Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bee Gees: 50 Years of Great Hooks

The BeeGees First album has a place of honor in my collection because it is still fun to listen to and it confirms a couple of my personal theories. One is that first albums from a group are always the best. And second, that 1967 was the greatest year ever for rock and roll.

Perhaps I was smitten by the haunting lyrics of New York Mining Disaster 1941 (In the event of something happening to me...) or the anthemic sounds of To Love Somebody (You don't know what it's like...) that led to the powerful hook of the title phrase. Or maybe it was that their lyrics seemed more cerebral than their competitors in the British Invasion. Like Chad and Jeremy the word pictures made me feel as if I lived just around the corner from Carnaby Street and it was nearly tea time with Uncle Albert.

Those thoughts seem quaint in light of the super stardom that followed twelve years when Robert Stigwood asked them to write some songs for a John Travolta movie. That later period of history was served up in spades last Sunday on the CBS Grammy special honoring Barry, Robin, Maurice and in a backhanded way, little brother, Andy.

Even the Waring Blender processing that Grammy and CBS have taken to excess (glitz, celebrities, dancers, light shows) could not overwhelm the song writing genius of the Brothers Gibb. Unfortunately the show gave short shrift to the historic footage of The Rattlesnakes as teeny boppers in matching outfits in order to showcase people once nominated for a Grammy trying to imitate the sibling harmonies and showmanship of the originals.

Keith Urban did a creditable solo only to be let down by the sound mix on the crescendo line of To Love Somebody.  John Legend pulled off How Can You Mend a Broken Heart thanks in part to a sweet harmonica from Stevie Wonder. (How can you keep the rain from falling? How can you stop the sun from shining? What makes the world go round?). And the surprising a capella version of
Too Much Heaven from the Pentatonix was a treat.

As for the rest of hit parade, I preferred the real BeeGees who were captured for PBS cameras during the Las Vegas special in 1997, "One Night Only," which is on DVD and will no doubt be resurrected for future fund-raising weeks.

Travolta looked ageless on stage in his white sport coat and his anecdote about how the BeeGees came up with five songs during a weekend at a French chalet was charming. Each of those songs became a number one hit off the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack that was the biggest seller of all-time until Thriller bumped it off.

The mega single of the album, Staying Alive, has usually had a brassy, disco production and overdubbed chorus that all but drowned out the words. Now that the song has become a two word philosophy it is worth hearing the lyrics:

Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin'
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive...
Life goin' nowhere. Somebody help me, yeah
Stayin alive

That epic hook seems to have its origins in the mine shaft first envisioned in 1967.

Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what's like on the outside
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Patsy Cline: A Pioneer Voice

While the national media attention was focused on the passing of Chuck Berry, PBS was showcasing another music legend who changed the way we listen. "When Patsy Cline Was Crazy" is a combination of a traditional rags to riches story and some amazing video footage reminding us who paved the way for a generation of female performers.

Most of all, it brings back a voice that was powerful enough to cut through the static of AM radio, tinny jukeboxes and grainy television. If she had today's technology delivering her songs, the Sirens of Homer's Odyssey would have wilted with envy.

As Rhiannon Giddons reminds us, you always know that's a Patsy song.  Most of us know of her and her music but few know about her. This documentary from The American Masters series ( narrated by Roseanne Cash, goes a long way to fill in the picture.

She started singing in bars and clubs while in high school, endured jobs washing Greyhound buses and drug store clerking before she got gigs with Roy Clark and Jimmy Dean. Her first record contract paid a pittance and stuck her recording the lousy songs the boss had the rights for.

Her big break came in 1957 when she appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts debuting "Walking After Midnight." As Arthur drawled, "Don't go away Patsy done won this."
That earned her $10,000 and forced the company to rush the song into stores where it became her first hit.

By then, Patsy had given up the Dale Evans cowgirl outfits with lots of fringe (made by her mother) for the kind of cocktail dresses seen on television variety shows. She was Nashville's response to Elvis and rock and roll and the shift paid off.

