Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

The Bonny Scot

Good stuff about one of the all-time greats.

In 1974, a drunken Scott got into an argument with members of the band he was playing with. After throwing a bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor, he took off on his motorcycle. Scott suffered a bad crash and was in a coma for several days.

By the time he recovered, he was looking for a new band. As luck would have it, a new band formed by two fellow emigrant Scotsmen, Malcolm and Angus Young, was also looking for a singer.

Bon Scott signed on to AC/DC as the frontman when their previous frontman refused to go on stage. It was through Scott’s checkered past and rebellious attitude that the band could cement itself as a raucous, crude rock group. Scott, who had been rejected from the army because he was “socially maladjusted” brought that attitude into AC/DC. And it stuck.

But the stress of constant touring and performing began to wear on Scott. Prone to alcoholism, Scott drank heavily throughout this period. Meanwhile, their album Highway to Hell broke the US Top 100 chart, making AC/DC a major act almost overnight.

For the first time, Scott knew what it was like to have some money in his pocket. But success also strained his relationship with his bandmates. Scott’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics were always a part of the band’s chemistry, but he now found himself butting heads with Malcolm and Angus over how much credit he was given for his work.

After years touring with the band, he was tired of it. And on the cusp of success, he considered leaving for good so that he could get a handle on his drinking. He would never get the chance.

Like I said, good stuff, a fair bit of which I didn’t know despite being a HUGE AC/DC fan. First time I saw ’em was on the Highway To Hell tour, back when I was a teenager; though I’ve seen them several times since, that show remains one of the most memorable of my life. Am I gonna attach a vid here, you ask? Why, of course I am.

One of my favorite tunes, from what would have to be one of Scott’s last performances.

(Via MisHum)


“Ten Songs From the ‘80s That You’ve Probably Forgotten About”

The 80’s, eh? Then it’s a safe bet I’d much rather keep right on forgetting about ’em, thanks, excepting the Joe Jackson number, which is okay with me. But the post reminded me of an excellent tune I wrote about last year, and was close to forgetting about again until I heard it on the radio the other day. Here’s last year’s post in toto; enjoy.

So the other day I heard a song on the car radio I hand’t heard in years and years but always loved. I had NO clue who did it, or what the title was; after hearing it, I had the guitar licks worked out in my head, but I could not for the life of me remember who played it. Had a couple of the guys hanging out at my place the next evening, and I played the song for ’em to see if any of them knew it. The only snippet of the lyrics I could recall was “Special love/I have for you” in the chorus, and I sang that bit along too.

But it was no use, we were all stumped. So I got to digging around on YouTube; I dunno, for some reason it just sounded to me like it might be a Badfinger song, so I did a search and started digging through the results when lo and behold, about four or five songs down, there was that distinctive guitar lick! I was so damned thrilled, I was jumping around and shouting like a fool. And now you guys get to enjoy my small victory too.

LOVE that song. It’s a genuine earwig for sure; once it’s in there, it burrows in deep, and ain’t coming out without tongs.

Know what blows my mind, though? That songs from the 80s are now “oldies” to a lot of people. I still listen to a hell of a lot of classic rock stuff from the 60s and 70s myself, along with old blues and rockabilly from an even dustier, mustier era, and swing going all the way back to the friggin’ 20s. I guess that stuff would be tantamount to Bach or Palestrina to those same folks. If they thought of it at all.

I remember working at Cheap Jack’s in NYC back in the 90s, where we were selling the ridiculously exaggerated bell-bottom jeans from the 70s as “vintage fashion.” Big bucks they brought, too; we had supermodels falling over each other to snap ’em up. I sold a few pairs to Julia Roberts once, no lie. But… vintage? It wasn’t long ago that I was wearing them godawful things myself, they couldn’t be “vintage.”

And now Cheap Jack’s, something of a NYC institution for a lotta years, is long gone too. Damn, but I’m old.


RIP, ‘Retha

Another great one gone, after a long, tough illness. I sometimes use a quote for these death notices—”May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” from Hamlet, if I remember right. But it’s most especially poignant in this case, because now that she’s joined the choir, Aretha Franklin will surely be handling all the lead lines from here on out.

Kinda spooky that the King of Rock and Roll and the Queen of Soul died on the same day, ain’t it?

Everybody knows “Respect,” of course, but this here is one of my own personal faves. The original version is great too, but this one is just so danged much fun. Note ye well, too, that this vid also features Matt “Guitar” Murphy, another legend we lost not long ago.

Rest ye well, Miz Franklin, and may God eternally bless you.

Update! Damned good obit from Kass:

The death of Aretha Franklin should remind us that great singers are more than just the soundtrack of our lives.

They lived their own lives, sang their own songs, but the thing is, it is through our own lives that we remember them, marking passages: The feel of the city on a hot night in August, that beautiful brown-eyed Sicilian girl in your car on the first date, smiling at you, the windows down, Aretha belting out “Chain of Fools.”

“I sing to the realists,” Franklin once said, “people who accept it like it is.”

And so, to be real about her passing, we know that recordings will save her voice for us. We can always find her when we need her. She’s just a click away.

But now that she’s quiet and gone, and the news is full of memories and the tributes flow and her greatest hits are playing, something happens. At least it happened to me, and if you loved her voice, maybe it happened to you.

Like a pin withdrawn from a wheel. It rolls and spins away.

A man I know who has made a success in the ruthless business of American popular music once told me that there are many great voices, but far fewer great writers.

“There are a million girls with great pipes,” he said. “But there aren’t a million songwriters who can write the music that you’ll always remember.”

Maybe so, but I think Aretha Franklin’s voice transcended all that. Hers was America’s voice, so fine, so strong, so female, a natural woman.

Amen to every word of it. Even wearing what my grandma called “house shoes” and a tatty old sweater—as in the vid above—she was nothing but pure class, and as fine as they come in every way that matters.


Down Under rocks the world!

What IS it about Australia that produces such great rock and roll, anyway? These guys have been around awhile, but I only just recently found out about ’em, and I’m glad I did.

And then there’s this, which truly is the Living End:

Nothing but badass, in three pieces and with upright bass. Of course, I’m sure I don’t even have to mention…

Couldn’t find a vid of the Howlin’ Moondoggies’ best song (“Still Alive”), but this one will certainly do.

Four sterling examples of pure, powerful Oz-rock, and you just know there’s plenty more where that came from too. So how do they do it? Maybe it’s all the deadly flora and fauna contributing to the fatalistic, cocksure, devil-may-care recklessness all good rock and roll requires. Maybe it’s their nation-of-convicts-and-rejects history. Maybe it’s all the beautiful girls. Or maybe it’s just all that strong beer. Whatever the cause, it’s wonderful…and damned near uncanny.


O sole mio

Gonna be some truly epic excerpting here, by way of warning. But this just might be the best Steyn music post ever, so if you like these anything like as much as I do you should definitely stick with it.

Trust me.

Song of the Week, marking the death one hundred years ago of a composer whose name you may not know but whose best known composition you certainly will – even if you only know it in various pop iterations from Elvis and Dino and others. When actor-director-singer-author-sculptor-goodfella Paul Sorvino and his wife Dee Dee dropped by The Mark Steyn Show, I was surprised to discover that, of all the thousands of singers who’ve sung this song, Paul has a unique connection to it, as we’ll hear.

Eduardo di Capua was born in Naples in 1865 and died there exactly a century ago – October 3rd 1917. He was a Neapolitan who wrote Neapolitan songs, some of which traveled a long way from Napoli – “O Marie” was a hit for Louis Prima and others, and, retooled as “It’s Now or Never”, today’s song became a worldwide smash for Elvis Presley. But it took a long and tortuous path before it fell into the hands of the King in Graceland. “It’s Now Or Never” has its origins in …go on, take a wild guess.


Close. The Ukraine.

Now, I hardly ever watch online videos of any kind, I have to admit. Who knows why, I just very seldom do. But I watched the one embedded in Steyn’s post, featuring Sorvino explaining his family connection with Capua and Capurro’s immortal classic, and I’m glad I did. After the vid, Steyn digs down deep:

Charles W Harrison recorded the first English-language version in 1915, but the anglophone lyric never really caught on. Half a century after Giovanni Capurro wrote the original text and several thousand miles west, three savvy Tin Pan Alleymen figured there might be a market for a real English lyric – not just a translation, but an authentic Anglo-American pop song. Al Hoffmann was a potent hit maker and king of the novelty song: His catalogue includes “Mairzy Doats (and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey)”, “Hot Diggety (dog ziggety boom! what you do to me)”, “Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen By The Sea”, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba”, “Papa Loves Mambo”, “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”, “Black-Eyed Susan Brown”, “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked A Cake (Howdja do? Howdja do? Howdja do?)”, etc, etc. But he also wrote that beautiful Sinatra ballad, “Close To You”. Leon Carr and Leo Corday are best remembered for their TV jingles, such as Dinah Shore’s longtime theme song, “See The USA In Your Chevrolet”. But in 1949 Hoffman, Carr and Corday came together to transform “O Sole Mio” into one of the first of an entire series of big arioso Italiano love songs that proved solid Hit Parade fodder through the Fifties. The big balladeer who cleaned up with the song was Tony Martin…

Not long after, Freddie Bienstock, his music publisher back in the States, flew over to see Elvis, and the young soldier told him that he really loved “There’s No Tomorrow”. He was looking ahead to getting discharged and back to the music business, and asked Bienstock to get somebody to write him some new lyrics for the tune. “Why don’t you just record the Tony Martin lyrics?” the publisher asked. Elvis said he didn’t like ’em. So Bienstock flew back to America and to the offices of Hill & Range Music. He might have run into some of the company’s other staffers, such as Ben Weisman, Ben Wise and Dolores Fuller, writers of “Rock-A-Hula Baby”. But, as it happens, the only guys who were around that day were Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder. Gold was a former sax player and member of the vocal quartet the Four Esquires who’d decided to try his hand at songwriting (he would go on to compose Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”). As for Aaron Schroeder, his career goes back to “At A Sidewalk Penny Arcade”, the song he wrote for the B-side of Rosemary Clooney’s first solo record. In the decades that followed, he discovered Gene Pitney and teamed him up with Bacharach & David for “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and he helped launch Barry White’s career after White, languishing in prison for stealing tires, heard an Aaron Schroeder song that he claimed changed his life. But, to be honest, if I had to name my own favorite Aaron Schroeder song it would be a goofy novelty number written with Guy Wood (composer of that luminous Sinatra ballad “My One And Only Love”) that got tricked out in a wild Nelson Riddle arrangement complete with swingin’ soundbites from “La Marseillaise” and transformed into a zany single for Frank in 1958:

If you turn me down once more I’ll join the French Foreign Legion
Bet you they would welcome me with open arms
First you love me, yes; then you love me, no
I don’t know where I stand
Do we march together down the aisle
Or do I march that desert sand?

Delightful as that is, it’s not a song to rest your royalties on. So today Aaron Schroeder’s reputation as a writer rests mainly on the five Number One hits he wrote for Elvis Presley – “A Big Hunk O’ Love”, “Good Luck Charm”, “I Got Stung”, “Stuck On You”, and the biggest of the lot:

It’s Now Or Never
Come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling
Be mine tonight…

Those five Number Ones were some of Elvis’s very best, and among my own personal favorites.

It was Elvis’ biggest hit, selling some 25 million copies worldwide, Number One for five weeks in the US and for eight weeks in Britain. For the rest of his life it was Presley’s personal favorite out of all his records. And it was “It’s Now Or Never” that spurred Barry White’s Pauline prison conversion from a life of crime to a life of heavy-breathing luuuuuurv ballads.

