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Friday, October 26, 2012

(43rd in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Spotlight on Mick Jagger: Mr. Omnipresence"

Song: Miss You
Album: Some Girls
Released: June, 1978

Spotlight on: Mick Jagger

Winston Churchill once declared about Russia:  “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  It’s a quote we can all relate to in some kind of capacity:  Of all the myriad of subject matter to choose from, there are simply going to be at least a handful of topics that a given individual just can’t grasp.  It doesn’t matter how much you read or research or try to relate to the concept:  Something - be it your mindset, upbringing, cultural background, education, values, or norms - blocks you from comprehending whatever it is.

This type of disconnect can of course include the inability to relate to certain people:  A lack of insight into what makes some folks tick.  I’d like to think I understand far more souls than I do not, but I will admit there are a few individuals with whom I have been affiliated through the years who have had me scratching my head more often than not.  I suppose it takes all kinds, ehh?  Being a student of history, I’ve also had this type of disconnect with several personalities I have read about; famous people.  A few of them are still with us today.

Mick Jagger is one of them.

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When I slipped 1978’s ‘Some Girls’ into the cd player to initiate this week’s Stepping Stone process, I felt immediately energized.  How could I not?  I’d written six spotlight posts thus far on Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, Ian Stewart, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts, but this one was to discuss the Rolling Stones lead singer; a man with much more energy than most of us.  And as the initial notes to Miss You began unfolding around me, that inner Jagger started to percolate from inside to out.  After all, when you’ve seen the best showman of our time strut his stuff live, it’s not all that hard to connect with his stage act:  The movements, the expressions, the “Jagger in the mirror” (http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/mick-and-mick/1350097/ ).  Aside from maybe Elvis, is there any Rock figure that’s been imitated more?

I picked the right album in focusing on Mr. Jagger.  ‘Some Girls’ covers the entire range of his skills.  In a nutshell, this is Jagger at his best: Lyrics, music, vocals, style, and substance.  Yes, the remainder of the band does a very admirable job here, but make no bones about it; if there was anyone in the moment for this fantastic album, it was the leading man.  Let’s cascade our way through ‘Some Girls’ from track to track with a focus on Sir Mick:

Miss You: This week’s Stepping Stone ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuRxXRuAz-I ) starts it all off.  This is one of Mick Jagger’s all-time greatest efforts.  It’s the dance number (during a time when the Stones tried to always include at least one on each album), the disco song, and Mick and the boys “Stones-ify” it.  The song is about a poor sod pining for his estranged lady friend, and when Jagger has him roaming about on a Manhattan night, you can feel this character teetering on the edge: 

“I’ve been walking Central Park
Singing after dark
People think I’m craaaazzzzzy
Stumbling on my feat
Shuffling through the street
Asking people, what’s the matter with you boy?”

Jagger’s vocals in Miss You can be described like a volcano:  Simmering, bubbling, and finally exploding with the admission that life means nothing without the object of this character’s affections. 

When the Whip Comes Down: A complete about face.  This is Mick Jagger sounding like a Punk on his way to the CBGSs.  The song is fast paced but tight.  How many bands would jump from disco to punk on the first two tracks of a late 70s album?  Better yet, how many could pull it off?  Here is where you can really start to sense that Mick Jagger is in the moment for the whole enchilada that would be ‘Some Girls’.

Imagination: As mentioned before, this is one of my all-time favorite covers.  Perhaps it’s that poor guy from Miss You now a few years further down the road, living his lost relationship in his imagination and conjuring up new ones.  Yow!  Jagger’s singing during the bridge is masterful:

Every night I hope and pray
“Dear lord, hear my plea
Don’t ever let another take her love from me
Or I will surely die”
Her love is ecstasy
When her arms enfold me
I hear the tender rhapsody
But in reality, she doesn’t even know….me

Some Girls:  The tongue-in-cheek controversial number.  The Stones always seemed to fit at least one into each and every album they release.  Mick Jagger dives right into it as usual, and in the process pisses off the self-righteous crowd (and probably many others with legitimate gripes).  I chuckle or cringe depending on my mood (knowing this is art), but still always get a kick out of Jagger’s delivery of the phase near the end of the song about giving the ladies “half of everything I own”.

Lies:  One of the two Hard Rockers on the album.  Mick Jagger again morphs.  This is the last song on side one, and already Jagger and the Stones had covered a range of sound that other bands would not even contemplate covering over the course of two back-to-back albums never mind a single release.

Far Away Eyes: Yet another seamless transition, this time into country music.  Many British singers would not dare and try to imitate a country singer.  Mick Jagger not only does it, he does it alarmingly well, while never losing focus that he is weaving his singing into the mix of a great band.

