Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01


Honestly, I never particularly cared for the Stones all that much. But I always did love me some Keith Richards.

On July 26, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger turned 75. On September 6, Pink Floyd co-founder and bassist Roger Waters reached the same milestone.

And today, though back in the ’70s he probably wasn’t a betting favorite in Vegas to make it this long back, Stones guitarist Keith Richards is hitting the big 7-5 as well.

A somewhat incredible feat considering a respected publication like the BBC ran a piece entitled “Who, What, Why: How is Keith Richards still alive?” … more than eight years ago. (An addiction expert concluded Richards owed his longevity to having “the constitution of an ox.”)

Known for memorable riffs as well as notable quips, Richards has made it 7.5 decades on the planet, so we’ve rounded up 15 of the best quotes he’s given while on it.

He may not remember saying ’em, but maybe you will.

A whole bunch of truly, truly good stuff follows.

1 – On snorting his father’s ashes as if they were cocaine: “I snorted my father. He was cremated and I couldn’t resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn’t have cared, he didn’t give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I’m still alive … I had him in a box in England. I bought this little oak sapling, my idea being that he was gonna fertilize the tree, but when I pulled the top off of the box, wafts of Dad landed on the table. And my dad knows I’d always liked my cocaine, a snort here and there. So I just had a line of dad.”

4 – On how “Satisfaction” came to be: “I wish all the songs could come this way, you know, where you just dream them, and then the next morning, there they are, presented to you. But “Satisfaction” was that sort of miracle that took place. I had a – I had one of the first little cassette players, you know, Norelco, Philips, same thing, really. But it was a fascinating little machine to me, a cassette player that you could actually just lay ideas down and, you know, wherever you were. I set the machine up, and I put in a fresh tape. I go to bed as usual with my guitar, and I wake up the next morning, I see that the tape is run to the very end. And I think, well, I didn’t do anything, you know? I said, maybe I hit a button while I was asleep, you know? So I put it back to the beginning and pushed play and there, in some sort of ghostly version, is (singing) da, da, da, da, da – I can’t get no satisfaction. And so there was a whole verse of it. I won’t bore you with it all. But – and after that, there’s, you know, 40 minutes of me snoring.”

5 – On what America has given to him: “The greatest gift America gave, to me, was its music. Because it was a hybrid, immigrant-loaded community where everybody’s stuff came together. To me, that’s the real beauty of what America is capable of. It gave people music. The whole world listens to American music and maybe that coincided because of recording. Recording is an amazing thing. It’s all built to capture a sound here and a sound there, but what it can capture is spontaneity, emotion, tears and laughter, and everything else and can all be translated via recording. And to me that’s why I loved America! The chewing gum I never even got, but the music I got. That’s what intrigued me.”

14 – On hanging with Johnny Depp: “It took me two years before I worked out who he was…then one day he was at dinner and I’m like ‘Whoa! Scissorhands!’”

15 – On what advice he’d offer to further generations: “Don’t do anything if there’s not joy in it, a sense of exhilaration. A day is a day, and each one is going bye-bye, and you’ve only got so many more in front of you. Friendship is probably one of the most important things in life. Apart from your immediate family, it’s about friends — the ability to make friends, the ability to forgive friends. And their ability to forgive you. It’s just the ability to enjoy other people’s company, really. Then you’ve got it all, man. The rest of it’s gravy.”

I actually did see the Stones live at the Meadowlands—in ’06, I believe it was, although I could be wrong about that—at the behest of my dear mother-in-law, who saw ’em back when they first came to the States and has seen ’em plenty of times since. I wasn’t just terribly excited about it, I admit. But afterwards I was damned glad I went, because it was one HELL of a show.

Still and all, though, I like his X-Pensive Winos records better. Most especially this ‘un:

Even without the great Charlie Watts—the other Stone I admire most—this one really throbs. As for Keith himself, he’s a very intelligent, talented, and self-aware guy. His openness and candor have always been refreshing; his lack of pretense and ebullient personality make him somebody I’d love to just sit around barside shooting the shit about guitars and amps with, swapping road stories and such. Not that my own would amount to anything compared to his, of course. But still.

If you haven’t seen Hail Hail Rock And Roll, the story of his ordeal trying to get notorious damned prick Chuck Berry to actually give a shit long enough to get through a properly-rehearsed and performed show for once in his life, you should watch it sometime. Good as that flick is, though, the one you really must not miss is 2015’s Under The Influence. I’ve watched it I don’t even know how many times, and I wish I was watching it right now. I even made my mom watch it with me once; her opinion of Richards, to the extent she even has one, is about what you’d expect from an 80 year old country girl…and she LOVED it.

