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 a prodigious 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. After being fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances would continue off and on, and when he 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 “Blowing 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, and 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.

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(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.

Love “Forever Changes,” Part Two

50 years

In my last post, I raved about one of my favorite bands, Love. I gave some background on this under-appreciated group and started to discuss their third record, FOREVER CHANGES. Here, I’ll try to delve into this album in more detail. (Not an easy thing. Most reviews I’ve seen are limited to a few adulatory adjectives).

I called FOREVER CHANGES a “psychedelic masterpiece.” That description may do it a disservice. “Psychedelic” is a loaded term that implies drugs. But you don’t need hallucinatory drugs, or even a desire to musically replicate a psychedelic experience to enjoy this record.

Only one percent of wine supposedly improves after 5-10 years. Consider FOREVER CHANGES, then, like a rare bottle of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.

First, the title. It supposedly originated with a comment bandleader Arthur Lee made to an old girlfriend. She was upset after he’d dumped her, and she reminded him that he’d promised to love her “forever.” He unsympathetically replied, “Forever changes.” But add the word “Love” in front, and the phrase takes on different meaning.

The packaging of this record is also intriguing. We have a clean white background with a multi-colored, animated design of the five band members’ heads, swirling and blending into a single image. The shape resembles the continents of Africa or South America. A blending and a harmony of races, cultures, and ideas. It’s apropos of the peace/love 1960s, and still valid in 2017 (more or less…pay no attention to the wall builder in the White House).

On the first two Love records, Lee’s forceful vocals, or Ken Forssi’s pounding bass dominated the mix. On FOREVER CHANGES, the vocals and instrumentation are more subdued and democratic. The predominant instruments are acoustic guitar and orchestral strings. This is rock music, however, so there’s electric guitar. But like my blogging friend Jim the Music Enthusiast noted, the electricity is used more for punctuation than overt statement.

Whisky-a-Go-Go concert poster, circa 1966, showing Love, Sons of Adam, and Buffalo Springfield

There are minor string and horn arrangements, and like SGT. PEPPER, they seem to organically grow from the song, rather than being plunked down indiscriminately. The arranger for the strings and horns was one David Angel, who had done theme music for TV shows like Lassie. But the melodies themselves were hummed to him by Arthur Lee, who had total control of the sessions.

Lee was an oddity in many ways. He wore untied combat boots instead of Beatle boots. According to one-time drummer Snoopy, he liked to stroll through the Hollywood hills with a harmonica, imitating bird songs. But in a world of sunshine and hippies, he was suspicious of peoples’ motives. He had a sensitive side (he wrote lines like “We can love again/Only God knows when”), but he also cast a wary glance at a lot of the forced “good vibrations” around him. So there’s considerable questioning on FOREVER CHANGES.

You go through changes
It may seem strange
Is this what you’re put here for?
You think you’re happy
And you are happy
That’s what you’re happy for?

(from the song “You Set the Scene”)

But questions were everywhere in late 1967. The Vietnam War was at a crescendo, and there are many veiled (and unveiled) references to that war in FOREVER CHANGES.

While performing in San Francisco, the band had visited a bar and met a recently returned Vietnam vet. He went into detail about what gunfire was like, and he described how blood looked after it gushed from an open wound. Lee didn’t forget this disturbing image. He later worked it into the song “A House is Not a Motel:”

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools of walls will be ringing

More confusions,
blood transfusions
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

In a few lines, Lee forecasts “Full Metal Jacket,” conveys the nebulousness of the war, and describes how its ugliness had crept into American homes. And in “You Set the Scene,” he presents a challenge:

Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging
And for anyone who thinks it’s strange
Then you should be the first to want to make this change
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game
Do you like the part you’re playing?

Not so much in these superficial and distracted days of smartphones and tweets, but in 1967 this was a major question. Youth, minorities, women, gays, and even soldiers and white-collar executives were challenging the parts they were expected to be playing. Does your career give you personal fulfillment, not just material satisfaction? Are you content with your social position? Your sexuality? Are you willing to play “follow the leader”? Do you like what’s happening in the country and in the world? If your answer is “No,” why not change or rearrange?

