Friday, August 16, 2019

Fifty Years Ago: Three Days of Peace, Music, And Mud At The Little Aquarian Exposition On Max Yasgur's Farm

I wasn't at Woodstock but here are my thoughts on the historic festival.

I was only sixteen that summer. I didn't have a car or my driver's license yet, and I had no other means of getting to Max Yasgur's farm in rural Bethel, NY. Nor did I know anyone from my hometown or high school who ventured there for the infamous three day event. Even if I had been able to catch a ride with someone neither one of my usually easy-going parents would have allowed me to go. I don't blame them.

It's fine that I wasn't there. I would have been miserable. I've never been a fan of standing in the rain or wallowing in mud, not bathing, going without adequate bathroom facilities, a lack of food, smoking mind altering plants or ingesting harmful chemicals. I was too straight for Woodstock but I was deeply fascinated by the whole 60s counterculture movement as a sideline spectator. A lot of it had to do with the music.

I've always preferred more intimate settings for live performance. When I go see bands play it doesn't have to be at a small club, but to this day I don't enjoy large, overcrowded, baseball stadium concerts where you can't see the performer except on a large video screen with the volume turned up so loud that all of the instruments bleed together into one huge blur of sound.

Many of the top bands of the day took the stage at the mid-August, 1969 event including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many more. Much of the music was terrific.

My favorite probably would have been Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, whose beautiful harmonies and songs continue to thrill me in the 21st century. The sounds CSN&Y made were quite sophisticated for pop music. Just listen to "Suite: Judy Blues" and you'll understand. The quartet isn't quite as good here as they were at later shows but remember, Woodstock was only their second gig together.

Below is a lesser known version of the song "Woodstock" and CSN&Y's complete performance.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Elvis Presley - If I Can Dream (1968)

Despite its melodrama Elvis Presley's 1968 hit single, "If I Can Dream," is one of his finer performances and has always been a particular favorite of mine.

It was written especially for The King by Walter Earl Brown two months after the Martin Luther King assassination and the connection between the song and MLK should be obvious. The song's world debut was as the finale to Presley's '68 Comeback Special, a show that completely revitalized his career.

The vocal and arrangement utilized one of my favorite musical devices. It starts out soft and low, gradually builds in intensity, then pushes the pedal to the metal, ending with a full blown orchestra and chorus. When he heard it, Presley said, "I'm never going to sing another song I don't believe in. I'm never going to make another picture I don't believe in."

His obsessively controlling manager, Col. Tom Parker, did not want Presley to do the song but he wanted to record it, in part because he was sick of Parker (who wasn't really a colonel) telling him what to do. Presley had become embarrassed by the crappy movies he was making and the songs that went with them and he wanted to do something more substantial with his career.

"If I Can Dream" introduced us to the "new" Elvis, the one who recorded mature pop music that was in tune with the rapidly changing late 60s. It began the era that included "Suspicious Minds," "In The Ghetto," "Kentucky Rain," and more.

The record was on the Billboard Hot 100 for thirteen weeks, peaked at #12, and earned a gold record.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Buried Treasure: Black 47 - Trouble In The Land (2000)

This is an updated review that originally appeared here in May 2005.

Black 47, named after the blackest year of the Irish potato famine of 1847, began recording in 1992, but I never had the opportunity to hear them until 2000, and then only because I sampled Trouble In The Land at a listening booth at Borders Books & Music. After that I immediately became a huge fan and even had the opportunity to interview bandleader Larry Kirwan.

Black 47 was a cult favorite with a sizeable national audience but you'll almost never hear them on the radio. After searching the web I discovered they had quite a following, especially in their native New York City.

The only time I've ever heard them on the radio is when Kirwan plays them on Celtic Crush, his own SiriusXM radio show. The program appears on their eclectic rock station, The Loft.

Times change. Borders is gone, Black 47 is too. They broke up after twenty-five years in 2014, and The Loft is on no longer on the satellites even though you can still listen to the station online.

The sextet combined the usual rock line-up of electric guitar, bass, and drums with saxophones, trombones, and a whole host of Irish folk instruments, including those great uilleann pipes. Singer Kirwan surrounded himself with top-notch musicians who played their hearts out. You are never bored by the band's unique musicianship and arrangements and Kirwan's imaginative lyrics.

The band played a loud mix of reggae, Celtic folk music, and punk rock punctuated by Irish revolutionary politics. If you can visualize Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Chieftains, and The Clash all playing on stage together in the same band, you get the idea.

Since Kirwan is also a novelist and a playwright, you should expect something different lyrically. He composes songs that teach us about the Irish political experience on "Touched By Fire," a song about the band's own stage performances on "Those Saints," and a song about the martyrdom of an Irish-American he obviously idolizes on "Bobby Kennedy." There is an anti-hate group message in the title track, and a story about a girl the narrator was attracted to while making Irish folk instruments in "Bodhrans on the Brain." There are references to James Joyce, Irish political leaders Bobby Sands and James Connolly, and John Lennon and the Beatles.

One can not totally describe the sound of Trouble In The Land or the personality of this band. You must listen to fully understand them. Kirwan's left-wing view of everything should not offend those of a more conservative nature. Possibly, that's because they had a member of the NYPD as a band member. Chris Byrne, who founded the group with Kirwan, was their piper at the time this disc was recorded.

Kirwan is not trying to be a revolutionary. All he wants is justice as he sees it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dictaphones, Eight Tracks, Secretaries & An Evil Empire: Famous Songs With Dated Lyrics

Technology and history have made more than a few songs obsolete but they may still resonate with their original listeners because the sentiments expressed in them are still valid today. Here are six examples of such fare.

