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Friday, April 27, 2012

(17th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Tapping into my inner Grasshopper"

Song: Shine a Light
Album: Exile on Main Street
Released: May, 1972

Mental hurdles can be tough to overcome, and it seems the older you get the tougher it gets.  We all become set in our ways after a time, don’t we?   Those unused synapses simply close shop.  Sure many of us try new things later in life, but the way we go about our business gets more predictable; we revert to coming up with solutions to problems in more of a hard coded manner.  I suppose it’s a good thing in the ‘glass half full’ way of looking at it.  Loyal people for the most part remain loyal.  Faithful people remain faithful.  Romantic types remain romantic.  Technical folks remain technically savvy.  On the flip side though, if you lack in any particular positive quality, is there a chance later in life that you can change?  Can a light shine on those deficiencies to make you a more well-rounded if not better person?  At the very least, can you gain new insights into previously difficult-to-grasp concepts?

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If there was anything I wanted to get out of these Stepping Stones from a music standpoint, it was to make a deeper connection with the 1972 double album ‘Exile on Main Street’.  I’ve known for years that ‘Exile’ deserves a boatload of praise: It is after all a resounding, critically acclaimed piece of work, earning a top 10 spot in virtually every Rock-album all-time list.  But there was disconnect:  I liked it, but I did not love it.  This mind block (which I openly admit to calling it) could make things difficult for personal reflections/reviews like these, because even though my primary music related focus in this forum is on individual songs, the greatest of albums have the potential to lift up those component tunes to loftier places.  I was missing out on that potential in a big way and I knew it. I’d made a few inroads here and there; selected tracks; a keen understanding of how the album fit the times; a sense for the unique vagabond, bohemian flavor.  But being able to honestly convey an insight into that top-tier reputation for the album as a whole remained elusive.  I needed to get to that point.

Indeed, thinking back recently to why I chose the Stones as the first series centerpiece focused on favorite musicians, I recalled part of my reasoning being that I had some concern with not yet having cleared this mental hurdle.  In other words, how much longer did I have?  I am after all turning 50 this year.  Would there be any hope afterwards?  The younger mind is more adaptable to new ways of thinking.  49 is better than 50.  Yet, more than simply clearing a hurdle, a bit of ‘reverse engineering’ would be needed in relation to making new ties to the Rolling Stones, Rock music, and ‘Exile on Main Street’. I needed to step back and take a different tact.

And so, I gave ‘Exile’ numerous additional listens over the past 4 months, the most concerted stretch being for Stepping Stone # 3, which focused on the song Rocks Off; the tune that opens the album.  But the very fact that Rocks Off is the opening track made that particular effort one that never really got off the ground (which had little effect on that Stepping Stone seeing as the tune was already one of my all-time favorites).  However, this and other false starts did get me closer:  To the ground level so to speak, which now sat on top a foundation, poured and hardened over many years.

Then, finally early this week, I started down the path of enlightenment.  And once it started, it snowballed; thoughts and insights cascading as each song suddenly and seamlessly rolled into the next.  I had visions of years gone by when I would be able to make this type of transition much more effortlessly, sometimes even in my sleep.  And here I was again, no longer just reading, hearing and parsing out bits and pieces, but now feeling the whole of ‘Exile on Main Street’:  Mind over matter, grooving to the sound of an A-list band in its heyday prime.

What did it take to break on through to the other side?  To describe the process in the best way possible, I refer back to the old T.V. series “Kung Fu”, on which ‘Grasshopper’ would often reflect back on the spiritual training given him at a young age by his Master on ways to take the proper path when confronting problems.  The lessons the Master taught were often deep and over the young Grasshopper’s head, but years later they would apply.  For me it’s a bit harder to define who the Master is, or the Grasshopper for that matter: My Ego and Id perhaps?  My young and older self (which is the Master, which is the Grasshopper?).  Or flashbacks, however vague, of similar lessons from similar savant types in my life:  I certainly have had my fair share.  Regardless, the big question “Did I still have some of that Grasshopper in me?” was answered in the affirmative.

So, here’s a loose interpretation of what transpired this week as ‘Exile on Main Street’ made the transition in my mind from good to great: 

“Grasshopper, you’ve been going about this album all wrong. First off you must try to break it down.  There are 4 sides to a double album, or don’t you remember?” 

Yes, it’s true.  I had been going about this all wrong.  Although I purchased ‘Exile on Main Street’ at least 25 years ago, it proved to be the victim of a transition period for me from album to compact disk.  At the same time the cartridge on my turntable was giving me problems, and so I jumped ship.  Yet looking back, most every album I love, I’ve been able to break down to A and B sides.  In the case of double albums like ‘Exile’, this process was even more important:  ‘Quadrophenia’.  ‘The Beatles (White Album)’, ‘All Things Must Pass’.  These all had to be broken down first.  There is meaning to this.  It can all be overwhelming otherwise:  Too difficult to take it all in at once. 

