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:

Allman Brothers, Dreams

My old friend Russ and I fashioned ourselves in the mode of Neal and Jack, at least sometimes, living a sort of vagabond life of simple ascetic pleasures traveling the world the way the monks of Tibet once famously did.

That meant hitchhiking after school from St. James to Cold Spring Harbor to try on and sometimes buy Hit Em Hard corderoy work pants, baggy the way they wore them back in the depression. If we found a beer or a J to go along with our Camel cigarettes we would enjoy it, and when we got hungry some yoghurt usually did the trick.

Most days we played basketball in Gaynor Park. There was always a game on the single court there, and we’d rotate in and out, playing full court hard, against our high school friends, and Freddy and Jay and others who had cycled back from Vietnam and brought a steely dark humor and cynicism to our lives.

The hoops court at Gaynor Park was the locus for our social life. This is where you went when you wanted to find your friends, who were either jamming on the court or flopped over the concrete pump house on the other side of the unused tennis courts. I didn’t know how all the boys and girls who spent so much time in that strip of tarmac, grass and concrete ended up there, it all seemed magical, but some part of it was because the Eastman clan, Russ and family, lived catty corner across the avenue.

It was there, at Russ’s house, that we hung out at lunch, and on days when school was shortened for testing. It was there we sat in the yard discovering that granny smith apples and Madeira Rainwater were an incredible combo. It was there that we watched Bogart movies, read Tin Tin (Rich, having colored all the dog images in a book with a yellow marker: “Don’t eat the yellow Snowy.”), and learned what Thai stick was (in the garage, in case it was volatile).

Russ and I also spent many weekends hitchhiking around Long Island, setting some goal (Hey, Southhampton!) and often making it there and back. The adventures weren’t usually dramatic. A dip in the ocean, flirting with some girls who droves us two miles, finding somehow some beer. Not exactly Tibetan simplicity, but basic, elemental, life distilled.

We talked to everyone. Drivers who picked us up, of course, but also road workers, and convenience store clerks. The workers in Army Navy stores and wherever we went to buy Dannon yoghurt as a snack. Local gossip, news, the weather, that downhome chatter was part of a package of values that we developed and shared and which I think has endured. In later years, when we were actually in control of the car, we’d stop and help people whose cars had broken down, Russ making them feel safe as we helped or found help for whatever the problem was.

We often found ourselves, because of our long hair and baggy pants, talking to police officers who assumed we took drugs. I remember a number of times that we chatted up those cops, while holding a joint or two, talked seriously about the problems with Nelson Rockefeller’s increasing penalties for pot possession, and managed to save our hides by good grace and luck and maybe a certain amount of innocent guile.

Until we didn’t, at which point our wanderings and self-inventing become more publicly known at home, and lawyers had to be called. We’ll blame Frank Zappa for that. We ate the yellow snow, metaphorically at least.

Through all of this we listened to a lot of music. And the music that we listened to most was the Allman Brothers. When I heard from Russ’s sister that he’d died this past Saturday I thought about his cancer, and the unrelenting beat of disease that transforms a life of love and devotion into an unrelenting agony and violation of all of that. And I ached, for the many years in between those strange halcyon days Russ and I shared figuring out how to live in the world, and these strange days when whatever script we’ve been given makes the ending seem as inevitable as one of those Bogart movies. And much more terrible because it isn’t just a story.

I started thinking about this Allman’s tune today. It’s from their first album, which for some time was underappreciated, though nobody cares anymore from whence the good stuff came. And this is the good stuff.

So sit with Russ and me on the pump house, with our friends, and argue about Jaimo and Butch, and Duane and Dickey, appreciate Berry’s amazing bass line, and think about motorcycles and eerie coincidences and terribly sad moments. And raise a Stegmaier, please, for Russ. And don’t klunk.

 

Chuck Berry Is On Top

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28740659

Dick Clark introduces an appearance by Berry promoting this album and stumbles over the title, with the audience tittering at the double entendre. Really?

