Thursday, March 26, 2009

GMVW # 64: "Behind the Scenes"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 64:  Behind the Scenes
Song:  Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys
(Songwriter: Brian Wilson)
March 26, 2009

An up front thanks to Cousin Jack for tossing me a bone of an idea leading to this week’s Gem.

Often it’s what goes on behind the scene that tells the true story of an event.  Take a confrontation I had in 8th grade.  A teacher caught me in a fight with a classmate just before the opening bell.  We were both hauled down to the guidance councilor and warned that if it ever happened again there would be serious repercussions.  It never happened again. 

Considering the daily taunting that lead to that fight, the subsequent reprimand was quite the watershed moment, a blessing in disguise for me, because this confrontation was planned (unbeknown to my antagonist), a brilliant scheme concocted by Dad’s poker-playing partner who also happened to be the school’s guidance councilor.  He had heard through the grape vine (or more accurately, through cigar smoke) that I was having problems with a kid in school.  I was intimidated not so much by the kid as by the rule breaking of a fight…. four early grade-school years at St Mary’s with teachers like Sister Lorena and Sister Margaret Ester can do that to you.

First thing that fateful morning, I was guided into the councilor’s office and told that if confronted again, I could push back.  This was a bit hard to comprehend….I was actually given permission to fight in school!  I was not sure where all this was going, but that was all I needed to hear.  All went according to plan…my antagonist did his usual taunting and much to his surprise, I responded.  The fight was broken up pretty quickly (the teacher in the hallway was also part of the plot) and before I knew it we were being read the riot act (it was just that my riot act included a wink on the way out of the councilor’s office).  The rest of the year played out trouble free.  I actually gained some respect from the kid, who apologized for all he did leading to the fight.

In the studio, much of what goes into a ground-breaking album is pieced together behind the scenes as well, and when this happens the album’s producer often plays a major role.  There are only a handful of bands I’ve gotten deep enough into to know just how influential a producer can be.  Glyn Johns was the producer behind The Who album “Who’s Next”.  The difference between the sound of that album and the one that preceded it (“Tommy”, which was produced by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp) is like night and day.  The world had never heard anything like the songs “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain”, and “Behind Blue Eyes”, and the Who would never look back.  Glyn Johns was the technical wizard behind every successful venture by The Who from that album forward.  He fleshed out the potential of the band’s sound in a way that no one had done before. 

The Rolling Stones were given a jolt in the early 70’s as well.  Their transition was prompted by Jimmy Miller, who would produce the albums “Let It Bleed”, “Exile on
Main Street
” and “Sticky Fingers”.  Among Miller’s many talents was patience, having to deal with the whims, all nighters and habits of Keith Richards during these turbulent years. 

And if you ever watched the movie ‘Walk the Line’, you could see what influence Sam Phillips had on Johnny Cash.

The Beatles, of course, had their studio maestro too.  Of the last five full-fledged albums the Beatles produced (my favorites), it’s pretty clear which ones George Martin had a major role in: “Revolver”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road” (the other two albums “The Beatles {aka The White Album}” and “Let It Be” were deliberately stripped down, giving the Beatles final years a nice blend of both ends of the techno-spectrum).  Unfortunately, Martin’s role in the studio does not play out on video.  Songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “She Said, She Said”, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “Oh Darling”, “Because”, “Golden Slumbers”, “Something”, “Come Together” and many others are left to the imagination in terms of witnessing the Beatles performing them live or in the studio.  The only way to appreciate George Martin’s contributions is to listen to the albums.  No Gem to be found. Sorry, Jack. 

But this opens the door to discuss another producer, Brian Wilson.  Of all the producers listed here, Wilson was the only one who was also a member of the band he produced, The Beach Boys.  For Cuz Jack, there is a connection here, because George Martin was heavily influenced by Brian Wilson’s success in the studio.  Unlike many others though, Martin was enamored more so by the melodies of Beach Boys albums than he was by the harmonies, and all credit for Beach Boy melodies has to go to their producer-genius. Wilson has often claimed divine intervention as the only explanation for what he produced.  It’s hard to argue. 

