26 January 2011

Read ’em and Weep

Pilgrim’s Progress
The Return of Robbie Robertson, 1987
“Robbie Robertson found himself soon after he dropped Jaime from his name. As a guitar player, he ranks high among the world’s top dozen. As a songwriter, he’s more of a storyteller than a poet. He narrates the changing times, the soul of history. But it’s more as a producer that Robertson’s full range of curious talent will ultimately be expressed. Whether in music or in films, or a combination of both, you can bet that Robbie will someday produce a masterpiece all his own.”
(Emmett Grogan, “The Band’s Perfect Goodbye,” Oui, May 1977.)
In the early days of the Band, Robbie Robertson wrote a song called ‘Get Up Jake’. It told the story of a man so lazy that the whole town would show up to watch him get out of bed. In 1970 came Stage Fright with ‘Sleeping’, a song Robertson wrote with Richard Manuel: “To be called before noon / is to be called too soon … I spend my whole life sleeping.

Since the Band called it quits with the Last Waltz concert on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, Robbie Robertson has been hibernating.

In the past decade, only the occasional soundtrack compilation and a cult film Carny have shown that one of the finest songwriters in rock music was still active.
Robertson promoBut late last year, Robertson repaid those who kept faith in him with the appearance of his first solo album. Robbie Robertson is a powerful album that updates his music with the Band. The album’s heartland adventures and fables on the American condition with a sound as contemporary as a silicon chip. It could be the work that Emmett Grogan predicted a decade ago.
However speaking from Los Angeles last month, Robertson says his first solo album wasn’t like an albatross hanging over him all the time: “It wasn’t like the album, the album … the songs just weren’t there. But slowly they started to emerge and I thought, hey – there’s an album here.”

He grudgingly admits that this album is a return. “But I never thought of it like that. I just had the opportunity to not have to make a record, to get out of the album/tour syndrome. A lot of people from my generation continued making records, and a lot of them sounded very medium to me. And I thought, if you just don’t have an opportunity to recharge your battery or re-shuffle the deck, it’s harder to just keep pounding the them out.”

Record making, he says, had stopped being “a creative process” for him – and that’s understandable. After years scuffling round the bar band circuit as the Hawks, then going through trial-by-fire supporting Dylan as he went electric, the Band began recording in 1968. The quickly produced two certified masterpieces – Music From Big Pink and particularly The Band (though I’d argue that the smoother Stage Fright warrants consideration). These albums said, really, all they wanted to say.
But from 1970 on, the Band trod water, sustained by the efforts of Robertson, who by then had become the group’s sole songwriter. “I don’t know why the others weren’t writing,” he says. “I would try and harp on at them, but didn’t get anywhere.”

Their 70s work had its moments though: Rock of Ages caught them blazing at their performing peak, aided by New Orleans horns. Moondog Matinee, a personal jukebox of tunes they’d cut their teeth on as teenage rock’n’rollers, has more verve and depth than most such projects, and Robertson always managed the odd song (‘It Makes No Difference’, ‘Ophelia’, ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’) that approached the halcyon days of ‘The Weight,’ ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘King Harvest’ and ‘The Rumor’.

The songs were vignettes of American history, frontier legends filled with characters, with music full of character: the swagger of rock’n’roll, rollicking R&B, the earthy funk of Southern soul, the stories and heartache of country … all mixed together with a bubbling spontaneity, each member whooping out interjections with exuberance. This was group music, played exquisitely by musicians who, as Ed Ward has written, had earned the right to be known simply as the Band.

Band Big Pink portraitThe Band, at the time of Music from Big Pink, upstate New York, 1968. From left: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson.

Since Dylan’s motorbike accident in mid-1966, the group had been holed up like the James Gang in the wooded hills of upstate New York, writing songs and playing together in sessions that would eventually appear as The Basement Tapes. When Big Pink came out, word quickly spread about the Band by a buzz of musicians and critics rather than a publicist’s blitz (though in 1970 they somehow made the cover of Time).

Among the converts were George Harrison and Eric Clapton who, sick of psychedelic indulgence, wrote the mellow ‘Badge’ together. Harrison visited the Band in late 1968 and came home raving about them to his fellow Beatles, who were going through their own rootsy ‘Get Back’ phase.
“Ringo would go down a bomb,” Harrison can be heard exhorting the others on Let it Be outtakes. “Their favourite track on the [White] album was his, because that’s their scene, living up in the woods, just singing their songs. The reason all those people are singing different lines is they all want to be the singer. They’re all singing together, but it gets like discipline, where nobody is crowding anybody else out. You dig, baby?”