Respectable: The real value here is in the Jagger-penned lyrics, which seem to be anticipating the 80s and 90s when the Rolling Stones status shifted from a rebellious reputation to a mainstream, accepted one (though, not their fault this happened).  This is the only time on the entire album that the Stones repeat a genre (that being the Heavy Rocker, along with Lies).

Before They Make Me Run:  See Stepping Stone #6.  Jagger’s unusually sympathetic backing vocals lift Keith Richards’ up during a hairy time in the latter’s life. 

Beast of Burden: The requisite ballad on ‘Some Girls’, and sung very professionally by Mr. Jagger.  Not one of my favorites, but I still have fond memories of when it was released:  Listening to it on the juke box at Dean Junior College as a Junior in High School while playing pool with Mac against the college kids. 

Shattered:  That other sound that really doesn’t connect to any genre, and another one of Mick Jagger’s all-time best singing efforts.  I wrote about this one for Stepping Stone # 21. 

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As discussed in the introduction, Mick Jagger is a hard one to read.  He keeps his personality-cards close to the vest.   But the aspects of his persona that he does reveal I rather like.  For example, you will rarely hear a complaint from this man.  He’s not a whiner or someone that let’s things bother him.  Keith Richards hurled a heaping of abuse Mick’s way in ‘Life’.  Jagger’s response?  Go out and cut another series of songs with his longtime partner.  Heck, he’d already been through the wringer at least one time before:  Few partners would have put up with the shenanigans of Richards in the 70s.  You have to give credit to Mick Jagger for both his loyalty and fortitude.

Another solid part of Jagger’s personality that has been impossible for him to mask:  This dude is a hard worker.  So much so, that I believe he only holds disdain toward those who do not put in “a full day’s work”.   When Brian Jones began fading away in the late 60’s, Jagger brushed him aside.  When Bobby Keys blew off a band meeting in the mid-70s, Jagger fired him on the spot.  And when producer Jimmy Miller lost his touch in the mid-70s after several years of substance abuse, he was out the door as well.  You can also hear his distaste for the lazy/uninitiated in songs like Hang Fire and his solo effort Let’s Work.

I learned years ago with the Rolling Stones that in order to connect with them, you have to work your way somewhat around Mick Jagger, not just through him.  Some things just bounce off the man, so don’t force it.  In other words, if you spread yourself out a bit, you can get the hang of it with the Stones.  Connect with it all, not just the showman in the front.  Yet, there is no denying Jagger’s omnipresence on the stage, reflected in the cameras that follow him incessantly.  As Keith Richards once said, “My job was to turn on Mick so that Mick could turn on the world”. 

Hear, Hear.

-          Pete

Monday, October 22, 2012

(42nd in a series of) Stepping Stones: "The Best Use for a Milk Crate"

Song: No Expectations
Album: Beggars Banquet
Released: December, 1968

After six albums it could be stated that for all intents and purposes the Rolling Stones remained a singles band.  Other groups, led by the Beatles, had moved on over the previous 2 years, producing high-quality and conceptual music in album-centric context.  The Stones were taking all this in and giving it a go themselves over the intervening time, but they were still a roller-coaster experience:  Their highs could be tremendously high but their lows could be awfully low as well.  Consistency was not yet in the cards, and if things had remained this way, the Stones place in history would have been relegated to 2nd tier status along with numerous other bands.

The Fab Four had one major advantage over the Rolling Stones, however:  A quality producer.  George Martin was as good as it gets and has often been described as a 5th member of the Beatles seeing as his input in the studio was clearly a critical element in their success.  The playing field was finally leveled in 1968 when the Stones brought Jimmy Miller on board.  ‘Beggars Banquet’ was Miller’s first foray with the band and the effect was immediate:  This was solid album through and through, which by this time was extremely important for the Stones, because not only were other musicians moving on….

…..so were the fans.

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Throughout this writing process, I keep coming back to an important theme: The album-centric psyche of my generation (those of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s).  This album orientation is unique to us.  The generations prior and the generations since are conditioned much more toward the single or more specifically the hit.  Today’s generation in fact can’t help themselves:  In the digital-download world everything has been condensed to the hit.  It’s the extreme opposite of my experience.  Our generation had some work to do when an album was released.  We had to be able to define a musician’s quality of output not so much in terms of parts, as in wholes.

So what is album-oriented music, and in what ways did it effect my generation?   To help answer these questions, I went down cellar and pulled out three milk crates of old LPs.  I felt I needed to do a bit of reconnecting, not only to the music, but to all the other components.  I needed to look at old album covers, hold old records, read old lyrics, and review old liner notes.  Would this bring me back to Franklin, North Adams, Ottawa and Waltham?  Would this bring me back to the core of my generation’s musical sensibilities?