“We were the only ones sitting in the office,” recalled Wally Gold of the day Freddie Bienstock commissioned the song. “We jumped in a cab to go back to Aaron’s studio. We got the title in the cab, the melody was already written, and in half an hour we knocked off the lyric.” Considering that the only reason they needed a new lyric was that Elvis didn’t like the old lyric, you can’t help noticing that the new text is basically the old text cranked up a notch, but starting with the same central idea.

By 1960, “O Sole Mio” was out of copyright in the United States so any Tom, Dick or Harry was free to write a new lyric to it. Under British Commonwealth and European law, however, the original was still protected by copyright, and a legal dispute held up the release of “Now Or Never” through the summer and early autumn. By the time the song was released in November, demand was so huge that it entered the British charts at Number One and stayed there for two months. It was the fastest-selling single ever, and on the first Saturday of its release some London record stores were so overwhelmed that they closed their doors to all customers except those wanting the Elvis record.

Which is pretty odd when you think about it. There’s not a whiff of pre-army Presley – of “Jailhouse Rock” or “Heartbreak Hotel” – in “It’s Now Or Never”. It’s a cha-cha-flavored ballad. But Elvis had always wanted to be Dean Martin, and it’s interesting that, in one of the few instances where he didn’t merely sing what was shoved in front of his nose, he insisted on a reworking of a Dino ballad.

Not so strange really, if you know and understand that Elvis’s most compelling ambition was to be not merely a hip-shakin’ rock and roller but a serious singer of The Great American Songbook. Which makes his career all the more remarkable,starting with his original innovative blending of blues and country into rockabilly, which expanded in the RCA years into a more accessible and complex thing we now just refer to as rock and roll. He moved on from there to explore gospel, more-modern country and even a little pure honky-tonk, later putting his ever-evolving stylistic stamp on pure pop, sweeping ballads, movie-soundtrack fluff, and even show tunes.

He went on to duet with Sinatra, who had long made no secret of utterly despising both Elvis and his music, and easily held his own.

Yes, Elvis lost his way going into the 70s, both artistically and personally, for a variety of reasons. He wound up a sad mockery of his former self, a show-biz joke eclipsed first by the British Invasion and then the evolution of “rock and roll” into “rock” towards the end of the 60’s. But that dimishes his earlier achievements not one whit: the man was a true popular-music colossus, and the mark he made on the world cannot be erased. There has simply never been anyone like him, and there never will be.

Incredible as it no doubt seems, there’s even more to the O Sole Mio story yet, my profligate excerpting notwithstanding. As I said, if you dig Steyn’s music posts like I do this one’s a real pip, and you’ll want to read it all.


American anthem

This ought to be the national anthem, if you ask me.

In 1893, a Massachusetts professor called Katharine Lee Bates was giving a series of summer lectures on English literature at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs. “One day,” she recalled, “some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there.”

Professor Bates had not previously traveled in the Rockies or seen much of her country at all beyond New England, and the unbounded beauty of the land awed her – and inspired her. It was “the most glorious scenery I ever beheld, and I had seen the Alps and the Pyrenees,” she said. “My memory of that supreme day of our Colorado sojourn is fairly distinct even across the stretch of 35 crowded years,” Miss Bates wrote a year before her death in 1929. “We stood at last on that Gate-of-Heaven summit, hallowed by the worship of perished races, and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse.”

Though she insisted “the sublimity of the Rockies smote my pencil with despair”, she was not “wordless” for long. “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind”:

Oh beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

She put them down on paper that evening in her room at the Antlers Hotel. Today you’d be hard put to find a quatrain known to more Americans. Whether it’s Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoon of Columbus approaching land and saying, “Look! Purple mountains! Spacious skies!…Is someone writing this down?” or Rush Limbaugh at noon eastern welcoming listeners “across the fruited plain” to his daily radio show, every anchorman, cartoonist, comedian or advertising copywriter who evokes those words is assured that they’re as instantly familiar to his audience as any lines ever written in American English.

One way or another many of the patriotic underpinnings of 20th century America derive from the 1893 Exposition: the Pledge of Allegiance was written for it, and Columbus Day became a national holiday because of it. But its greatest gift to the nation was “America The Beautiful” – for without the fair in Chicago Katharine Lee Bates would never have set off on her great voyage of discovery. On July 3rd, the two Katharines caught the train to Colorado and the following day, Independence Day, she sat in the car and watched – what’s the word? – waves of Kansas wheat rolling by. She was, she confided to her diary, “a better American for such a Fourth”.

This Fourth of July, Americans will sing the first verse, which at most performances nowadays is all we hear. But Miss Bates had more to say than mere topographic description. 

It’s another of Steyn’s brilliant musical magnum opuses (opi? opii?!? oh, the hell with it) so you already know it’s fascinating. As for making it the national anthem, I ain’t alone in that by any means; the inimitable Ray Charles thought so too, and made the most sublime case for it imaginable.

The only argument I can see against making the switch is that it would have to be sung, each and every time, by…Ray Charles. Nobody did it like he did.


Memorial Day music

Steyn transcribes the score.

In 1861, the United States had nothing that was recognized as a national anthem, and, given that they were now at war, it was thought they ought to find one – a song “that would inspire Americans to patriotism and military ardor”. A 13-member committee was appointed and on May 17th they invited submissions of appropriate anthems, the eventual winner to receive $500, or medal of equal value. By the end of July, they had a thousand submissions, including some from Europe, but nothing with what they felt was real feeling. It’s hard to write a patriotic song to order.

At the time, Dr Samuel Howe was working with the Sanitary Commission of the Department of War, and one fall day he and Mrs Howe were taken to a camp a few miles from Washington for a review of General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. That day, for the first time in her life, Julia Ward Howe heard soldiers singing:

John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave…

Ah, yes. The famous song about the famous abolitionist hanged in 1859 in Charlestown, Virginia before a crowd including Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth.

Well, no, not exactly.

It’s another of Mark’s brilliant musical-history essays, with all the usual unexpected twists and turns, so naturally you’ll want to read it all.


The road goes ever on

Bop till you drop.

In the future, classic rock bands will melt into one another.

Actually, this is already happening. It’s like when people talk about global warming as a future threat to civilization when the polar ice caps have already largely disappeared. Classic rock bands have similarly lost members to retirement, personal differences, or, well, you know, permanent retirement. But because the brands are still strong, these bands have gone to extraordinary, sometimes deeply weird lengths to install new parts and keep on trucking.

Remember when the surviving members of the Grateful Dead hired John Mayer to replace Jerry Garcia and became Dead And Company? Or when AC/DC tapped Axl Rose to take over for Brian Johnson? This week, Lindsey Buckingham either quit or was fired from Fleetwood Mac on the eve of an upcoming tour. Taking his place will be Mike Campbell, formerly Tom Petty’s right-hand man in the Heartbreakers, and Neil Finn of the Australian pop-rock group Crowded House.

Does any of this make sense? Sure, I guess? You only live once, right?

What’s different now is that these classic rock bands are no longer in their primes. It doesn’t feel like Fleetwood Mac is recharging with new members before making another Rumours, just like nobody expects AC/DC to make another Back In Black with Axl Rose or John Mayer to become a new shaman for hippies everywhere from his perch in the Dead. These are marriages of convenience, ensuring that everyone can continue to live comfortably well into their senior years by catering to an insatiable market for nostalgia tours and $50 tour T-shirts.

Actually, it’s a lot more than just that. It’s a burning desire to get out there and play while they still can, however they can—to stand on that stage under the lights and bask in the crash of the drums, the thunder of the guitars, and the roar of the crowd.

And why the hell not? Over the years, lots of people have spoken to me in bemused wonder about “how much you must love it, to keep doing it for so long and all!” I always told ’em that, for a lot of us, it ain’t about loving it at all. You could even say that love has little if anything to do with it after a certain point, although it surely begins that way. But over time, it becomes much more than something you do; it’s who you are. You don’t love it, not exactly. You simply can’t not do it. If you aren’t doing it, you’re thinking about it.

You never feel more at home, more comfortable, more like your truest self, than when you’re on a stage making music for a crowd of folks who are enjoying it right along with you—dancing, shouting, swaying, screaming. Saying it’s like food or oxygen to you might be a bit of a stretch, but the hunger is real just the same, and you definitely do feel an emptiness in its absence. The assumption that you’ll be out there doing it again before too long goes way down deep into your bones, a given, sure as the sunrise. You take that next time out as read, without conscious thought, just like you expect to take your next breath.

Sooner or later, though, we all reach the stage where we start to break down physically and just can’t do it anymore, at least not on the level we’re accustomed to, wish to, and feel that the music deserves. I’m there already, sad to say, despite my having figured in my youth on being wheeled up onstage and propped up with a stick or something right til the very end. I’m weak and feeble now; the last few times I played I had to do so sitting down. Which is very damned demoralizing, let me tell ya—especially in light of the intensely kinetic, physically demanding shows the Playboys put on night after night for decades.

After a properly explosive Playboys show, I was completely exhausted, drained to the last dregs. My thigh muscles ached, my knees were trembly; often as not, my fingers were bloody and my throat raw enough to make me think it was too. My neck was stiff, as was the shoulder the guitar strap went over. I was soaked with sweat, so much so that I usually brought another shirt to put on afterwards.

It was SOOOO DAMNED GOOOOOD. Best feeling in the world, nothing remotely like it. I always said if it was a choice between giving up that or sex, it was a no-brainer. Sex didn’t even rate on the same scale.

Now I get that worn out just from carrying my amp into the venue.

My hands have become stiff, aching, arthritic claws, so painful they frequently wake me up at night. Especially the left one, which has made it necessary to re-learn and re-jigger how I play most songs and simply abandon others altogether. Certain of the most basic, fundamental chords are lost to me forever, I just can’t play them. Likewise with the singing; the power and the range just aren’t there like they used to be anymore. After thirty years of slap bass, my brother can’t lift his left arm above a right angle to his body, and his right hand is in even worse shape than mine. Our drummer used to bang those things so hard he’d just destroy heads, cymbals, and sticks with a quickness. He’s probably beat up worse than the rest of us, and in more spots too. Chipps, the rhythm guitarist, is the only one of us who still seems to be in good shape, a miracle considering how ferociously he went at it. Still has all his hair too, the bastard.

The damage done, the limitations that come inevitably with age, now make playing less satisfying and more an exercise in frustration and outright pain. It’s a bitter realization when infirmity has crept up and leeched all the joy out of what for so long was your entire raison d’etre, let me tell ya. You knew it was coming; you try to accept it with whatever grace and humility you can, which doesn’t mean you have to like it. That’s the way of the world; it comes to us all sooner or later, and no amount of argument, protest, pouting, or complaint is gonna change it. Not for me, not for you, not for anybody. Rage, rage against the dying of the light? For what? You make yourself look a fool, inflict unhappiness on yourself and others, and wind up in the exact same place anyhow. Better to retain a little dignity for yourself, seems to me.

What the hell, I had a good run. And I still got an incredible store of memories, at least until senility scrambles them all to hell and gone too. I really need to take another stab at writing a book about it all, if only just a straight, dry memoir (I tried once several years ago, as a novelization of sorts, and quickly gained a profound respect for novelists). I promise you, I could set out to write it just as bloodless and without passion or flair as possible and it would STILL be good. Trust me.

So yeah, more power to those old greybeard rockers out there who still burn with the old flame, and can still strike at least some sparks on a stage. I’ll never knock or second-guess ’em; I know for damned sure it ain’t about the money or some shallow, vain pursuit of departed glory, and is occasion for neither contempt nor pity. It’s about holding onto whatever pieces of your best self you still got, for as long as you can manage it—about making your aspirations take flight again, before you finally lose your wings for good. As long as those guys can crank it out credibly, at a level of artistic competence and panache they’re happy with, then keep on rockin’, I say. I saw most of the classic rock/hard rock bands back in the day, and there’s more than one I wouldn’t object to seeing again in their dotage.