It is 1959, and, as Clark mentions, this is an album that has on it Carol, Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, Little Queenie and many more.

Those were the days of album oriented rock. Not.

It’s an incredible trove, not a greatest hits album, that the Rolling Stones particularly mined for their early (and later) setlists.

Berry, of course, looks right at home playing along to this other cut, Back in the USA, that is also on Chuck Berry is on Top, with the totally white and polite audience clapping along.

 

 

Al Jarreau has died.

We like what we like. You get to judge. Here’s my story, and no apologies.

Al Jarreau died yesterday. When I heard the news I immediately thought of Teach Me Tonight. I loved that song.

I don’t know much of Jarreau’s career, which was a good one according to everyone, but what I know is that album that has Teach Me Tonight on it. I have that album in my basement, and if I had an actual record player I think I would play it sometimes.  Or would have.

When I got back to my house today, after the news of Jarreau’s demise, I searched YouTube for Teach Me Tonight, and after listening I wasn’t so sure I should write about it. But that’s crap. I should write about it.

Jarreau’s version of a classic is all crudded up with mature music frou frou, and if I was smarter I would have hated it. But I didn’t. I really liked it as a contemporary soul/jazz sounding version of an old song. It’s good to be soft. I love his voice. It is clear and melodic. I liked it. I have to admit it.

https://youtu.be/hDhkSsTt0VQ

On the other hand, I was also familiar with Dinah Washington’s version.

https://youtu.be/emkqc3PIw8E

This gets it. Enough said.

 

Stevie Wonder Week at Slate

They’re publishing 17 pieces about Stevie Wonder over at Slate this week. The idea seems to be an effort to appreciate our greats before they pass on, which is a nice idea but also a bit embalming of someone who is alive.

This story about the greatest Beatles cover has links to many of the stories. It also has a video embedded, but I’ll embed it here, too.

Is this really the greatest Beatles cover? Off the top of my head I think I’d go with Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude, but I’m sure I’m forgetting something even better.

Film Review: Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years

Ron Howard is a master cinematic storyteller, for sure, but not someone with much interest in complexity or ambiguity. Which can be good for storytelling, but for me usually comes up wanting. I like the messy, the complicated, the things that make you say oh.

screenshot-2016-10-04-23-04-32I was curious about this picture, but would have let it slide, or ride, but friends invited me and my daughter wanted to go. So we went to Greenwich Village for some fine wood-fired brick oven Neapolitan pizza and Ron Howard’s joint, plus the promise of the whole Beatles at Shea Stadium film, remastered visually and auditorily using all the modern tricks.

The movie is a gas. The camera is up close on the Beatles and their fans through the 28 Days Later rush of Beatlemania, during the charge of concerts around the globe, and headlong up to the show at Shea Stadium. These guys, when they were young, ambitious and full of energy, were terrific cutups. And then it stays up close through the despair that followed the exhaustion that came after, when cutups transformed into turnoffs.

As I had expected, I felt as if I’d seen most of this footage before, but all of it was delightful, looked fantastic, and there are some revelations (for me anyway):

Early footage of some English shows in 1963 are fantastic and transforming. This wasn’t just a group of clever songwriters and melody makers, with winning personalities, but a hard rocking band. Ringo pounds on his kit, and the Beatles deliver with equal and transformative energy. Great songs, but also tight and terrific arrangements and wickedly and aggressively good playing.

McCartney, mostly, and Lennon, too, from old interviews, talk about their songwriting, and the need to hew to a schedule to put out a new single every three months, and an album every six months. The studio footage and tales, plus the clips from all the live shows they’re doing, and movies they’re making, really dial up the grueling nature of it all.