And so, the first thing I did was break things down.  Side A is heavy with a Rock sound; heavy, but now much easier to wrap my arms around.  Immediately, side B made much more sense:  An all-acoustic side.  Now it sounded incredible as a coherent stretch of music: ‘Sweet Virginia’, ‘Torn and Frayed’, ‘Sweet Black Angel’, and the amazing ‘Loving Cup’.  These songs not only began sounding consistent, they now all came across as deep and unguarded; uncharacteristic traits for the Rolling Stones.  Happy’ opens up side C.  Interesting:  A Keith lead vocal opening up a side, and rightfully so.  I’d forgotten this completely.  Side C also includes two very spiritual gospel songs, Just Want to See His Face and Let It Loose (which both include Dr John and his backup singers).  The Stones were doing this before Dylan and around the same time as Harrison and Townshend?  Wow!  Side D ends the album on a solid high note.  No drop off here, which can’t be said for many other double albums. This alone makes Side D intense, and it also confirms just how much material the Stones had to work with at the time.

“Grasshopper, you must take a long drive.  Take it all in slow and steady.”

Yes, it’s amazing what a long ride can do.  And so, for my work trip to Harrisburg PA this week, the first thing in the car was ‘Exile’.  Riding along the Appalachian Trail, over the Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna Rivers, I thought of that commercial with the older man and the young boy on a train; the man listening to classical music on headphones and looking out at the mountain vistas; the young boy asking what the man was listening too; the man pointing at the mountains and saying “that”. 

“Grasshopper, enjoy some of the lyrics, print them out (large print) for the ride.  Remember reading lyrics?” 

Yes, I did not think this would be much of a factor with these Stones songs, but it was.  There’s Sweet Black Angel, a protest song about then jailed activist Angela Davis (“Not a gun toting teacher, not a Red lovin’ school Mom”).  There’s Loving Cup:  What a beautiful buzz!  Yes I’m nitty gritty and my shirts all torn.  But I would love to spill the beans with you till dawn”.  Tumbling Dice gets the rise to that ‘loftier place’ mentioned earlier (“but baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now”).  Ventilator Blues:  I’d always thought the lyrics at the end stated “Don’t fight it”. The lyrics are actually “Gonna fight it”.  Big correction there. Much better.

I’d already discussed Rocks Off in Stepping Stone # 3, but conceptually related to it is the lyric-loaded Torn and Frayed, which is sure to have its own entry in weeks to come, and this week’s Stepping Stone, Shine a Light ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPbozLRU3so ), which includes the classic lines:
 
When you're drunk in the alley, baby, with your clothes all torn
And your late night friends leave you in the cold gray dawn.
Just seemed too many flies on you, I just can't brush them off.
Angels beating all their wings in time,
With smiles on their faces and a gleam right in their eyes.
Whoa, thought I heard one sigh for you,
Come on up, come on up, now, come on up now.
“Grasshopper, forget the South of France (where the album was produced while the Stones were in tax ‘exile’).  What is this album really talking about?”

Yes, America!  The Stones truly became American with this album.  No English band had ever done this before.  The Beatles were extraordinary, but always viewed as a British band.  The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits: All English.  Only one other band from overseas, The Who, would also be able to pull this off.  But where the Who connected themselves with the intellectual and industrial northeast, the Stones did so with the entire country:  North, South, East and West.  And boy does this ever come across on ‘Exile’.  There’s the Joshua Tree “desert in toenails” of California in Sweet Virginia.  There’s the entire lyrical content of Rip This Joint and Casino Boogie.  There’s gospel.  There’s blues.  The Stones were feeling it.  Heck, they had already lived it more than most native-born Americans.

This is truly one of the great things about the Rolling Stones.  They have been able to identify themselves with the American Experience, and will forever be part of our history:  An American love affair of sorts.  There are very few overseas types, be they entertainers, politicians, poets, writers, whoever, who can make that claim.  The Stones have a little Clint Eastwood about them.  A little Muddy Waters.  A little Jerry Garcia.   And a lot themselves.  The story goes that while ‘exiled’ in the south of France, the food of choice was from a local American burger and fries joint.  Kinda reminds me of the Mainguy clan:  Misplaced Americans in a foreign land.

“Grasshopper, think of the Rolling Stones in a different light here”

Yes, this is true.  Ah, the glories of youth, and the Stones capitalize on it all here.  This is a band clicking on all cylinders.  And what a sound: Drums, vocals, horns, piano, guitars, bass, organ, all of it.  More interesting though is that this is an album where the band removes all constraints, freely discussing their spirituality, their insecurities, and their concerns.  Why didn’t the Stones do more of this in their career?  I’m not complaining as there’s plenty of other bands to turn to for these elements.  And the Stones did just fine later when they lifted that veil back up.  I’m just curious. 

“Grasshopper, connect with an old friend while on the road:  A true master in the world of music”. 

Yes, the final stroke.  It just so happened that this trip would allow me to connect with longtime friend, Jeff Strause, on my way to Harrisburg.  Jeff, as in Mr Music Event.  As in “I don’t know anyone who has seen more great shows”.  As with any visit with Jeff, this one gave me more insight into the music world.  Any general discussion of music helps me in writing these Stepping Stones; particularly with someone as knowledgeable as Mr. Strause.

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Like the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 60s, the Stones were at the peak of their game during the production of ‘Exile on Main Street’.  And like those Celtics, they delivered.  Take this from one who (finally) knows. I sensed this before, but I did not feel it.  I feel it now.

