of mine.

 You better watch your step, little boy. ‘Cause everybody knows, when midnight comes around, all the angels scream.

The lines above aren’t from a pulp novel. They’re snippets of lyrics that I borrowed from a slab of vinyl released 50 years ago today.

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New York City, December, 1965. A cold wind slices through the city night.  Anonymous, grey people wrapped in overcoats shuffle along a sidewalk on West 3rd Street.  They move hurriedly, hunched over from the cold wind, oblivious to the  small nightclub with a tacky sign above the door that looks like a leftover prop from a bad ’50s horror movie: “Café Bizarre.”

Inside this little matchbox-sized café, glasses clink, voices murmur, and cigarette smoke clouds the room.

On a little stage toward the back, a Mephistophelian looking man with long, greasy black hair and wraparound sunglasses toys with what looks like an electric violin. Another man, taller, casually tunes a guitar. Behind him, protecting a shabby drum kit, sits an innocent looking girl with a Beatle haircut. At the center of the little group stands a collegiate looking kid with curly hair, tight pants, and biker boots. He’s holding an enormous hollow-bodied electric guitar. He’s chewing gum. He glances at the other guitarist and cracks a mischievous smile. He then steps toward a microphone.

“Black Angel’s Death Song,” he announces to the half-empty room.

It was the last song the Velvet Underground would play at the Café Bizarre. The manager fired them immediately afterward.

50 years

The details may be slightly different, but the general picture is accurate. It was the final show by the Velvet Underground before joining Andy Warhol‘s  pop-art multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable, part of his Factory ensemble of experimental artists, junkies, transvestites, and high-society dropouts. He teamed the foursome with an exotic, beautiful European chanteuse named Nico. In 1966, after a whirlwind tour of the states, Warhol financed recording of their first album, and it was released the following year… to little acclaim, and practically non-existent sales.

But in the last 50 years, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO has come to be regarded as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and essential to any respectable record collection. The band’s name (lifted from a porno paperback found in a recently vacated apartment) is now regularly associated with adjectives like “daring,” “uncompromising,” “revolutionary,” and “influential.”

Why is this record so important? (Brian Eno famously said that only a few people bought the record when first released, but every one of them formed a band: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Deborah Harry, Jim Carroll, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and a few others). It’s not a stretch to say that the Velvets procreated glam rock, art rock, punk, alternative, industrial noise, and maybe even rap (don’t laugh… listen to the title track of the group’s second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT).

Along with leader Lou Reed’s insightful lyrics – an unholy marriage between Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot – the music on this album set the band apart from everyone else in the kaleidoscopic 1960s. It was harsh, discordant, primitive, and punctuated with blasts of distortion, feedback, and effects inspired by Welsh violist John Cale’s avant-garde studies with John Cage and LaMonte Young (best exemplified in the manic eight-minute closer “European Son”).

At the same time, there were moments of folkish tenderness, as in “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the last two sung by Nico in a voice that sounds like Marlene Dietrich on barbiturates. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Warhol’s favorite) mixes alcohol with the downers, but the straightforward lyrics, about a shunned and lonely Cinderella (Reed’s lyrics were gender-neutral) are incredibly sad and touching.

Even before teaming with Warhol, the Velvets were testing their experimental sounds in the subculture of underground art-film New York, and Reed had already composed his most notorious songs dealing with hard drugs: “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as the sado-masochistic “Venus in Furs.” The lyrics and two-chord makeup of “Heroin,” in particular, are as striking today – and maybe even more relevant – as when they were first written:

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow

And I really don’t care anymore

Ah, when that heroin is in my blood

And that blood is in my head

Then thank God that I’m as good as dead

As with all great songs, “Heroin” has a musical structure that expertly punctuates the words and song theme. The song starts slowly, but gradually speeds up. Two simple guitar chords with a pounding bass drum, like a slow heartbeat. A sinister, single-note drone (Cale’s electric viola, strung with guitar strings) enters and becomes increasingly loud (the chemical pulsing through the blood?). The heartbeat grows faster, the guitar and drums become more frenetic… then slow down… then build again.

At the song’s climax, Cale’s viola goes completely berserk, right when Reed (in Dylan-ish talk-sing) begins confessing about “dead bodies piled up in mounds” and “thank your God that I just don’t care.”

Drug addiction is one of the tragedies of modern times. Fortunately, I don’t have experience with hard drugs, nor the harrowing lifestyle around them, so I can’t vouch for how accurate “Heroin” is in its depiction.  But of all the many rock songs devoted to the subject, this song, for me, seems the most frighteningly accurate (and there are many who agree with me).

Even the less celebrated songs on this album are noteworthy, and provide the glue that holds things together. “There She Goes Again” is the closest thing to pop here, and it kicks off with a halting ten-note intro borrowed from the soul shaker “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye. “Run, Run, Run” is a chugging little vignette of New York City street life, a sort of taste test for the group’s later 17-minute juggernaut “Sister Ray” (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT), and it’s filled with Reed-patented dysfunctionals with names like Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry.