“The Daily Planet” is one of two songs where the studio group Wrecking Crew supplanted the regular Love band (the other song is the Johnny Mathis sendup “Andmoreagain”). Lyrically and musically, it’s like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” combining several dissimilar arrangements into one song, and exposing the ludicrousness of life through a snapshot of daily monotony:

In the morning we arise
And start the day the same old way
As yesterday, the day before,
And all in all it’s just a day like all the rest
So do your best with chewing gum
And it is oh-so repetitious waiting on the sun

Love on same bill as Ian Whitcomb and Van Morrison’s Them, circa 1966

Lee, an often-imperious bandleader, deigned to allow guitarist Bryan MacLean two songs on FOREVER CHANGES: “Alone Again Or,” released as a (failed) single, and “Old Man.” Both are gently sublime and offer a nice counterpoint to Lee’s more incisive material. “Alone Again Or” is many Love fans’ favorite song, a mature and mysterious tune with touches of Spanish guitar, and a Tijuana Brass-styled horn break. “Old Man” is similar to Neil Young’s later, much more popular song of the same title. It may be more than coincidence, since Young was at one time considered as producer for FOREVER CHANGES.

(In 1997, Sundazed Records released a collection of Love-era MacLean demos that MacLean’s mother had discovered, on the album Ifyoubelievein. They were followed in 2000 by CANDY’S WALTZ. These minor-key romance songs are amazingly perceptive and ingenuous, and it’s a shame Arthur Lee vetoed them from Love).

Two other songs on FOREVER CHANGES that I should mention are “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” and “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” I won’t make an attempt to understand why “hummingbirds hum” or the significance of “pigtails in the morning sun.” I’ll just say, “Why can’t musicians create imaginative song titles like this anymore? Is it that difficult? Seriously, do we have to bring back Owsley acid?”

***

If I was stranded on a desert isle and only had a certain number of records to spin on my self-propelled turntable in my palm tree perch, I’d probably choose either of the first two Love albums, LOVE or DA CAPO, because they’re so much fun to listen to. FOREVER CHANGES doesn’t have their exuberance. But it does have a musical sophistication, an enticing marriage of instrumentation, arrangements and words that, along with new music by Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett and others, helped push popular songwriting into terra incognita. FOREVER CHANGES never sold many units, but it’s music that holds up very well 50 years onward.

The band broke up after FOREVER CHANGES. It’s the old story: drug abuse and interpersonal squabbles. But maybe they were also just exhausted. Arthur Lee later formed other Love bands, but it wasn’t the same. Years ago, the late Ken Forssi proudly told me: “We could do no wrong…We had something, and they call it magic.” I believe him.

Thanks for permitting me to share my love of Love. In closing, I’ll allow Love to have the last word. This elliptical slice is from “A House Is Not a Motel.” Until next time, Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, and I’ll see you down on Go-Stop Boulevard with Plastic Nancy:

You are just a thought that someone
Somewhere, somehow feels you should be here
And it’s so for real to touch,
To smell, to feel, to know where you are here.

Love “Forever Changes”

50 yearslove story 3

Scanning my recent posts, I can see I’ve been laying on the hot sauce pretty thick lately: xenophobia, white supremacy, Vietnam War, religion… ouch.

Maybe it’s time for a music break.

Earlier this year I profiled four albums on their 50th anniversaries. I picked them because I love good rock music, and these records are some of the best that rock has to offer. They include the debut albums by the Doors, the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd, plus that perennial list-topper, the Beatles’ SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.

Now, I’d like to review a record that is far less popular than PEPPER. It’s not nearly as influential, either. But I consider the music just as good, if not better. It’s strange that so few people know about it.

The record is FOREVER CHANGES by a band called Love. It was released on November 1, 1967.

Sixties-era rock critics, who are getting fewer each year, justly regard Love as one of the great West Coast bands, right there with the Beach Boys, Byrds, Doors, and Grateful Dead. But for the past 50 years, Love has been all but ignored on American FM radio – where most American rock fans get their music. Like certain American jazz and blues artists forgotten in their homeland, Love is more popular outside of the states. And since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame appears to show no interest in this great band, it’s up to cultists like me to spread the word.

