Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Happy Arlo Guthrie Day

The golden era of rock in the late 60’s and early 70’s produced much great music and many pop stars but it led to only two epic poems.
Don MacLean’s American Pie was a mega hit in 1972 that is still in regular rotation on classic rock radio today. It’s music history that began with a lament for the lost careers of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper who died in a plane crash in 1959.

Arlo Guthrie’s saga about his brush with the law on Thanksgiving Day in western Massachusetts is a send up of his trivial misfortune that he whips around into a stinging protest against the much larger tragedy of Vietnam.  As an undergrad, I helped wear out the grooves on Alice’s Restaurant (and Massacree) and many of his most memorable phrases (27 8X10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph about each one on the back…a typical case of blind justice…shrink, I wanna kill…have you rehabilitated yourself?) became the parlance of our generation.

As the war and the draft faded, Arlo’s incredible monologue drifted into the memory shadows except for a few loyalists. One group was the deejays at the DC area alt-rock station, WHFS, who made a point of playing it every Thanksgiving. We programmed our schedule to include time to listen (and sing along) for the 25 minutes it takes Arlo to wait for the chorus to come around again. As our kids got older they incorporated the tradition and the lyrics in their routines. Then a colleague  bought me the CD version just as the radio station went under so we could listen while driving over the river and through the woods.

Over the years, the Alice saga has crossed my path is some wonderful ways. I met Venable Herndon who co-wrote the screen play for the movie (directed by Arthur Penn). I have a great t-shirt from the Group W Bench Head Shop in New Haven from my friend Elizabeth. As recently as this summer I started an email thread about “picking up the garbage” left by kids on one of our beach areas. My neighbor wrote how he hated the song because as a 14-year-old he had a camp counselor who sang it in its entirety. All day long.

That might be a little much even for me. I can recommend listening to it at least once a year and Thursday is the perfect day. There’s always some garbage that needs to be picked up and a war that needs ending.  And it’s nice to know there is still a place, “you can get anything you want.” So Happy Thanksgiving and thanks to Arlo Guthrie for capturing a moment in time and spirit.

Here’s a youtube link if you don’t have a copy handy.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jimi (Hendrix) We Hardly Knew You

When I started watching the PBS special on Jimi Hendrix I was asking myself why I did not consider myself a big fan. After watching two hours of “American Masters,” I realized that his career had flashed across my music radar like a burning meteor and was gone before it could grow on me.

It was barely more than three years from his explosive debut at the Monterey Pop Festival until his death in September 1970 in London. He released only four original albums while alive and prudish producers kept him off the Ed Sullivan show. Despite that, he connected with the Woodstock generation in a way that transcended race (bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell were both white) and musical genres.

Listening to him play during the show, I realized how he led the way into psychedelic music and created the mold for heavy metal bands while not losing his blues and rock roots. He certainly was an American original as a guitarist, songwriter and performer. And when Jimi covered a song, he owned it (“Hey Joe,” “All Along The Watchtower,” and “The Star Spangled Banner”).

His back story is well-told in this documentary. His parents separated and later reunited. He joined the Army and became a paratrooper until he broke an ankle on his 25th jump.  He played the Chitlin Circuit backing up The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Wilson Pickett among others.  His first break came when Chas Campbell left the Animals to manage him and took him to England where he wowed fans and rock stars in clubs.

When the Monterey promoters tried to get the Beatles to perform, Paul McCartney suggested they invite Jimi Hendrix.  It was there the world got to see his tricks of the trade: playing behind his neck, playing with his teeth, using the amp and the mike stand as finger picks. It is fascinating to see how he keeps the music moving forward as he does all these gyrations. Then of course he lights the guitar on fire (and the band plays on).

Jimi’s humor comes through in the rare interviews he did.  Asked about the gimmicks he used on stage, he replied,  “The whole world is a gimmick.”   When Dick Cavett lauds him as one of the best guitarists in the world, Hendrix demurs.  “Maybe the best guitar player sitting in this chair.”

Despite the antics and costumes, Hendrix remained dedicated to his music and worked at this craft around the clock. As Rolling Stone writer, David Fricke, put it, “Jimi had the faith the guitar could take you someplace you’ve never been before and he made you believe it.”

Jimi reached the top of the music mountain when the 1968 release, “Electric Lady Land,” hit number one on the charts and brought along “Are You Experienced” and  “Axis: Bold As Love” into the top 20.

The stage show clips are riveting but the quiet ballads and blues riffs are the scenes that showcase the purity of his voice and playing (don’t miss the acoustic song at the end).

The story builds to that watershed event, Woodstock.  Jimi didn’t hit the stage until 9 Monday morning when he began by greeting the soggy diehards with: “I see that we meet again.”  He ended the set with the iconic version of the National Anthem that still seems as fresh and innovative as it did 44 years ago. He spoke of the time and to the young people caught up in the sixties.  “(I did it) the way the air is in America today,” he told an interviewer. “The air is slightly static.”

“American Masters, Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train Coming” is airing on PBS stations this week, is available on line at pbs.org and for sale on DVD.