I was able to scan through everything, but I’ll hone in on a handful of the revisits here:

The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’:  The first thing that comes to mind related to this album is my late-bloomer persona.  How many kids of my generation reached the age of thirteen before they were introduced to album-oriented rock…by their non-rocker parents?  I see this as a good thing though.  It means I had a great upbringing listening to old-timey stuff.  That innocence of youth just stuck with me a bit longer than most.  As for the album, I recall loving the green apple label on the record.  I also recall sensing that this was an interesting group of guys.  Lennon appeared intellectual; Harrison mysterious.  I remember asking Dad about the brass instrument in Lennon’s hand.  He said it was the French horn, one of the most difficult instruments to learn how to play.  ‘Sgt. Pepper’ flowed from song to song:  I can’t imagine these songs in any other order.  My favorite way-back-when was She’s Leaving Home.  I found it fascinating that a band could think of such a topic to write about.  It also opened my eyes to the fact that not every kid had it as good as me. 

Pete Townshend ‘Empty Glass’:  Wow, talk about brutal honesty.  Pete Townshend was in the midst of self-destruction in 1980 and somehow was able to express it creatively.  How?  Because underlying anything Townshend does is spirituality and this was even the case in his darkest of days.  The title track is my favorite song on the album; a true tearjerker about feeling empty inside.  I Am An Animal is also huge, as is Jules and Jim.  There are only two musicians primarily enjoyed by me as members of famous bands who I also appreciate immensely as solo artists.  One of them is John Lennon, and the other is this man.  ‘Empty Glass’ alone should one day get Townshend into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.

The Kinks ‘Soap Opera’: This is such a fun concept album:  The story of a self-described “Starmaker”, who decides to switch roles with an ordinary person (“Norman”) to make music from that ‘dull’ perspective. The new Norman then proceeds to get the Rush Hour Blues, work Nine to Five, feel like a Face in the Crowd, and have to deal with his ordinary wife’s fascination for Ducks on the Wall (“My babies got the most deplorable taste, and her biggest mistake is hanging over the fireplace”).  In the middle of it all, he deals with this new mundane existence in a not-so-unique way in the song When Work is Over where “he likes to hit the bar, go down the boozer, and have another jar”, followed by cheating on his wife (Holiday Romance) and then reconciling with her (You Make It All Worthwhile).  All the songs have a sing-along quality, and Jeff B and I made sure on several occasions not to pass up on that opportunity.

Joe Jackson ‘Look Sharp’:  A very early purchase, ‘Look Sharp’ gave me the realization that a punk’s point of view is universal.  Joe Jackson was thin, short, wiry, and ready to take on anyone who stood in his way.  “What are you looking at” seemed to scream out at you from every song.  The attitude also came across in Jackson’s image on the back cover. One of my favorite all-time songs is One More Time, but the entire album flows like any good album should.  ‘Look Sharp’ introduced the world to Joe Jackson: The bass playing of Graham Maby alone was worth the price of admission. 

Lou Reed ‘New York’:  I felt pretty cool catching on to this LP at the time of its release in 1989.  I knew it was a game changer, and the album-centric tour that followed proved my instincts correct:  Lou Reed was taking it all very seriously too.  If you want a reality slap on how those folks on the other side of the tracks live, listen to this album.  There’s no relief… anywhere.  But it is an amazingly written and produced album.  Busload of Faith; Dirty Blvd (Gem Music Video # 54) and Last Great American Whale are just the tip of the iceberg. 

The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’: Such an iconic cover: The Beatles at the end of their own long and winding road, walking across a road.  And there were many crazy folks like me interpreting it all.  Why were the Beatles trying to depict Paul McCartney as dead?  After all there was Lennon in the front, dressed like a preacher man.  Following him, was Ringo Starr, dressed like a pallbearer perhaps?  Behind Ringo was Paul, “last cigarette” in hand, walking out of step, barefoot no less… all signs of a man in a casket.  And bringing up the rear, George Harrison, dressed like a gravedigger.  In reality it was just 4 cool guys in a very cool band dressed in whatever way they wanted that day, but it was fun to read into it all.  ‘Abbey Road’ was indeed the Beatles last album, and my personal favorite of the lot.  What a way to go out.