Much of Love’s latter-day fame rests on the band’s third album, FOREVER CHANGES, considered by those in the know a psychedelic masterpiece. I’ll attempt to review it here, but I should probably first offer some biography, and (try to) explain why I love Love, from their evocative name to their unique mix of music and words.

***

Love was formed in Los Angeles in 1965. They were originally called the Grass Roots, until another (less talented) band stole that name. Led by an African-American named Arthur Lee, a former record producer who had worked with Jimi Hendrix when Hendrix was still “Jimmy,” Love was the first integrated rock band (Butterfield Blues Band was also mixed-race, but their music was closer to urban blues than rock).

Love was the first rock band signed to Elektra Records, a label previously known for its impressive roster of folk artists. In 1965-66, Love was one of the most popular bands on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. They performed at hole-in-the-wall clubs like Brave New World and Bido Lito’s, and crowds queued in the street to get in to see them. Neil Young (then in Buffalo Springfield) was a fan, and Jim Morrison cited Love as one of his favorite bands. Morrison later co-opted Arthur Lee’s brooding, punkish singing style.

Love’s first eponymous album included one of the first versions of the garage-band standard “Hey Joe,” as well as one of the first anti-drug songs, “Signed D.C.,” about the band’s original drummer, who was often too strung out to make gigs. The record also included a cover of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “My Little Red Book,” which Lee had heard via English band Manfred Mann’s version in the movie WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? Lee’s version was less poppy and more sneering, though. Bacharach heard it and, not surprisingly, hated it. (Much, much later, Bacharach collaborated with Elvis Costello. What’s up with that?).love poster

Invited on Dick Clark’s popular music show American Bandstand, Love lip-synced “My Little Red Book” and “Message to Pretty.” For the performance, Lee wore sunglasses with different-colored, polygonal lenses.

The album LOVE featured a strong folk-rock, Byrds-ish sound, but there were also odd splashes of acid and surf. I interviewed two members of Love, at different times, and each admitted this record was merely their club act transferred to the studio. In my opinion, it’s one of the lost treasures of Sixties rock.

The band added a second drummer and a flute/sax player for their second album, DA CAPO, bringing the lineup to seven members. The second side of this LP has another first: a 19-minute sidelong cut, a blues jam called “Revelation” that Love frequently performed live. But the real goodies are on side one: “Stephanie Knows Who,” “Orange Skies,” 7 and 7 Is,” “¡Que Vida!,” “The Castle,” and “She Comes in Colors.”

I have a reputation for being frank, sometimes to my own detriment. I won’t stop now. I’ll frankly say that side one of Love’s album DA CAPO is one of the most perfect sides of music ever recorded (“Orange Skies” and “7 and 7 Is” are alone worth the price of a boxed set). Proto-punk, flamenco, bossa nova, free jazz, bubblegum, lounge, baroque pop, and acid rock all merge seamlessly on these six songs (and the categories”punk,” “lounge,” and “baroque pop” didn’t even exist then). For “She Comes in Colors,” Lee nicked part of the melody of the Rolling Stones song “Lady Jane.” The Stones heard it, then borrowed the lyrics of Love’s song for “She’s a Rainbow.” Trust me when I say “She Comes in Colors” far surpasses either Stones composition.

I could rhapsodize for hours about these six songs, but my stated goal is to review FOREVER CHANGES, so I’ll stop the blubbering. I’ll just say that “7 and 7 Is” became Love’s highest charting song, reaching #33 on the Billboard charts in the summer of ’66. It’s one of the few songs, along with the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” where the drums are the lead instrument. It took Lee and drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer over 40 alternating takes to perfect the turbo-charged drum pattern, which may explain why the song ends with a recording of an actual atomic bomb blast. This song is punk rock with panache, conceived while Johnny Rotten was possibly still listening to the Monkees.

After DA CAPO, Love was right on track. The band had a minor hit. Lee was a colorful and confident frontman, and exceptional songwriter, with an intoxicating aura of danger and strangeness. Guitarist Bryan MacLean was also a talented writer, specializing in well-crafted songs about romantic love, chocolate, and orange skies, a sort of Paul McCartney to Lee’s John Lennon. Love also had the respect of its peers, and was making regular jaunts up the California coast to dazzle Haight-Ashbury stoners at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom.