Perhaps there was no need to rush on this mental hurdle, but I’m glad I did.  And I learned something else from it:  I’ve still got a bit of Grasshopper left in me.  Will it last?  I’m not so sure.  After all, I’m still only 49.  Ask me again next year.  I’ll test some other mental hurdle; try to tap again into the Master and Grasshopper inside.  Try again to Shine a Light: See if it still works.

-          Pete

Friday, April 20, 2012

(16th in a series of) Stepping Stones "In Support of the Arts"

Song: Start Me Up
Album: Tattoo You
Released: August, 1981

It’s been many years since the Rolling Stones had a Billboard Number One Hit:  That would be Miss You in 1978 (which was their 8th Number One, the first being Satisfaction in 1965).  They did come very close again three years later however, reaching the Number Two spot with Start Me Up, this week’s Stepping Stone ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG2b3VhSCC4 ).  Although Miss You and Start Me Up ended up on different albums, the story goes that the final-cut versions of these two songs were performed live in the studio, back to back on the same day; Miss You as pretty much a one-off, followed by Start Me Up, which had been through many iterations in prior studio sessions as a Reggae beat, before the Stones finally settled on the classic Rock sound heard on the Tattoo You album.  Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that Rock moment.  With Miss You as a Number One, and Start Me Up several years later as a Number Two, The Stones gave a new definition to the term ‘One Two Punch’.

Hits by any of my favorite musicians are not always great songs to these ears, but Start Me Up most definitely is.  I like the fact that it sounds like this is simply the five core band members, along with their four core instruments (other than perhaps the overdubbed, synchronized clapping, since I can’t picture Keith Richards doing this).  That’s a lot of fun sound coming out of two guitars, a bass, and drums.  Also, it’s pretty cool the Stones were able to top the charts at roughly the 20 year mark of their formation.  It’s also pretty cool that a song produced this far into the band’s history would not only become a routine part of the live set list, but would often be used from that point on as the opening salvo to introduce the group to the crowd on any given evening.

Since 1981 though, nothing has come quite as close to Start Me Up in terms of being a “Hit” for the Stones.  They are not alone.  In general, the Rock n’ Roll world has come face to face with a strange new reality in recent years.  No longer the powerhouse of yesteryear, Rock music registers rarely now on the top of the Billboard charts, transplanted by the likes of Hip Hop and the relentless surge of Pop.  Gone are the days when Rock songs dominated the charts with a consistent influx of cutting-edge grooves.  This is not to say there is a lack of raw talent out there:  There most certainly is a wealth of it.  But the phenomenon is gone, at least for the time being, and the newcomers are no longer able to ride the wave, now having to struggle like any artist who follows an inner beck and call instead of a fad.

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History documents many cases where the loss of power, particularly longstanding power, leaves the former movers and shakers in a very vulnerable position.  This cold hard fact has proven no different for Rock’s elder statesman.  For those who were never really on board with the Baby Boom musical cornerstone called Rock n’ Roll, particularly those in the same generation, it is much easier now to lash out.  So the digs seep into the discussion easier and with more frequency now for the diggers, who take aim at the weak spots, such as excess (Jerry Garcia, Keith Moon); the yearning for utopia (Neil Young, John Lennon); ‘old men’ rocking into a seeming caricature of themselves (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards); accusations, however false (Pete Townshend); and the overall rock ethos itself.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I recently got knocked back by a dig from a friend when I asked him if he wanted to join Mac and I to see the upcoming Roger Waters “The Wall” concert at Fenway Park.  His reply was something along the lines of “zero chance of finding myself in that Occupy Wall Street crowd”.  What?  I responded  saying that I had no idea what he would allow himself to see anymore, and the next time I were to ask him if he wanted to see a show would be if I were holding tickets to see Tony Bennett or Barry Manilow.  Is that safe enough for you, buddy boy?

The dig was emblematic of my already well-developed suspicions:  Yes, the vultures are circling, aren’t they?  I won’t hold it against my old chum, though.  There was a bit of good natured needling mixed into our exchange.  But there was an element of serious jockeying as well.  I could have raised the ante if I wanted, as I did refrain from referencing a few lyrics from Bob Dylan’s Only a Pawn in Their Game.  I’m sure he could have notched it up too.  Regardless, it’s clear to me that we are living in different times then when we were younger.  That type of joking, if that’s what it was, would have been off limits way back when.  At the very least it can all be chalked up to our changing nature as we grow older.  But I think it’s more than that; a cultural divide that grows wider by the day.  It may go back to the book "Shut Up and Sing" (see Gem Music Video # 76).  Anyone who bought into it has basically cut themselves off at the knees.  Goodbye Rock.  Hello Easy Listening, any Country but the 'Outlaw' kind, elevator muzak, and maybe a bit of Ted Nugent sprinkled in....just to keep that edge.

Indeed, “the times they are a changin”.  One side effect is that, incredible as it may seem, old time Rock musicians are now subject to the same dated image that those crooners and swingers from the 40s and 50s faced in the 60s.  There’s just not enough pride out there to pass on the good vibes of the music and what it all means to our kids.  Though I do agree that it’s good for them to find their own way with their own musical interests, there is so much they can learn from in the music of the Baby Boomer Generation.  Personally, I think it’s one of the best things we as a generation can lay claim to and pass on to them.  Which brings me back to that Rock ethos thing: There’s a lot of independent spirit in Rock music; a lot of free thinking; and like any good art, a lot of truth. 