Before videotape the only way to preserve live television was by filming the monitors to make kinescopes and these are the highlights of the documentary. "A Church, A Courtroom, Then Goodbye," "Three Cigarettes and an Ashtray," and "I Fall To Pieces" are priceless performances that still sound heart-wrenching half a century later. As Reba McIntire admits, no matter how hard others try, "you just can't do it like Patsy."

There are other interviews paying tribute to Patsy as a scrapper, a trailblazer and someone who could do six shows a day for weeks at time in Vegas. Everyone from Willie Nelson ("Crazy" was named the #1 jukebox hit of all time) to Leann Rimes and Kacey Musgraves acknowledges their debt to Patsy.

Just as she hit it big, it all ended tragically in a plane crash in Tennessee in 1963, a month before "Sweet Dreams (of you)" was released. Twenty-five thousand fans lined the streets of Winchester, Va., during her funeral. They have been buying her music ever since.

The "Greatest Hits" album is  the longest charting record of all-time and has sold more than 10 million copies.  Each song has become a standard. Patsy Cline set the musical bar very high.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John Lennon's Legal Legacy

It is hard to imagine anything more valuable than John Lennon's musical achievements but to thousands of immigrants currently ensnared in the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol nets, it may be a court case he pursued and won more than four decades ago.

As our memories of how John and Yoko battled against the Nixon Administration have dimmed, a new book has arrived to remind us how corrupt politicians can threaten the Constitution, how individuals can fight back and how the legal system can actually deliver justice.

The story of John Lennon vs. The USA has been covered before on film and in print but there is nothing as riveting and cogent as the inside story told by his attorney, Leon Wildes, in a new memoir from the publishing imprint of the American Bar Association.

It is full of delicious historical ironies, scary parallels and inside gossip. It began in 1971 when Lennon agreed to attend a rally and concert in Ann Arbor on behalf of a radical writer and musician John Sinclair. Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis and Bobby Seale were on the bill. Also attending were FBI agents who produced a 26-page report that got immediate circulation in field offices and the Justice Department. With a nudge from Sen. Strom Thurmond, John and Yoko became prime targets in the conspiracy against the anti-war movement. The plan to keep them from attending protests at the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972 was simple and arbitrary: deny an extension of their temporary visas.

The Lennons wanted to stay, not to protest, but to continue their search for Yoko's daughter whose father had violated repeated custody orders and absconded with Kyoko. John, of course, was still making music and managing other Apple Records projects. His visa's Achilles Heel was a guilty plea on a cannabis oil charge in England (which has its own backstory).

They turned for help to Leon Wildes, a man who says he did not know who John Lennon was but he knew a helluva lot about immigration laws. They couldn't have picked a better guide down the rabbit hole of a parallel quasi-legal system (under the sole discretion of the U.S. Attorney General !) which has its own set of rules, its own system of appointed "judges" and its own arcane appeals process.

The trail winds through a fascinating Freedom of Information lawsuit, oral arguments at the U.S. Courtof Appeals, a clever public relations campaign, the birth of Sean Lennon  and some enduring legal precedents.

Wildes' breakthrough came when he discovered the Immigration Service had created an unofficial category to handle visa violators whom the agency did not want to deport for humanitarian reasons, in some cases despite felony records. These were called "non-priority cases," because the agency was willing to let them be ignored. Wildes found and analyzed more than 1,800 of these shadowy cases.
They became the basis for his arguments that the Lennons had been denied this status for political reasons, yet another Watergate tentacle.

In addition to describing how new legal protections were created, Wildes reveals how whip-smart Yoko was in anticipating the government's strategy against them, what a devoted family man John was and how his family has coped without him. It is a profile in courage worth remembering.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Beach Boys Still Get Around

It’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies
And everyone goes, ‘cause everyone knows
Brother Love’s show

The only group on the Kennedy Center stage that has played longer than the Beach Boys was the National Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1931; but they were more than willing to share the stage with the kids from California.

At least this version of the band was still acting like teenagers (and making the audience feel the same)  while they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pet Sounds album.

That tribute was to come later. First it was a greatest hits fest which included too many to list, including Surfin, Catch a Wave, Surfer Girl, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, California Girls, Little Deuce Coupe and I Get Around.