Watching this week’s Gem, a live version of “Good Vibrations”, it’s strange that Brian is the only Wilson brother to live to an old age.  It’s not so hard to understand Dennis’ premature death, as he took on a grizzled Richard Manuel-like persona as the years rolled by, but Carl (who sings the high notes in the Gem…“I Love the colorful clothes she wears…”) was the one I would have predicted as the survivor. Brian was too fragile too early to expect him to be the long-living family patriarch. By the time the Beach Boys were touring songs off the ‘Pet Sounds’ album (like ‘Good Vibrations’) in 1966, Brian had retreated to the back of the stage (he is on piano in the Gem) and would soon disappear from tours altogether, a victim of a variety of phobias related to mental illness. 

As for Mike Love, I never knew what to make of him.

A second video off the ‘Pet Sounds’ album ‘Sloop John B’ is included below, as is Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and a symphony (conducted by Sir George Martin) performing “Golden Slumbers, Carry the Weight, and The End”.

- Pete

Gem Video “Good Vibrations”

“Sloop John B Sloop John B”

“Golden Slumbers, Carry the Weight and The End”    


About the Video: Live, mid-70’s.  Not many more details.  The camera work seems professional.  Brian is playing piano near the back of the stage. 

Video Rating: 1

Best  feedback: Jeff

Mike Love.  idealist/spiritualist on oneside and pragmatist way on the other.   A part of the gang who played with the maharishi, which I believe profoundly influenced a lot of them - Donovan and John L., as well as the other obvious ones.  But on the other hand, the one who kept the live Beach Boys music going through parts of the 80s and 90s when the original brothers were gone and or incommunicado.  I saw a couple shows live and several others on tv, and have always felt that Mike's singing hits the core of the sound.  I hear him singing Little Old Lady from Pasadena or whatever its called (I am terrible with song titles I take my music more in a more intuititive form) and I am right back in early teen years peddling my bike up and down the street, past the pool where the juke box played all those songs loud enough you could hear them a block away.  Back on the other side, I read Patti Boyd's book a couple years back or so, and a few other  accounts, I guess something from Donovan and can't remember some others, but the gist I remember was that Mike L. was a real part of the India trip with the guru, not just some innocent bystander.  And for me that is a very big deal, because again, that phenomenon of young western rockandroller cultural icons seeking out the eastern wisdom was a huge deal.  Might not have saved the world or prevented georgeWcheney, but had a lot of influence on people in a positive, universal way.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

GMVW # 63 "Letting it all Hang Out"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 63:  Letting it all Hang Out
Song: Try a Little Tenderness by “Irving King” and Harry Woods
Covered Here by: Otis Redding
(Songwriter: “Irving King” {James Campbell and Reginald Connelly} and Harry M. Woods)
March 19, 2009

Not much competes with emotion to get a point across.  Nakita Kruschev had it figured out when he pounded his shoe at the UN in 1959.  So too did Marilyn Monroe when she wished JFK a happy birthday on the stage in 1962.  Johnny Most had it down most game nights, particularly in the late 80’s when the Celtics faced the Pistons during the Larry Bird era (with Most dubbing Bill Lambier and Rick Mahorn “McFilthy and McNasty!”).  A little emotion can help at the right times, as when responding to the question “Why do you want this job”?  It can also hurt at the wrong times, like when a football coach is at the podium after a tough loss (“Playoffs? Are you kidding! Playoffs?”).  Emotion usually works in small doses, but if overdone, it can tear someone down quickly. 

For musicians, emotion has its drawing power too, from the foot-stomping gospel singer to the baton-wielding maestro to the face-contorting blues guitarist.  Thinking back on the shows I’ve been to, emotion was the number one factor that separated a great time from disappointment.  Emotion connects the crowd to the event.  It brings out the best in a concert, often with innovative results. When musicians are in the moment, it shows one way or another.

Emotion should not be confused with simple physical expression, as the two can be hard to distinguish.  Prancing around on stage does not necessarily mean there is deep emotion there. On the flip side, standing still does not mean lack-thereof.  On any given night, B.B. King can express more emotion sitting on a chair than all the dancing and strobe lights of a major production.  I relate this somewhat to those Celtics games of the 80’s vs today’s NBA full-senses-barrage fiasco.  There’s only so much in-your-face a good patron can stand.  More importantly, the more in-your-face there is, the less the crowd can participate and be part of the event.  Just ask the Bruin’s Gallery Gods.