Other Los Angeles bands of the 1960s had become, or were becoming, household names: Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, Doors. Arthur Lee and Love were just as talented as any of them.

But several things happened that kept Love locked in the underground:

First, they were unreasonably hostile to interviewers… when they allowed themselves to be interviewed.

Second, leader Lee had already been burned in the record business, and he was afraid of making the wrong moves, to the point where the band was paralyzed, never venturing outside the comfortable confines of the Golden State.

Third, although they’d been invited to perform at the seminal, career-making Monterey Pop Festival, they turned down the offer. (David Crosby of the Byrds acknowledged them while introducing “Hey Joe”).

Fourth, Elektra Records was busy promoting its new act, the Doors, leaving Love to “sit here and rot,” according to bassist Ken Forssi.

And fifth, the band members were squabbling over royalties (Lee had set himself up for the biggest cut). They were also drifting into hardcore drug use.

When it came time to make a third album, as Forssi relates, “They had to find a time when we were not too high, when we could be found, when the studio was available.” At first, the only Love member present in the studio was leader Lee, surrounded by session musicians, including members of the famed Wrecking Crew. When the other four were finally gathered together (at this point, the band consisted of Lee, MacLean, Forssi, lead guitarist John Echols, and drummer Michael Stuart) … and they saw that session players had usurped their roles… they realized what they were about to lose.

Engineer Bruce Botnick remembers tears being shed. Forssi said they finally came to their senses and pulled together one last time to grind out what he called Love’s “white album.”

(As usual, I’ve rambled too long… please stay tuned for side two of my essay, when I’ll discuss the music on that white album, FOREVER CHANGES.

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The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Thoughts in Woods…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

ken-burns_helicopter

The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

joe mcdonald

Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

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Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

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Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier for peace who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

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The Velvet Underground and Nico

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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.

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Promo photo of Velvet Underground (and Nico). L to R: John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker

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

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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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Pearl

50 years

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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

Book Talk: Harper Lee and John Densmore

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This is an unlikely pairing of authors, I’ll admit. A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a ‘60s rock drummer?? But each has a couple interesting books in the news, so I’d like to talk about them.

First, Harper Lee. She is, of course, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d rank this book in the Top 10 of American novels (and the film, starring Gregory Peck, is just as good). It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of how three children lose their innocence during the Jim Crow era in an isolated Alabama town (think moonshine, racial violence, rural poverty and weirdness… classic Southern Gothic stuff). “Mockingbird” was darkly compelling, alternately grotesque and transcendent, and it took America by firestorm when it was published in 1960.mockingbird book

But Lee was never comfortable as a celebrity, and she disappeared from public view long ago – not unlike her ghostly character Arthur “Boo” Radley. She never wrote another book.

However, this week the 88-year-old was pulled into the spotlight when news of a second book by her appeared. It’s called “Go Set a Watchman,” and Lee actually penned it before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It deals with the main character, Scout. But instead of being a young tomboy, Scout’s a mature woman who revisits her hometown to visit her father, Atticus Finch (the Christ-like hero of “Mockingbird”). Lee intended this book to be her debut, but her editor wisely convinced her to instead focus on a story dealing with flashbacks to Scout’s youth. The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The announcement of the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” has been met with skepticism and criticism. Was Lee pressured to authorize the release? Did the recent death of Lee’s elder sister Alice, who was her firewall against public scrutiny, influence the publication? Will the book, a fledgling attempt by an amateur writer whose editor shelved it, tarnish Lee’s legacy?

Times have changed since 1960. At one time, books – good, bad, or indifferent – were honored upon their release with insightful opinion by knowledgeable literary reviewers. But as one New York Times writer noted, “Internet culture, where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic’s 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field.”

Harper Lee is from the “old school.” In 2006, she famously emerged from seclusion and wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey about her fascination with books when she was a child.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.

I’m with you, Ms. Lee.