R.B. Greaves - Take A Letter Maria (1969)
Ronald Bertram Aloysius Greaves III was not a one hit wonder but he may as well have been because nobody remembers anything else he released except for this little gem that went all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The singer discovered his wife cheated on him so he dictates a letter to his secretary (remember them?) to tell her the couple is through. Notice the dictaphone in the video. Oddly, Greaves makes a play for Maria before the song is through so maybe he wasn't really that upset after all. Dating in the workplace? Not always a good idea, R. B., especially in 2019.

Jackson Browne - The Load Out (1977)
Part of the closing medley on Jackson Browne's Running On Empty, this song, along with "Stay," describes the ups and mostly downs of a rocker living a boring life on the road. Both the song and the album it came from were often criticized as being about a millionaire feeling sorry for himself but it's always been one of my favorites from the great California singer-songwriter. Life on the road is probably still much the same for touring musicians so that isn't what dates the song. One of the track's later verses offers us these lyrics, "Now we got country and western on the bus, R 'n B, we got disco and eight tracks and cassettes in stereo, We got rural scenes and magazines, We got truckers on the C.B. And we got Richard Pryor on the video." In just a few short lines Browne manages to list six things that may have some people scratching their heads. I never listened to disco, eight tracks (UGH!) or used a C. B. but I remember reading a magazine while enjoying cassettes and laughing at Richard Pryor. By the way, nobody calls the genre "country & western" anymore.

The Happenings - See You In September (1966)
What did you do in 1966 if your girl went away for the summer? Tell her, "I'll be alone each and every night, While you're away, don't forget to write" while worrying that she might find somebody else. Those feelings were expressed perfectly in this #3 hit by a North Jersey vocal group, The Happenings. Today, you still might lose the girl but you certainly don't have to worry about her writing to you because she can text you every thirty seconds while she is doing who knows what with another guy. This song is a remake of an original recording by The Tempos in 1959.

Jim Croce - Operator (1972)
Here is another breakup song that may make you feel sad despite the fact the whole scenario is dated. It centers around an unmade phone call. It was inspired by the late Jim Croce's military service. While there, he saw soldiers calling from pay phones on the base to see if the breakup letters they received from their girlfriends were true. The lyrics have Croce speaking with a telephone operator, trying to find the phone number of a former lover who moved to Los Angeles with his ex-best friend. After he receives the number his emotions won't allow him to make the call and he tells the operator to keep the dime he used to make it. Today: no phone booths, no coins needed, no operators, and no song.

Arlo Guthrie - Alice's Restaurant (1967)
Sometimes called "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," this talking folk tune featuring only Arlo Guthrie's voice and his solo acoustic guitar is over eighteen minutes long and takes up a whole side of his debut album. The restaurant, which actually has nothing to with the subject matter, is long gone but its existence is still marked by a sign where it was replaced by the Stockbridge Cafe. At least that is what it was called back in 2013 when I had my picture taken there. The story is mostly true. Guthrie was rejected for the draft, fortunately also gone since 1973, after being arrested for littering. Amazingly, his criminal record made him ineligible for military service. The track was eventually made into a movie in which the star plays himself. It's a serious subject that was handled hysterically by an expert storyteller.

The Beatles - Back In The USSR (1968)
Paul McCartney's clever lyrics that both spoof and salute The Beach Boys don't stop this song from being out of date. The Soviet Union has been gone a long time now and it's quite possible young people, many of whom seem to have no grasp of history, have no idea what Sir Paul is singing about. BOAC stands for British Overseas Airway Corporation, a forerunner to today's British Airways. This is one of my favorite songs by the world's greatest band.

Friday, July 26, 2019

John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Plastic Ono Band is John Lennon's first legitimate solo album and one of only two Lennon solo sets that can be given a five star rating. The other is its follow up, the more famous and celebrated Imagine.

Despite being co-produced by Phil Spector, the album is the most stripped down set of music the ex-Beatle ever released and its songs cover everything from Lennon's views on religion, his Mother, his psychological well being, the working man, and more. It's full of thoughts he undoubtedly possessed while he was still with The Beatles but, until he was free from what he believed were the shackles that bound him to the World's most famous band, he didn't express them freely.

Supposedly, The Beatles (aka: The White Album) was the stripped down, anti-Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band but that double set sounds over the top when compared to the starkness of this record. None of these tracks, with the possible exception of the straight ahead, romantic love song, "Love," could have appeared on a Fab Four album. The disc was inspired by the primal scream therapy sessions Lennon had with Dr. Arthur Janov.

"Working Class Hero" shockingly used a hefty four letter obscenity that was rarely used on recordings during this era to describe how common workers are eaten alive from childhood on. He also sings, "When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years, Then they expect you to pick a career, When you can't really function you're so full of fear." It's just Lennon and his voice on a solo acoustic guitar.

On the simply titled "God," the composer offers his view of religion, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." Then he lists fifteen things he doesn't believe in, including The Beatles, and ends the song's mid-section with "I just believe in me. Yoko and me, that's reality." He also tells us that "The dream is over."

Lennon's Mother, Julia, affected him greatly and there are two songs, "Mother," and "My Mummy's Dead" that proves he never got over losing her twice: once by her abandonment of him and then by her early death.

We all know that The Beatles founder was unhappy for a long time but we never knew how much he hid behind the facade of stardom until The Beatles ended. Here, he gave us a far better understanding of himself as a man.

As great as this album is, I'm glad Lennon found contentment and that he showed us some happiness and a little humor on his later records even if they don't reach the artistic heights of Plastic Ono Band.