Now granted, B.B. King can be off his game some nights.  So can anyone.  If you are going to see your favorite band it does not always mean you are in for a great show.  Unfortunately you can’t expect it either.  How can you expect a musician to rise to the occasion every night?  Ultimately, it is a risk you have to take.  For some of the best live acts, this can be a Catch 22.  Neil Young is a prime example.  As mentioned for an earlier Gem, his great shows are phenomenal, filled with emotion, but his off-nights can be truly off target. 

Emotion can be expressed in many ways.  It can be seen on Eric Clapton’s face; Eddie Vedder leaping into the crowd; Pete Townshend pole-axing his guitar; Bob Weir climbing on to speakers; a Lou Reed stare; Natalie Merchant spinning like a top; Jonathan Richman’s all-knowing nod to the crowd; Mick Jagger’s domination of the big stage; Keith Moon’s demolition of his drum kit; Judy Garland’s on-the-edge persona; Johnny Cash’s humble style. 

And when it comes to emotion on stage, few could express it quite like Otis Redding.  This week’s Gem Video ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ says it all.  George Harrison, not one for showing emotion, stated as much in a mid-80’s television interview with Rolling Stone Magazine.  Reflecting on Redding’s talents, Harrison beamed when recalling that he had recently (at the time) found an old record he dug up autographed “To John, Paul, George and Ringo, You’ve go my RESPECT! ….Otis Redding”. 

The Gem video doesn’t get as loud as I want (not bad, though), so I include an extra live version for more volume if needed (which I think is a bit lower on the emotion scale). 

-              Pete


About the Video: This live clip was also shown on the Rolling Stone Magazine’s 20th anniversary special.

Video Rating: 1

Best feedback: Tom

Thanks Pete - that was yet another great write-up ... love his music forever too!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

GMVW # 62: "Style and Substance"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 62:  Style and Substance
Song: Skateaway by Dire Straits
(Songwriter: Mark Knopfler)
March 12, 2009

Hopefully, everyone had a few teachers that left lasting impressions.  For me, one of the most influential was Mr. Wilk, who taught biology and chemistry in Franklin’s Junior High and High School in the 70’s and 80’s.  Mr. Wilk was a throw-back to the 50’s.  He looked like Buddy Holly, with wide rimmed glasses and he had a similar hair-cut.  Unfortunately, like Holly he also died too young.  He was kind, genuine, always smiling, and very enthusiastic about what he taught. Two things stand out most about him.  First was his style:  Bright suits and bow ties.  I recall two suits in particular, one yellow, the other purple.  Few of us could get away with this, but he could.  His second stand out characteristic was the substance of his teaching.  He jammed a boatload of information into every class, but his enthusiasm made it easy to absorb.  I often think back to his substantive teaching when I spot something fascinating in the natural world.

Style and Substance.  The two are often pitted against each other, but you can have both.  In the music world, a number of singer/songwriters have also proven this over the years.  Nobody has combined the two in music better than Mark Knopfler.  Over the course of his career, Knopfler has covered the gambit: Virtuoso guitar player, writer of great music, producer of albums.  There’s no doubt he can dig deep, as a listen to side two of the Dire Straits album ‘Brothers in Arms’ can attest: Most of these songs are about the unrest in mid-80’s Central America, and war in general.  There is plenty of substance in there (particularly the title track). 

And when it comes to style, Mark Knopfler is no slouch. Side one of the very same album is a profile in catchy hits.  Perhaps out of marketing necessity or a way to get the side-two message out to people who would not purchase the album otherwise?  It’s hard to say, particularly because the songs on side one have survived the test of time.  Knopfler and the rest of Dire Straits put effort into these too, including ‘So Far Away’, ‘Money for Nothing’, and ‘Walk of Life’ (which I always thought was about Bruce Springsteen).

Knopfler not only combined style and substance from an album perspective, he did it within individual songs.  ‘Sultans of  Swing’ is soft and stylistic enough to get frequent air-time on easy-listening stations.  Listen to the live version off the ‘Alchemy’ album however, and the substantive potential of the song is revealed.  ‘Industrial Disease’ has both depth and breadth as well. 