On the plus side it has become apparent that the Rock genre has survived for the long haul, as it no longer appears to be a young man’s game.  There’s enough of us diehards out there to continue guaranteeing that solid, well reviewed tours of established bands still sellout at good clip.  I’m happy to say I’ve done my fair share of support over the years.  But nothing like some folks I know.  One of these folks is a fellow soccer Dad in town who I converse with quite frequently on the sidelines of Peter’s games.   Being a very successful businessman, this guy can support his love for live Rock music, and then some.  He has attended an incredible amount of shows over the years.  And he does not go alone; he takes the entire family, which includes his teenage kids who are well versed in the ongoing live Rock music scene. The shows that these young buds have attended include the likes of Ray Davies, Roger Daltrey, J Geils, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Cars, Rat Dog, Hot Tuna, and Nick Lowe.  Oh, and Roger Waters (“The Wall” tour swept through the area once already, last fall).  The list is endless.  These kids are going places.

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Epilogue: For years I carried with me a slightly guilty feeling that I have not been supporting the arts nearly to the degree that my parents have done.  After a few nights of writing and reflection, I realize now that I was looking through the prism of their eyes:  Classical concerts, art museums, musicals, theater, and opera.  Rock concerts fit right in though:  It’s become easier to convince myself of that.  This being the case, my support for the arts over the years can now be bumped up exponentially from dozens to hundreds, and that trend should continue, as my enthusiasm for a good show has not waned. 

So Start Me Up all you ladies and gents taking center stage to rock out on any given night at any given venue, be it a stadium, arena, theater, night club, or tavern.  I’ll be the guy in crowd in the tuxedo…. you know, supporting the arts.

-          Pete

Thursday, April 12, 2012

(15th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Wheels of Fortune"

Song: Blinded by Love
Album: Steel Wheels
Released: August, 1989

As mentioned before (Gem Music Video # 54) the year 1989 was somewhat of a watershed for me in regards to music. When adding up the quantity and quality of all the live shows, album purchases, radio play, and even conversation with friends, the music was centric and all encompassing.  I’m pretty sure the vast majority if not all of my reading that year, whether magazine articles or books, was music-related as well.

The two biggest shows I attended in 1989 were the Who (July) and the Rolling Stones (October), each at the old Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.   In many ways both of these were ‘reunion’ tours.  For the Who, it was truly a reunion, as they had formally disbanded in 1983.  As for the Stones, although they have never officially called it quits at any time in their 50 year history, the years leading up to ‘89 were for all practical purposes a disbanding.  For Stones aficionados, it was hard to witness: The band that had made it through the toughest of times in the 60s and 70s had finally fallen prey to the same factors that had split up many of their contemporaries many years earlier, including creative differences, solo efforts, and public back stabbing through the press.  

Although there were many similarities in the two tours related to the concept of reunion, there was one big difference:  The Who were relying almost entirely on a back catalog of songs for their set list (there was some new solo Townshend music sprinkled in) while the Stones had released “Steel Wheels”, an album of new material, prior to their tour (the name Steel Wheels was also given to the tour).  This singular distinction would make all the difference in the general sense of fervor, vibes and intensity leading up to and encompassing these shows.

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I got wind of concert tickets going on sale for the Stones’ Steel Wheels Foxborough appearance via WBCN’s (104.1 FM) morning show “The Big Mattress”.  The big news aired on a weekday during my commute into Boston.  In those days I was working for USGS in the Tip O’Neill Building near North Station.  Commuting from Waltham could be monotonous no matter what you tried, and so I often mixed it up: Green Line for a stretch of time; Red Line another; MBTA train from Waltham yet another.  I would also drive on occasion, finding parking in oddball locations under the overpass which connected Storrow Drive to the Expressway (if you got there early enough).  Fortunately this was my commute of choice on that sunny summer day, DJ Charles Laquidara giving me the low down on the where (Quincy Market) and when (12 noon) for tickets.

Once in the office, I filled in colleague, good friend, and fellow Stones fan, Saiping, on the new lunch plans, and the two of us made the trek over to Faneuil Hall an hour before the ticket booth opened up.  We already had made the determination that at least a portion of the day would have to cut into our then-meager annual leave time.  But when we saw the line, already distressingly long and winding its way around half a block behind the kiosk, we realized we were in for a bit longer of a day off, possibly the entire afternoon.  After adjusting our mindsets to the decision that this was simply what had to be, we planted ourselves at the tail end of the line, which before long had become a midsection.

At noon, there was an audible rumble up front.  After a bit more time the line began to move, but it was at a snail’s pace, much slower than expected.  I told Saiping I was going to see what the deal was.  She kept our place and I walked up around the bend toward the kiosk.  When I got there, standing off to the side somewhat, I discovered there was a new concept in play:  Wristbands.  Still novel at the time, wristbands were used as an intermediate step, assigning you placement in a future line (typically a day or two later) for the final ticket purchase.  The idea (gimmick?) was to make the process a bit more orderly and reduce the potential for scalping. 