At one point Lennon talks about how silly the lyrics are in those early albums, really just placeholders while they worked on the music. Which seems like a throwaway, since so many are so clever and perfect to the form, until, later, he and McCartney talk about the personal content that John weaves into the lyrics of Help!, a song that to me has always seemed a novelty tied to the movie of the same name. But of course not!

I always forget what a cutup George was, even when I consider the hilarity of his film producing career. I mean, Withnail and I? This movie confirms he’s funny and serious, too.

I assume there will be a follow up, a sequel. Maybe Blue Jay Way: The Studio Years, but more likely Strawberry Fields Forever: The Studio Years, which will go further into the making of the last five elpees. That will no doubt be an equal treat. But the takeaway here is that the Beatles were really great, in a way that has no match, and we would be fools to forget about even a part of that greatness.

Ron Howard’s movie is a crowd pleaser, and lives up to that not modest ambition. Go and enjoy.

The Kinks Kronickles

I’m listening to the Kinks Kronikles, a double album I bought when it came out. It was a curated sample of some hits, some b-sides, and some rarities, which John Mendelson compiled. For me it defines the ur Kinks, the Kinks I grew up with. Here’s a link to the album:

Victoria is a gorgeous pop song about the days of Queen Victoria, a paean to old values, namely colonial conquest, set in a jazzy orchestrated brilliantly complex and simple rock setting. Whew.

Village Green Preservation Society mixes satire and house frocks, with rock drums, to somehow describe a shambling beautiful world where NIMBY and progressivism meet. God Save Donald Duck and Strawberry Jam.

I’m writing about this because I’ve been listening to this album pretty repetitively the last few weeks. It’s a compilation album, a compilation by a rock writer, but like the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons, it captures the many facets of the band in some ways better than their regular elpees.

Berkeley Mews is a barroom stomp of classes clashing, and a favorite song of mine.

Holiday in Waikiki is an odd song, a Chuck Berry riff, about getting scammed on vacation. The vibe is surprisingly similar to the Sex Pistols’ Holiday In The Sun. In other words, catchy as hell.

Willesden Green is a country lope about going back to Willesden, a nostalgic bit of cowboy rock, apparently satirically talking about live in Willesden as a utopia of a sort. This is Zadie Smith territory. Her excellent and highly recommended books White Teeth and NW are set in Willesden.

This is Where I Belong is another rocker, a plaintive and truthful cry of the heart, which says, I have no ambitions to get out of town. Which is exactly the opposite of most every rock song. An anthem for slackers, long before there were slackers.

Waterloo Sunset is a pop song about, well, looking out the window and being totally happy because of the sunset. But the point isn’t the point of the song. This is a lovely ode, set in a rock tempo, to taking solace  from the sunset. It’s really beautiful about just how freaking nice a good sunset is.

David Watts is a strict tempo song about a regular guy, who wishes he could be strong and smart like some guy named David Watts. The twist is the David Watts won’t go out with all the local girls who fancy him, but Davies ends by saying he still wishes he could be like David Watts. The Jam covered this song, a perfect match.

Dead End Street has that ballroom gait, and a tale out of La Boheme. But the way the chorus responds to the cold depravity of the narrator’s story, is rebellious and rocking. Like much of Kink Kronickles, the orchestration is complex, while the rhythms are solid (if variable). I would call this a great song, but so were almost all the songs before.

Shangri La has Ray limning the same themes of privilege versus doing your job, with a guitar and some other instruments. Plus harmonies. Simple becomes something else in a hurry, but the fact is that Ray is writing songs about stuff no one else is writing pop songs about. This is great, stomping orchestral rock by the time it is through. Well done.

There is a coda about water rates and contradictions and other stuff. Which rocks and reassures and reminds us all about the crap of classes and dreams. Plus rolling trap drums, make this all urgent and powerful and enduring.

There is a whole lot more great music from the Kinks on this album, which for some reason better describes them than any of their individual elpees. Hell, we didn’t even get to Lola. But it’s here.

I should post notes on the rest of this fantastic album soon.