Richards has always been a source of wonderful quotes; there was one from the late 60s, I guess it was, regarding the music of the day, that “90 percent of everything is shit.” He later went on to say (paraphrasing from memory here) that the American music-buying public was a passel of dopes, because “you have the greatest music in the world—the blues—and the greatest musicians playing it, and you just ignore them. All bands like us do is sell you a piss-poor imitation of it.” A few more good ‘uns:

I prefer to think of myself as an antenna. There’s only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.

It’s great to be here. It’s great to be anywhere.

Let me be clear about this. I don’t have a drug problem. I have a police problem. 

Songwriting’s a weird game. I never intended to become one – I fell into this by mistake, and I can’t get out of it. It fascinates me. I like to point out the rawer points of life.

Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll. 

If you’re going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use both feet. 

Great stuff if you ask me, and plenty more where it came from too. Sincerest wishes for a very happy birthday to you, Mr Richards, and many happy returns.

Update! I gotta get this book.

If you’re looking for less conventional methods to celebrate the birthday boy, you could take a dig at Mick Jagger, sleep next to your guitar, develop an amazing smoker’s laugh, or beat those pesky drug charges against you. Or you could just keep on living and continue being awesome. Any of these would honor the incomparable, inimitable, impossible Keith Richards.

My final suggestion is the one I want to emphasize: Read Keef’s 2010 memoir, “Life.” If you’re a fan of the Stones, rock ‘n’ roll in general, or music history, it’s a no-brainer. Everything that makes Richards such an improbably lovable figure is on display in the book— the humor, the irreverence, the “elegantly wasted” charm, the sincerity, the self-awareness.

It’s a very intimate and entertaining read, as Richards takes you deep into his fully lived (and ongoing) time on Planet Earth. It’s a book about survival, friendship, creative striving, freedom, and the hard work of staying just sane enough. I couldn’t give it a higher recommendation.  

Some excerpts:

As impressed as I was with Elvis, I was even more impressed with Scotty Moore and the band. It was the same with Ricky Nelson. I never bought a Ricky Nelson record, I bought a James Burton record. It was the bands behind them that impressed me just as much as the front men. Little Richard’s band, which was basically the same as Fats Domino’s band, was actually Dave Bartholomew’s band. I knew all this. I was just impressed with ensemble playing. It was how guys interacted with one another, natural exuberance and seemingly effortless delivery. There was a beautiful flippancy, it seemed to me.

You realize, some guys you can spend a day with them and basically you’ve learned all you’re ever going to know about them. Like Mick Jagger in exact reverse.

Mick’s album was called ‘She’s the Boss,’ which said it all. I’ve never listened to the entire thing all the way through. Who has? It’s like ‘Mein Kampf.’ Everybody had a copy, but nobody listened to it.

[NME’s rock star ‘death list’] was the only chart on which I was number one for ten years in a row… I was really disappointed when I went down the charts. Finally dropping down to number nine. Oh my G-d, it’s over.

And then there’s his take on rap “music”:

“Rap — so many words, so little said,” laughs Richards, 71.

“What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there,” he says. “All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy. There’s an enormous market for people who can’t tell one note from another.”

Ain’t THAT the sad, sorry truth. To sum it all up:

In the tome, Richards both reveled in his seminal bad-boy image, and gave it fairer context. Despite his image as Decadence Incarnate, he’s been married to the same woman for three decades, has five grandchildren and, last year, wrote a children’s book.

“I can drag that image around — the Keith with a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a joint in the other,” Richards says. “It’s a ball and chain. At the same time, I take it as a privilege to be taken into people’s hearts and minds. I feel like I’m doing all these things that they can’t do in a 9 to 5 job. In a way they’re saying, ‘Go ahead, Keith.’ They’re giving me license…and I’ve taken full use of it.”

He’s definitely one of a kind, bless his heart.


Twelve, count ’em, twelve

Today’s Christmas tune is a takeoff on an oldie but not necessarily goodie: Jeff Tyzik’s “The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas.” Now, I am aware that many of you don’t much care for the original “Twelve Days Of Christmas,” and I share your disdain for it myself, believe me. But back in the early 60s, Allen Sherman (of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” fame) rejiggered TDOC as “Twelve Gifts” etc, in his inimitable comedic style. Then along came a guy named Jeff Tyzik, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, with sort of a spoof of Sherman’s spoof.