Neil Young ‘Time Fades Away’:  When I first purchased and listened to this Neil Young album, I had no idea of its uniqueness:  A live LP of completely original material.  How many original releases can make that claim?  The cover was pretty cool:  A nice photo of the crowd as viewed from the musician’s point-of-view; tossed rose in the foreground on the floor of the stage, a bearded fan giving the peace sign.  The band for this 1972 tour was the Stray Gators, which included Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and Tim Drummond.  Special guests for the recording included David Crosby and Graham Nash.  I love the title track, and have not had the chance to hear it in quite some time.  Why?  It turns out this is a rare album, never re-released on cd. 

The Who ‘Quadrophenia’:  Pete Townshend tried to load a whole bunch of concept into this tiny stretch of space and time, and I can feel it just looking at this album.  For one thing, he was working with the idea of a character, Jimmy, with 4 personalities, each personified by a member of the Who.  Roger Daltrey took offense to his character trait, that of the “Tough Guy”:  One of the many things Townshend had to deal with while bringing this album together.  Oh, but what an album!  Every member of the Who are at their best here.  If you want to hear some of the best bass lines ever put to track, listen to ‘Quadrophenia’.  Same goes for the drums, guitar, vocals and lyrics.  The story works very well with the music.  As for the cover, the Who images in the scooter’s 4 rear-view mirrors are classic.  And the last bit of liner notes about the story is always something I’ve found both comical and well meaning:  “No one in this story is meant to represent anyone either living or dead, particularly not the Mum and Dad.  Our Mums and Dads are all very nice and live in bungalows we bought for them in the Outer Hebrides.” 

Bob Dylan and the Band ‘The Basement Tapes’:  This is one of my all-time favorite album covers, showing Dylan and the Band, apparently in the basement of “Big Pink” in Woodstock New York with a bunch of circus performers.  The image in the way back, partially blinded out by the dull light?  I’m betting on Neil Young.  Anyhow, the album, which was released many years after the fact, was simply toying with the clandestine nature of these recordings, which originally were never supposed to be released.  Thank goodness they were, however.  This is a timeless, beautiful album.  Very little makes sense, and yet all makes sense.  The first 2 songs, Odds and Ends and Orange Juice Blues are my favorite.  Bessie Smith (GMVW # 87) is magical.  And when Richard Manuel sings Katie’s Been Gone, the pain in his voice is palpable. 

The Beatles ‘The Beatles’ (aka ‘The White Album’):  So plain the cover, but the simplicity spoke volumes to a young teenager, which was my age when I opened this album for Christmas.  I’m not sure what Santa was thinking of.  He could have given me a simple album like ‘Meet the Beatles’ or ‘Rubber Soul’.  Instead, he gave me a complex album of a band turning into individuals, and in the throes of a whole myriad of life-complicating problems, which they were not hesitant to communicate to the masses.  I’m not complaining at all about Santa’s choice for me, however.  I thoroughly enjoy thinking back to how this album grew on me. It’s an album that is all over the place in terms of song meaning, but somehow, inexplicably coherent. My favorite song on the album?  Believe it or not, its Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, with Martha My Dear a close second.

The Who ‘Who Are You’: I’ve already said plenty about this album (see GMVW # 74).  I’ll just add a few thoughts here about the cover.  It’s one of my favorite, bringing back memories to when I first received it as a birthday gift from Brother Joe.  If any band should be photographed being surrounded by high-voltage electrical equipment, it’s the Who.  And the “Not To Be Taken Away” wording on the back of the chair that Keith Moon is sitting in is a harbinger of what would prove to be just the opposite reality at the time of the album’s release (Moon’s death).

Bob Dylan ‘Blood on the Tracks’: With this album in my hand, I can almost feel the music oozing out of it.  As I look at the cover, I find it hard to believe how much was packed on it.  This is because there are so many avenues to go down: Tangled Up in Blue is only the beginning.  Try Sheltered From the Storm for good measure.  Or how about the period piece ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ .  But it’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ that conjures up the most poignant of images on this massive, massive album.  Dylan was raw and deeply personal for the first time (but not the last) in his career.  It all worked masterfully.

The Beatles ‘Revolver’: I do not have my original copy of this album, but I wish I did.  My current copy has the order of songs completely different than what I recall.  Was there a British version and American version which were eventually combined?  I’m not sure.  All I know is that I was once addicted to a track list that appears to no longer exist.  ‘Revolver’ was the very first album-oriented rock album.  It still remains one of the best.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono ‘Double Fantasy’:  Well, of course this album will always bring back the memory of Lennon’s murder.  I recall listening to Watching the Wheels for the first time just after I first heard the horrible news.  When I picked up the album not soon after, I listened to it incessantly for months.  I even put up with the every-other track Yoko songs.  This was the first album by a Rock Star admitting to the fact that he was entering middle age. 

