Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tom Waits Hall of Famer

Some of my favorite artists often get lost in the library because their names start at the end of the alphabet and I don’t browse far enough to find them. Something similar is happening on my DVR: music programs get archived and gather digital dust. That’s why the other day I was wondering why I had saved the induction ceremony for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2012. (It was not for Alice Cooper). Then I came across Tom Waits and a video bio in which a interviewer asks: “How does a guy with a voice like yours decide to be a singer…and succeed?” Cigarette in hand, Tom replies:
“Well it was a choice between entertainment or a career in air conditiong and refrigeration.”

Ever since my friend Tom introduced me to Waits back in the seventies, I have been a fan of his ability as a wordsmith as he rapped, skatted, and poetry slammed his way through some pathbreaking songs and developed his persona as a beat poet, jazz singer and creature of the night that made more from movie roles and sound track credits than album sales.

As a singer, he makes Mr. Dylan sound mellifluous but as a song writer and music maker, he is a true Hall of Famer. And a lot of his contemporaries would toast his induction with thanks for giving them hit songs like “Old 55” (Eagles, Ian Matthews), "Downtown Train" (Rod Stewart), "Blind Love" (Bob Seger) and "Heart of Saturday Night" (Dion).

The video led me back to the vinyl and I was rewarded by his early work. Closing Time seemed to confirm my First Album is The Best Album Theory. But Heart Attack and Vine gave Mr. Springsteen one of his anthems with “Jersey Girl.” Tucked on that side is an amazing organ solo on a cut called “In Shades” and the song “Downtown” offers this quintessential Waits turn of phrase: Drinking Chivas Regal in a four-dollar room, just another dead soldier in a powder blue night.
Here is one more good one from “New Coat of Paint:”
Our love needs a transfusion
So let’s shoot it full of wine
Fishin for a good time starts with throwin in your line.

His send-up of television ads, radio come-ons and the commercial society on “Step Right Up” from Small Change is as laugh out loud funny as it was when he recorded it in 1976.
For the lyrics, he invited you to “send a photo of yourself, two creepie charlies and a self-addresed, stamped envelope to the Tropicana Motor Hotel, Hollywood, California.” Ironically, Waits won a $2.5 million settlement from Frit-o-Lay for using “Step Right Up” as the concept for a radio jingle.

Waits’ signature humor came through in his acceptance speech. “They say that I have no hits and I’m difficult to work with and they say that like it’s a bad thing.” (Cut to a shot of presenter Neil Young laughing.)

He asked if he could get a key chain version of his trophy, “So I could keep it with me just in case I hear someone say, ‘Pete take the cuffs off, I think he’s a Hall of Famer.’”

He touched a chord with his peers in the audience when he noted, “Songs are really just very interesting things to be doing with the air.” And finally, “We all love music, but we really want music to love us.”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Madonna, Cher and Billie H: Women Who Rock

On Capitol Hill last week, the media was reporting how a record number of women had been elected to the new Congress. A few miles down New York Avenue, there was an exhibit dedicated to the women who made records and it was a fascinating catalog of nine decades of music history.

"Women Who Rock" filled the second floor of the National Museum for Women in the Arts as part of its 25th anniversary celebration in a co-production with Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Part fashion show, part tribute and part history lesson it brought back a lot of memories of women who have sung the stories of young love, tangled webs and lost opportunities.

While the exhibit ended with the costumes and instruments of Brittany and Taylor, Madonna other top pop phenoms, it began more touchingly with a tribute to Mother Maybelle Carter with her story and her Gibson L5 guitar. She played it from 1927 until the early 50's when June and Johnny Cash decided it ought to be in a museum so they bought her this replacement. The only guitar that could match it for playing time was Odetta's, circa 1951.

As good keepers of the flame, the Cleveland curators devoted solo exhibits to the early blues and jazz greats. There was a fox fur stole worn by Billie Holiday as well as a poster for two shows in 1948 at Carnegie Hall. Prices started at $1.20 and topped out at $3.60. It was her first appearance after being released from prison and both sold out.

Next was Bessie Smith's case complete with 78 records and session cards for her 1925 hit, "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." I learned that the first person to record "C.C. Rider" (See See Rider) was Ma Rainey in 1925.

From there, the exhibit paired women which proved interesting. Wanda Jackson and Ruth Brown, Lavern Baker and Brenda Lee (1964 telegram from Dusty Springfield: "I know you'll be a smash"), Bonnie Raitt and Loretta Lynn, the Ronettes and the Shirelles, Mavis Staples and Odetta.

Laura Nyro was with Joni Mitchell along with their lyrics in notebooks. Laura's "And When I Die" was neatly hand lettered with only two words crossed out. Joni's song ended with this dedication: "For Barry in memory of those bread and butter days. No Gravy, just bread and butter."

It was great to see song writers honored in addition to Carole King like Cynthia Weil ("Kicks," "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'") and Ellie Greenwich ("River Deep, Mountain High,""Leader of the Pack" "Do Wah Diddy," and "Be My Baby").

As with any compilation...someone has to get short shrift and to cram Heart, Donna Summer, Cher, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar into the same display case seemed a little crazy. On the other side was Cyndi Lauper,Janet Jackson, Madonna, Sheena E, Gwen Stefani, Britany Spears and Shakira. Linda Ronstadt was an afterthought.

Despite those problems it was still fun to see Cher's Indian feather dress and Madonna's get up.

Then there was Queen Latifah's high school year book photo (1987) and a piano that Lady Gaga's grandparents bought her when she was a baby. Do you think they thought it would lead to a meat costume for the MTV awards? That was on display also but it was hard to tell if it had become beef jerky or red leatherette.

Recognition of the roles women play in rock history is long overdue and one hopes this exhibit will be traveling elsewhere. In the Rolling Stone anthology, "The 100 Greatest Artists," there are only six women and two female groups. Only Aretha, Madonna, Janis and Patti Smith cracked the top fifty and the others were Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, the Shirelles and Diana Ross & The Supremes. Of course of the 55 "Voters", only two were women. Here in Washington, we're familiar with that kind of balloting.