And lo, it’s actually quite good. Near as I can tell, the original TDOC would make exactly nobody’s list of favorite Christmas tunes. It’s facile and repetitive, and goes on way too damned long to suit most of us—just the same danged cloying melody over and over and over, verse after verse with nary a chorus or bridge in sight. Arrangers here and there over the years have tried to alleviate the ennui somewhat by working in modulations as the verses advance, changing key up with each successive one. To little avail if you ask me; it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for spicing up an aimless or otherwise lackluster tune, especially since the dawn of the rock and roll era. And it doesn’t work with this song any better than it usually does.

Tyzik employs the old modulation sleight-of-hand too, but in an unusual way: with this arrangement, the key signature changes both up AND down. In most cases, the pitch only goes up, with rock and roll songs usually a step or half-step. The theme of the lyrics is modified to reference neither bizarre gifts like the green polka-dot pajamas and indoor bird baths of the Sherman version, nor the baffling and archaic lords-a-leaping and pipers-piping of the original. Tyzik, being conductor of a symphony and all, instead decided to indulge his passion for classical music by running down a list of orchestral instruments as his “gifts.”

That’s all well and good, but it probably wouldn’t have sufficed by itself to spark any more interest than the somnolent original does. No, what brings Tyzik’s version to life is what he does with those instruments. Each of them in its turn is called on to recite a brief snippet of a well-known favorite from the classical repertoire featuring that instrument. Some of the lyrics naming each “gift” are clever and funny, too: “five golden strings,” “six mellow cellos,” “seven brass a-swinging,” etc.

Anyway, what it all adds up to is a fresh, lilting, amusing take on a song that never really was any of those things before. The arrangement shifts itself just when you want it to without actually expecting it, and the classical (and, in the case of the brass, jazzy) bits enliven things nicely. All in all, although still necessarily lengthy, this one moves right along; speaking purely for myself, when I first heard the piece I found myself actually looking forward to the next verse just to see what he threw into the mix next. And I had NEVER done any such thing with either the original or the Sherman version. I just wanted to be put out of my misery, mostly.

I dunno, watch it through if you haven’t run across it before and see what you think. You may or may not dig the thing, depending on how you feel about classical and/or Christmas music, I guess. But I like it; it ain’t necessarily one of my favorites, but it does make me smile. When I hear it on the local classical-music radio station I usually stick with it to the end instead of diving for the channel-switcher button like I’ll always and forever do when I hear that sour old commie dirge of John Lennon’s, or his erstwhile partner’s godawful “Wonderful Christmas Time.” And really, isn’t that the proof of the pudding?

Update! Sometimes, the arrangement is everything.

Doye O’Dell was a second-tier singing cowboy who, upon America’s entry into the Second World War, found himself being groomed to step into Roy Rogers’ chaps, on the assumption by Hollywood that Roy would be drafted. When word came that Roy wouldn’t be, Doye went off to join the Marines and the big break never happened. He had small acting roles in the sort of films you expect to find singing cowboys in – The Gay Ranchero, Along the Navajo Trail – but also a few films you don’t: Auntie Mame, Days of Wine and Roses, Irma La Douce. Nevertheless, he puts a real twang in your twig of mistletoe, and decks your hall with boughs of tumbleweed and sagebrush. So you’d be for forgiven for thinking that “Blue Christmas” started out as a country-&-western song.

In fact, it’s a suburb-&-eastern song – born in Connecticut commuter-land seven decades ago. I was complaining re “Orange Colored Sky” that it’s always a disappointment when a memorable song doesn’t have an equally memorable and-then-I-wrote anecdote behind it. In the case of “Blue Christmas”, the and-then-I-wrote story is almost too good, but I was assured a couple of decades back that this is exactly how it happened. So here goes…

…There are varying accounts of what happened that day. One of them has it that Steve Sholes, the RCA man who’d signed the singer, had ordered up a bland arrangement of the song, like the pop standard “Blue Christmas” should have been but never was. It was nothing like the Ernest Tubb record, without which Presley would never ever have heard the song or had the least interest in recording it. And, as “Blue Christmas” was first up on that day’s session rundown, the dullsville chart immediately put Elvis in a bad mood. And he told the band and backing singers, the Jordanaires, that they were going to punish RCA by making a version of “Blue Christmas” so bad the company could never release it. I can’t say I entirely buy that, but it does explain those melodramatically slowed down pick-up notes – “I-I’ll ha-ave a-a” – and then the banshee-like howls of Millie Kirkham behind “blue Christmas without you”. Miss Kirkham, who was pregnant and singing from a chair, told friends she was worried that her wailing soprano obligato sounded “ridiculous”. Which suggests that, if Elvis was seriously striving to wreck the number, she wasn’t in on the joke.