Say, I wonder what my hero Ritchie Blackmore has been up to lately…?

(Via Ed)


Aw, man

Sure do hate to hear this.

Rock legend Tom Petty died of an accidental overdose, his family said in a Facebook post Friday evening.

Dana Petty, his wife, and Adria, his daughter, released the autopsy report from the coroner’s office that said the Petty suffered an overdose that was caused by a variety of medications.

The official report confirmed that Petty had fentanyl and oxycodone in his system.

Well, crap. In his defense, Petty had a fractured hip, a bum knee, and some chronic back problems too, if I remember right. So his self-medicating is at least understandable on some level. But I still hate to hear it, and I could wish his family had kept this information private. I’m not even sure just why, honestly; far be it from me to wax all judgmental over anyone’s choice of intoxicants, to be sure. But I do hate to see his memory tarnished in any way, as I’m sure it will be for some. His legacy surely won’t, thankfully, and his loss remains a huge one.

This sucks too:

Dolores O’Riordan’s boyfriend is speaking out for the first time since The Cranberries singer was found dead in London on Monday. She was 46.

Musician Olé Koretsky, who was dating O’Riordan for two years before she died, shared a message about the Irish singer’s death on his band’s website.

“My friend, partner, and the love of my life is gone. My heart is broken and it is beyond repair,” Koretsky wrote. “Dolores is beautiful. Her art is beautiful. Her family is beautiful. The energy she continues to radiate is undeniable.

“I am lost. I miss her so much. I will continue to stumble around this planet for some time knowing well there’s no real place for me here now,” the D.A.R.K. musician added.

My heart aches for you, buddy, and that is the plain truth. Suddenly losing the love of your life most definitely leaves a big ol’ hole, an unfillable one in fact. I won’t lie and say you’ll get over it in time; trust me, you won’t. But I hope you can hang in there long enough to realize the importance of being grateful for what you had rather than bitter over what you lost, and for the pain of that loss to subside from a constant sharp, agonizing knife in the heart into a dull but at least bearable ache.

Despite my failure to note her passing in the immediate wake of it on the ol’ hogwallow here, I LOVED (well, still love) the Cranberries, which might be surprising to some of y’all. Dolores O’Riordan was indeed a lovely lass, a comely wee Irish sprite with spunk and spirit enough for three or four, and gifted with a fantastic voice to boot. Her singing style was unique, always instantly recognizable and beguiling. This would have to be one of my favorites; the lyrics are great, as are the melody and vocal harmonies. They could have run the closing vamp about ten more times around and it would have been just fine with me. An entirely beautiful song, that’s what it is, near-magical and captivating from start to finish.

RIP, Dolores, and fare thee well, wherever your spirit has gone a-roaming.


Keely Smith!

No Fauxcahontas, she, but a bona-fide part-Cherokee Southern lass. One part this, one part that, and all pure-tee dynamite as far as I’m concerned.

In the course of the show, I mention that my friend Monique Fauteux sang with Charles Trenet, and I credit him as the writer of “La Mer” (famous in English as Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”) and “Boum!” (memorably deployed by Bond’s nemesis in Skyfall). But this week’s Song of the Week is another Trenet song, a lovely ballad. It’s celebrating its 75th anniversary, and it has an additional significance, in English, as the signature song of Keely Smith, who left us just before Christmas.

Keely died just shy of ninety in Palm Springs, where for many years she was the town’s Honorary Mayor and discharged that role with great distinction. Part Cherokee, part Irish, and all southern, she went to the Surf Club in Virginia Beach one night to catch Louis Prima and his band. For some reason, she showed up in a bathing suit, and the doorman wouldn’t let her in until she’d rustled up some clothes.

Yowza. Just…yowza. Onwards.

Once dressed, she was offered a singing job by Prima. They married and became one of the greatest double-acts of all time. In the Fifties, their records – “That Old Black Magic”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – weren’t big smashes in the Hit Parade sense, but they’ve endured over the decades, and their combination of gleeful zaniness and brilliant musicality is unique. They were both comic and cool, which is tricky to pull off. If you first encountered Louis and Keely on disc, the visual shtick can seem a bit limiting – Prima goofing around while the missus, in a persona he created for her and controlled very tightly, looks on stoney-faced and bored. But they were a phenomenon in Las Vegas, and one of the acts that, two-thirds of a century ago, helped build the town.

One of the others, Frank Sinatra, liked to turn up at the Sahara late at night after his own shows and catch the duo. He loved Prima for the laughs, and he loved Keely, period.

As well he might have; I always thought she was pretty hot stuff myself. In fact, I have a dim recollection of having done a post on her somewhere way back in the distant, gauzy past of this here hogwallow, although there’s a pretty good chance of its having been lost along with a lot of other stuff when I made the switch to the WordPress platform.

The chemistry was so good that the ol’ test-tube started overheating and Frank asked Keely to marry him. She turned him down because she found all the Rat Pack slang he liked to use a little raunchy for her tastes – words like “bird” (for penis), “charlies” (breasts), “mother” (half a word). “I’m not a prude,” she said, “but I knew I couldn’t raise my kids around that.” So instead she married Sinatra’s lieutenant at Reprise, Jimmy Bowen, the inventive producer who in the Sixties gave Frank and Dean their big hits and then in the Eighties moved to Nashville and did the same for Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire.

As to her deal-breaking objection to Frank’s lingo, I think of that whenever I play Keely’s splendid trot through “South of the Border”, with its cheery sign-off to the band: “Olé, you muthas.”

A prude she most certainly was NOT, or so it would seem: I’ve heard plenty of torrid old stories about her and Prima being a swinging couple in more than just the old Rat Pack/hipster sense, including some pretty appalling ones about how Prima really got the nickname “The Lip” which had nothing whatever to do with playing the trumpet. Well, not the kind made out of brass, anyway.

Be all that as it may, they’ve long been favorites of mine, and I had no idea she’d died. So if I’m saddened by her passing, I’m also glad Steyn memorialized her in this piece. She surely deserves the recognition; I should’ve guessed he’d be a fan too. She wasn’t what anybody would consider rock and roll, I guess, aside from a certain sexual adventurism that even then was far more common among show biz types than ordinary folks ever imagined. She’s gonna make one hell of an addition to Heaven’s Hell Of A Band just the same, and rock and roll be damned anyhow. Rest in peace, Keely, and well done.

Here’s a bonus, because you can’t hardly talk about the Prima band without also doffing the cap to the purely incredible Sam Butera on saxomaphone. Or you shouldn’t, anyway.


You know they got one hell of a band

A heartfelt RIP for Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, a truly great and underappreciated band. I knew Pat just a little bit; he’d been to see my band a time or two, and we ran in some of the same circles when I lived in NYC. A very sweet guy, unassuming and diffident almost to the point of shyness; a fantastic singer and songwriter, with an instantly recognizable style that was all his own, in both roles.

First time I met him, in a bar down on Bleeker Street he played regularly early in his career, he approached me, complimented me on a show we had just done at Tramp’s with Little Richard, and…I said thanks and pretty much blew him off. He had on big goofy glasses and a ratty old overcoat, and I really didn’t know who the hell he was. My friend and roomie Lisa was tending bar; she knew him fairly well, and she came over and asked me, “Oh, so you met Pat, eh?” I said, “Pat? Pat who…? OH SHIT!” and ran over to apologize to him, declaring myself a huge Smithereens fan, which was nothing but the truth. He was completely gracious about my arrogant faux pas (I admit I thought I was pretty hot shit back then, although the world has seen fit to educate me a little more, umm, completely since), and we ended up having a good laugh about it, bless his heart. May you rest easy, buddy, till we meet again.


A quibble

Minor, to be sure. But still.

November 27, 1942, Born on this day, Jimi Hendrix guitarist, singer, songwriter who had the 1967 UK No.6 single ‘Hey Joe’, the 1970 UK No.1 single ‘Voodoo Chile’, and the 1968 US No.1 and UK No.6 album ‘Electric Ladyland’. Hendrix who is widely considered to be the greatest guitarist in musical history, made appearances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the iconic 1969 Woodstock Festival and the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival.

Bold mine, and just dead wrong, a grossly hyperbolic statement with no reality backing it. I love Jimi, of course, but…”the greatest guitarist in musical history?” Rock and roll history, maybe; not too much argument there from me (other than the supernatural Danny Gatton, perhaps; then again, he himself dubbed his ingenious style “redneck jazz,” so perhaps not). But MUSICAL history?

Surpassing Django, Segovia, Charlie Christian? Joe Pass? George Van Epps? Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Lenny Breau? Chet Atkins?

Umm, no. Just…NO. As a general rule, any reasonably accomplished jazz guitarist can play rings around any rock picker you care to name with vanishingly few exceptions and not a lot of effort or fuss; the classical guys are simply off the scale, and way beyond reach. Note that I say that not as some uninformed kibitzer but as a rock and roll guitarist of some ability, accomplishment, and experience myself, who also happens to be named Hendrix, and for whom Jimi provided much of the inspiration for taking up guitar in the first place way back when.

No insult intended to Jimi, a visionary richly deserving of his status as a rock and roll legend. But much though it may pain me to have to do it, I repeat: no. Just…no.



Farewell to the great Malcolm Young, the heart, soul, and backbone of one of my all-time favorite bands, AC/DC. His legacy is nothing short of staggering, whether you like the band or not. I’ve been listening to them since the mid-70s, back when being a fan of theirs meant you had NO chance of ever getting a date—this was the disco era, and women just HATED them back then, as odd as that seems now.

I’ve always maintained that they were one of the greatest pure rock bands ever; they somehow tapped into an unalloyed strain of the real deal, and mined it for nigh on forty years. You always knew an AC/DC song the minute you heard it; they never varied the format much, never went “jazz” or prog or whatever, just kept cranking out those three or four chords and that pounding beat with seemingly limitless inventiveness and enthusiasm. And that fierce, single-minded dedication made them one of the most successful bands in history.

I saw them live a few times over the years, from the Highway To Hell tour just before Bon Scott died to the Black Ice tour a few years ago, and I won’t forget any of those shows. Sure, on the Black Ice tour they had maybe lost a step or two; Angus didn’t seem to bob his head quite as wildly as he once did, although he did still manage to roam the stage with the same old vim and vigor. He had definitely lost some hair somewhere along the way, I can say that much. But who among us hasn’t? It was still a fantastic show, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The obit linked above is a good one, from an unlikely-seeming source:

So, what do you notice? Up front and hard to miss is Angus Young, the diminutive dynamo of a lead guitarist, wearing the sweat-soaked remains of a velvet schoolboy uniform, duck-walking and thrashing his head like the lightning-strike victim on the cover of “Powerage.” Nearby, prancing bare-chested, is the lewd and mischievous lead singer, Bon Scott. (He’ll be dead by the end of the decade.) But, if you can take your eyes off these two showmen for a moment, you might find your gaze drifting to the left of the drum riser, where a pugnacious long-haired kid (he looks like he’s still in high school), wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, is strumming his Gretsch guitar and shaking his leg in time to the driving beat. His name is Malcolm Young, and you could be forgiven for seeing him as just another part of the backing band, but he is in fact the mastermind of the whole operation, at once its visionary and its taskmaster. He is the soul of the band, its leader on and off the stage.

The interplay of Malcolm’s and Angus’s guitars is the essence of AC/DC’s sound. You can hear it if you listen closely to almost any of their songs. A favorite of mine is “Overdose,” from “Let There Be Rock,” released in 1977. The song opens with a series of arpeggios played on a single guitar, almost like a warm-up exercise. (It’s uncharacteristic of the band to have left such a rough intro in the final edit.) Drums soon arrive, adding some structure, followed by a thrumming bass line, and then the second guitar, with a striking, unforgettable riff. The other guitar shifts to playing open chords before finally locking in on the riff with the first. Lars Ulrich, of Metallica, singled the song out earlier this year, noting that AC/DC almost never performs “Overdose” live. Thus, it’s hard to know which brother plays which part of that intro. One thing’s for sure, though: the song, like the band, wouldn’t work with only one of them.