Then there is ‘Skateaway’, this week’s Gem video, a brilliant blend of style and substance.  It was catchy enough to be a runaway MTV hit video in that channel’s first year on the air.  The video is a straight-up take on a woman rollerblading on city streets, but this belies a deeper meaning.  The earnestness with which Knopfler sings is more revealing.  The lyrics further back this up, as the song makes a connection with human imagination; how people can conjure up a world unto themselves.  If the video were made 20 years later, it could have been far more creative, but this is MTV in its infancy.

Integrity in a hit pop song?  It can be done.  Integrity in a bright yellow suit?  Also proven.

Below the Gem video is a made-for MTV version of ‘Brothers in Arms’.

- Pete

“But the music makes her wanna be the story
 And the story was whatever was the song what it was”

Gem Video ‘Skateaway’

 ‘Brothers in Arms’


About the video: Original, made for MTV video

Video  Rating: 1

Best feedback: Bob

Hi Pete,

Now I know who was the source of your passion for biology.  It is interesting how seeds are sown at an early stage and then stay with you the rest of your life.  For your other passion music, if I remember correctly, this came from your Dad?

I am still waiting for the day you inform me you have changed jobs and are working for rolling stones mag...........:-)

Life here is doing well.  Valerie as you might have heard is pregnant.......5 months and it is starting to show.  I can feel the baby kicking already.  It is a girl..........

Birth is for July.




Also: Jen

I liked your bit about Mr. Wilk. I remember him well, and that you were fond of him. I also remember his bowtie and suits. I liked how you tied integrity in, in your Gem write up (another great one. Haven't checked out the vid yet).   Jen

Thursday, March 5, 2009

GMVW # 61: "Mr. Wordsmith"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 61:  Mr. Wordsmith
Song: License to Kill by Bob Dylan
(Songwriter: Bob Dylan)
March 5, 2009

I stepped through the process for compiling this week’s gem music video email the way I do every week:  Recall a great song from some part of my life, hope there is a good video for it, and if so, write what comes to mind.   The gem music video was there, it had been for a while.  I also had something to discuss….or so I thought.  The song, “License to Kill” by Bob Dylan, was chock full of great lyrics, and so I figured, why not a theme about brilliant wordsmithing?  I began to rummage through my memory banks for lyrics that had me thinking at one time or another, “how did he/she come up with that line/stanza”?

It started easy enough.  I recalled a lyric-heavy moment in the mid-70’s when long-time friend, John Roche and I read the words to The Beatles “I Am the Walrus” and came across the line, “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye” (one of the many examples of John Lennon’s play with words, something R.E.M. is also known for).  It was one of my first memories of being intrigued by lyrics and so I jotted it down.  Yet, I was looking for lines with deeper meaning.  I then recalled Pete Townshend’s “The Sea Refuses No River”, a song with spiritual undertones.  After singing about the variety of ‘rivers’ the ‘sea’ receives (‘pure as the spring’, ‘stinking and rank’, ‘red from tank’ etc.), he declares the following after a lengthy guitar-bridge buildup:

“The sea refuses no river
  Remember that when the beggar buys a round”

….ok, this was going to be easy. Next, I thought of a funny stanza from Bob Dylan’s “She’s Your Lover Now”:

“But please tell that
  To your friend in the cowboy hat
  You know he keeps on sayin’ ev’rythin’ twice to me”

I believed I was on a roll, and had little doubt I would start recalling great lines from any number of deep-thinking musician that came to mind, while imposing a one-per-artist rule on myself.  On to Neil Young and from there Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Richman, Joan Baez, Green Day, Marvin Gaye, Joe Jackson, George Harrison, Ray Davies, and on and on.  

But Neil Young proved harder than I had planned and I could not figure out why: The man’s career is loaded with classic songs with amazing lyrics.  I flirted with the opening lines in ‘Powderfinger’, but on their own, they were not quite what I was looking for.  After combing through a number of his songs, I put Neil aside for the moment and tackled Paul Simon.  Surprisingly, I found extracting a great line from a song in Paul Simon’s vast catalog to be difficult as well, at least in the framework I had defined for myself.  On to the Rolling Stones: Again, difficult.  David Bowie: No go.  One artist after another I was setting aside, despite the fact that I was digging up lyrics on the Web to help me through a slew of songs. Chrissie Hynde: Skip for now.  Randy Newman: Nothing to isolate. 