But it’s harder to make a total stinkeroo of a record than you might think. Especially if you’re really good. And, if you’re as good as Elvis and Millie and Scotty Moore and Bill Black and D J Fontana and Dudley Brooks and the Jordanaires, even when you’re trying to sound bad you tend to do it really well. So, for example, on those bansee-howl backing vocals, Millie Kirkham and the boys replaced the major and minor thirds with neutral and sub-minor.

And thus for the first time in its nine-year history “Blue Christmas”, a song about feeling blue, actually felt bluesy. And what had hitherto been an insipid pop tune became a far more effective rhythm’n’blues ballad. The Presley version isn’t in fact that slow (approx 96 beats per minute, which is faster than many earlier recordings) but it feels ballad-esque because of the way he slurs and slides his words across the rhythm. And, ever since, almost everybody’s pretty much done it that way.

Yep, it’s another fascinating Steyn music post, with lots more good stuff tucked between my ellipses.


Christmas songs: the good, the bad, and the ugly

A list of some obscurities.

Posterity has an excellent ear for popular music. Setting aside gold records and Grammys, posterity smiles on kings (Elvis) and commoners (Sam Sham and the Pharoahs), with quality its only standard.

But Christmas is posterity’s weak spot. When December comes around, posterity is a sentimental fool, rewarding the good and the bad in equal measure. As a result, classics such as The Drifters’s “White Christmas” are forced to share the Yuletide spotlight with “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”

Posterity just isn’t doing its job at Christmas time. That’s where this list come in. What follows are 16 of the coolest and most underplayed Christmas songs ever, songs that deserve at least as much airtime as John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

I gotta grumble a little here: this list is a bit heavy on the more modern stuff to suit me. Sorry, but I do NOT want to hear John Cougar Mellonhead groaning about working-class Christmas in Indiana. Nor am I interested in having Springsteen bellow at me about how Santa Claus is coming to New Jersey. When it comes to Christmas music, I want Mel Torme. I want Nat King Cole. I want Sinatra and Dino. I want Der Bingle. God help me, I want Andy Williams.

I sure don’t want Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, or Peabo Bryson doing that warbling-wandering contemporary-R&B singer thing of meandering all over the scale in contempt of the actual damned melody, trying to “make it their own,” along the lines of those gut-curdling sportsball Star Spangled Banner butcherings we’re all way too familiar with by now. JUST SING THE DAMNED SONG ALREADY, DAMMIT. It ain’t “your own,” and it ain’t ever gonna be. Christmas music belongs to everyone, and if you can’t just leave a beloved traditional Christmas classic alone and sing it more or less straight, then write one of your own and sing it any damned way you like.

That said, though, there are instances of modern-era artists jazzing up a classic which yield some good results, mostly because the remake is done tastefully, artfully, and respectfully rather than as an exercise in self-indulgence by an artist bereft of the faintest clue as to how the thing might properly be done. In amongst the pointless dreck the author digs up some gold:

1. “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957)
“Santa Claus” isn’t just Elvis’s best Christmas song, it’s one of the most powerful recordings of his career. Released by RCA, “Santa Claus” exhibits all the virile recklessness that characterized Elvis’s earlier work for Sun Records. The track plays like a spontaneous recording, as if Elvis and the band were playing the song for fun, and someone just happened to tape the session.

Actually, that’s how a LOT of Elvis’s music got recorded: Elvis would be just noodling around on piano, the band would pick it up, and the tape would roll. Or it’d be vice the versa, with the band leading the way and Elvis getting inspired to jump in. And he’s right, this is a good ‘un. In truth, Elvis did a fine job with the whole album it comes from. But, I mean, come ON: it’s Elvis, man. Early Elvis too, before he shit the bed and became a bizarre parody of himself, and an object lesson on the perils of excess celebrity and wealth.

The author goes on to echo the now-de rigeur gripe about “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (it’s “creepy”), which for the life of me I still just don’t get, and don’t really want to. He saves himself by recommending Sonny Boy Williamson, Los Straitjackets, and even The Youngsters’ hilarious “Christmas In Jail.” For myself, I’ll commend to your attention the Christmas albums of John Fahey, The Ventures, Canadian Brass, and of course Cantus and Chanticleer.