While some groups acknowledge their past, this one reveled in it with a video and light show that had film of Bruce Johnston actually surfing, Mike Love doing the Watusi, clips from every music show broadcast in the 60’s and enough bikini clad girls to fill several Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. But the home movies (some of which matched the live singers with lip-synch from the original songs) contained enough self-deprecating humor and shared nostalgia that they seemed just another ride on the Beach Boys Roller Coaster.

The program called Love the “Captain” of this cruise which seemed appropriate as he led the band, sang harmony (he lets Jeffrey Foskett carry the lead vocals along with Brian Eichenburger) and joked with the audience and narrated the historical transitions.

The second set paid tribute to the Pet Sounds era with film of Carl Wilson singing on the screen above the live bands and Dennis Wilson also getting a solo bit.  Missing from the show was any tribute to Brian Wilson who travels with his own singers (and orchestra) in support of Smile. It was a subtle reminder of the Big Breakup that derailed the band just as they were doing their best work.

Caroline No, Sloop John B and Wouldn’t it Be Nice were done well and pleased the crowd. The show hit a speed bump when Mike brought out daughter Ambha for Warmth of the Sun and Bruce Johnston stumbled on Disney Girls, apparently unable to get his mic and earpiece working properly.

The Symphony was often drowned out by the band (playing in front of them) but their two marvelous overtures (Warmth of the Sun and In My Room) made me wish for an entire evening of the NSO’s take on the rich music that under girds the pop lyrics.

Love’s tribute to George Harrison, Pisces Brothers, was a wonderful surprise and showed he can still create new songs after all these years.

Music and memories are all that’s lost
Your songs are what go on and on.

The big finish had the crowd on its feet singing along with Kokomo, Help Me Rhonda (we didn’t need lyrics on the big screen for that, Mike) Good Vibrations,  and  Barbara Ann.  At the end we were having so much Fun, Fun, Fun, I had to break out my air guitar.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Boring Bob and Magic Mavis

It seems a shame you have to buy a ticket to Bob Dylan this summer to see Mavis
Staples but at least she is worth it.

Dylan’s never ending tour stopped at our nearby national park, Wolftrap, to show us  he is still up to his old tricks. Despite his opening number, “Things Have Changed,” he is still doing what he’s done for the couple of decades since I last saw him live. 

His band is tight and provides a wall of sound to which he adds his idea of barely intelligible narration.  It is as if he has become such a towering figure that all he needs to do is show up on set and read his lines, sounding more like Marlon Brando than the Frank Sinatra he is currently showcasing. One of the five Sinatra covers he essayed pretty much sums it up:

So let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown
You know I’ll love you till the  moon’s upside down
Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
Why try to change me now.

It was Dylan’s old girlfriend, Mavis Staples who stole the show and our hearts with her smokey singing, her family anecdotes and wise-cracking with the audience. She began with a Staples Singers' call out, “If You’re Ready (Come and Go With Me).” We were and we did. After a cover of Talking Heads' “Slippery People,” she offered a brief mission statement:

 “I’m here to bring you some joy, some happiness, some inspiration and some positive vibrations.”  To do that she started with “Love and Trust,” which seemed painfully relevant to the week’s news.

The judge and the criminal, the sinner and the priest
Got something in common, bring ‘em all to their knees
Do what you can, do what you must
Everybody’s trying to find some love and trust.

Mopping her brow with a towel, she told us the next song was written by her father, Pop Staples for Selma in 1962.  Then she  had the audience side by side with her marching up Freedom’s Highway as she declared herself  “a soldier in this army of love marching for peace.” Her topical series wrapped with a richly nostalgic take on Buffalo Springfield’s  “For What It’s Worth.”