Nope, not a chance. Here’s Malcolm himself, discussing the Back In Black album:

About three or four weeks before Bon’s death [in February 1980], Angus and I had started putting some ideas together, and Bon had sat in playing the drums. Some of those ideas ended up on Back In Black. Then Bon died, and we didn’t know whether we wanted to carry on. The record company was pressuring us to make a decision. Brian [Johnson] was recommended to us, and it felt right.

But when Brian joined, the music papers were full of this Bon versus Brian debate, and Brian had a tough old time. I don’t think Brian let it get to him. He comes from a traditional working-class background – his old man was in the pit, and he’s a tough old nut to crack. At the end of the day, Brian had the balls to get up there, and he was the only guy we found who could sing loud enough to be heard over the racket the rest of us were making. He was always going to be our man, whether we liked it or not.

So, looking back on it, an awful lot of sweat went into the making of Back In Black. Hells Bells was one of the key songs. It reminded us of Bon and I think a lot of our older fans still see it as a tribute to him. That one, the title track and Shoot To Thrill are still in the live show, and I think they’ve joined some of the early songs as timeless AC/DC. Whatever it was, we were doing it right, because it was the most successful album we’d made at the time.

I remember back in the aftermath of Scott’s death having many long, serious discussions over just what the hell they were going to do—would they somehow find a substitute? Would they just hang it up? How the hell do you replace somebody as unique both in voice and onstage persona as Bon Scott, anyway? It seemed unlikely in the extreme that they could hope to carry on as before, and the general consensus was that, like it or not, they’d pretty much be forced to fold.

Instead, they found Brian Johnson, and went on to do some of their finest work with him, in my opinion. Which diminishes Scott not a whit, mind. There was a change, surely, but they somehow stayed the same too; they remained AC/DC, recognizably so, and kept on mining that rich vein of purest no-frills rock and roll, just as direct and uncompromised as before. It was remarkable. In fact, it struck many of us at the time as damned near miraculous.

I remember when I first heard Have A Drink On Me from Back In Black (which remains one of my favorite songs) thinking just how ballsy it was to have a lynchpin, totally unique singer drink himself to death, and then immediately come out with a song like that. It was damned audacious, or so it seemed to me. But then, audacity was always one of their most endearing traits—that, and the expression of that audacity via their unswerving, relentless dedication to remaining true to their chosen style—and one can easily imagine Scott looking on from whatever afterlife there might be and having himself a good laugh over it.

If there was ever a demonstration of the old admonishment to “dance with what brung ya,” it would have to be AC/DC. And the dance was to a tune called by Malcolm Young, from the wings of a stage dominated by his brother and both Scott and Johnson. He was an unsung giant who forged one of the most successful bands in rock and roll history, and directed its path from beginning to end without fanfare or much in the way of recognition from most. I wouldn’t quite call him humble; his hilarious dismissal of Robert Plant (“A blond feller. Bit of a poser”) argues pretty convincingly against that. But he possessed a certain capacity for self-effacement just the same. Either way, may God grant him peace and respite.


“What’s the connection between Puccini, Neville Chamberlain and David Bowie?”

Why, Fats Domino, of course.

Like his fellow protean rockers (Chuck) Berry and Bill Haley, Antoine Dominique Domino Jr was way too old to be a teen idol. Born the youngest of eight children in a Louisiana Creole family in 1928, he had three-and-a-half grades of education and then went to work for the local iceman. At the age of ten, a jazz-mad brother-in-law taught him to play the piano, and by fourteen he was pounding the ivories in local bars. The bandleader Billy Diamond nicknamed Antoine “Fats”, partly because of Fats Waller (composer of our Song of the Week #115, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) and partly because he ate a lot, so it seemed to be the general direction in which he was trending.

The most consequential meeting of his professional life occurred in 1949, when he was introduced to the A&R manager of Imperial Records. Dave Bartholomew was almost a decade older than Fats, a trumpeter and tuba player who had worked with the Jimmie Lunceford band (of which, as longtime readers will know, I’m a great admirer). Like many of the founding figures in rock’n’roll, he knew how to jump, jive, wail and swing – which it is not altogether clear the second-, third- and fourth-generation rockers do. Bartholomew and Domino took an old New Orleans tune from the Twenties, Drive ‘Em Down Hall’s “Junker Blues” and rewrote the lyrics. The original text, as its title suggests, was all about drugs:

Some say I use a needle
And some say I sniff cocaine
That’s the best damn feeling
That I’ve ever seen…

Etc. In Bartholomew and Domino’s hands, the Junker became “The Fat Man”:

They call me The Fat Man
‘Cause I weigh two hundred pound
All the girls they love me
‘Cause I know my way around…

One notes that 200lbs is positively svelte these days, but Fats was only 5’5″. “The Fat Man” sold a million, and was, to its creators’ way of thinking, just a good rhythm’n’blues song. Subsequently, to the many rockologists of the late 20th century, it would be regarded as one of the first rock’n’roll records. The transformation of “Junker” to “Fat Man” was, consciously or not, extremely shrewd: same good-time energy, Fats’ distinctive rhythm, but out with all the needles and snorting, in with a genial, affable persona of potentially huge crossover appeal. Domino on piano with the Bartholomew band – guitar, bass, drums, saxes – was a defining sound of the early rock years. For a Fat Man, Domino did a lot of walking – “Walking to New Orleans”, “I Want to Walk You Home”, “When I’m Walking (Let Me Walk)” and, of course, “I’m Walkin'” – an irresistible slab of energy that always reminds me of the late Roger Scott, a terrific disc-jockey on Montreal’s CFOX and then London’s Capital Radio, who loved that record and was the guy who introduced me to it. “I’m Walkin’,” “Ain’t That a Shame”, “Blue Monday” and most of the other Fats hits were written by Domino and Bartholomew.

But the biggest hit of all was not – and, indeed, Dave Bartholomew objected strongly to Fats even recording it.

It’s another completely brilliant Steyn music post. Which by now means I shouldn’t even need to suggest that you read it all.


Der Bingle

Another spellbinding Steyn music post.

Where did it all go? Within a decade of his death, you could wander into a record store and find the biggest-selling record artist had dwindled down to a couple of compilation CDs on weird European labels you’d never heard of. To most Americans under a certain age, the name is meaningless except for one song heard for one month every year, underpinning every lite-rock, country, oldies or whatever station that switches in December to a seasonal sleighlist of “Holiday Favorites”, than which no favorite is more favored than “White Christmas”. That’s what a half-century golden day shriveled down to in the blue of the night: Bing Crosby? The guy who sings “White Christmas”? Does he do anything else?

When a star that bright dims so quickly, it’s usually because the keepers of the flame aren’t any good at keeping it. A decade or two after the death of a singer or composer or novelist, any diminution in reputation is as much to do with the inept stewardship of his estate by the next of kin and their various advisors as it does to any judgment by posterity. What Nancy, Frank Jr and Tina have done with the Sinatra catalogue, for example, is in marked contrast to the withering of Bing’s legacy. It’s not necessary to retell the grim story of Crosby’s first family, and his second bunch of kids were barely out of short pants at the time of his death. But his eclipse is sad and unnecessary.

So on this anniversary let’s go back before the pipe and cardigan and golf gags and Christmas show banter, to the young Bing of the late Twenties and early Thirties. Artie Shaw described him as “the first hip white person born in the United States”. “Ever since Bing first opened his mouth,” said Louis Armstrong, “he was the Boss of All Singers” – which is one reason “Mr Satch and Mr Cros” (to quote “Gone Fishin'”) made so many records together. And the first time William S Paley of CBS heard Bing open that mouth, it changed the course of his fledgling radio network. Paley was on the transatlantic liner the SS Europa, on his third day at sea, strolling along the deck, when he heard a phonograph record coming from a nearby stateroom – something about somebody surrendering, dear – and he was transfixed. He tracked down the source of the sound and persuaded the stateroom’s occupant to let him look at the label on the disc: “I Surrender, Dear. Vocal refrain by Bing Crosby.” Then he went straight to the ship’s telegraph office and sent a cable to New York: “SIGN UP SINGER NAMED BING CROSBY STOP”.

As Steyn says elsewhere in the piece, if you’re under a certain age you most likely don’t even know who Bing was other than (maybe) as the guy who sang “White Christmas,” and that’s a damned shame. Read on for a worthy education. It’s an intriguing story, and nobody spins ’em quite like Steyn.



So what IS it with handing a husky-voiced female an acoustic guitar and an old pop song and having her turn the thing into a funereal dirge for a TV commercial, anyway?

I mean, for God’s sake. The charm (pretty limited in the first place, according to my taste anyway) of the original was wrapped up in its lighthearted goofiness, its non-threatening, off-kilter lack of any sort of self-consciousness or, y’know, weight. But this…this is just damned depressing.

And even amidst the dolorous gloom, they manage to load it up with enough saccharine treacle to choke the most jaded, untouchable cynic. Aww, how sweet; the old folks have danced their whole lives through while putting away their damned groceries. Yeah, gag me with a maggot, whydon’tcha.

Just what the hell does this have to do with groceries, anyway? I hasten to add that I had nothing against Publix before I saw this wretched piece of raw manipulation. I’d probably shop there sometimes if I had one anywhere close to me. But if they’re going to start tossing old folks at me, staggering around their kitchens like zombies while listening to hairy-pitted female neo-folkies groaning out a sad abortion of a semi-amusing old pop confection, reminiscing about the golden grocery-shopping trips of yore—well, the Publix PR and advertising departments can count me right the fuck out on that one.

Here’s the original for comparison purposes:

It even has a midget in it, ferchrissakes—a midget. How do you get from midgets cavorting in a grassy field to the kind of three-hankie heartwrencher the Publix folks want us all to open a vein over?

Not that I’m at all opposed to taking a fine old song and folding, spindling, and mutilating it into something pretty far removed from what it was, mind. But as with most things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. This would be the right way:

I’ve mentioned that one here before, I believe, and it’s still just gorgeous. This, too, works nicely for me:

Kinda strange, kinda odd, kinda bizarre, and probably not at all what Copland had in mind, but still great nonetheless—although if you’re one of those people who don’t like pipe organs, you might feel differently about it, I guess. Even so, I think we can all probably agree that it works a damned sight better than that smoking mess of a Publix ad above does.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go out to the grocery store and see if I can find an old couple tripping the light fantastic down the bread aisle…and tip them over.

Update! Another example of the Right Way, and a fairly, um, extreme one too:

That’s good squishy right there, folks.


Elvis Week wrap-up


Well, if you pick up almost any Elvis Greatest Hits compilation, you’ll find:

Love Me Tender, love me sweet
Never let me go
You have made my life complete
And I love you so…

Words and music by Vera Matson and Elvis Presley.

So who wrote what?

Answer: Neither of the above.

The tune for “Love Me Tender” was by Geo. R. Poulton.

Geo. R. who?

So who re-wrote “Aura Lee”? Step forward, Ken Darby. He was born in Nebraska in 1909, so he was no rock’n’roller, but a talented mainstay of the music world. A fine choral arranger, he had a group called the Ken Darby Singers, who backed Judy Garland in a studio album of the Wizard of Oz songs in 1940, and two years later sang with Bing Crosby on the original single of “White Christmas”. On the radio, he provided the music for “Fibber McGee and Molly”, in which capacity he performed a version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, his first point of contact with those two great cultural contributions from the Troy area. He was Marilyn Monroe’s vocal coach on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and there are certainly worse ways of passing your time than getting up in the morning and going to work to spend the day teaching Marilyn how to sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. And by the time he was done he had three Oscars on his shelf, for scoring The King and IPorgy and Bess and Camelot.