As for new original Christmas music, earlier this evening I chanced to hear this NPR interview with JD McPherson featuring in-studio live perfomances of a few tunes from his newly-released Christmas album:

McPherson is a songwriter, singer and guitarist who is described by music critic Ann Powers as a supreme rock reinventor. McPherson grew up far away from the hubs of the music world on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. His father runs the ranch. His mother is a preacher. Before becoming a full-time musician, McPherson taught art for four years to students in middle school. His Christmas album “Socks” is his fourth album.

Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. It’s so exciting to have you here, and the new Christmas album is great. JD, I’m going to ask you to introduce the first song and to introduce the members of the band.

JD MCPHERSON: Certainly. So my name’s JD McPherson, and over to my left is everybody else. That’s Doug Corcoran, the utility guy who plays everything. Jimmy Sutton on bass. Ray Jacildo plays keys with background vocals, and our friend Jason Smay on drums.

Now as it happens, the above-mentioned Jimmy Sutton is an old friend of mine. Back when the Playboys were just getting established as a for-real touring band we did shows with Jimmy’s old outfit, the Moondogs. We also stayed at his house a few times when we were passing through Chicago; he’s a great guy, and an enormously talented musician. Haven’t seen him in a good few years, unfortunately, so it was great to hear him on the radio yakking away with the Fresh Air host.

As for JD’s Christmas rekkid: although it’s by no means what anybody would call traditional holiday fare, I liked what I heard of it. Here, have yourself a taste:

Not bad, eh? And thus does this old dog learn himself a new trick.


Flyin’ fingers

Farewell to one of the greatest pickers of all time.

Roy Linwood Clark (April 15, 1933 – November 15, 2018) was an American singer and musician. He is best known for having hosted Hee Haw, a nationally televised country variety show, from 1969 to 1997. Clark was an important and influential figure in country music, both as a performer and helping to popularize the genre.

During the 1970s, Clark frequently guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and enjoyed a 30-million viewership for Hee Haw. Clark was highly regarded and renowned as a guitarist, banjo player, and fiddler. He was skilled in the traditions of many genres, including classical guitar, country music, Latin music, bluegrass, and pop. He had hit songs as a pop vocalist (e.g., “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “Thank God and Greyhound”), and his instrumental skill had an enormous effect on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1987, and, in 2009, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He published his autobiography, My Life in Spite of Myself, in 1994.

Stars just didn’t come any more dazzling than the great Roy Clark in his 60s and 70s heyday. From Hee Haw to The Beverly Hillbillies to Tonight, to appearances on Johnny Cash’s old show, to who even knows what-all else, Roy Clark was more than a household name, particularly down here in the South. I actually remember seeing this one at my grandma’s house back when it aired:

If you find the comical 70s threads in that one too distracting, try this on for size instead:

And if that don’t suit ya, you’re probably a goddamned hip-hop fan or something.

I remember my dad’s side of the family, professional musicians and jazz aficionados all, watching Hee Haw and deriding Buck Owens without mercy. Buck, of course, was no also-ran himself in the music biz, having pioneered the legendary and highly-influential Bakersfield sound. No matter; my dad’s people were unmoved, seeing little of merit in poor old Buck. Hell, they turned their nose up pretty loftily indeed at country music in general, which probably explains why they didn’t think much of Owens. In a family full of hardcore jazz geeks, he never really stood a chance.

But they all absolutely loved the great Roy Clark, and respected him tremendously. They professed puzzlement at why someone of his towering ability would waste his time sharing the stage with a fumble-fingered, marble-mouthed, warbling hack like Buck Owens. It amounted to Roy lowering himself in a way they just couldn’t fathom, and didn’t much want to. But they all tuned in each and every week just the same, exclusively to watch ol’ Roy singe the neck of any of the several stringed instruments he was adept at eliciting howls for mercy from with those flyin’ fingers of his.

It’s depressing to speculate on how few people under the age of fifty or thereabouts might remember who Roy Clark was, or ever even knew in the first place. Like I said, in his heyday Clark was as famous a celebrity as celebrities came—hit records, industry awards and honors, guest shots on pretty much every 70s TV show you could name (including Love American Style, Flip Wilson’s short-lived variety show, The Muppet Show, and…uhh, The Odd Couple?!?), membership in the Grand Ole Opry, four feature films—and he remained active in the biz pretty much right up to the end. He even served as a commercial spokesman for Hunt’s ketchup in the 80s, which I had actually forgotten about my own self.