Replies Paul: “Looks like rain, doesn’t it?”

But that’s history, and one thing Robertson didn’t want to make was a Band LP. “I couldn’t without the Band,” he says. “So I just did what comes natural to me now. I didn’t try to make a modern record – there are no Fairlights or Synclaviers on it, mainly guitars - this is just the way I’m making music now, the way I’m hearing it now. I hope it’s like some of the other work I’ve done, I hope it’s as timeless, that it doesn’t matter when it came out.”

Robbie Robertson is a record that has been crafted for the CD age. Robertson enlisted Daniel Lanois to co-produce, and not only is the influence of the man behind Peter Gabriel and U2’s recent albums crucial, but those two artists make distinctive contributions to several songs.

Apart from the Gabriel/U2 flavour to some tracks, and cameos by ex-Band colleagues Rick Danko and Garth Hudson on a couple, the musicians on the album are chosen for their unique styles rather than their high profiles. “I didn’t want to get in the usual bunch of sessioneers that would make everybody say ho-hum,” says Robertson. “I like musicians who bring something new and of themselves to the project, who help you get the sounds you want.”

Among them was fellow Canadian Bill Dillon who, like Robertson, spent his apprenticeship playing for rockabilly roustabout Ronnie Hawkins. Manu Katche is a French drummer whose subtle style complements bassist Tony Levin; both have played for Peter Gabriel. Contributing backing vocals are the BoDeans, Ivan Neville from the first family of New Orleans funk, and Lone Justice’s Maria McKee.

The dominant voice however is Robertson’s though the melodies are itching for some of the Band’s carefree vocal banter. Although he wrote the bulk of the Band’s songs, Robertson had only sung lead twice during their heyday. Everybody had their own job to do in that group, he explains. “If I had been writing the songs, playing lead guitar and doing the singing, it wouldn’t have been a band anymore. Now that I don’t have those guys around all the time, I don’t have nay choice but to sing my songs.”

Robertson has always regarded himself as a storyteller, avoiding writing songs from a personal point of view. “I never felt I’d experienced enough,” he says. “I thought I was too young to be writing about myself.”

On Robbie Robertson the evocative mythology of his earlier writing remains, but with a difference: for the first time Robertson reveals his Indian background. His mother was Iroquois, his father a Jewish professional gambler. The summers of his childhood Robertson spent on the Six Nations Indian reservation above Lake Erie, where from relatives playing mandolins, fiddles and guitars he heard his first music.

“It didn’t seem appropriate to write about my Indian background with the band,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could take a song to them and say, ‘Hey guys, this is the theme that’s running through the album – it’s about an Indian …’

“Now I’m making my own records I can say what I like.”

With the confused draftee in ‘Hell’s Half Acre’, the symbolism of ‘Broken Arrow’ and the spiritual outlook towards the nuclear threat in ‘Showdown at Big Sky’, Robbie Robertson paints panoramic images of the Indian in the 20th century. What’s happened to the Indian is a tragedy for us all, he says.

“There was something in that lifestyle, the simplicity and beauty of it – so right in tune with nature – that was priceless. On ‘Big Sky’ I was thinking about the simplicity of that Indian life- true to the earth, to the sky and to the elements – and here we are playing with it, rolling the dice every day.”
TheBandbrownThe maternal link between humanity and the land has been a constant theme in Robertson’s writing, however, and that’s why his songs have always seemed as apt to New Zealand’s rural culture as the folklore of novelists Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Barry Crump or John Mulgan. Take The Band’s ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’, a powerful Grapes of Wrath saga about dustbowl farming and union corruption. ‘Dixie Down,’ while a three-minute history of the Civil War, has a line that seems to reflect the Indian attitude to the land: “I spent my life chopping wood … You take what you need and you leave the rest / But they should never have taken the very best.”

A personal digression to stretch the point. After growing up to The Band, one summer while revelling in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train – which features a masterly critique of their work – I took a job at an abattoir. In my locker I found Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the gripping study of Indian oppression. An elderly Maori slaughterman asked me what I was reading. A history of the American Indian, I said, how the land was like a mother to them, that they never exploited but always respected, they just took what they needed to stay alive. Then the settlers and soldiers came in, decimated the tribes and devastated the land.

“Just like us,” he replied.