The Reno Brothers project was just another day at the office for Ken Darby. Told that they needed a Civil War song for the picture, Darby picked out five ballads from the early 1860s and played them for Elvis. “Aura Lea” was the third or fourth. “This is the one,” said the singer. So Darby set about turning “Aura Lea” into “Love Me Tender”, and did it very expertly. Unlike Mr Fosdick, he imposed a song form on the tune – nothing too obtrusive, just that two-thirds echo of the title: “Love Me Tender, love me sweet”… “Love Me Tender, love me true”…

Love me Tender, love me long
Take me to your heart
For it’s there that I belong
And we’ll never part…

All that “love me” repetition could get a bit boring, except that they alternate between the low notes of Poulton’s verse (“Love Me Tender, love me long”) and then the high notes (“Aura Lea, Aura Lea”) of the chorus (“Love Me Tender, love me dear”), which gives a real ache and intensity to the reprises. It’s very deftly organized. And I doubt that Ken Darby thought it was anything more than just a solid professional job that served the needs of the picture.

Elvis’ manager, Colonel Parker, looked on it a little differently. His boy was a raucous rock’n’roller, but this movie song was going to be his first mainstream love ballad, and Parker thought that would be a big deal with the public, and potentially very lucrative. “Aura Lea” was out of copyright, so they didn’t have to pay Poulton and Fosdick anything …or even mention them. And, if nobody knew who wrote the song, why couldn’t Elvis have written it? So, when they heard Ken Darby had rewritten “Aura Lea” into “Love Me Tender”, the Colonel and the Aberbach brothers, who ran the Presley music publishing operation Hill & Range, politely informed Mr Darby that they’d be publishing the song and that in addition Elvis would be getting a credit as co-author.

Darby didn’t mind, because 50 per cent of an Elvis record still works out better than 100 per cent of a Ken Darby Singers record. But there was a problem. American songwriters have two copyright collection agencies, Ascap and BMI, the latter of which was founded in opposition to the former’s monopoly. Broadly speaking, Ascap had the Broadway and Hollywood writers, and BMI had the country & western and rhythm’n’blues guys. Elvis had been signed up as a member of BMI, whereas Darby, being a motion picture composer, was Ascap. And in those days it was not permitted for an Ascap writer and a BMI writer to share credit on the same song. So Darby risked losing his 50 per cent of “Love Me Tender” to a non-writing writer who’d contributed precisely 0 per cent to “Love Me Tender”.

Happiness lies/Right under your eyes, as they sing in “Back in Your Own Backyard”, and so it proved for Ken Darby. He signed up Mrs Darby – Vera Matson – as a member of BMI, and gave her his 50 per cent of the song.

It’s remarkable, it really is; Steyn is like a walking encyclopedia on this stuff, and every time I read another of his music pieces I stand in slackjawed awe of his voluminous store of knowledge. And remember how I said the other day that when it came to his music, Elvis was far from the hapless, clueless rube some still believe him to have been, and always knew exactly what he was doing and where he wanted to go? Further confirmation:

(Darby) was impressed by the way Presley took charge in the studio: “Elvis has the most terrific ear of anyone I have ever met,” he said. “He does not read music, but he does not need to. All I had to do was play the song for him once, and he made it his own! He has perfect judgment of what is right for him.” “What is right for him” turned out to be something the wailing Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” had never done before on record.

In Elvis’s own mind, what was “right for him” stretched far beyond the boundaries of rock and roll. His reach may have exceeded his grasp here and there, but for the most part he was tremendously successful at expanding those boundaries artistically, whether his audience was willing to follow him on his journey or not. Contrary to what some have said over the years, it was less his eclecticism that did him in, I believe; more blame for that could be placed at the foot of all those empty, witless movie songs he sang so disinterestedly, if you ask me. He was insulted by them and contemptuous of them…and rightly so. They were beneath him, and he was diminished by them, in more ways than just one.

In any event, read all of this one too; Dennis Hopper (!) even puts in an appearance, if you can believe it. Good as he is on politics and the Muslim threat and such-like, Steyn is as good a music writer as I know of. He could write a lengthy treatise on a soda-pop jingle and make it fascinating, I’d bet.


The King is dead; you know the rest

I was hoping Steyn might have something to say about the King on Elvis Day, but didn’t really expect it. Imagine my surprise to find that, as The Man himself says:

Forty years ago today – August 16th 1977 – Elvis Aron Presley passed …into a stunningly successful new phase of his career. All this week at SteynOnline, we’re marking the anniversary, starting with my look at the early days and the man who invented Elvis.

Wow. Okay, now I’m REALLY excited; I didn’t figure Mark’s taste inclined in the direction of Elvis, not for a moment. So let’s just take a gander at that first installment here, shall we?

Rock’n’roll may be the most aggressively corporate branch of showbusiness ever invented but it’s still obsessed with being “raw” and “authentic” and “countercultural”. That’s where Sam Phillips comes in: he represents rock’s BC era – Before Corporate -before Elvis said goodbye to Sam’s Sun Records, in Memphis, and headed for RCA and Hollywood and Vegas. But back in 1954 it was Sam who told Elvis to sing the country song (“Blue Moon Of Kentucky”) kinda bluesy and the blues song (“That’s All Right”) kinda country, and, as Elvis was a polite 19-year old who obliged his elders, somewhere in the crisscross something clicked.

It’s the Phillips tracks that redeem Elvis for everything that came afterward. It’s “Mystery Train” and “That’s All Right” that the pop-culture historians are thinking of when they write about the rock’n’roll “revolution”. “The Ancien Régime fell in 1789 and once again a century and a half later,” declared Herbert London in Closing The Circle: A Cultural History Of The Rock Revolution. “Rock Around The Clock” is the most successful call to arms produced by the revolution, the one kids tore up movie seats over. But its composer, Jimmy DeKnight, wrote it as a fox trot, and its lyricist, Max Freedman, whose last hit had been for the Andrews Sisters, originally wanted to call it “Dance Around The Clock”. And Freedman was born in 1890. When he was a rebellious teenager, the big hits were “The Merry Widow Waltz”, Kipling’s “Road To Mandalay”, and “When A Fellow’s On The Level With A Girl That’s On The Square”. He may not have been exactly Ancien Régime, but he was certainly pretty ancien. And the regime itself – in the shape of RCA, Columbia, etc – proved far wilier survivors than Louis XVI.

That’s why Phillips’ moment is central to rock’s sense of itself, and why critics still insist that Elvis’s The Sun Sessions is the all-time greatest album. As Robert Hilburn put it, on the Sun set “you hear rock being born” – not to Tin Pan Alley hacks and big-time corporations, but in a one-story brick studio where a kid walked in off the street. Just as real revolutionaries watch the Revolution Day tank parade from the presidential palace and reminisce about the days when they were peasants with pitchforks, so fellows who spend eight months in a studio remixing a couple of tracks fondly reminisce about the days when Ike Turner’s amplifier fell off the car roof on the way to the studio and Sam Phillips stuffed the punctured speaker cone with paper and accidentally created a “wall of sound”. The Sun motto was “We Record Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” – including the men’s room, where the toilet served as the studio’s echo chamber. The conventional line on Phillips is that he’s the guy who encouraged Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison to “experiment”. “I’d try things I knew I couldn’t do,” Carl Perkins remembered, “and then have to work my way out of it. I’d say, ‘Mr Phillips, that’s terrible.’ He’d say, ‘That’s original.'”

The Sun Sessions, of course, didn’t actually become an album until much later; Elvis’s early Sun recordings were singles, which was the coin of the musical realm back in those days. A quibble, I know. But still.

And another: I actually DO remember where I was when I heard the news. But more important, maybe, I remember my initial response: no Elvis fan back then, I was more of a 70s hard rock kid, and AC/DC, KISS, Deep Purple, and Ted Nugent were more my metier. My reaction? “Elvis? Hey, didn’t he die a while back?”

I still have great affection for those 70s icons, but my appreciation for Elvis flowered when I first started digging into rockabilly, and has only grown since. If you have any interest at all in the true King of rock and roll, you really needed to grab yourself copies of Peter Guralnick’s two wonderful books on Elvis. I liked ’em so much I actually attended a lecture by Guralnick in Atlanta when I lived there, and hung around afterwards to have them autographed. Together they amount to THE definitive Elvis biography, and they’re extremely well-written, too.

But back to Phillips, a true eccentric genius without whom etc.

He knew Elvis before he was Elvis, before he was a star and then a parody. He knew Elvis when he was an 18-year old who parked his Ford pick-up outside the studio on Union Avenue and said he wanted to record a song for his momma’s birthday: “My Happiness”, a big hit for the Ink Spots. The teenage Elvis liked the Ink Spots, and Eddie Fisher. He wanted to sing like Dean Martin.

Elvis’s career after Phillips is regarded by rock critics as a ghastly sellout to commercialism and conformity, though there’s nothing obviously commercial or conformist about a ragbag like “Old Shep”, “Rock-A-Hula Baby”, “Peace In The Valley”, “No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car”, plus adaptations of “O Sole Mio” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. Justin Timberlake’s minders would be unlikely to recommend any of ’em. Elvis had an extraordinary range – two octaves and a third – but not a consistent voice. He was a chameleon but unfocused, and when he wasn’t doing Dino he could sound like Al Jolson, Mahalia Jackson or an Irish tenor. The wacky eclecticism is the real Elvis. The “raw”, “authentic” Sun Sessions Elvis is the manufactured product. “I encouraged him to be real raw,” said Phillips, “because if he was artificial he wouldn’t be able to keep it up.” Au contraire: it was being raw he couldn’t keep up.

What Elvis wanted to be, and what he envisioned himself as from the beginning, was a singer of the Great American Songbook entire. He never had any wish to pigeonhole himself as merely a rock and roll singer, and the larger-than-life Rock Star persona he pioneered ended up being a trap, his ensnarement therein a large part of his eventual undoing. It wasn’t so much that he was unfocused as it was that he was determined to be bigger artistically than his fans would ever allow; he wished not to rule one small world in the musical universe, but to sample whole galaxies. The irony is that his success in that expansive endeavor is exactly what many critics would end up slamming him for.

Elvis was as serious and determined about his music as it’s possible to be, until his fame overran the music and got the better of him. The image of him that many people harbor—that of an ignorant country boy who really didn’t have a clue what he was doing and was weak-willed and self-indulgent enough to allow himself to be manipulated by nefarious handlers—could not have been further from the truth. Elvis knew from the start exactly where he wanted to go musically, and he allowed no one to deflect him from his chosen destination. That he ended up derailed and in the ditch anyway was not because of any lack of vision; it was that the vision was simply too big for any one man, even one as talented as Elvis surely was, to hold onto for very long.

Sam Phillips, a man nurturing a mighty vision himself, put the car in gear and showed Elvis how to steer. But as Phillips himself would later say, it was always Elvis in the driver’s seat.

If any of this interests you at all, my “The Power Of Elvis” trilogy of posts from years back (2002? SERIOUSLY?!?) can be accessed via the Greatest Hits page link above. Thinking about it now, I probably ought to do at least one Sam Phillips post sometime too; the man had a hand in the careers of more great artists than most people probably realize, and was very nearly as influential as Elvis himself was.

