Jonathan Demme has died.

Jonathan Demme’s life is rightly noted for his versatile and diverse talents and interests, though his love of music seems to be the unifying connection between his genre films, documentaries, blockbusters, and humanitarian work. I liked much of his oeuvre, maybe not as passionately as some, but I admired his restless and generous life. And when I heard the news I thought of this, as I’m sure did many:

New Song

We recorded this a couple of weeks ago, and originally I was going to wait to “master” it, but the more I listen the more I want it exactly as it is. It’s not hard rock but it is hard pop. This one has Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Black Flag) on drums, and might be the softest he has ever played, at least on the  verses. I played everything else and wrote the song, the girls are in fine form, and if Cecilia Webber is not a GREAT singer I don’t know what a great singer is. Cecilia just turned 15. I hope you enjoy it.

https://girlsnextdoor.bandcamp.com/

 

Song of the Week – Stay Free, The Clash

IGNORED OBSCURED RESTORED

The Clash’s eponymous debut was released in the UK in 40 years ago, in April 1977. But it wasn’t released in the US until July 1979 – and that was in a modified version that replaced 5 of the original cuts with 6 different ones.

As a result, many here in the US (me included) heard their second album – Give ‘Em Enough Rope, released in November 1978 – before the more critically acclaimed The Clash. But as is often the case, the first album we are exposed to by a band becomes our lifelong favorite. Often criticized for its “sanitized” production by American Sandy Pearlman who had previously worked with Blue Oyster Cult, GEER sounded good to me then and still does today.

Today’s SotW is “Stay Free.”

When I first hear “Stay Free” back in ’78 I thought it might be a song about the childhood relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. That was way off base, but you can’t blame me for heading in that direction since “Stay Free” is the Clash’s most Beatle-y song.

It turns out this Mick Jones song is actually about his childhood schoolmate, Robin Banks. They became lifelong friends after getting sent to the headmaster after having an argument in class over who was better, Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley. The headmaster was so spitting mad that his jacket lapel ended up with gob on it. That hilarious situation and their mutual disdain for authority figures bonded their friendship.

Mick wrote the tribute to his old buddy when Robin was locked up for bank robbery.

He covers their childhood:

We met when we were in school
Never took no shit from no one, we weren’t fools
The teacher says we’re dumb
We’re only having fun
We piss on everyone
In the classroom

The bank robbery and related incarceration:

I practiced daily in my room
You were down the crown planning your next move
Go on a nicking spree
Hit the wrong guy
Each of you get three
Years in Brixton

It ends with a poignant love letter:

‘Cause years have passed and things have changed
And I move anyway I want to go
I’ll never forget the feeling I got
When I heard that you’d got home
An’ I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be
An’ if you’re in the crown tonight
Have a drink on me
But go easy…step lightly…stay free

Then Jones rips into a guitar solo that captures the spirit of the young boys’ wilder days. It’s a beautiful thing!

Enjoy… until next week.

World Premier: The Public image is Rotten

My buddy Rael was going to be in town on Friday, and the Tribeca Film Festival was premiering a new movie about PiL and Johnny Rotten. Neither of us were big PiL fans, but this seemed like a fun date. I bought tickets.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Rael is sick. He can’t come into town. So I call my musically adventurous friend Julie. I know she is not a PiL fan, not a Sex Pistols fan, but I’ll have fun with her in any case. Plus, it turns out, there will be a discussion with Lydon/Rotten after the screening. More show biz!

We both order fish and chips at the venerable Tribeca institution, Walkers, and the fish is great, the cole slaw is fine, and the chips are very tasty. That’s a win.

Here’s the deal on the movie, in a few short bites:

If you love PiL you will chew this movie up with delight. It not only fetishises each version of the band, it exalts the Rotten process. Your taste is reified.

If you come from a more historical perspective, the movie does a pretty fine tick tock of the whys wheres and wayfores of the band over a long career.

If you enjoy watching John Lydon sing PiL songs, there’s lots here for you.

If you enjoy watching John Lydon talk about his life, there’s a good amount of that for you.

If you were an observer of PiL, and not a fan of the music, I think you might find a lot of fun in the music. More than you might expect. Less in Lydon’s memorable vocals than Wobble’s bass, Levene’s skronky guitar, and the similarly discordant and yet powerful music all the iterations of this band made.

So, there’s lots to like about the movie, but when you think about it as a movie, it starts to pale. This is a movie that seems to get Johnny Rotten talking emotionally and revealingly about his life. It’s a movie that chronicles many internecine wars among the various configurations of PiL. And it is, most tellingly, a movie that buys John Lydon’s version of the story.