How did Robertson react to Greil Marcus’s interpretation of his music – did he think it was accurate?
“When I read it, I thought it was brilliantly written and very entertaining. Often I’d think, ‘Yes, that’s it – he’s got to the heart of it.’ But sometimes I didn’t know what he was talking about. You read what some people put onto your music and it bears very little relation to what you wrote.”

The element of mystery has always been important to Robertson. Years ago he said, “I learnt the words to Little Richard’s songs the best I could. What I couldn’t figure out, didn’t matter.”

Now, he talks about the Shadowland. “It’s just a name I have for the place where the stories come from,” he explains. “I got this idea that I could see this place, and I was playing the part of the storyteller … and as this picture because clearer, the music started to come to me. Then I got real serious about writing the songs.”

‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’ is a Chandler-esque fable about coming-of-age inspired by Robertson’s first visit to the Mississippi Delta as a 16-year-old. ‘Broken Arrow’, the album’s most effecting moment, is an earthy love song that relates to his Indian upbringing. ‘Fallen Angel’, the celestial opening track with Gabriel’s ethereal vocal, started out as a song about good and evil.
But as the prayer-like quality of ‘Fallen Angel’ evolved, so too it emerged to Robertson that he was writing about Richard Manuel, the Band’s tortured pianist with the huge heart and heavenly voice (‘I Shall Be Released,’ ‘Whispering Pines’) who hanged himself in 1986.

“I had this mood going in it, this heartbeat and crying vocal sound, and it was a little reminiscent of things Richard would do,” Robertson says. “It became more and more personal, and very apparent that I was writing the song for Richard. It made me feel good that I could do this, but it was hard – sometimes I’d be fine working on it, sometimes it tore me apart.”

Another constant thread through Robertson’s work has been his Biblical references: the frontier evangelism of ‘Caledonia Mission’ and ‘To Kingdom Come,’ the Faustian walking-with-the-Devil of ‘The Weight’ and soul-selling fo ‘Daniel and the Sacred Harp’. The religious imagery continues on Robbie Robertson:

“The Bible is such a wonderful book, full of great stories,” he says. “It’s very well written – a great resource. I’ve always been a sucker for that stuff, and always will.”

What of the 80s’ puritans, taking the name of the Bible in vain? “I never think about them. They’re clowns.”

During his decade-long hibernation, Robertson dabbled with the film world. The success of The Last Waltz – Martin Scorsese’s film of the farewell show that is the concert movie by which all others are judged – led to several other projects. In Carny Robertson indulged his love of the travelling carnival world, producing, writing, scoring and acting. As a child, he worked in a carnival, and indeed his language is still dotted with the hustler’s colourful jargon.

But that was his only acting role; soundtracks for Scorsese’s Raging Bull, King of Comedy and The Colour of Money followed. Even before The Last Waltz Scorsese knew the Band’s work intimately; afterwards, he and Robertson became firm friends. (They are pictured here at the time of King of Comedy.)

“I thought it was fantastic the way [Scorsese] used music in his movies. It runs right through his work, the film Elvis on Tour he did, Woodstock he edited, then Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. That’s why I asked him to do The Last Waltz – I felt this guy really knows, he understands what music is all about.”

Robertson expresses some ambivalence to music videos, disliking the artificiality of directors such as George Miller (Mad Max, The Witches of Eastwick) in favour of a more realistic approach. (His favourite music film is the classic The Girl Can’t Help It; his favourite score, Alex North’s for A Streetcar Named Desire.)

But Scorsese, who filmed Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ video, has just completed a “brilliant” clip for ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’, says Robertson. It stars Maria McKee. “As long as videos are done properly, great,” he says. “But so often they’re done cheaply, or indulgently – as if someone’s just got a camera, and they want to use every trick they can. Then you get away from the music.”
Having got the urge to make another album in 1983, Robertson worked on it at his usual snail’s pace. Once started, production stretched to 18 months – and costs to a million dollars. The music industry was starting to make Heaven’s Gate allusions. Consequently, the promotion machinery is in full gear and Robertson’s profile is high. He has played live on The David Letterman Show and Saturday Night Life, and now a tour is planned with musicians who played on the album.

Now that the urge to write has returned – how long until the next album?

“I’m on a roll now,” he says. “Once I get the tour out of the way, I’ll start thinking about it. It won’t be long.” As he sings on ‘Testimony’: “Bear witness, I’m wailing like the wind. Come, bear witness, the half-breed rides again.

© Chris Bourke - first published in Rip It Up (New Zealand), April 1988.