The Who ‘Face Dances’:  Such a great, great cover: Sixteen artists painting the individuals in the Who: 4 paintings of each member.  And the paint tubes on the back listing the songs?  Very original.  You Better You Bet is likely the only tune I ever sang comfortably in front of a crowd (Karaoke style).  Daily Records and Don’t Let Go the Coat are brilliantly honest.  There’s something different about this album that I still cannot put my finger on in terms of cohesive meaning, though I know it’s there for the taking with enough effort.  I’ll enjoy future listens until the time I finally nail it all down. 

The Rolling Stones ‘Beggar’s Banquet’:  The Rolling Stones appear to have had a lot of confidence during the making of this album. This is somewhat hard to believe as the Stones had some serious internal strife going in 1968:  Brian Jones was not working well as a band mate anymore and was on the cusp of getting tossed.  The assurance must have come from knowing that they now had that final piece of the puzzle, that being a great producer in Jimmy Miller.  Confidence came across in many ways, including medieval photography of the band as well as in the brash decision to put a graffiti-laced bathroom stall on the cover.  But it was the music inside that really exuded confidence:  A back-to-roots blues sound that found the band in great form.  This is the Stones coming of age.  They were part of the album-oriented rock aristocracy now.  They would never look back.

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So back to those questions:  What is album-oriented music, and in what ways did it effect my generation?  Well, in terms of the first question, this remains somewhat hard to define.  Album orientation does not necessarily have to mean a heavy concept or consistency in musical style (for example a great album can have both great blues sounding songs and great folk sounding songs).  Then what does it mean?  I believe the answer comes from the fan side of the coin.  A great album is what we make out of it.  How we are willing to discuss it.  What it means to us.  If an individual song means something to us that’s one thing.  If an album means something to us, that’s quite something else.  It’s a lot of hard work for the artist paying off in a big way.  It’s more range of meaning; an exponential number of avenues to explore compared to the single.  

As for the second question, I’ll continue to write about this one, but at this stage I can say this:  I think it made many of us deeper thinkers.  It also may have helped foster the notion that the world is not painted in black and white.  There are many shades of grey.  My generation has that figured out for the most part. 

This week’s Stepping Stone is No Expectations ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhk-ojOaopQ ).  It’s a great tune on a great album.  For the Rolling Stones, it was the first time those two ‘greats’ could be mentioned together into one overarching statement. 

It would not be the last.

-          Pete

Saturday, October 13, 2012

(41st in a series of) Stepping Stones: "The Ties that Bind"

Song: Oh No, Not You Again
Album: A Bigger Bang
Released: September, 2005

My first expanded listen to ‘A Bigger Bang’ for this series resulted in Stepping Stone # 18 back in May (Laugh, I Nearly Died).  That entry followed on the heels of a week of enlightenment listening heavily to ‘Exile on Main St’ on a drive to a USGS meeting in Pennsylvania.  Seeing as ‘A Bigger Bang’, the Stones most recent major effort of original material, is the only other double studio album in their repertoire, I noted near the end of the entry the unfairness of not being able to give it the full attention it deserved while promising to return to it again when the time was right.  This week’s long drive to yet another meeting in Pennsylvania gave me that opportunity, and I added a few extra days beyond my typical deadline of Thursday nights for good effect.

The revisit was just what the doctor ordered, confirming my longstanding belief that this is a solid album through and through.  Similar to ‘Exile on Main St’, there are no big hits to speak of.  Yet, also like ‘Exile’, there are no weak links.   I’ll stop the comparisons there, but I will grant this to ‘A Bigger Bang’:  If it had been released back in the mid-70s, the album’s title would have been a bit more apropos.  There’s no attempt to connect with trends.  No, this is all about digging deeper. I’m willing to bet the Stones must have realized what they were up against though when they tackled this project:  Long-time listeners of the band were well into middle age, and in general it could be stated that a bit of apathy had set in for a fair percentage of us in relation to their new music.  Because of this, ‘A Bigger Bang’ likely has the largest gap of any Stones album between our insights of it and what it truly delivers.  Being underrated is one thing; combine it with many years of water under the bridge, and you get a disc that has clearly slipped under the radar.

I love how ‘A Bigger Bang’ starts out:  The first notes of Rough Justice (which came a close second to this week’s Stepping Stone) give the impression of a band wandering in from the cold.  Indeed, it had been 8 long years since the release of their prior studio album, ‘Bridges to Babylon’.  But in no time the Stones lock in, not only for Rough Justice, but for every song thereafter.  In other words, what follows is a series of very good to great tunes.  Several of the best include Rain Fall Down, She Saw Me Coming, Look What the Cat Dragged In, and Laugh, I Nearly Died. Each song is unique, powerful, and a bit eccentric …just like the good old days!