Lydon’s version is a good story, but all the other voices in the film have other stories. And they’re allowed to tell them up to a point. That’s the point where Lydon/Rotten decides to drown them out.

What I’m describing is not an indictment. Rotten/Lydon, in the post-screening chat, talks about how he aspires to be a valued songwriter. He is saying he doesn’t think he’s there yet. He’s right about that, and wonderfully honest to admit it.

But the history of PiL the film describes is the arc of moving from talented and disorganized non-professionals to, over 20 years, the hiring of professional musicians who can actually play. And then marvelling at how everything got better.

And in many ways it did, but what seems to me most revealing is how all the aesthetic challenges disappeared once the band was competent. And this idea of competent musicians versus energetic amateurs is an invigorating discussion for everyone, but the movie glides over the issues.

It’s easy to see why, but without a discussion about talent, expression, experience, professionalism, talent and creativity, plus other stuff, I’m not sure how much what they produced matters.

I love PiL, I went to the screening tonight, because of this appearance I saw one morning in 1980 on American Bandstand:

Nuff said.

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald Was Born 100 Years Ago

The centenary is a big one, and Ella’s is coming up next week. She’s perhaps the greatest of jazz singers, without a doubt in that conversation and most likely on top of the heap, but rooting around in her discography yesterday I came up with a record called Sunshine of Your Love, which was recorded in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel in 1968.

It isn’t a rock album, but it takes it’s title from Cream’s classic rock song.

I find the cover of Hey Jude, which precedes this on the elpee, to be the worst of rock-jazz fusions, but this is different and pretty hot. Not Cream, but rockin’. I can just imagine the hep cats in their Nehru jackets at the Venetian Room, waving their cigarettes over their Scotch on the rocks as they listen in time.

Oddly, thinking about jazz and rock and what can work across the genres got me thinking about Anything Goes, an old Cole Porter chestnut that happened to be a hit single for a band called Harpers Bazaar in 1967. Ella covered it in 1956, and unlike the willful nostalgia of the insipid Harpers Bazaar version, and other cute stage versions of the tune, her version is absolutely adult and knowing. An acknowledgement of the ways and passions of the grown ups in the room.

This doesn’t make the music rock, the song is an 80-year-old show tune, but it connects the tune to the emotional directness and honesty that grew out of jazz and soul and r&b in the 50s into much of the best rock songwriting of the 60s and 70s. The singer does that, with the help of a crack band.

Happy birthday, Ella!

Song of the Week – Don’t You Grieve, Roy Harper

IGNORED OBSCURED RESTORED

Roy Harper has been a successful performer and recording artist for over 50 years but he is not nearly as well known to Americans as he is to his fellow countrymen in the UK. For instance, he earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC and Hero Award from MOJO magazine.

His extensive discography contains plenty of terrific albums including one bona fide classic – Stormcock. If you haven’t heard it, you should. (Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page plays on it under the pseudonym S. Flavius Mercurius.)

Today’s SotW comes from his 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk. “Don’t You Grieve” is timely during this Easter weekend as it has Harper getting into the head of Judas Iscariot and justifying the kiss that locked his place in history for all time. After all, it was something he had to do.

I was the master’s best friend
He was the only man I knew
It’s been a tall harvest
And he turned us all on two
But my lips are sealed by history
And my tale I cannot tell
My name is Judas Iscariot
My home address is Hell

So baby don’t you grieve after me
No no no, don’t you grieve after me
So baby don’t you grieve after me
No no no, don’t you grieve after me

Baby you don’t grieve for me when I’m here
Don’t grieve for me when I’m gone

It was two hours gone midnight
When he called me to his side
He said, hey Jude, I need you boy
I need you to take a ride
I want you to tell those guys down town
My time’s almost due. But wait a minute
Jude don’t stick around
‘Cos no body’s gonna love you

Now you’ve got all the silver
But no forgiveness in your heart
And I’ve got 20 feet of rope
To end just where?
Your guessing game starts
I’ve got endless books to write you
But my tale I cannot tell
The only way you’re living is
If you’re living in the same Hell

The song is played and sung in a style reminiscent of very early Dylan – just guitar and nasally voice. Perhaps Dylan is the link back to Woody Guthrie, who’s “Sally Don’t You Grieve” must have influenced Harper.

Other trivia related to Harper? That’s him taking the vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” from Wish You Were Here. Led Zeppelin III has a song called “Hat’s off to (Roy) Harper”, a tribute to their old friend and musical influence.

Enjoy… until next week.