Remaining off to the side, I was tipped off by someone that there were two types of wristbands being offered:  Wristbands for seating in the stands and wristbands for (supposed) “festival seating” on the field (which meant first come, best standing position).  The folks up front who had been waiting all morning wanted only one thing:  Guaranteed good seats in the stands near the side of the stage.  That rumble I had heard earlier then became obvious:  The wristbands were being handed out by several kiosk workers making their way through the crowd in the immediate area around the kiosk, and the line up front had dissolved into a logjam as those who had received wristbands were trying to get more information on what was next.

One of the kiosk workers was holding all of the festival wristbands and almost pleading with the crowd.  No takers.  He looked around and repeated something along the lines of “floor seating wristbands”.  Off to the side, I finally said “here”.  To my surprise he walked in my direction without hesitation and slapped a wristband on me:  An amazing stroke of good fortune.  But what happened next was even more amazing as he explained that the floor plan was not festival at all, but assigned seating!  This being moments after the doors opened, I was guaranteed four great seats! 

I headed back to our place in line, wrist deep in pocket so as not to insight a feeding frenzy.  When I got there I urged Saiping with silent gestures to follow me.  She responded as if I had two heads, knowing we were losing our place in line.  But resisting logic, she obliged.  Far enough from the crowd, I revealed my wristbanded hand, explained what was happening, and suggested to Saiping to give it a try.  We worked our way around the logjam, and the same thing happened:  Same location, same kiosk worker, same result.  In fact, it was so much the same that Saiping’s position for the final ticket purchase later that week would end up being right behind mine:  The kiosk worker had not given out a single wristband in the interim between my good fortune and that of Saiping.  This would virtually guarantee all of our seats being together (which they were).  Pumped at having pulled off this coup, and with the knowledge that we had fantastic tickets to see the Rolling Stones, we made our way back to work for a productive afternoon of GIS analysis.

Much like these last few months of Stepping Stones, the weeks leading up to the Steel Wheels show was all Stones music all the time.  On the Friday before the weekend of the show, Paul from work (the ‘son of a preacher man’ discussed in the 2nd Stepping Stone and the recipient of one of our tickets) was walking behind the Tip O’Neill building past a helicopter pad on the Charles River (typically used for traffic reports), when he watched a helicopter land and the Stones get off and into a Limo.  He managed to get their attention and a nod or two of comradery.  The band had a few days to hang in the Hub.  I believe we speculated on what they were doing with their weekend:  Ronnie probably on his way to hosting an art show on Newbury Street; Mick, a couple pints with Peter Wolf in the Fens and then off to the Kennedy Compound for a weekend of fun and sun; Charlie, a few nights at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge; Keith, open house in his hotel suite at the Ritz Carlton for anyone lucky enough to get the inside scoop; Bill, a quiet location to continue the writing of his 1990 autobiography “Stone Alone” (more likely a rendezvous with his lawyers and investment brokers to tally up his earning on the tour for a not-yet-announced life after the Stones).

As for the concert itself, the seats and show were over-the-top incredible.  Probably the best event I have ever seen.  The band was right on, with highlights including Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Ruby Tuesday, Honkey Tonk Women, Dead Flowers, 2000 Light Years from Home and Before They Make Me Run.  I do recall making a run-through of the set list in my head just after the show and concluding that the Stones did a masterful job of song selection; a cross section representing virtually every album they had ever made.  Not many bands can get away with that. 

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The combination of chemistry and creativity are rarely if ever recovered once lost.  Both are needed when a band makes its own music.  One is hard enough to deal with, and for more individual talents like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, creativity is the singular focus:  Lose it, and there is still realistic hope to get it back.  Both chemistry and creativity lost, though?  Now you’re shoveling shit against the tide. 

This brings me back to the contrast between the ’89 versions of the Rolling Stones and the Who.  Though the Who show was fantastic, the Stones show was closer to what you might call a Happening.   Why the difference?  Both bands had the history to grab hold of that higher calling.  I believe the difference was in the risk and effort leading up to the respective tours.  God love the Who. They are after all my favorite band, and they had every reason to cut a few corners during that period (which I do hope to discuss in detail at some time), but the Stones had more momentum going into their tour because they added a creative touch that year with their new album.  I am sure it is what transitioned their reunion into a Happening.

“Steel Wheels” the album was a big risk.  I believe the Stones knew that the old chemistry and creativity were not going to come back full boar overnight.  There would have to be a rekindling period, and that is how “Steel Wheels” comes across.  There is nothing great on the album and it’s almost naked in its honesty:  “Hey, we are trying here!” seems to scream out with every cut.  But it’s a good album.  I’ve been listening to it all over again all week, and there are no subpar songs to speak of.  A few are over produced and have the feel of Mick Jagger trying too hard (Mixed Emotions, Rock and a Hard Place) and the Keith Richards lead vocal tracks are not top draw by any means (Can’t be Seen, Slipping Away).  But again, it’s all very listenable, despite the fact that one of the best songs on the album, this week’s Stepping Stone Blinded by Love (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q98VSsahlJo) is a bit out of character:  Is this the Stones being parental?