Tucked in the middle of the album is Oh No, Not You Again ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oglwLFx624 ):  A great, hard rocking tongue-in-cheek song.  The title is in-itself hilarious and is something Charlie Watt’s jokingly referred to when reconnecting with his longtime band mates for a post album tour in 2006 (which I attended along with Mac, Amy and Paul at Fenway Park).  Watt’s remark was funny to me because, being in the public eye for so long, he and his band mates were symbolic to many of us as having been through so much together, both high and low, which in many ways is a uniquely gratifying position to be in.  How would I know this?  Well, I’ve lived it myself with some of the longest running friendships a person could have.

I had all this in the back of my mind last Monday while driving down to the Delaware Water Gap and listening to Oh No, Not You Again and the rest of ‘A Bigger Bang’.  There was one major reason for making a connection with the concept of long-standing friendships as this week’s topic:  I had spent the weekend before camping in Vermont with Phil, John, and Pete; 3 guys I’ve known since sandbox days.

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The entire Blob Squad was invited to go camping in Southern Vermont this past long weekend.  As fate would have it though, only the longest-standing connections of this crew made it (along with my family and close friends Madeline and Jeff and their family).  I’ve been friends with Phil, John and Pete for quite some time.  I’ll try to put this into perspective:

Ø  Lyndon Baines Johnson was President when I first connected with Pete (that’s 9 Presidents ago), and it was the early years of the Nixon Administration when the same happened with Phil and John.
Ø  The Rolling Stones had not yet released ‘Let It Bleed’
Ø  The Beatles were still a band
Ø  Bobby Orr had not yet taken flown through the air at the hands (and stick) of Noel Picard
Ø  Vietnam was in the news for all the wrong reasons
Ø  There was no such thing as Punk Music, the Vancouver Canucks, the pocket calculator, Disco, Star Wars, the Muppets, or Saturday Night Live
Ø  There was not yet a proliferation of indoor shopping malls (the closest thing to them was the semi-enclosed Shoppers’ World in Framingham).
Ø  Burger King, Dunkin Donuts and 7-Eleven were closer to “Mom and Pop” than “Super Chain”
Ø  Franklin could still be considered a backwoods community

It’s funny the things you can reminisce on when you are 50 and connecting with guys you’ve been friends with since the age of 5.  First off, the inside jokes cover the gambit of life and can at times be extremely inside.  Inquisitive looks come from all directions, so if you are not in a position to explain something (often due to the bizarreness of the story behind it), you have to find a way to put a lid on it…at least until the crowds have thinned out a bit.  Secondly, it’s interesting what happens at our current age:  Any veneer of a front that may have existed in the past is practically gone.  There’s much more of an open book policy, which adds new angles to the reminiscing that may have not existed before.  As a result, black holes of misunderstandings have a chance to be filled in based on more clairvoyance. 

One of the most important aspects of longtime friendships that I connected with this past weekend, however, was coming to a better realization of the incredible value to how old friends keep you grounded.  It’s nothing like connections you make later in life, be they work, town, neighborhood, or even college related.  Your childhood friends really know your past:  Warts and all.   One story drawn out of me this week from the earliest days of 1st grade, was when Sister Marie Saint Michael had the class take their crayons out of their original packaging and toss the emptied package into the trash barrel that was being brought around from desk to desk.  I missed the part about taking the crayons out first, and though confused, through the entire package in the barrel.  When we were then directed to use our red crayon, I had nothing to work with, and began to get flustered.  The good Sister spotted me in my anguish and kind-naturedly had the class help me dig out my crayons from the barrel.  To this day, Phil notices that occasional lapse that can come with my decision-making process:  His smirks can take us both back 45 years. 

I believe most long-standing friendships, like ours, are roller coaster rides: They go up, they go down.  They expand and contract.  Let’s face it; the chance of having a buddy that shares all your personality traits and interests is rare.  And so over the years the bonds tighten and loosen.  Yes, it’s a variable history with these old friends I hang out with; rustling leaves, swaying branches, twisted trunk…but strong at the roots:  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Still there are occasions when “Oh No, Not You Again” seeps into your thoughts.  I kidded with Phil in one open wound moment this weekend (he questioning my sense of direction, which is about as under the belt and misguided as it gets for me), inquiring if he had heard anything about friendships having a shelf life.  I’m sure the Stones have tossed this thought around at one time or another.  Heck, they not only have a long-standing friendship; they also have a longstanding professional partnership.  Strains are bound to happen in such a relationship. 

The commonality of old ties: One of the many reasons I connect with the music of the Rolling Stones.