Update! Okay, okay, I just gotta include one of my favorite Elvis stories, an excerpt from The Power Of Elvis Part the Second:

When it came to the music, there is ample evidence that Elvis knew just what he was doing, and the music was the one thing he always refused to compromise on. This never really changed throughout his career – musically, Elvis was never anything but completely in charge, and if his vision faltered in the later years, well, it just points up how incredible his work was early on. Even as a kid of 19 or 20, working in the studio with seasoned pros from New York, LA, and Nashville, Elvis ran the show, no ifs, ands, or buts. When he recorded “Hound Dog” the day after the Allen show, he insisted on doing take after take, and the song evolved throughout from the bluesy grind of Big Mama Thornton’s version into the rollicking, savage romp we all know now. A tired and somewhat exasperated Steve Sholes (producer on the session) said after the twenty-sixth take that he thought they had it, but Elvis once again insisted that they keep rolling tape. They stopped after thirty-one. The one that ended up being released was number twenty-eight.

Seems like everybody has something to say about Elvis Presley these days; love him or hate him, acknowledge his gifts and his contribution to American popular music or consider him a low-order con artist, there really is only one voice in the whole cacophony of opinion about Elvis that really counts, as Peter Guralnick says at the end of his incredible Elvis bio. And that voice is the one that leaps off the old Sun .45’s, full of vitality and eagerness and fresh, wild exuberance, the one that started a musical revolution the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again.

And now that I look back, damned if Part Three isn’t the post on Sam Phillips I said I really ought to get around to doing someday. It’s somewhat of a relief to find that in fact I already did it…and somewhat alarming that I had forgotten I did it. No, I’m not going to make my usual Alzheimer’s joke here. I’m finding that shit a whole lot less funny these days than I used to, folks, and that’s the sad, sorry truth.

Updated update! Okay, okay, OKAY awreddy, I feel I just gotta include this too. Another of my personal faves. Especially that falling-down-the-stairs rat-a-tat-tat from drummer DJ Fontana that closes out the song. I don’t have the foggiest whose idea that was or how it came about it, but it’s dang cool. When you think about it, it’s really the only way to end the thing, and couldn’t be more perfect.

You go, Elvis; you ain’t forgotten quite yet, and hopefully never will be. Bassist Bill Black is of course long gone; I believe DJ Fontana is still kicking around out there somewhere, but guitarist Scotty Moore, bless his flinty old heart, only passed away last summer himself. So we’ll throw in a Rest In Peace for him too.

Update to the updated update! Steyn’s second installment is all about Rock-A-Hula Baby—admittedly never a song I could muster much enthusiasm for—and its co-writer Ben Weisman, “the man who’d written more Elvis songs than anybody else” (57 of ’em!). Even though the song is a dud as far as I’m concerned, the article is full of Steyn’s usual fascinating backstage backstories, and as such is definitely worth a look anyway. How he manages to have such voluminous knowledge of this stuff and keep it seemingly at his fingertips is a constant source of wonder to me.


Wichita whineman?

Steyn writes another of his brilliant music posts, this time on the passing of Glenn Campbell. I was never a big fan of his, frankly. But I can still hear a good many of his songs in my head—sometimes to my great chagrin and annoyance. But the one Steyn digs into would have to be one of his best, and is one I actually do like:

In October 1968, Campbell called Jimmy Webb and said he’d really appreciate another song that was like “Phoenix” – “something about a town”. With the cockiness of youth, Jimmy told Glen that the Rand McNally phase of his career was over. Campbell persevered: Okay, if not a town, how about “something geographical”?

It was the first time Webb had been asked to write a song to order, for a particular performer – and in this case his very favorite performer. As usual, they wanted it that day, so Webb pottered around:

I had been driving around northern Oklahoma, an area that’s real flat and remote – almost surreal in its boundless horizons and infinite distances. I’d seen a lineman up on a telephone pole, talking on the phone. It was such a curiosity to see a human being perched up there.

Imagine trying to pitch that to a publisher or producer: “It’s a song about this guy who works for the utilities company…” But Webb meant it:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload…

He saw the poetry in the isolation:

This exquisite aesthetic balance of all these telephone poles just decreasing in size as they got further and further away from the viewer – that being me – and as I passed him, he began to diminish in size. The country is so flat, it was like this one quick snapshot of this guy rigged up on a pole with this telephone in his hand. And this song came about, really, from wondering what that was like, what it would be like to be working up on a telephone pole and what would you be talking about? Was he talking to his girlfriend? Probably just doing one of those checks where they called up and said, ‘Mile marker 46,’ you know. ‘Everything’s working so far.’

But nobody needs a song about “Mile marker 46”. Whether or not the lineman was thinking about his girlfriend, Jimmy Webb certainly was: Her name was Susan Horton, the homecoming queen at Colton High School. But she married a schoolteacher called John, and Jimmy wrote “Wichita Lineman”, “Up, Up and Away”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and even “MacArthur Park” all about his lost love in hopes of staunching the wound.

At the time Webb was living in the former Philippines consulate, just above Hollywood and La Brea, in Los Angeles. This being California in the Sixties, he was digging the communal vibe and had thirty or so housemates coming and going. The night before, as yet another jolly jape during the endless party, the communards had decided to turn Webb’s baby grand a most un-piano-like color. So he found himself having to compose a new song for Glen Campbell on a green piano whose paint was still wet. To the old question “Which comes first – the words or the music?”, the answer in this case seems to be: A fresh lick of paint. 

Steyn goes on from there with his usual insightful analysis, but eventually comes to a bit that kind of…well…uhhh…

Jimmy Webb manages the transition far more economically – three lines of job talk (“that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain”), and then:

And I need you more than want you…

And the modulation makes it seem the most natural transition in the world. He continues:

And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line…

In his fine book on songwriting, Tunesmith, Jimmy Webb writes:

It is dreadful the way the same mistakes are perpetuated over and over again in songwriting, particularly the same careless false rhymes (identities) – ‘time’ with ‘mine,’ for example, ‘self’ with ‘else,’ ‘girl’ with ‘world…

Wait a minute, ‘time’ with ‘mine’? What about “want you for all time” with “still on the line”? Longtime readers will know I loathe impure rhymes, but I can sometimes, reluctantly, live with them buried in a verse or peripheral couplet or separated out in a quatrain. But this one (“time”/”line”) comes right at the climax, and is an undeniable blemish on one of the most original songs ever written.

A “blemish”? It’s the most beautifully poignant and compelling passage in the whole damned song, and to hell with any “false rhyme” nitpicking. But then again, I maybe say that as shouldn’t, to quote Sam Gamgee: I’ve written plenty of songs myself, and I never once bothered myself about false rhymes, although I was certainly aware of them. In truth, false rhymes have gotten me out of jams and cleared out bottlenecks plenty of times, and I’ve been pretty shameless about using ’em when I needed ’em.

Not that I’m anywhere remotely near the tunesmith Webb is, of course, and would never presume to present myself as such. But his angst over the false rhyme seems a bit unnecessary to me just the same; pop song lyrics aren’t serious poetry, or aren’t really supposed to be, although in the hands of a master like Webb they can certainly achieve some lofty heights indeed.

But how much, in the end, does such arcane minutiae really matter? People love Webb’s words, and remember them; I have, for my whole life. Steyn inadvertently highlights the problem:

Long ago on TV, I once had the honor of being asked to sing this song, and had no real idea of what I would do when I got to the false rhyme, but, when I did, it stuck in my throat and I found myself going back to the first verse:

And I need you more than want you
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

– which isn’t the way anyone would write it, but I’ve always loved that “I hear you singin’ in the wire/I can hear you through the whine” passage.

Hate to say it and all, but…I don’t, or not shoehorned into that spot, anyway. Steyn’s improvised alteration is little more to my ear than pure butchery of the most wonderful part of the original song, and all fussy fretting over false rhymes be damned. “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time” go together like beans and cornbread; the one is indivisible from the other, and to alter them is to diminish them, no matter what comes after. Be the rhyme false or not, some things just work. Steyn’s version…doesn’t. Not for me anyway, not by a long yard.

Wichita Lineman is one of those damned near perfect songs just as it is. I can’t say I’d ever care to hear anyone but Glenn Campbell performing it, either. The combination of the song and the artist is just…well, perfect. That’s a damned rare thing, and to get bothered to even a slight degree over as footling a complaint as false rhymes ain’t ever going to be something I’m interested in doing. Might just as well try to piss over a ten-foot statue whilst standing on the ground in a strong wind, seems to me.

Be all that as it may, it’s another great Steyn music post, and you’ll want to read it all. And: Rest in peace, Glenn. You brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people over a lot of years, and that damned sure ain’t nothing.


Music break!

So the other day I heard a song on the car radio I hand’t heard in years and years but always loved. I had NO clue who did it, or what the title was; after hearing it, I had the guitar licks worked out in my head, but I could not for the life of me remember who played it. Had a couple of the guys hanging out at my place the next evening, and I played the song for ’em to see if any of them knew it. The only snippet of the lyrics I could recall was “Special love/I have for you” in the chorus, and I sang that bit along too.

But it was no use, we were all stumped. So I got to digging around on YouTube; I dunno, for some reason it just sounded to me like it might be a Badfinger song, so I did a search and started digging through the results when lo and behold, about four or five songs down, there was that distinctive guitar lick! I was so damned thrilled, I was jumping around and shouting like a fool. And now you guys get to enjoy my small victory too.


There’ll always be an England?

Another fine Steyn music post, about a song I always did like.

Not when she sang, though. It’s not a creamy voice, like GI Jo Stafford’s. There’s something rawer in there, and in those early records a very real emotional clutch. The sound of Britain at war is Vera Lynn singing, whether “There’ll Always Be And England” or “We’ll Meet Again”. And, with either number, despite the notorious British antipathy to audience participation, she never had to cajole the Tommies or anybody else into joining in.

On that rather strained luncheon with Princess Margaret, Dame Vera seemed a delightfully near parodic embodiment of Englishness. (She sent back the avocado with the words, “This foreign food disagrees with me.”) Afterwards, we had a little chat about her songs. “They still like ‘We’ll Meet Again’,” she said (I seem to recall a couple of laddish telly pop stars had just had a Number One cover version with it). “But ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ is what they call ‘controversial’,” she added, lowering her voice, lest someone might overhear.

By “controversial”, she meant that the very concept of “England” was now officially discouraged. “There’ll Always Be An England” is conspicuous by its absence on her 100th birthday album and her other hit CDs of this century. With one of her two signature songs all but banned from the airwaves, the survivor was imbued with a kind of pathos it had never had during the lowest moments of the Second World War. It came to symbolize simultaneously both Britain’s wartime defiance and a resigned acceptance of remorseless decline. To me, Dame Vera’s original near-eight-decade-old recording sounds sadder with every passing year.

We’ll Meet Again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know We’ll Meet Again
Some sunny day.

Will we? You can see what Dame Vera means about the “controversial” nature of “There’ll Always Be An England” at the Blairite website set up after the 2005 Tube bombings. Its object was to try to identify British “icons” around which a roiled nation could unite. In the comments responding to “There’ll Always Be…”, a reader who identifies himself as Alex rages that the song is “an appallingly syrupy anthem to petty nationalism and ‘little Englanders’. Haven’t two world wars shown us that nationalism is a scourge, a hangover from the tribal groupings of the Dark Ages? I’m a citizen of a united Europe, and proud to be so.” On the other hand, Margaret Stringfellow says, “The EU is hell bent on destroying England as a country, by replacing England by the Regions. There will not always be an England unless the English people wake up.”

I’ve mentioned it here before, and I’ve searched and searched for it over the years and never have been able to find it, but I distinctly remember a quote from some Englishter, a government official of some type, not long after 9/11 that I thought was piercing indeed. Asked by a reporter if our Cousins across the pond remained able to respond forcefully to such hideous aggression, the guy pointed out that it was the wrong question; the truly relevant question, he said, was “whether England remained England.”

Depressing, innit? But all prospective cracks from me about “Londonistan” aside, who knows; perhaps the same stark division we’ve seen here between the iniquitous multiculti surrender-monkey derangement in our urban areas and the stouter, sterner, more sensible mindset prevalent in flyover country will yet hold true in England. They—and we—had better hope so, at least.