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________________________________________________________

“To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960. Five years later, two UCLA film students joined two Maharishi adherents and formed a band called The Doors. They released one of the most phenomenal rock music albums in history. This musical debut was just as darkly compelling and powerful as Harper Lee’s literary debut.

I’m a big fan of The Doors. I bought their eponymous first record after my freshman year in college (summer of 1978). It was just before a huge Doors revival, which was ignited by publication of singer Jim Morrison’s sordid biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the spoken poetry album “An American Prayer,” and the movie “Apocalypse Now,” which featured the band’s music.

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I liked everything about the band. Morrison’s looks and voice intrigued me (and to be honest, his mysterious early death). And as an impressionable and introspective English student, his Blake and Nietzsche-inspired song lyrics also appealed to me. But I especially liked the music. Clever, tight arrangements. Moody vocals. Ray Manzarek’s Tin Pan Alley keyboards. John Densmore’s creative jazz percussion. And guitarist Robbie Krieger had penned perhaps my all-time favorite song, “Light My Fire,” a stoned psychedelic classic that sent shivers through my tiny frame when I first heard it on the radio in 1967.

Today, I occasionally jump on the nostalgia train and pull out one of my old Doors records. Only recently I learned that drummer John Densmore had self-published a book in 2013: “The Doors: Unhinged.” Most of the stuff I’d already read about Morrison and the band I considered sensationalized junk. But I did sort of like Densmore’s earlier book, “Riders on the Storm,” a confessional memoir about his rocky relationship with the mercurial Morrison. So I decided to look into “Unhinged.”

The subtitle of the book is “Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” And as I soon learned, this legacy literally went on trial, because Densmore actually took his two surviving bandmates to court. These shenanigans are nothing new. unhingedMembers of rock bands have been squabbling in court ever since The Beatles crumbled. But usually it’s a fight over royalty payments. What makes Densmore’s legal battle unique is that he was fighting not to make money. Yes, you heard right.

In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger teamed to form The Doors of the 21st Century, a band devoted to resurrecting old Doors songs. Problem was, all of the advertisements displayed “of the 21st Century” in microscopic print! Also, Morrison’s name was frequently invoked to advertise the band – without his permission, of course.

Densmore contacted Krieger to complain that his and Manzarek’s actions stank of exploitation. But Manzarek and Krieger persisted. Densmore managed to enlist the help of Morrison’s family (including Morrison’s elderly father, George Stephen Morrison, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy), and they filed a lawsuit. This book discusses the long trial, which at one point resorted to the seedy and timeworn tactic of character assassination.

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The short-lived Doors of the 21st Century. L-R: Manzarek, Ian Astbury, Krieger, Stewart Copeland (ex-Police)

But there’s a larger theme to Densmore’s book. Densmore asks “How much money is enough?” for people who are already wealthy. He discusses what he calls the “greed gene,” which propels some individuals and corporations to amass and hoard ungodly amounts of money, while others struggle to eke out a living.

Of course, Densmore’s not a scientist or economist, and he uses the term “greed gene” only in a rhetorical sense. And this book won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. But it’s refreshing because, despite being a wealthy rock musician, Densmore comes across as an “everyman,” and an unlikely crusader. You don’t often hear rock stars turning down easy money to stand on principle. But the man backs up what he says.

Case in point: as the trial progressed, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for refusing to co-sign a contract with Cadillac, who wanted to use the Doors song “Break on Through” for a TV commercial. Densmore was the only one of the three to balk (“What’s next,” he asks, “’Break on Through’ to a new deodorant??”). He didn’t want to cheapen the band’s legacy, nor the integrity of one of their strongest songs. In the process, he showed how much integrity and strength he has: the Cadillac deal would’ve grossed the band $15 million!

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

But what does the “legacy” of Jim Morrison have to do with all this? According to Densmore, when Morrison was alive the band was approached by Buick, who wanted to use “Light My Fire” in one of their commercials. The other three were all eager to sign. But the Lizard King nixed the idea. He also insisted the band share equally in the song copyrights, and added a clause to their contract that each of the members had veto power. In true Sixties, hippie counterculture fashion, he wanted the band to be a self-contained democracy. No dictators, no power plays, no selling out to corporate America. The music would take precedence over the money. Sort of a rare thing these days, don’t you think?