2011: I have been a little hesitant to post this as 23 years on I feel a little suckered in by the son of a professional gambler. A big Band fan since childhood, I have never been so excited before a phone interview as this one. At the time, the album was state of the art and seemed to have some heart. Robertson’s portentousness was forgiven by those of us so pleased to see him back with something new. Much of the press, Greil Marcus observed, was fawning, and perhaps this is an example. (He then went on to say Robertson’s follow-up, Storyville, was better: something I’ve never agreed with, outside the great ‘Soap Box Preacher’). This interview was less than two years after the tragic suicide of Richard Manuel; the revelations of how Robertson (and Albert Grossman) allegedly manoeuvred the song publishing of the Band, shutting the others out, were still to come. The evidence of self-importance is certainly there in The Last Waltz, though it continues to deliver. But when people accuse a bandleader of poaching the songwriting credits, I always think: where are the songs you’ve written since? None of the others came up with much new material in the 33 years after Islands, the group’s patchy, contract-fulfilling last album. 

After his 1987 return, Robertson became comparatively prolific, with two albums around Native American themes. They weren’t especially successful as music or merchandise, and his collaborators may have been left feeling that they’d been carpetbagged by a “charming hustler”. That’s the way I referred to Robertson in a 1994 interview – and first-hand anecdotes support this view –but his shtick doesn’t take away from the enduring rewards of the Band’s classics. Also, he has Scorsese’s imprimatur. A few days ago word came of a new Robertson solo album due in April, and by the sound of this advance song, released on the net, it’s a return to basic songwriting (with paint by numbers lyrics). How to Become Clairvoyant may feature a tribe of celebrity cohorts (Clapton, Winwood, Trent Reznor), but lacks the cathedral-scale sonics that contradicted the Band’s ethos. To lighten things up, here’s a pic from the excellent roots/country rock/Americana website When You Awake:

Manuel Robertson 1974
Richard Manuel checks his fly, while Robbie Robertson checks his hair. A scene in the men’s room in Denver during the Bob Dylan tour of 1974, photographed by Barry Feinstein.

24 January 2011

Sumpin’ Real Funky

Finding an excellent recent podcast of a concert by Southern songwriter Dan Penn accompanied by the legendary keyboardist Bobby Emmons (at the 100-seat Bluebird Cafe, Nashville), reminded me of this interview I did with him in 1999. It was just prior to his show at the Auckland town hall concert chamber, with Spooner Oldham on a Wurlitzer electric piano. The show was intimate and spellbinding – and it was just the first half of a double bill with Jimmy Webb, plus Rick Bryant and Bill Lake as the support act. Sweet Inspiration, a compilation of songs by Penn and Oldham, covered by many soul, country and R&B greats, is about to be released on Ace.

Dan Penn tinkeringDAN PENN IS A songwriter, an R&B legend. Among the songs he has written, with collaborators such as Spooner Oldham, Chips Moman and Donnie Fritts, are ‘Dark End of the Street’, ‘Do Right Woman’, ‘Sweet Inspiration’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby’.

He is such a mercurial presence in Southern music that he was also present, Zelig-like, at the creation of ‘I Never Loved a Man’, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and  ‘Suspicious Minds’. As historian Peter Guralnick puts it, the Penn is the “secret hero” of Southern soul.

Born in 1941, Penn is a pivotal member of the Memphis-Muscle Shoals gang that gave Stax a run for its money, and wooed characters as diverse as Bob Dylan and Cher down to Alabama to capture some of the magic. He was there when Arthur Alexander recorded ‘You Better Move On’ in Muscle Shoals, and started it all off; he talent spotted Percy Sledge; he was present when Aretha changed history with a few piano chords; he produced ‘The Letter’ for Alex Chilton and the Box Tops; and when Elvis decided to record in Memphis once more, he grabbed a camera to get in the door.

Penn, who plays New Zealand this month [March 1999] in a double bill with another songwriting legend, Jimmy Webb, was a Southern boy hooked on the R&B that came out of John R’s show on WLAC Nashville. He was so immersed in it that he claims he wasn’t aware of segregation when he was growing up: there just weren’t many blacks in his county, let alone the small town of Vernon (population 2000), where he lived beside a junk yard. “It was never an issue for the lot of us. I’m sure that the other side might have thought different.

“And when I was in my teens and early twenties, I was in the studio through all of that, and working with black people. So I didn’t know what the problem was! There was a lot of injustice down there,but there was also the same thing going on in New York City and Chicago. Everybody centres in on the South as the bad guy but they were no worse than a lot of the northern places at treating black people.”