And “Black Angel’s Death Song” – the song that ended the Velvets’ brief nightclub period – is an inscrutable, imagistic poem, probably written while Reed was an English student at Syracuse University. With a classic, typically menacing Reed vocal, Cale’s viola, and a sound effect like an ejaculating air hose, this is a song that’s primarily concerned with mood, and it grows more appealing over repeated listenings.

Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, and Lou Reed

I asked a question earlier, but I don’t think I adequately answered it. There are a LOT of reasons why this record is so special. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I would use the word “honesty.” You take it or you leave it. There’s no bullshit here, unlike in so much other “popular” music.

Other musical artists – I won’t mention names – have crassly exploited shock effect and darkness for commercial reasons. But they’re poseurs. Unlike Lou Reed, they don’t possess any empathy for the people they sing about, nor a belief in their ultimate redemption. Reed wasn’t singing about caricatures and stick figures. He was empathizing with real people that he actually knew. Or that lived inside him.

If you haven’t yet heard THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO… I envy you, because it will shake your musical world a little. When I first heard this record, it was like discovering Dostoevsky after a diet of Dr. Seuss. It sounds trite, but the Velvets helped liberalize me. It was like crossing a bridge into a new territory of sounds, attitudes, and ideas. With his later songs, like “Jesus,” “Lisa Says,” “New Age,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” Reed seemed to be sending personal postcards to his listeners (and I was one of the lucky recipients).

But this album is where it all started.

Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

50 yearsthe-doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

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In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

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I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

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Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

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The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

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Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

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Pearl

50 years

janis

All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy

I’ll Have One Hurricane, One Blonde, and Some Bob Marley, Please

marley

Now that it’s getting warmer, and my wife is threatening another cruise, I’m starting to once again smell coconut oil and think of palm trees and flaming sunsets.

And since I seem to have a soundtrack for everything in my life, I’m also smelling ganja, visioning natty dread, and hearing choppy reggae rhythms.

On our last cruise to the Caribbean, I brought along a book to flip through while sunning at the pool with the other overweight Caucasians. It was The Encyclopedia of Reggae by Mike Alleyne. The rebel inside me wanted to stir it up; to flaunt my rock credentials and prove that not every hedonist was reading Fifty Shades of Grey or The Art of the Deal.book

The only favorable comment I received on my reading material was from the English couple we met. Reggae music has always been very popular in England, and the woman was adamant about expressing her appreciation for Millie Small and her 1964 bubblegum reggae hit “My Boy Lollipop.”

Sweet. But I would’ve preferred a high-five from one of the Jamaican waiters toting trays of pink-orange hurricanes and Bahama mamas. Instead, all I got were shouts of “Sippy-sippy!” and “So nice!”

So many rivers to cross.

tropical drink2

Like a lot of folks my age, I discovered reggae music in the mid-1970s, when Bob Marley and the Wailers were riding high. I already knew the pop-reggae of Johnny Nash, and Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff.” But the live version of “No Woman, No Cry” by the Wailers was the first pure reggae song I ever heard, on FM radio, while enduring hormonal changes at a boys boarding school outside Pittsburgh.

The song was a minor revelation. My roommate was slightly hipper, musically, and he gave me a 30-second crash course on reggae. Jah music, mon! I was intrigued.

Then in college I got to hear live reggae, which is the best way to hear it. I fondly remember one band in particular: I-Tal. They hailed from Cleveland, but they sounded like they’d blown in from the Government Yards in Trenchtown. The fact that they had a cute, blonde percussionist may have added to my admiration.

I also started buying reggae records: Marley and the Wailers’ EXODUS and LIVE!, Peter Tosh’s LEGALIZE IT, Bunny Wailer’s BLACKHEART MAN, and Toots and the Maytals’ FUNKY KINGSTON. I think all of these were on legendary Island Records.funky kingston

There were other records I’d heard about through the grapevine, but they were very hard to obtain. Culture’s TWO SEVENS CLASH and Dr. Alimantado’s BEST DRESSED CHICKEN IN TOWN were two that I craved. Disappointingly, both were on small Jamaican labels and available via import only, so they were hard to get and cost a king’s ransom. Back then most of my expendable cash went toward records or beer. Usually beer. I have many regrets about that (the beer, that is).

All of the records I mentioned are highlighted in that reggae encyclopedia, by the way.

Reggae followed me after college, too. I remember playing a CD of Jimmy Cliff’s classic THE HARDER THEY COME in the car one day. My then-nine-year-old son, Nick, was in the back seat with his friend, Derek. Suddenly, a spate of Rastafari gibberish exploded from the speakers. toshNick and Derek broke out laughing and asked to hear it again and again. Next thing I knew, Nick was sporting a t-shirt of Bob Marley.

Kids do the darndest things.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Burning Spear’s anthemic album MARCUS GARVEY. So reggae must still be following me. In case you’re curious, though, I’m not Rastafari, and my messiah isn’t the Emperor Haile Selassie I. My messiah is actually John Quincy Adams.

And I don’t catch a fire with collie herb. Well… at least… not in a while.

But reggae music is still a soundtrack in my life. And if anyone has a clean, affordable, vinyl copy of BEST DRESSED CHICKEN IN TOWN let’s do business. I and I will seal deal with soul shake down party.

Mon, ‘twill be so nice !!