Successful reunions with deep roots are not only great from a personal experience, they are great to witness.  There is always excitement behind the potential for the best of them.  We never did get to see a Beatles reunion, but wouldn’t it have been incredible?  Same for the original Kinks lineup, which came close to happening before Peter Quaife passed away 2 years ago.  Cream happened.  So did Simon and Garfunkel (see Gem Music Video # 36).  Then there’s all those SNL cast member reunions, and more locally, the Boston Bruins 1970 Stanley Cup Team.  Personally for me there’s been a recent reunion of old work related friends, including Saiping:  The common bond of a cutting edge past that has played out rather nicely.  And of course there was the reunion several years back of the Franklin crew, when old friend Jeff reconnected with all of us (see Gem Music Video # 86).  And finally the best of them all:  “Goldapalooza” and a week away with the entire family for Mom and Dad’s 50th (which I do hope to write about in more detail at some time).

Keith Richards knew the Stones were back on track by the time the band convened in Montserrat to write songs for “Steel Wheels” (the title was chosen as a symbol of moving forward).  There’s a story in Rolling Stone Magazine from the period that included Keith thinking back to the moment he pulled his car up to the studio, hearing Charlie Watts’ drumming inside and subsequently smiling broadly into his rearview mirror.  It’s an indelible image for me.  Keith Richards’ cathartic moment was perhaps a brief insight into what was to come: Maybe not immediately on the album, but certainly by the time the band hit Foxborough. 

At the end of that show, every musician on stage stood arm in arm in front of the crowd to take in the rousing applause.  Then most peeled themselves away to leave the five core band member alone for a moment:  Bill, Mick, Charlie, Keith, Ronnie.  The cheering reached fever pitch for a job well done.

Take a bow, boys.  Take a bow.

-          Pete

Thursday, April 5, 2012

(14th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Night Vision"

Song: Moonlight Mile
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released: April, 1971

The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is aptly named.  The region is roughly defined as the three rural counties (Essex, Caledonia, and Orleans) that geographically dig into northernmost New Hampshire, stretching from the small city of St. Johnsbury at the southern end to the even smaller city of Newport at the Canadian border.  It’s a magnificent place.  The Kingdom has escaped many a traveler’s destination by being tucked on the backside of the White Mountains and connecting Southern New England to very little of known quality further to the northeast (though some of us know better than that).  Its rolling hills are enchanted and extraordinary. 

I’ve had the luxury of travelling through this Shangri-La of a region a handful of times over the past four or five years for work-related excursions to Sherbrooke, Quebec, a mid-size French-speaking city about an hour or so over the border.  On several of these business trips I have taken up the benevolent offer of a USGS colleague to crash at his getaway cabin in the tiny village of West Glover, smack dab in the heart of the Kingdom.  Words cannot describe the views from this log cabin, which is perched on one of those prior-mentioned rolling hills.  Walking down the long driveway takes you to the Parker Pie, one of the most hip venues I’ve had the pleasure to visit in all my years of exploration.  Folks travel to “The Pie” from miles around by taking one of two winding country roads into West Glover.  Musicians go out of their way to perform there as well.  I’ve often told my colleague friend that putting it all together, cabin, “Pie”, and setting he has found a rustic version of the Promised Land.

At night, the Northeast Kingdom is pitch black, with very little in the way of man-made light inhibiting a view of the sky overhead, allowing the stars to take full control of the situation.  The Milky Way is easily spotted on a cloudless evening, as is Venus, Mars, Jupiter, both Dippers, and any number of other constellations (most of which I could not name without the aid of an iPhone stargazing app).  These views of the night sky are poignant from many vantage points; not the least being large stretches of Vermont’s highway system, where you can often find yourself above the horizon, including much of Route 91 which winds its way through The Kingdom.  This can make a night ride just as awe inspiring as a day ride, particularly when the moon lights the sky, mountains silhouetted all around as you weave your way through the tapestry of stars:  A lasting image of those evening drives from Sherbrooke Quebec down to West Glover.  How else to enter a dreamscape?

I got silence on my radio
Let the air waves flow
Let the air waves flow

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Among the many perks related to meeting Nancy was getting to know the North Shore, that region of the State where Massachusetts gets to round out its national image a bit to include that more gruff, hockey-centric, Dunkin Donuts, blue collar, “How we doing?” persona we all know and love.  Medford, Malden, Everett, Saugus, Melrose, Wakefield, Stoneham, Wilmington, Billerica, Reading, and of course, Woburn:  They were all included in this process of discovery.  If I were not a well-rounded, true-blue Massachusetts boy by the time I met Nancy, I became one soon after. 

In our earliest years of dating (’84, ’85), I was living back in Franklin on the South Shore side of the State. It was a time of transition for me, trying to find my path from college to career:  Mom and Dad, open arms as always, welcoming me back to home as I made attempts in fits and starts at figuring ways to climb that ladder of success.  And so, I relied heavily on my wheels for my earliest memories with Nancy, driving the hour long stretch, Franklin to Woburn, and back on any given weekday.  The miles clocked must have been impressive, as I believe I got to the point where I could have made the trek in my sleep (which I may just have done once or twice).  Of course, it was all worth it:  We all must go through our trials and tribulations in the courting game, yes?