J. Geils Blues Band Loses J. Geils

John Miller came into the lunch room at Smithtown Central and said something like, I’ve got the new Rolling Stones. What he meant was he’d heard the J. Geils Band’s first album.

It turns out that the J. Geils Band wasn’t the new Stones, the Stones themselves were just escalating into an incredible streak of great music, but the J. Geils Band was great fun. Especially before they became sexy hitmakers. Good for them to make the money, but the love was in those early cuts, like this one.

Song of the Week – Gonzo & On the Sunny Side of the Street, James Booker

IGNORED OBSCURED RESTORED

If you’re a regular reader of the SotW you know that I consume a significant amount of print space exposing my readers to the buried treasures of rock music. I spend a considerable amount of my free time reading books and magazines and listening to music in order to uncover underappreciated artists and acts.

Now and then I’m blown away by someone that I’m unfamiliar with and can’t quite grasp how they eluded my consciousness for so long. That happened to me a few weeks ago when I caught a documentary on Netflix called Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker.

As it turns out, Booker was one of the greatest New Orleans style piano players ever to grace our planet. He could play classical (he loved Chopin), jazz, blues, R&B and rock – making it all his own. In MOJO magazine, journalist Jim Scheurich chronicled his diverse talent:

As at home in the church as he was amid New Orleans’ shore-leave Babylon of clubs and bars, the young Booker was also at ease with the classics as he was with R&B and pop. To Booker, it was all grist to the mill of an extraordinary musical mind, freewheeling spirit of playfulness and dazzling digital dexterity.

How in the world did I miss this guy? It just goes to show, “the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.” (Aristotle)

Booker was a flamboyant character that played with everyone that’s anyone in 50s-70s rock and R&B — Little Richard, Ray Charles, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, John Mayall, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia, Maria Muldaur, and the Doobie Brothers among others.

Booker even gave piano lessons to a young Harry Connick Jr., as a favor to his district Attorney dad in exchange for legal help he provided.

Booker’s first charted release was the 1960 organ instrumental called “Gonzo.”

Legend has it the song was a favorite of Hunter S. Thompson and was the inspiration for calling his writing style “Gonzo Journalism.” Booker himself picked up the term from the name of the character Felice Orlandi played in the 1960 crime film The Pusher.

The recording that best exhibits Booker’s style is his take on the1930 jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

In the documentary Connick deconstructs the parts that Booker plays to demonstrate how complicated, challenging and creative his version is. An article written by Tim Penn gives this technical description of Booker’s playing style:

In terms of Piano Style, he was classically trained and had an incredible technique, using a lot of filigree decoration in the right hand — not in quite the same ‘ lazy rolling baroque’ N.O. style as Dr. John. However it was his left hand style that sort of set him apart. He used a sort of syncopated stride style a lot — but instead of doing a root note jump to chord, fifth jump, root jump, fifth jump style, he would either:

1) Break the root note octave quite heavily into 2 notes (from the thumb down to the little finger) i.e. ba-doom jump chord ba-doom jump chord — best exemplified on say his version of On the Sunny Side of the Street. A lot of piano players will break the root octaves a bit when doing a stride piano style, mainly out of laziness etc. (it seems to make accuracy a bit easier) — but Booker’s break was really pronounced and heavy.

OR

2) Uses a double bounce on the root and jump chord like so dum-dum (root or fifth) da-da (top chord) dum-dum (root) da-da. (top-chord) (Like doing a stride piano — in a 16ths shuffle rhythm). This style was his real trademark and he used it on his versions of Junco Partner and Goodnight Irene. Of course this style would possibly not transfer very well to a band situation!!

Booker was an unbelievably colorful character. The documentary is filled with anecdotes about how he lost his eye, his bouts with addiction and mental illness, his paranoia, and many others. I don’t want to be a “spoiler” so you have to see the movie for yourself (or research him online).

Sadly, Booker’s life ended at the young age of 43 in 1983. Even his death had an interesting and tragic angle to it. Apparently some unknown person put him in a taxi cab and sent him off to New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. He died, sitting in a wheelchair in the ER, while waiting to be seen.

But don’t let that be the final word. Watch Bayou Maharajah and discover the full story of this obscure genius.

Enjoy… until next week.

The Definite Article

There is a quiz today at Slate called Does This Band’s Name Start With The?

I did very badly on the quiz, but got the last question right, which led to this band that I’d heard of but had never listened to.

This is a San Francisco band from the 90s that I think still mittens on. This clip is the entirety of their seventh elpee, which I’m listening to as I type, and which I’m liking quite a bit. Retro, but also fresh. Good rockin’ sounds that could spiral into dancey camp, like the B-52s, but don’t. Unfortunately cute name, however.