Dan Penn youngPenn’s speaking style is slow, reeeeal slow, with a melody in his voice and the endings clipped off the words. His first taste of what scrawling a few lyrics on chords on used “paper sacks” could do came at 16, when Conway Twitty covered his ‘Is a Bluebird Blue?’. (The song was also covered by New Zealand singer Toni Williams, very early in the 1960s.) Penn was playing in a band with Billy Sherrill when a song plugger came through and heard it. Next thing, it’s Top 20 in the pop charts and Penn’s still in high school.

“Conway was still pop then, rock’n’roll. I got him right before he went Nashville country. I made my first 700 bucks and bought me a car.”

Now Penn warms up. Legend has it he’s hard to get out from beneath a car to get songs written; both albums of his 45-year career (1973’s Nobody’s Fool and 1994’s Do Right Man) feature a shiny, curvy, classic Detroit beast.

“It was a ’54 Chevy, a four-door sedan with a ’56 V8 in it. It was a slick little devil, black. It looked like a school teacher, but in the back it had twin pipes. Of course I began to take all the chrome off of it and you could tell pretty soon it was a funky guy’s car.

It was in a ‘56 Caddy hearse that Penn’s singing career began. His band was called the Pallbearers and they played the drunken student frat-rock scene. “In Alabama all they wanted to hear was “Are you all right? Oh yeah! and ‘Bo Diddley’.”

Penn’s gritty voice reflected his idols: Ray Charles, James Brown and Bobby Bland. But when his songwriting took over, and with voices such as Arthur Alexander, Aretha, Otis Redding and Charlie Rich performing his songs, Penn’s own singing took a back seat.

“I got to singin’ on the demos, that was good enough for me. I got my licks in. I used them to sell the songs. I’m pretty sure that if it wasn’t for my singin’, I wouldn’t have got too many cuts.

“But you wasn’t going to get any white guys on black radio at that time. Even now, never. At that time it was kinda hard to get on the pop stations with sumpin’ real funky. We knew what the chances were of getting our blue-eyed soul on the radio. So that helped me stay in the studio and keep pitchin’.”

Penn says that his success with Conway Twitty was “a fluke”. It was when his friend Arthur Alexander had a hit with ‘You Better Move On’, recorded above a drugstore near Muscle Shoals, that Penn realised what could be achieved, despite their amateurism and their isolation. “My special memory of Arthur is that he got a hit. That was the beginning of believing for me. To actually see someone get a hit, someone I was hanging out with … I thought, mmm, I need to work harder.”

Shortly after, Alexander was having songs covered by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, though few royalties came back. “Arthur was an inspiration. I still have more respect for him than any other person I can think of in Alabama.”

But the person Penn regards as the “unsung hero” of Southern soul is Tom Stafford, who ran Fame Studios with Rick Hall: the tiny room above the drugstore in nearby Florence where musicians connected, took speed, and developed the Muscle Shoals sound. No one could have guessed that in a few years Jerry Wexler, the sophisticated New York producer for Atlantic Records, would bring Aretha Franklin down to Fame and change music history. Her career had been languishing at Columbia, but Penn knew her capabilities. He watched from the control room to see if some magic took place.

The song was ‘I Never Loved a Man’, nothing much from its demo. And it took a while for Aretha to click with the musicians. All white, they “walked and talked like sheriffs, and dressed like dollar-store managers off on a fishing trip”. That’s Robert Palmer ’s description; these Muscle Shoals cats grew up on country but lived and breathed R&B.

“I guess they’d been foolin’ round for about 20 minutes on that tune,” says Penn. “They played the demo, and everybody got the chords, and everybody was like, ‘But how we gonna start it?’ It was a little bit frustratin’. Ten, 20 minutes went by and it was coming to the place that everybody was looking at everybody.”

SpoonerJPEG“Then, all of a sudden, here comes Spoon.” It was Penn’s great friend and collaborator, Spooner Oldham (right), on his Wurlitzer electric piano. “Through the stares, Spooner goes Dah. Da daddle dah dum. And everybody says, yeah. They jump on their instruments and away they went. It was Spooner. So many times it was Spooner who just found that nucleus. From then on the session never looked back.”

Until, that is, time came to record a
B-side. ‘Do Right Woman’ was written by Penn and Oldham, and Penn had just had time to lay down his guide vocal over a backing track when a fight broke out between Hall and Aretha’s husband. Next day, they fled back up north, the song recording incomplete.