Such is fame, I reckon: gratifying, a hell of a lot of fun while it lasts, but in the end ephemeral and insubstantial. Roy Clark’s fame was based wholly on real talent, dedication, and years of hard work perfecting his craft going all the way back to his childhood—all of which seem to be increasingly rare beasts these days when it comes to attaining celebrity status.

I’ve never been one of those who cling to cheap nostalgia for an earlier time, or longed to go back and live in an idealized past myself. Nonetheless, I gotta say that in the field of entertainment and the arts…well, dammit, objectively speaking those days WERE better, in oh so many ways. I’d have to give the nod to any era that could produce a guy like Roy Clark in preference to one that foists…oh, pretty much the entirety of last week’s Billboard Hot 100—it’s doubtful in the extreme I’d recognize a single name from it, a merciful ignorance for which I am truly thankful—on us all.

I admit, that MIGHT be just me. Possibly. Could be I’m just too long in the tooth to appreciate how much “talent” it takes to manipulate turntables, shout dirty limericks, and push buttons to coax computers into emitting beeps, gurgles, screeches, and other sound effects—then calling such electronic eructations “music” when there isn’t a single actual musical instrument within twelve miles of the recording studio. Now if you rotten kids would kindly get the fuck off my lawn

Rest easy, Roy. Ya done good.


The Great Rock And Roll Swindle

I love this story, I really do.

In April, Jered Threatin began to hold auditions for a backing band. He chose three musicians and told them they would embark on an all-expenses paid European tour with his band, Threatin.

The first stop was The Underworld in London. Someone representing Threatin had paid £780 (roughly $1,010) to book it for the night of Nov. 1 and told Patrice Lovelace, an in-house promoter at the club, that the band had sold 291 tickets for the show.

But when the band went on, there were only three people in the audience.

“It was only on show day when no customer list for the 291 customers was produced that we realized we’d been duped,” Ms. Lovelace said. “The show went ahead with only the supports, staff and crew in attendance. The bar made almost zero money, and it was all extremely bizarre. And empty, obviously.”

The next few gigs were similarly barren. After a show at The Exchange in Bristol on Nov. 5, for which a promoter claimed to have sold 182 tickets, staff at the venue decided to investigate the band. After all, someone had paid more than $500 to book the venue.

Nearly everything associated with Threatin, it would turn out, was an illusion. Iwan Best, a venue manager at The Exchange, said they found that each of the websites associated with Threatin — the band’s “label” Superlative Music Recordings; its management company, Aligned Artist Management; and the video production company that directed the band’s video — were all registered to the same GoDaddy account. (The pages were built under a parent site seemingly associated with Superlative Music, the fake label.)

Then there was the question of his fan base. Many of Mr. Threatin’s hundreds of Facebook friends were apparently from Brazil, and YouTube videos of his concerts never show the band and the crowds at the same time. Other videos from his channel, some of which have since been removed, included clips of interviews of him in which the questioner was not shown, and it seemed possible he was interviewing himself.

Much of this tale was rigorously documented by the unflagging writers at They found that music sites that had conducted interviews with Mr. Threatin (and one that gave him an award) had been cooked up on WordPress or Wix, and padded out with content stolen from other outlets.

Talk about taking the initiative, trying to bootstrap yourself a career from nothing at all. My hat’s off to the guy. Plus, it’s just funny as all hell; to bad it backfired on him the way it did. As the BP’s rhythm guitarist and one of my oldest and closest friends Chipps said this morning when we were laughing about it: “Gee, dishonesty in the music business—who’da ever thought?”

This is probably the first and only time I’ll ever link to a NYT story and recommend you read the whole thing without a trace of sarcasm or hesitation, so savor it to the fullest, y’all. The conclusion is great:

Ms. Lovelace, the promoter at the Underworld venue in London, said that theories have continued to circulate about the musician’s motivations.

“Some people think this is some kind of genius level art project or social experiment. Some people think his mum booked the tour, and jokes have been cracked that maybe his parents are tied up in a basement in L.A. while he’s swanned off with their credit card,” she said. “I still can’t decide if it’s genius or insanity — but it’s probably a bit of both.”

Whatever the case may be, Jered Threatin has hereby secured his status as a bona fide, capital-L Legend of showbiz…and he deserves it, too. Bonus points to anyone who recognizes where I swiped my title from.


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.




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