-          Pete

Friday, October 5, 2012

(40th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Getting Style Points for Substance"

Song: Honky Tonk Women
Album: Released as a single
Released: July, 1969

Though it ultimately comes down to the songs themselves that make or break an album, there can be no denying that musicians and fans put plenty of value on the ‘extras’.  I covered many of these fringe factors in a series of ‘top’ lists at the tail end of each “Gem Music Video of the Week” from #’s 92-96 (the GMVW’s are accessible in the 2008 and 2009 entries of this blog).  Included were lists for ‘best album covers’, ‘best album titles’, ‘best band names’, ‘best song names’, and ‘best lyric one-liners’.  The winning bands/musicians in each of these categories ended up encompassing the entire breadth of personality types in the Rock ‘n’ Roll world, which is due to the fact that even the most minimalist of songsmiths cannot deny one simple truism:  Fringe elements do, on occasion, capture all of our imaginations.  And rightfully so:  The more insightful the ‘extras’, the more you can glean from the music. 

This week I thought back on those ‘best’ lists and realized that none of them have much to do with the many live performance ‘extras’ that musicians include in their tours.  Some might describe these stage-related novelties as artistic enhancements which help to boost the musical experience.  Others might call them theatrics, antics, sideshows, or props.  Whatever the case, these stage-centric add-ons can be as subtle as Dylan’s white face paint during his ’74 Rolling Thunder Review Tour (the anti-minstrel?) or as overt as the giant arachnid stage constructed for David Bowie’s 1987 ‘Glass Spider’ tour. 

And so, below are the top-ten, live concert “extras” which I have witnessed over a lifetime, ending with a Rolling Stones ‘89 live performance of this week’s Stepping Stone as my number 1.  Ok, there’s no Spinal Tap “Stonehenge”, or Alice Cooper snake, or Flaming Lips “hamster ball”, or Elton John crocodile rock suit in my list, but there have been many a “wow” moments nonetheless.

# 10 > A Bloated Elvis Moment: As I’ve stated before in earlier entries, 1989 was a big concert year for me.  Heavy hitters, including the Who and the Stones were rolling through the Boston region, and I was gobbling it all up.  In the midst of all this, Mac and I attended a Joe Jackson concert at Great Woods, and got to see up close the amazing abilities of Jackson’s bass guitarist, Graham Maby, who performed the fast-paced I’m the Man to perfection near the end of the show (which included a mad rush of fans to the stage that appeared to rattle the band).  Joe Jackson himself, however, was primarily focused on the songs from his new album at the time, ‘Blaze of Glory’.  One of these was Nineteen Forever, which harped on rockers past their prime.  Knowing very well the big guns were touring that year (stating something to this effect), he took particular glee in the concept, dressing up as a bloated, drunken Elvis as he sang the song.  It was all rather impressive, but I do recall thinking he was a bit off the mark:  Had Jackson actually seen these shows that the Who and Stones were performing that year?  Was this an honest evaluation?  Joe Jackson is touring this year at the age of 58. I wonder if he’s playing Nineteen Forever?

# 9 > Raw Emotion:  I’m pushing things a bit here in terms of “extras”, but in an intimate live setting, there are certain emotions you can garner from a musician that are near impossible to interpret on a recording.  And few artists express themselves as well as Jonathan Richman.  This man wears his emotions on his sleeves, expressing himself primarily through vivid facial expressions. His face can wear a pleading look at times:  “Please try to understand what I am saying!” is what comes across.  Aside from his great writing ability, this is a big reason why Richman has such a cult following.  When he’s getting a point across in song s like Pablo Picasso, That Summer Feeling, Let Her Go into the Darkness, and Everyday Clothes, you can hear a pin drop. 

# 8 > The 3rd Best Garage Band in the World:  In 1986 my friend Bob Bouvier took me to a Neil Young and Crazy Horse show at Great Woods.  Of all the shows I have seen, this was the one I was the least prepared for.  I remember thinking, “ok, I’ll go for Bob”.  It did not take long to realize this event was something special (aren’t the best of the unexpected moments in our lives as good as it gets though?).  The stage was set up like the inside of an old garage.  The band played Powder Finger, Needle and the Damage Done, and Hurricane (as well as many other songs) with reckless abandon.  And when the “fire-hydrants” burst and the garage flooded up in low-lying fog, Neil Young emerged from the mist and blew us all away by “dancing across the water” with Cortez the Killer!