Ahhh, nothing to isolate!  At this stage, I was starting to understand my dilemma, and it was two-fold.  First, extracting a line was hard to do while retaining the meaning in the broader context of the entire song.  Second, it occurred to me that most songs are defined primarily by the music and only secondarily by the lyrics.  Most lyrics don’t hold up as well without the melody.  Looking back over the years, I realized that if I first read the words to a new song before hearing the song itself, these words may have been interesting but for the most part they did not stick until the song then grabbed me.  I suppose this can be both a curse and a blessing for songwriters.  On the one hand, a songwriter can get away with very simple lyrics, as long as the music is strong.  On the other hand, the lyrics don’t stand as well on their own, even if they are intense, so the music better be good.

I had to abandon my theme.  Well… not entirely, because a rare exception to this rule is Bob Dylan.  It’s why he’s the top cat of his era.  Many of Dylan’s lyrics can hold up without the music (although the music does help).  It was still hard to isolate snippets, but not as hard as it was for the other musicians I sampled.  Here are a few:

“Sad Eyed lady of the lowlands,
 Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
 My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
 Should I leave them by your gate,
 Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait”
-              From “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

“Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun,
 It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
 And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
 And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
 To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind,
 I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow that you’re
 Seein’ that he’s chasing”
-              “From Mr. Tambourine Man”

“People disagreeing everywhere you look,
 Makes you wanna stop and read a book.
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook.
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though,
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow,
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow.”
-              From “Watching the River Flow”

“They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark,
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones
‘Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate”
-              From “Simple Twist of Fate”

 “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand”
-              From “Every Grain of Sand”

This week’s gem is great, because it’s a live cut of a nearly final studio version of “License to Kill” off the ‘Infidels’ album.   Musicians playing with Dylan in the video clip include ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and album producer/guitarist Mark Knopfler.  Below the gem video is Tom Petty’s live cover version of the same song as an alternative for those who struggle with Dylan’s vocals.  Below the links are the complete lyrics to ‘License to Kill’.

- Pete

Gem Video: “License to Kill”  (as expected, this link is gone *Dec, 09*.  Here is a temporary live replacement)

Tom Petty version (live)

Lyrics to “License to Kill”

Man thinks 'cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don't change soon, he will.
Oh, man has invented his doom,
First step was touching the moon.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill,
Then they bury him with stars,
Sell his body like they do used cars.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there facin' the hill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, he's hell-bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused,
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies.

But there's a woman on my block,
Sitting there in a cold chill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker,
Heartbreaker, backbreaker,
Leave no stone unturned.
May be an actor in a plot,
That might be all that you got
'Til your error you clearly learn.

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play,
He wants it all and he wants it his way.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?


About the video:  studio version, with Mick Taylor, Mark Knopfler, others.  It appears to be the final album cut (or close to it). 

Video Rating: 1

Best Feedback: Jeff

well im in a decidedly nonintellectual pragmatic frame of mind right now.  two lines do it for me ...




Also: Tom
Thanks Pete - will enjoy reading this before heading to bed ... you're amazingly diligent and super-fun to read!

Cuz Tom

And: Jack

Hi Pete:

Here's a question that you might know the answer to.  At the end of "I Am The Walrus", they repeat a phrase over and over.  I say it's "Everybody Smokes Pot..Everybody Smokes Pot", but one of my school friends says it's "Everybody Multiplying..Everybody Multiplying" you know?? :-) 

Actually, as a twist or a turn from your normal MO, you might want to do a GEM on Sir George Martin.  It might be a little more difficult, but he did a lot of familiar arrangements, not just for the Beatles but other groups like "America".  For example, the piano solos in the middle of "All My Life", and "Lonely People" were his babies (The groups respectively), and the keyboard arrangement on the 2nd chorus of "Tin Man" was his.  You can recognize his signature after awhile!