Most of my driving back from Woburn was, of course, late at night.  The nice part of it was that the roads were free of heavy traffic, allowing for the unusual experience of cruising Route 128 at a good clip.  From there it was the Mass Pike to exit 13 to Speen Street in Framingham, to Route 27 through Sherborn, Route 115 into Millis, 109 into Medway and the back roads to Franklin.  A time for quiet contemplation or radio play after a magical evening out and about with my then future bride.

I am just living to be lying by your side
But I’m just about a moonlight mile on down the road
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The largest vehicle I have ever driven was a massive Winnebago.  I did this during a trip to Prince Edward Island (PEI) with Nancy, Mom, Dad, Jen, Dale, Fred, Kip, Joe, Mon, Amy and Pat in the summer of 1990, taking turns at the wheel with several other family members.  It was intense driving, because this was a formidable vehicle:  Although there were 11 of us, there was space to roam around; or take in a card game at the kitchen table; or dig for food and drink in the refrigerator; or sit in several other locations to enjoy the scenery; or use the bathroom.  A travelling road show, that’s what it felt like. In hindsight, I think it was, as the belly laughs and inside jokes were many.  The primary reason for our journey, however, was a family reunion with Mom’s extended family:  Seeing the homeland and home of my grandfather’s youth; the type of ancestry connection I would recommend to anyone.

Back then, the only way onto PEI was by ferry (you can now reach it via the 8 mile long Confederation Bridge):  All part of the adventure in this super-sized motor home.  A rental car on the island relieved our reliance on the Winnebago a bit, allowing for easier errands and side trips.  On one of these errands, Dale and I followed a townie to the local “bootlegger” after the beer store locked up in front of us as we sprinted toward the door in a valiant but failed effort to beat closing time.  Another side trip included a visit to a sandy beach; a brief respite from the hustle and bustle.  Mostly, however, it was all for one and one for all, which included a very memorable photo-op visit to “Steeves Mountain”, a private park in New Brunswick on the way up (which has since closed).

The most intense stretch of driving for me was in the middle of the night through a remote part of Maine: Route 9, from Bangor to the border town of Calais.  Most everyone was sleeping (or very quiet), including a few family members on the bunk above me.  It was quite a mental burden driving that beast of a vehicle on such a long, dark, narrow thruway.  Keep clear of the road-side drainage ditches!  How often did I repeat that to myself?

In the window there's a face you know
Don't the nights pass slow
Don't the nights pass slow

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About a month ago, during the kid’s winter break, the family and I took a day trip out to North Adams.  I had not made this trek in quite some time, though I had every intention of doing so for at least a few years.  As with every trip to North Adams, the place was sure to bring back a unique set of memories, and it did not disappoint, as I flashed back over and over while shuttling the family around the various haunts where I lived and learned for three years. 

What did surprise me though was the flashback of feelings during the ride out, on the Mohawk Trail.  Most of the flashbacks were associated with my freshman year, when I would make the occasional trip back to Eastern Massachusetts in my Lincoln Mercury Capri.  These forays back east helped to make the adjustment a bit easier that year, but the ride back to North Adams on a Sunday nite sometimes negated the value of these weekend trips, as the feeling of solitude often settled over me.  The Trail can do this to you at night, as it winds its way along first the Millers River (with flow) and then the Deerfield River (against flow):  Railroad, river, and road all weaving in synchronized fashion through the valleys beneath the Berkshires. 

As the hills got higher, the railroad would disappear, ultimately finding its way into the infamous Hoosic Tunnel, and later emerging in North Adams on the other end of the high peaks (the tunnel entrance in the opposite direction was a stone’s throw from one of my off-campus housing units).  The Trail would continue its wind uphill, soon losing the river as well.  Up and up it went, finally hitting a series of far ranging masterful views to take in, even at night, and then beginning the descent into North Adams via Hairpin Turn.  Though I did not realize it at the time, each one of those trips back to school was an invaluable growing experience, a time for inner soul searching and often prayer.

My dreams is fading down the railway line
I’m just about a moonlight mile down the road

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Montreal can be a pretty darn fun place, especially for a na├»ve crew of bozos in their late teens making an overnight trip to catch a Canadiens hockey game.  So was the case for myself and three other North Adams sophomores (TH 1-ers) on a cold day in the winter of 1981-82.  We had made the drive to Burlington Vermont in my car very early that day from western Massachusetts with the intent of having Mac join us from there (Mac attended St Michaels College in Burlington) for the extra leg to Montreal.  The plan was to get tickets to the game, enjoy a few more late-night hours in the big city, and then head back to Burlington (for a no-doubt short-night of sleep) before returning to North Adams the following day.  As it turned out, an unfortunate twist of fate meant that Mac could not join us, finding his hands tied with another last-minute visitor from home,  so a classmate of his volunteered to fill in as we made our way further north.

Fun times can often be enhanced when you have no idea what you are in for (hence the bozo reference).  And everything was a surprise to us on that trip:  Getting lost on Lake Champlain; finding Montreal despite our linguistic deficiencies ; finding the Forum; arriving on time; our shocking ability to get tickets to the sold-out game; the well-dressed fans; a chance encounter with Yvan Cournoyer; roaming the streets late night; making our way home.  But we pulled it all off, and then some.