“I was pretty well shattered. There just wasn’t anything there. I’m just squeakin’ a little on her key,and trying to carry the song through, and nobody’s made a committed effort to actually play the song. Just a little bass lick, a little drum lick … a little squeak on the organ and maybe a little guitar chink. There wasn’t really anything there, least, not to my ears at the time. But of course when I got to New York, she’d finished it off. And it was amazing.”

Penn moved up to Memphis to work with his friend Chips Moman and his great American Studios band. This was where they recorded the Box Tops, Dusty and, in his last great burst, Elvis Presley. “Chips’s style was just gettin’ in so tight with the musicians mentally. He was close to being one of ’em through the glass. The only flaw to his cuttin’ style was he took too many takes. He just cut ’em till their knuckles bled.”

Elvis-AmericanStudioBandThe American Studios band, Memphis, takes a break from cutting hits, January 1969. From left: Bobby Wood, piano; Mike Leech, bass; Tommy Cogbill, bass; Gene Chrisman, drums; Elvis Presley, guest vocalist; Bobby Emmons, organ; Reggie Young, guitar; Ed Kollis, harmonica; and Dan Penn (“I just called over to take pitchers …”).

When Elvis entered the studio for what became the ‘In the Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds’ sessions, Penn had left American. “I just called over to take pitchers …”

You look even cooler than the man himself in one of them … “Ha ha ha. I had better glasses … I walked in, and they was playin’, and I thought it was great. But I was always hopin’ he’d return to ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. And further down the line, even funkier. Don’t get me wrong, I thought those records were great, but they were a little on the flowery side – and I still do. But I sure liked it better than ‘Blue Hawaii’.”

Penn just missed out on his Presley cut a few years later (“He was getting a little woozy then”) and to this day, the moment he cherishes most is James Carr’s version of ‘Dark End of the Street’. “Nobody has done it justice the way James did it. Aretha did it pretty good, and so did a lot of people. But James Carr was deeper than any of ’em. He had the voice. Put his on, and lean back, ’cause he’ll take you there. And that high-voiced girl singer in there? That’s yours truly. Ha ha ha.”

But who does Penn, the songwriter’s songwriter, regard as his mentors? “Oh, Lieber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. So many songs I don’t know the writers of but I know the songs. The great Motown writers. But now I have different mentors. Now I can definitely say that the Beatles were right up there with the best of ‘em, but at the time I rejected that, ‘cause it was so teeny weeny. As time’s gone along I’ve changed. I used to be, if it wasn’t black, I didn’t want to hear it. Now it doesn’t matter, I’m a lover of music.”

First published in Real Groove (New Zealand), March 1999.

22 January 2011

Mama Told Me Not to Come

Presence, power, and Buddy Guy.

20 January 2011

Separated at birth

The prototype (love the ending)
The masterpiece (perfection in every way)

17 January 2011

Live a little, Alice

alice cooperThe sentimental US columnist Bob Greene – now in the journalistic dogbox – once wrote a piece about having dinner with Alice Cooper in the late 80s. When Cooper was at his Billion Dollar Babies height c.1972, Greene went on the road with his band, and his article became a book. Cooper was not biting heads off chickens the night they had dinner, he was talking more about his golf handicap.

He recalled the time he met Elvis Presley. When he put out his hand for a shake, Elvis took hold, then did a swift judo move and tossed Cooper over his head. Cooper ended up on the ground, facing up. Elvis had his foot pressed firmly on his neck. And the shock rocker knew that he was living in a virtual reality when his first thought was, “What a great album cover this would make!”

At that point, the dessert menu arrives, and Cooper ponders whether he can get the sundae or the tiramisu. His wife puts her hand on his, and gently says, “Live a little, Alice.”

That’s the headline explained. It came to me when thinking of the personality change the New Zealand Herald has each summer. Don’t worry about the Nanny State, this is the Nanny Fourth Estate. Every day there’s some new warning about the dangers of daily life: put on your skin cream, wear your water wings, burnt sausages cause cancer, don’t leave your dog tied to its kennel without water or your baby in the SUV. Surveys have proved these things are bad for your health, and the economy.

So I enjoyed coming across this clip which shows that sometimes you can get through life without training wheels, though it takes some luck. Click – carefully – on the arrow. 

12 January 2011

Class of ’87

Ian Morris in Shake

From the New Zealand teen pop magazine Shake! c. August 1987.