She closed with a rousing, extended version of the Staples Singers # l hit, “I’ll Take You There” which brought us to our feet clapping for the woman who proclaimed: “My Family has been “taking” you there for sixty-six years and I am not tired yet.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Paul Simon's Dangling Conversations

These are the days of miracle and wonder

I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day

All my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity

Some people say a lie’s a lie a lie but I say why
Why deny the obvious child

The fact is most obits are mixed reviews,
Life’s a lottery, a lot of people lose

I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers

The nearer your destination the more you’re slip slidin’ away

As each drum rap or guitar riff  moved into a familiar tune, spreading another smile across my face, I said in recognition, “Oh just another classic.”  In fact the entire concert at Wolftrap Farm Park was a showcase of Rhymin’s Simon’s lasting imprint on American music.

Even the three new songs from his Stranger to Stranger album captivated the audience and Wrist Band might put him back on Top Forty Radio.  But the fans came to hear their favorites and Simon did not disappoint thanks to his limitless energy, still-strong voice and a tour band that threatened to blow the roof off the amphitheater. 

 These ten guys displayed some eye-catching versatility. At one point there were five people playing  guitars along with Paul. At another there were five people playing different drums.  And during one song alone the lead guitarist played a recorder and a saxophone between riffs. The result was a freshness and energy that made each song seem like it had just been released for the first time.

From The Boy in The Bubble to The Boxer, Simon led the musical parade down memory lane reminding us all that not only are his lyrics timeless but his music is always inventive and enthralling.

Homeward Bound was done as a little countrified waltz,  Spirit Voices was a mashup of Charles Ives and Aztec rhythms and You Can Call Me Al was an old fashioned barn burner that had the audience signing and dancing in the aisles.

Throughout the evening, I kept asking, “How can he top this?” and of course, he simply changed guitars and broke into yet another hit from his musical vault. By the time the saxophone solo punctuated Still Crazy After All These Years, the only response was more applause.

Simon has been bending our minds and mending our hearts with his special blend of ironic commentary, political anger and personal philosophy for at least half a century.  As he demonstrated on the stage and with his newest album there seems to be no stopping him. He is A Rock looking down on the sands of our times.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Joan Baez's Birthday Bash

Joan Baez cannot hit the high notes any more but she can still pluck your heart strings.
This contradiction made for a sometimes awkward, sometimes touching 75th birthday concert which aired on PBS’ Great Performances last week. The show (also airing online at featured what we used to call a Cavalcade of Stars (who could say no to Joanie?) and they performed the songbook of our lives as well as hers.

It featured everyone from Stephen Foster (Hard Times with Emmy Lou Harris) to Lennon-McCartney (Black Bird with David Crosby).  The casting was impeccable (Mary Chapin Carpenter on Donovan’s Catch The Wind and  Mavis Staples on Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around)) but the execution showed more rust than diamonds.

It was hard telling what made this into a somber, funereal procession rather than a music party. She wore a black tuxedo and everyone seemed to have gotten a costume memo to wear black also. Song selections didn’t help. From God is God by Steve Earle, it was the mournful Phil Ochs’ There But For Fortune and even Freight Train seemed downbeat.

Mary and Emmy Lou, who are still in full voice, seemed to hesitate to take lead roles in their duets so they, along with Judy Collins, often struggled to find sync with Joan. 

After reminding people how she once sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot to awaken Dr. Martin Luther King from a nap (and performed it again at Woodstock) Joan chose to render it as a lullabye that must have caused some people in the Beacon Theater to nod off. You were hoping the stage curtains would part to reveal The Rebirth Brass Band to kick the song into high gear.

Mavis Staples tried to pick up the tempo but The Indigo Girls stayed in the background.
Richard Thompson was the next to genuflect on She Never Could Resist a Winding Road.

Queen Joan has certainly earned her title to folk-rock royalty with her voice and her undying devotion to political causes. No one has more battle stripes from singing on behalf of the poor and oppressed around the globe. Was there a civil rights or anti-war rally in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and most subsequent decades) that she did not headline?
Would there even be a Bob Dylan without her?

Jackson Browne got the party going with a touching, After The Deluge and Nano Stern surprised everyone with a rollicking, Gracias a la Vida.

Then Joan hit her stride when Paul Simon arrived (“We are talking serious legends department now, “ she quipped).  Their voices blended smoothly on “The Boxer,” and the crowd came alive as they sang:

And I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same.