But perhaps not; Steyn just about puts paid to it with his closer:

On November 25th 1941, off the coast of Alexandria, HMS Barham was torpedoed by a German U-boat during a visit to the battleship by Vice-Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell. The ship lurched to its port side, the commanding officer was killed, and the vice-admiral found himself treading oil-perfumed water surrounded by the ship’s men and far from rafts. To keep their morale up, he led them in a rendition of “There’ll Always Be An England”. The 31,000-ton Barham sank in less than four minutes, the largest British warship destroyed by a U-boat in the course of the war. But 449 of its crew of 1,311 survived.

“There’ll Always Be An England” was written for that England.

It’s different now.

Lots of things are, to our great detriment. We’ve lost much, and thrown away even more. It remains to be seen whether we retain enough to bring us back from the brink of disaster and destruction. Personally, I have some small hope. But I have to admit it probably ain’t the way to bet.


Another fine tune

Okay, this here might shock some of you. It might horrify others, or even disgust some. But I was just listening to a truly wonderful song, one I always just loved and haven’t heard in a while. Usually I get totally sidetracked listening to it and just repeat it again and again; the music is gorgeous, and the lyrics speak to me in a way very few ever have—or probably ever will.

Okay, are you ready for the shocker? It’s, ummm….


Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Okay, stop pointing and laughing, dammit. No, I’m not going all mushy in my old age. Well, not entirely, at any rate. Nor is this old punk-rock scoundrel turning hippie in his dotage. I’m still a rock and roll guy, I promise ya. I might not be Hard As A Rock (ahem) anymore, but I do still possess the ability to flex and stiffen on occasion, from something other than lifting heavy objects or moving around a bit. No, really. I mean it.

Anyways, the specific song I’m speaking of here is this one:

Now, of course the melody is lovely, and the harmonies are like some heavenly choir; it is CSN, after all. I’d love the song just for the music alone, it’s certainly enough, and stands on its own. But it’s the damned lyrics that reach deep down inside my chest and churn me up so completely that I can feel my throat clench and the tears well a bit. I swear, I hear this and it feels like it was written just for me. Indulge me a bit while I explain that; I promise it ain’t just entirely egotism and narcissism. First, the sailing stuff, which I have never actually done but have always had a deep fascination with just the same:

Got out of town on a boat goin’ to Southern islands
Sailing a reach before a followin’ sea
She was makin’ for the trades on the outside
And the downhill run to Papeete

Off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas
We got eighty feet of the waterline nicely making way

And then last two lines of that verse start to get personal:

In a noisy bar in Avalon I tried to call you
But on a midnight watch I realized why twice you ran away

Oh, ouch. I never called anybody from a bar in Avalon, but I’ve sure endured a prolonged breakup or three from various other seedy bars and/or hotels across the nation back in my road-dog days. Their scenery is more colorful and interesting, but the sentiment remains the same. And with that opening volley, we’re off and running.

Think about
Think about how many times I have fallen

Ouch again. I mean, really ouch. I swear, there are days when I wish I could think about something, ANYthing, else.

Spirits are using me larger voices callin’

Well, I like to think so, anyway. I know for sure that I have performed above my ability once in a while, and written songs I really didn’t have a whole lot to do with, more like just taking dictation. Those days get fewer and further between as I get older, but they still come along now and then, and are still in a measure what I live for. It’s been that way for, hell, forty years now. And the memories of it will keep me smiling till I finally drop.

What Heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten

Bang, zoom, first direct shot to the heart. That’s me, my ex-wife, and our precious child right there.

(Around the world) I have been around the world

Well, not entirely. But closer than many, I guess. And not all that many are fortunate enough to get to do it on the strength of their music, either.

(Lookin’) Lookin’ for that woman girl
(Who knows she knows) Who knows love can endure
And you know it will

Um. Again, I’d like to think so. But I’ve become pretty cynical about that these days, honestly, and I can’t say I’m even looking anymore. I had it once, and it’s a rare enough thing that I don’t think it will be coming around again. I was lucky to have it the first time, even though it was all too brief a time before she was taken from me. Anyways.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small

Ouch. Another direct hit.

But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a comin’ day

So I’m sailing for tomorrow my dreams are a dyin’

Yep, rounds on target and firing for effect now for sure. Enemies in the open, the artilleryman’s meat and potatoes.

And my love is an anchor tied to you tied with a silver chain

A twofer here: both my ex, and our child, methinks.

I have my ship and all her flags are a’ flyin’
She is all that I have left and music is her name

Annnnd target destroyed! That’s the line that has actually, literally made me sob out loud, and more than just once, too. Another chorus, then we get…

So we cheated and we lied and we tested
And we never failed to fail it was the easiest thing to do

Yep, the ex again. More than one of ’em, actually, and I’ve experienced it from both sides, to my eternal shame and regret.

You will survive being bested
Somebody fine will come along make me forget about loving you

Well, okay, it can’t ALL be dead on the money, right?

And the southern cross

And that last flip little statement is what really stands the whole thing brilliantly on its head, I think, and brings it on home. See, it’s a bitterly ironic little fillip, a little nothing that punctures his last hopeful conceit and leaves him a salt-sprayed wandering wreck: he knows he ain’t ever gonna forget the beauty of the Southern Cross, and he also knows it’s the same with his lost love. The comfort the sight of the Cross brings him, wonderful and welcome as it is, will never be quite enough. The relief it provides is profound, soothing…and temporary.

The grief, on the other hand, will stay with him forever; the best he can hope for is the occasional random moment of beauty and transcendence, wrapped around the eternal pain of his loss. He can learn to make a livable accommodation with that grief over time, but he will never leave it behind entirely.

And that’s something I know a little about, too, and had to learn the hard way, in a pretty tough school.

Okay, all self-indulgence and navel-gazing aside, it IS a truly great song all the way around, ain’t it? There are plenty of folks out there whose reaction to those amazing words has been the same as mine, of course: that feeling that the writer or singer is speaking directly to you, about events and emotions that feel entirely personal and relevant to you personally, is what separates a great song from a merely good one, and elevates what might be a mere pop confection to actual High Art. When an artist can achieve that universality, that connection, across time and space with so many people, he’s speaking with the voice of God indeed. Or so I believe.

I’ve never reached those heights in my own songwriting; in truth, I’ve never really even attempted it, and wouldn’t dare. It’s my belief that it’s not something you can consciously, intentionally do, although I know there are plenty of writers who have done it again and again over the course of their careers. But I ain’t one of ’em; it’s entirely beyond my ken, and my own trifling ambitions have never run that way. And really, I’m okay with that. I know an awful lot of people, more than I ever dreamed, have gotten some little joy out of my work. And that’s enough for me.

But boy, what must hitting such lofty heights feel like? “Southern Cross” was released in 1982, and once in a while I still hear it on the radio; I heard it earlier today, in fact, which is what put me in mind of it and got me listening over and over to the classic-rock disk with it on there that I keep in the car (okay, okay, I admit it: I keep a LOT of classic-rock disks in the car).

CSN had plenty of other hits too—and damned good ones, might I add, many of which I greatly enjoy. But that song is the one that sticks with me most out of all their catalog, and speaks to me the loudest. It’s endured for all those years and never gotten at all stale, at least for me. Damned respectable achievement, if you ask me.



So I realized I haven’t done any sort of music post here in a while—or anything else, really, except politics for a good while now. That makes Jack a dull boy, and I need to correct that.

And that’s gonna be easy, as it turns out. See, I recently acquired a Gretsch Duo Jet from my friend Mike Earle through some advanced and intricate horse-trading, swapping, and negotiation. The pickups in the thing were complete and utter shite; I borrowed the guitar to try it out, and it was the most un-Gretsch sounding Gretsch I ever heard. For those of you who aren’t guitar slingers, Gretsch guitars are known primarily for their clear, ringing, bell-like high end. They sparkle like freshly-polished crystal, and can always cut through any amount of rock and roll mush you care to pile on ’em.

But not this thing. It sounded like cold mud—like canned green beans unseasoned and microwaved for an hour and a half would taste. The factory pickups were Gretsch mini-humbuckers, which I had never heard of before and didn’t even know they made. They were wretched, worse than a waste of time. I never knew a Marshall amp could sound so dull and lifeless. The neck was good, the body was solid and heavy like it ought to be, but the pickups were…shoot, I can’t find words to describe how utterly boring they were. It’s like they weren’t even there. You don’t buy a Gretsch for sound like this, you just don’t.

And the problem was, you can’t just fit any old pickup into a mini-humbucker hole. They’re both skinnier and less wide than every other pickup out there; total oddballs, they are, and to fit something that might be worth listening to in there you’re gonna have to rout out the body. Which is tough because of the way this thing was put together; the neck pickup butted right up against the bottom of the fretboard, leaving no real space for modification. I was stymied, and handed the guitar back to Mike the day after I tried it out with a solid “Sorry, not interested.” We were both hugely disappointed; I wanted to like the guitar, I really did, and we had worked out a deal that would have cost me next to nothing and allowed him to rid himself of a guitar that, being a diehard Fender guy, he really didn’t have much use for anyway.

But as things stood, I didn’t have much use for the damned pancaked albatross either. To jumble the avian metaphors a bit, I had no idea how to turn this ugly duckling into a swan.

But then my guitar guy Craig found some amazing pickups for me that would fit right in with no modification, and sure enough they woke the little thing right up. And all that got me to digging around on the intarwebs for more info, and that led me to the discovery that the Gretsch Duo Jet had been Malcolm Young’s guitar since…well, since always.

And that in turn leads me to the raison d’être of this whole post. See, it has long been my belief that AC/DC is the greatest pure rock and roll band in history. Think of it: every time you ever heard an AC/DC song, you knew right away who it was. Never any frills, never any bullshit. No synths, no horn sections, no backup from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. No intricate, jazzy, complicated chord changes. No violins, no didgeridoos, no bizarre percussion instruments from darkest Africa thrown in just to impress everybody with how erudite and well-traveled you were.

Just straight-up, no-ice, no-chaser, balls-out rock: pounding drums, howling vocals, lyrics about getting drunk and chasing women, and ripping, piercing, razor-sharp guitar. 1-4-5, verse-verse-chorus-verse, repeated forever. And executed cleverly enough that it never really got old, and always had a certain freshness and spark to it, a certain liveliness that all bands strive for, but few achieve—much less sustain over a four-decade lifespan.

Every time you ever heard an AC/DC song, you not only knew right away who it was—you were glad to hear it, and enjoyed it, if you were any kind of rock-and-roll guy at all. New AC/DC was like a visit from an old friend you didn’t even know you’d missed until he turned up again and made you remember why you liked him in the first place.

And Malcolm was an integral, irreplaceable part of that. Hell, he started the band, wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and was by all accounts the creative spark and driving force that moved them forward from the very start. And guess what guitar he’s been playing since the beginning? Which, as a huge fan of theirs, makes this all the more painful and depressing:

In April 2014, Young became seriously ill and was unable to continue performing. On 16 April 2014, AC/DC released a note stating that Young would be “taking a break from the band due to ill health”. However, singer Brian Johnson stated that despite earlier reports, AC/DC are not retiring: “We are definitely getting together in May in Vancouver. We’re going to pick up guitars, have a plonk and see if anybody has got any tunes or ideas. If anything happens we’ll record it.” In July, Johnson revealed that Young was in hospital receiving treatment for an unspecified condition and during May recording sessions had been replaced in the studio by Stevie Young, his nephew. On 24 September 2014, the band’s management announced that Young would not be rejoining the band. Stevie Young continued to fill in for Malcolm on the band’s 2015 Rock or Bust World Tour.