11 January 2011

Back to the countdown

Singles chart April 1980

Also from the Toy Love file: a New Zealand singles chart from April 1980. The long reign of ‘Little Sister’ has been usurped by another that will match it in longevity: ‘Cruisin’ – a master’s last gasp, years before Botox. ‘I Got You’ has also been in the charts since the Summer, but ‘Little Sister’ has the Elvis factor that makes it perfect for New Zealand singles buyers. Prince is already showing form, four years before Purple Rain.

What strikes me is that every song in the Top 10 is still memorable, except one, even though I was never a dedicated listener of ZM or Hauraki, except in the car (that’s a testimony to the power of TV2’s Ready to Roll)

How many of these songs, from the latest RIANZ singles chart, will be instantly recalled in 30 years? Maybe Cee Lo, which like Bruno has had 37,000,000 hits on YouTube. (The figures in brackets: last week; weeks in chart.)

1   ‘Grenade– Bruno Mars (1, 11)

2   ‘Yeah 3x’ – Chris Brown (2, 7)
3   ‘Firework’ – Katy Perry (5, 14)
4   ‘The Time (Dirty Bit)’ – Black Eyed Peas (3, 8)
5   ‘Higher’ – Taio Cruz feat. Kylie Minogue (-, 5)
6   ‘Raise Your Glass’ – Pink (8, 13)
7   ‘We R Who We R’ – Ke$ha (7, 10)
8   ‘Rocketeer’ – Far East Movement feat. Ryan Tedder (4, 2)
9   ‘Hold My Hand’ – Michael Jackson feat. Akon (6, 6)
10  ‘F**k You’ – Cee Lo Green (9, 18)

The song I can’t recall from April 1980? Teri de Sario’s duet of ‘Yes I’m Ready’ with KC. The 70s were over, and the 80s had just begun … here’s an excerpt, cruelly cut short:

Free and Lovely then a blow wave, since you ask.

From the land down under

Toy Love NME review 1979

From the New Musical Express file labelled “Colonials” …

IT'S GOOD to be sitting in a pub courtyard with the pleasingly craggy Max Merritt.

It would be good just to pass somebody in the street exhibiting the obvious signs of mellow satisfaction, that, in Max's case, overflow into laughter and repeated exhortations for another Carlsberg Special.

If you were Max, you'd also be happy.

’Cos after a chequered career that began at the Christchurch, Australia, Teenage Club, Max is now one of the hottest artists on the shiny new Arista label. In this capacity he's won the approval of all, from his hordes of fans from sunny Oz to none other than Clive Davis.

Like many another musician who's paid his dues more often than he cares to remember, Max isn't keen on talking about the past …

- Vivien Goldman, ‘It’s Almost Like Art’, New Musical Express, 23 August 1975. At right, a review from the NME’s singles column, 13 October 1979.

08 January 2011

Breaking the rules

mick-jaggerChristopher Isherwood on Mick Jagger:

Mick seems almost entirely without vanity. … He hardly ever refers to his career or himself as a famous and successful person and you might be with him for hours and not know what it is he does. Also, he seems equally capable of group fun, clowning, entertaining, getting along with other people, and of entering into a serious one-to-one dialogue with anybody who wants to. He talked seriously but not at all pretentiously about Jung, and about India (he has a brother who has become a monk in the Himalayas), and about religion in general. He also seems tolerant and not bitchy. He told me with amusement that the real reason why the Beatles left the Maharishi was that he made a pass at one of them: “They’re simple north-country lads; they’re terribly uptight about all that.” Am still not sure if I believe this story.

David Kelly of the New York Times writes: “In the usual telling of that gossipy anecdote, the Maharishi made a pass at a young woman — sometimes it’s Mia Farrow, sometimes not — infuriating the Fabs. True or not, Jagger’s version is more appealing. As Christopher Hitchens says in his foreword to [Isherwood’s diaries] The Sixties, regarding this attempted seduction of an unspecified Beatle, “I wonder which one, don’t you?” Indeed I do, and I wouldn’t put my money on Ringo.”

03 January 2011

Soul sisters

The first African American woman to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. They didn’t invite her back.
While the Harper Valley PTA were meeting

02 January 2011

Small towns, big skies

1987 – A rental car pulls up in the main street of Gore, the “country music capital” of New Zealand. Five men in suits pile out, toting instruments. All eyes in the small South Island town seem to be watching as they set up on the pavement and start busking.