One could argue that all this was just pie-in-the-sky idealism. After all, another part of Morrison’s legacy was anarchy and self-destruction. But the fact that Densmore still lives by the band’s original credo is, to me, admirable. Yes, the hippies made mistakes. Many were hangers-on, young hedonists merely latching onto fashion. But Densmore believes the Sixties also planted a lot of seeds, some little and some big, and many of them are now in full bloom… or, if not, they just need a little fertilizing to help them grow. He urges all of us to get out our “watering cans.”

Like Harper Lee, John Densmore is also “old school.” Which is fine by me.

By the way, he won the court case.

 

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The Origins of BEATLEMANIA

50 years

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John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr… collectively, The Beatles.

I wasn’t sure how to begin this essay about the Beatles’ debut appearance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964.  There are so many clichés.  The two biggest are probably “You just had to be there,” and “A watershed moment.”  Both are true, of course.  Even the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers can agree with the latter statement.  I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t think of another artist more important to 20th century music.  That includes Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Haircut One Hundred.

But I don’t think today’s youth can begin to understand the “You just had to be there” sentiment.  In 1964 there were no i-Tunes, MP3s, or YouTube.  No PCs with internet.  No texting or tweeting.  No cable television flashing repetitive images of the latest industry-groomed pop sensation.

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Elvis, during rehearsal with Steve Allen in 1956

Instant global communication was decades away.  All we had were some still images, a couple pinup-style fan publications like “16 Magazine,” AM radio, and word of mouth.  If you were lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a musical act on variety television, like the shows hosted by early TV legends such as Sullivan, Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

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When rock & roll took off in the mid-50s, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others made limited TV appearances.  But these earliest rock performers were typically treated like baubles whose popularity would soon fade.  And there was often friction between the hosts and performers.  For example, Steve Allen was a jazz snob who took a dim view of rock music.  So when Presley performed “Hound Dog,” Allen poked fun at the song by dressing The King in a tuxedo and having him serenade a basset hound.

Sullivan, famously, had issues with Diddley and Buddy Holly.  He confronted Holly backstage over the choice of his performing “Oh Boy!,” which he thought was too wild.  Holly stood his ground and insisted on performing it, however.  Sullivan’s response – believe it or not – was to mispronounce Holly’s name as “Hollered,” and to deliberately turn off the mike to his electric guitar.

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Buddy Holly, looking away from Ed Sullivan in 1958

Sullivan’s confrontation with Bo Diddley was even worse.  He wanted Diddley to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s “Sixteen Tons,” but Diddley instead did his own R&B hit, “Bo Diddley.”  According to Diddley, Sullivan afterwards told him “You are the first black boy that ever double-crossed me.”  Diddley came close to physically attacking Sullivan, but his manager held him back.  Diddley never again appeared on Sullivan’s show.

After the first wave of ‘50s rock & rollers, there was a lull in rock music.  Elvis had joined the army, Holly had died in a plane crash, and the hits were drying up for Lewis,  Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others.  So for a few years, the charts were dominated by crooners and girl groups like the Shangri-Las, Shirelles, Ronettes, and Crystals, who didn’t play instruments nor write their own material.  Many of the singles were written by “Brill Building” partnerships like Goffin-King, Lieber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich – and the greatest of all, Bacharach-David. (and, weirdest of all, infamous “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector).

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Brill Building songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin

The male singers were mainly vanilla pretty boys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Vinton.

Folk music was bubbling out of Greenwich Village, but it had yet to shed its collegiate, coffeehouse veneer and hybridize with rock.

Surf music had a little excitement, but other than the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and a few others, it was primarily instrumental and had difficulty catching fire nationally.

So the stage was set for something new.  A band that looked and sounded different.  Whose members played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, who were also physically attractive and had personality.  Who combined the vigor and danger of early, electric rock & roll with catchy melody and clever harmony.

But absolutely nobody could’ve predicted the cultural explosion that occurred soon after Pan Am Yankee Clipper Flight 101 landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964.  Two days later, on Sunday evening, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to hear these words:

Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.

Don’t touch that dial!

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