# 7 > The Bridge to Somewhere: For their Bridges to Babylon tour, the Rolling Stones would include a 3 or 4 song set on a mini stage which sat 30 yards in front of the main stage.  How to get out there? :  A retractable cantilever bridge that extended over the crowd.  The mini stage was a mood shifter.  When the Stones played on it, you got a feel for what it was like for them to play in a smoky Scottish hall or German hofbrauhaus in the mid 60s.  The band seemed to morph into younger versions of themselves out there.  And I was impressed that they did not simply play their old songs:  They mixed things up, playing a couple of latter day hits.  The concept worked wonders. 

# 6 > When Style Matches Substance:  I missed out on John Entwistle’s skeleton suit, but I have seen some fascinating complementary garb in my day.  David Bowie drew everyone’s attention on his ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour in ‘83.  Mick Jagger was something else in a fine blue Sgt Pepper looking outfit while singing Ruby Tuesday on the ’89 ‘Steel Wheels’ tour. Mike Mills added spice to the R.E.M shows of the early to mid-90s in his rhinestone cowboy “nudie suits” (Mills bass playing on What’s the Frequency Kenneth was for me a mind expanding experience).  There was also the whirling dervish effect of Natalie Merchant in full length gown singing What’s the Matter Here in front of (and behind) 10,000 Maniacs.  More recently there was the likes of Gandalf Murphy and his Outer Slambovian Circus of Dreams:  Gandalf would make Wavy-Gravy proud.  For my money, though, nothing beats Neil Young’s faded, un-tucked plaid shirts.

# 5 > The Ladies from Planet Claire: Nancy Wilson and Kate Pierson are something to behold.  These ladies captivated me with their bee-hive hairdos and new-wave stage presence.  As opposed to my first time seeing Neil Young with Crazy Horse, I had high expectations for the B52s.  They did not disappoint, as the musicianship was impeccable.  Wilson and Pierson proved to me that even a band that sings Rock Lobster could be taken for real.

# 4 > Happy New Year! :  The Band’s stage setup at the Paradise on New Year’s Eve ‘93-‘94 was as funky as it gets.  Rick Danko stood in a spot that literally looped out over the crowd.  Levon Helm’s kit was so close to the front of the stage, you had the sense that if he hit the bass drum too hard, it could topple into the lot of us.  Garth Hudson and his massive organ were easily accessible stage left.  And what better ‘extra’ than The Band joining us all for a champagne toast at midnight?  Nancy (pregnant with Charlotte) and I were in our glory. 

# 3 > The Band That Never Needed Props:  Well, I never did get to see Keith Moon’s drumming or any of his other antics (such as descending to his drum kit from high above the stage via a pulley system on the Who’s ’75 tour).  But I’ve seen Pete Townshend as “Bird Man”.  And I’ve seen Roger Daltrey spinning his microphone as if he were dicing a salad.  And I’ve seen John Entwistle’s nimble thunder fingers at work.  This is a band that stands up as its very own real-life prop:  A four-ring circus in the early days, and more manageable three rings by the time I got to see them.

# 2 > The Wall in front of The Wall: The stage set that ranged from the Fisk pole to the Pesky pole at Fenway Park was astoundingly intimate for such a large event.  Roger Waters take on “The Wall” is verrrrrry serious, and I have absolutely no reason to disagree:  Europe went to hell and back in the 20th century, and he captures it all here.  In terms of stage dynamics, Waters pulled out all the stops on this tour: The crashing plane to start the story; the characters in front of and behind the wall; the amazing imagery, the machine-gun mow down of the crowd; and the pig blimp (representing excess).  In the end Mr. Waters marveled at the unique Fenway atmosphere that surrounded him.  We marveled back.

# 1 > Honky Tonked:  Yes, the number one entry is the ‘89 Rolling Stones live performance of Honky Tonk Women (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-hMQWqVVzw ).  Why # 1?  Well, we are talking 60 foot inflatables here:  I guess if you have been to the Macy’s Day Parade (which is not the case for me), it’s no big deal.  What really impressed me, however, was how the Stones set the mood many years earlier with the penning of this song in 1969.  In other words, it was all there for the taking; they simply had to seize the moment, which they did.  The entire atmosphere came together perfectly.  This is what separates a great ‘extra’ from a dud:  The idea that a prop can reinvigorate, or even recreate an atmosphere.   Which leads to yet another reason why this entry is winner:  Those blow-ups were true props, giving this entry a few bonus points over some of the others.  Finally, the brass band moving to the beat rounded out this masterful vision.

In the studio version of Honky Tonk Women: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6M77oHD110 ), Mick Taylor introduces himself as a Rolling Stone at the 48 second mark and does so again, a bit more assertively at the 1:35 mark.  This is followed by a very nice bridge jam with Keith Richards.   Yes, it was a solid song listening to it on ‘Hot Rocks’ years earlier, but it evolved into a Stepping Stone in 1989.

-          Pete