The Warratahs’ arrival for the Golden Guitar Awards worried the locals; for unknowns, they looked too organised. “It was as though we’d come to deal death to Gore!” says Wayne Mason, laughing at the wary welcome. The Warratahs left with several awards and many new friends.

1993 – It’s 3.00am in Greymouth and bitterly cold. On their way back to a motel during the Big Sky tour, the Warratahs walk into a burger bar. A drunk recognises them from the Interislander ad on TV. “Hey Warratahs,” he demands. “Sing us a song.”

“Naa, mate,” replies Barry Saunders. “We’ve Had it. You sing one.”

The West Coaster wobbles a second, then croaks, “Another Saturday night, but I ain’t got nobody …” The Warratahs have no choice but to join in. “I got some money ’cos I just got paid,” they sing, like a weary doo-wop quintet.

New Zealand Post recently issued a series of stamps featuring icons of Kiwiana. Immortalised for the world to see are Buzzy Bees, Jandals, Swanndris, pavlovas, rugby balls. Familiar items that feel as though they’ve always been there: we’re so comfortable with them that their uniqueness is in danger of being taken for granted.

The Warratahs – named after a (misspelled) Australian flower or a metal fencing stake – have reached that status in New Zealand popular culture. They will probably never be rewarded with a postage stamp, as Hank Williams and Patsy Cline have in the US. But the Warratahs and their songs have won the affection of the New Zealand public to an extent usually experienced only by sportspeople, or phenomena such as Kiri Te Kanawa or Selwyn Toogood.

Warratahs 1987Radio airplay and television exposure have played their part, but the Warratahs have earned their high profile mostly through sheer hard work. Having played what seems like a tiny wooden hall down the end of every gravel road in New Zealand, the band won over the heartland of the country long before the documentary makers knew that there was a heartland there.

They have warmed packed stadiums and cold halls where the dance-floor is sprinkled with talcum powder. From Dansey’s Pass to Karamea, Utiku to Karioi, it’s likely the Warratahs have been through often enough to be on first-name terms with the locals and vice versa.

The band keeps getting invited back because they reliably deliver what the Irish call “the craic” – atmosphere, good times, good music, good yarning. They leave their listeners whistling melodies, from songs about real people, in real situations. The music is equal parts Everly Brothers, Carter Family, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, seasoned with such local heroes as the Tumbleweeds, Garner Wayne and Peter Posa.

The Warratahs may be adept at rattling off Chuck Berry roadmaps, but the band is the first to have brought New Zealand into its songs without hokeyness or affectation. The themes are perennial – lost love, failed dreams and keeping your bags packed – but the references bring them home to us.

In so many of the songs, it’s time to change an address. Maureen shoots through to Melbourne because “I had my eyes on a new horizon / She had better things to do … better things for Maureen.” In the Celtic ballad ‘Another Town’ the singers seeks solace with friends in Dunedin; ‘Nothing Every Happens Round Here’ is a loving tribute to Wellington; ‘Taranaki’ is a visit to the folks, who live just below the snowline. In ‘St Peter’s Rendezvous’ the old man, a member of the RSA generation, broods about unfulfilled ambitions and denied opportunities. The songs are contemporary and timeless.

Warratahs 1994The Warratahs are a real band: an ensemble whose playing together creates a special personality. Berry Saunders contributes his oh-so-sincere voice, ironic guitar solos and jokey whistling. From Wayne Mason comes spirited accordion playing and understated piano that mixes Floyd Cramer and Moon Mullican’s little filigrees and boogie fills. Nik Brown’s work on the fiddle – double stops and solo flights of fancy – becomes more Irish with the years (ie, more country). And the reticent charm of the various rhythm sections – featuring John Donoghue, Marty Jorgensen, Rob Clarkson, Clinton Brown and Mike Knapp – always has more tickle than slap.

“All those years of touring, playing every small centre imaginable, were worth it,” says Barry Saunders. After years of kicking around in various bands together, he and his closest friends have finally found what they’ve been avoiding all their lives: a career.

And they’ve given New Zealand another institution. Like the Main Trunk Line and the Edmonds Cookbook, the place wouldn’t be the same without them.

- liner notes, The Best of the Warratahs (Pagan), April 1994. The top picture is from 1987 (L-R): John Donoghue, Wayne Mason, Barry Saunders, Marty Jorgensen, Nick Brown. And below, in 1994: Clinton Brown, Wayne Mason, Barry Saunders, Mike Knapp, Nick Brown.