Back in the car, I lost almost everyone to sleep by the time we crossed the St Lawrence River.  Kurt hung in there for a while, but soon he was comatose as well.  I’d been here before, alone with my thoughts on a long night ride (see prior Mohawk Trail story), and so I chauffeured on, putting up with the chuckling border police as they shined their flashlights into my car on the faces of all the snoring bozos around me (I can’t imagine those border police chuckling now).  They almost seemed impressed by my duties, as I mentioned to them that I was the only one of us that knew how to drive a stick shift, and that I had been driving all day.  By the time we finally made our way into our Burlington host’s apartment, the daylight was emerging all around.

Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies
Just another mad mad day on the road
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Of all the travelling I’ve been blessed to be able to do, the place that gave me the most remote, isolated sense about it was Newfoundland, which I’ve had the pleasure of having visited twice now with my family (and hope to do so more in the future).  Both trips were via ferry ride from Cape Bretton Island on the top of Nova Scotia.  The first of these two trips was to the closer western side of “The Rock”, where we disembarked in the wee-early hours at the small village of Port aux Basques after a 9-hour overnighter.  The thing about landing on the sprawling western end of Newfoundland (as opposed to the eastern end which includes the capital of St. Johns on the more compact Avalon Peninsula) is that to get anywhere, you still have a lot of driving to do.

And a lot of driving we did, starting out with that early dawn drive out of Port aux Basques.  Once again, I found myself with a car full of sleepers (not bozos this time!) soon after disembarking the ferry.  But, as with all the other times mentioned here, this gave me a chance to reflect and in this case, plan ahead for the splendid scenery that would be Gros Morne National Park, fjords, Twillingate and massive offshore icebergs.  This early stretch also gave me the chance to witness that true final thrust of the Appalachian Range, several peaks which were surprisingly impressive in their grandeur.  Charlotte was able to summarize the entire experience later, back on Cape Bretton Island, when she told us she had seen a poster on the return ferry which read “You can’t be any further from Disney than you are right now”.

Looking at our video footage I can still recall the feeling I had when the ferry entered into that foggy Port aux Basques harbor, surrounded by small homes, some of which appeared precariously perched on chunks of rocky outcrop.  The feeling was one of “I can’t believe I’m here” which was unlike any other.  It was a feeling of truly being in a “newly found land”.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fog, or the distance, or the precarious looking housing, or the chill in the early morning air, or a strange familiarity.  Whatever it was, it’s still hard to believe I was there.

Made a rag pile of my shiny clothes
Gonna warm my bones
Gonna warm my bones
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It’s been many years since I pulled an all nighter.  Back in the day, the tail end of one of these would often include breakfast, which tended to make for strange bedfellows:  Early risers, 3rd shifters, and diehards.  These encounters led to fascinating conversation with the other clientele, waitresses, and cooks.  “What did you do last night?”  “Oh, I remember when….”  “To be young again” …and so on.  It’s always interesting the situations you can stumble into when you allow yourself to step out of the normal routine.

The nicest thing about predawn-opening breakfast haunts (which are few and far between) is that they would bring you that much closer to sunrise if you had it in you to want to catch one.  And when Boston was the scene of these all nighters (most often the case) the must see sunrise was a quick ride up and over the Tobin Bridge to Revere Beach:  A ‘before you die’ bucket-list event if there ever was one.

Part of that experience is no longer there, that being the elevated expressway through Boston, which has been replaced by the underground “Big Dig” and an <admittedly> much nicer, inter-connected downtown region (the Rose Kennedy Greenway is really coming along).  It was an interesting ride while it existed though, because you had a chance to see the city around you as you sat in traffic.  The rare time the ride was really enjoyable, however was when nobody was on it, which only happened around 4 am on a weekend night, on your way to Revere Beach to see a sunrise.  The roller coaster experience through the high-rises that make up the Government Center region of The Hub would put an amusement park ride to shame. 

I’m hiding baby and I’m dreaming
I’m riding down your moonlight mile
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I recall fondly these late-night/early morning  jaunts, and it’s quite likely I was listening intently to Moonlight Mile with whoever else was in the car (usually Kurt), heading to Revere Beach to start the new day in the best of possible ways.  Moonlight Mile could also have been playing in the Northeast Kingdom; and on the way home from a dinner date in Woburn; and in the Winnebago along that desolate stretch of Route 9 north of Bangor; and on my way back to North Adams along the Mohawk Trail; and while my bozo brethren slept on the way back from a hockey game in Montreal; and just off the ferry onto a newly found land.  When I first started to write this week’s Stepping Stone, I realized right off that my reflections of Moonlight Mile could not be about just any one of these experiences:  It had to be about them all.

As for the song itself (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugYzDqQtdHU), the Rolling Stones caught lightning in a bottle when they recorded this ditty, the original guitar licks of which Keith Richards had recorded and referred to as “Japanese thing”.  The two Micks (Jagger and Taylor) then took it and ran with it, and in the process showed the world that the Stones can reveal a softer underbelly behind the public facade when up to the task.

Happy Easter everyone.

-          Pete