On 26 September 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Young has dementia and has been admitted to a nursing home where he can receive full-time care. A source close to Young was quoted in this article as saying: “He has complete loss of short-term memory.”[13] Young’s family confirmed four days later that he has dementia. The family is quoted as saying: “Malcolm is suffering from dementia and the family thanks you for respecting their privacy.”

In subsequent interviews Angus Young stated that his brother had been experiencing lapses in memory and concentration before the Black Ice project and had been receiving treatment during the Black Ice World Tour which ended in 2010. Angus confirmed that although his brother did not play on the 2014 Rock or Bust album: “He still likes his music. We make sure he has his Chuck Berry, a little Buddy Holly.” He added that AC/DC would continue according to his brother’s wishes and standards: “Look, even with his health, Malcolm was touring until he couldn’t do it anymore.” In that same interview, Young stated that Malcolm was rehearsing AC/DC’s songs repeatedly before every concert just to remember how the song goes. In an interview with Guitar Player about Malcolm Young’s songwriting credits in Rock or Bust, Young stated, “Mal[colm] kept doing what he could until he couldn’t do it anymore, but I have all the material he was working on. There were a lot of riffs, ideas, and bits of choruses. I’d fill things in to see if we had a song. Every album we’ve ever done has been that way. There was always a bit from the past, a bit from what we had that was brand new, and, sometimes, just an old idea that either Malcolm or myself had worked on but we never finished.The songwriting process didn’t really change, except for the fact that Mal wasn’t physically there. So when it came to writing and putting stuff together, I had Stevie [Young] there with me. You see, Malcolm was always a great organizer. He always kept track of the stuff we were writing together. He’d record it, date it, make notes. My records – if you can call them that – are always chaotic. So, this time, Stevie helped me organize a lot of what was there.”

At the conclusion of the Black Ice World Tour, Malcolm was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was treated at an early stage, so surgery was successful and the cancer was removed. He also has an unspecified heart problem and now wears a pacemaker.

I was there when AC/DC came through Charlotte on the Black Ice tour. I took the ex-wife, who had never seen them before. She was grinning throughout like a kid—just as I had when I first saw them on the Highway To Hell tour way back when, only weeks before Bon Scott died. I remember back then all my friends discussing just how the hell they were going to replace Scott; the general consensus was that it couldn’t be done, that AC/DC was finished. They somehow found Brian Johnson, and went on to do some of their best work ever; the Back In Black album was a stunning comeback, including as it did the most insouciant, cocksure, spit-in-the-devil’s-eye song imaginable for a band whose iconic singer had just drank himself to death, “Have A Drink On Me.”

That adversity didn’t stop them, and they went on to even greater things. But now, well, I dunno. They’ve been doing this for a damned long time, and they’ve made their money and left one helluva mark. They don’t owe anybody anything, and the laurels they have to rest on are enough to see anybody through.

Whatever the future might hold for them, I wish them well. And if they do tour again and pass through my hometown, I’ll be there to see them one more time. And I’ll raise a glass to the great Malcolm Young, and give a thought too to the guitar I’ve ended up playing myself in common with him at this late stage of my own career, unexpectedly and against all odds. Malcolm is in a tough spot now, but he brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over a long and lustrous career, and that ought not be forgotten.

And with all that said, how could I not leave you with some good shit from Black Ice?

Gott DAMN, but I love these boys. Long live AC/DC; long live Malcolm Young. And long live hacked up, bastardized Gretsch Duo Jets, too.

Oh, and that Gibson SG Angus plays? Fuck them things.

Update! For you Bon Scott purists:

God bless Bon Scott too; one of a kind, he was, and the story of how he first hooked up with AC/DC would make a whole entire post of its own—one which I may yet get around to writing one of these days. His first Aussie TV appearance, too, was an outre classic of pure rock and roll decadence and…oh, hell, here it is:

No explanation from here offered, maybe none possible; Bon Scott was without question the most manly sumbitch ever to appear on national TV in a dress and pigtails. And he did it with a sardonic smile, and with no confusion at all about his gender identity; one can’t even begin to imagine him being conflicted about which bathroom he ought to be using, nor whining to the government in hopes of its enforcing his preference at everybody else’s expense. Regardless, and all joking around aside, may he rest in peace. If you ever wanted a concrete reason to resist creeping Islamism and defend the wild, reckless, no-holds-barred freedom of the West, Bon Scott amounts to as good a one as any I can think of.


A list

Oh, it’s a good one all right.

Leo Decaj wrote: “Keep this in mind :

Donald Trump did not steal your money.

Donald Trump did not raise your taxes.

Donald Trump did not quadruple the price of food.

Trump is not stirring a race war.

Trump did not leave any US soldiers in Benghazi to be slaughtered and desecrated by Muslims.

Trump did not send the US Navy to fight for Syrian Al-Qaeda.

Trump did not arm ISIS and systematically exterminate Christians throughout the Middle East.

Plenty more of ’em, too. All of which serves to remind me, for some reason, of this hilarious bit of Leftard boobery:

TruthRevolt just reported on their article comparing the President-Elect to mass murderer Dylann Roof. Now Salon has posted an article about the Syrian catastrophe with this headline: “Hey, President Donald Trump: Do you know where your bombs are falling?”

That’s right, more than a month away from setting up house in the Oval Office and Trump is already being blamed for bombing Syria.

Just remember, they’re smarterer than you.

And that puts me in mind of this: I was riding around with a good friend of mine the other night, a Mark 1-Mod-0 liberal, of course, and he was talking about how, even though he didn’t much care for his music, he totes admired Frank Zappa for the way he stood up to those “conservative fucksticks” responsible for the PMRC. I didn’t have the heart to remind him that that was…uhh, Al Gore’s wife Tipper.

But on reflection, maybe I shoulda. Every last one of you here knows what it’s like to deal with these people; we hold our tongues to keep the peace. It’s just not worth the candle to argue with people so completely convinced of their own righteousness, no matter how many times reality keeps tripping them up. It’s tiresome, and it’s bootless; they’re not listening anyway, and even if they were, they’re not remotely persuadable by mere facts or logic. You can’t reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into.

Lately I’m thinking, though, that the time for that sort of polite forbearance is all done. As a professional musician, just about everyone I deal with in that field is a bonehead lib of some stripe or other, and I’ve long since grown accustomed to just shutting the hell up when they start in. My God, if most of the people I’ve worked with over the years even knew this web-sty existed, I would’ve long since been blackballed right out of the music business altogether.

It’s the same reality the handful of Hollywood conservatives have always had to confront. The Left is so “tolerant,” so “broad-minded,” that one’s very livelihood can be placed in very real jeopardy by committing the outrageous mortal sin of open disagreeing with them. As a result, Hollywood types have been reduced to holding secret meetings to discuss the issues of the day amongst themselves.

I’ve never once mentioned this site on my Facebook page, which I don’t much bother with anyway; I do post gig info on the FB page when I can remember to do it, and that’s about it. Nor have I ever mentioned the blog in any conceivable context with my various bands. Blogging is something I do, and music is something I do, and never the twain shall meet.

That’s not just because I’m afraid of any backlash from my Leftard friends; mixing music with politics is something I just don’t do anymore, although I sure did back when I was playing punk rock as a good little Leftard myself way back when. I just think it’s inappropriate, and can only end up demeaning the music in service of…well, not anything worthwhile. It took me a good long time to see the wisdom of Elvis’s disdain for bringing politics into the music, but I’m fully on board with it now.

But I know as well as you do that the backlash would be real, and severe; it’s not just paranoia stays my hand. The political is personal, as the Left says, for them anyway. Which just means that if you disagree with the Left, and you earn your living among Leftists, and you make that disagreement known, you WILL lose friends over it—gar-on-teed, you will. If they have their way about it, you will lose your livelihood, too.

But seems to me that with Trump’s great victory, maybe it’s time at last to come out of the shadows, at least in some ways. I still have no intention of mixing my politics with my music; like I said, I think it’s inappropriate, and not worthwhile anyway. In truth, I find a lot of the bands I loved back in my punk-rock days just about unlistenable nowadays because of the relentless, ceaseless political proselytizing; the Clash would be a perfect case in point. I used to love them way back when, but now? Ugh. Just…ugh. The only thing that will get me spinning the car-radio dial faster than Obama’s self-righteous drone is something, anything, from Sandinista. I repeat: ugh.

In contrast, one of the best bands of that era was the Ramones, who (whom?) I still just love. Non-political to the core, they were. You’d never figure out their personal politics from listening to, say, Rocket To Russia. If it’s mere coinkydink that Johnny was a diehard conservative, well, hey, go figure, right?

All in all, though, my days of holding my tongue when confronted by Leftists slamming my beliefs in the mistaken assumption that I think just like they do would seem to be coming to an end. The truth is, I’m about fed to the gills with it. Trump’s win, as clearly salubrious as it has been so far in all the bigger ways, might just work out nicely for all of us even on a more micro, personal level too.

Feels like liberation, in truth.

So yeah, it might just be time to remind some of these liberal fucksticks (ahem) in no uncertain terms that “tolerance” and “diversity” is about way more than just skin color. Call it The Enlightenment, v2.0. I’ll let Marky Ramone have the last word:

The Ramones famously sang “I Wanna Be Sedated” — but there was nothing sedate about the legendary punk rockers as they toured the country in a cramped van and talked politics, Marky Ramone tells Newsmax TV.

In fact, Ramone says, it was staunch conservative Republican against leftie Democrat as he and band mates Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee rode in their Ford Econoline — and all politicians were fair game for insults.

“Johnny was a conservative and Joey was a liberal Democrat and I’m a Democrat, but you know I have a lot of conservative friends,” Marky said Friday on “The Steve Malzberg Show,” as he promoted his new book,”Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,” published by Touchstone.

But Marky said he and his bandmates — none of whom were related although they all used the name “Ramone” — knew the value of having the freedom to debate. And they loved it.

“That’s the country we live in, thank God, and we’re able to do that. So I respect people’s politics,” he said.

And THAT is what we’re in very real danger of losing now—but it won’t be conservatives who did it. We’ve had long, long practice in keeping quiet in order not to upset our tremulous, overwrought, unstable liberal-fascist friends. The catastrophic end-game that will be the result of that loss will not be pretty. None of us ought to be happy about it, none of us should be wishing for it, and we’re all going to suffer greatly for it before all is said and done.

But maybe it’s inevitable. Freedom-loving, Constitutionally-oriented Americans who want only to be left alone cannot exist cheek-by-jowl with true fascists who want to regulate our every move. The two beliefs are fundamentally incompatible; once the Left set out to render the Constitution a dead letter, they destroyed the very foundation of that uneasy truce and set in motion a chain of events that just may end up impoverishing us all in every way imaginable, and destroying them altogether. It’s my belief that they’ve crossed the deepest of Rubicons, and did so prematurely; it’s going to cost them quite damned dear in the end.

But if that’s what it takes to get them off our necks at last, well, so be it. Maybe they’ll wake up before it’s too late. Hopefully so. I’m not going to be holding my breath, and neither should you.

In the interest of letting Marky truly have the last word: I’ve mentioned and excerpted it before here, and the quote above is a reminder that I really gotta scrape up the cash for Marky’s book. And into the ol’ Amazon Wish List it goes, so I don’t forget.


Saved the best for last: merry Christmas!

The fairest of them all:

So very lovely it almost hurts to hear; as I said the other day, I don’t see how anyone could possibly be a serious musician—or hear something like this—and not believe in something greater, deeper, and more powerful than our mere selves. And no, I certainly do NOT mean the State.

But in any event, with that, may the joy and serenity of this most blessed of days find its way deep into the hearts of each and every one of you, in its and your own unique way.




"America is at that awkward stage. It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards." – Claire Wolfe, 101 Things to Do 'Til the Revolution

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