Too Genius

Two days apart. That’s all the difference it made to shake up pop music.  One might argue, and rightly so, that music has always been moving forward, progressing along a continuum.  A musical evolution of sorts.  But this particular evolutionary development was far more profound.  It could be described as a pivotal event. The musical soundscape would be altered forever.

Had it been a horse race, Paul McCartney would have won by a nose.  In the photo finish you would have clearly spotted Brian Wilson, just a hair’s breadth away from snatching the trophy.  But it really was a race.  A race to see which musical threshold would be crossed first.  What new, innovative songwriting and production would thrust pop music out of a genre stagnating from simple chord progressions and uncomplicated lyrics?

In such a musical race, McCartney would argue that Wilson won the first heat, with his innovative Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds.  Wilson, on the other hand, would respond that his inspiration for Pet Sounds resulted from listening to songs composed by Lennon & McCartney (and George Harrison) on their Beatles album, Rubber Soul.  In fact, Wilson himself has gone on record to state precisely that.

McCartney, though, has countered that Wilson’s “God Only Knows from Pet Sounds, inspired him to write “Here, There and Everywhere” from the Beatles album, Revolver.  Moreover, McCartney revealed that after Rubber Soul, the Beatles, upon listening to Pet Sounds, wanted to produce an album that would match its level of innovative production.  The result was Revolver.  Both Pet Sounds and Revolver were released in 1966, the former in May, the latter in August.

The relationship between Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson is immutable.  It was written in the stars.  An event of cosmic proportions.   They were born just two days apart, 75 years ago.  Paul on June 18 and Brian on June 20, in 1942.  Astrologically, they are Geminis, a sign represented by twins.  They are indeed musical twins represented by genius.  Innovators inspiring each other to create the most original and most imaginative music of an era.  Two days.  Too genius!

The No Left Turns and Our Summer of Love

The moon was in its seventh house, Jupiter aligned with Mars, and the Age of Aquarius was dawning.  The No Left Turns recently had won a “battle of the bands” and bookings were on the rise.  Our agent put us on the road to gigs throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.  And we were fast becoming a favorite at the South Beloit American Legion dances.

Our repertoire was changing too as we began to include songs not typically heard on the radio.  Always on the lookout for musical genres outside of top forty, I’d picked up a record album by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers titled A Hard Road.  We learned a moderately bluesy song from that album, You Don’t Love Me.  It featured a catchy guitar riff and a simple three-chord progression.  Simple was right up our alley.

One song that made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that spring was Light My Fire by the Doors.  “What a great song,” I announced at a rehearsal. “It would be really cool to play it!”  There was only one hitch. The familiar opening riff featured an organ, an instrument missing from our lineup.  That settled it.  We went in search of a keyboard player.  Following up on a classmate’s tip, our quest began and ended in one day when Tony and I drove to a large old farmhouse just outside of town to meet Jim.

Jim was finishing up his freshman year in high school.  He led us into his living room where against the far wall stood a Lowrey organ.  “Well, play us something,” said Tony.  Jim sat on the bench, made a few adjustments and suddenly we were listening to the organ solo from In the Midnight Hour. Impressed, I asked Jim if he could play Light My Fire.  Without a word, he looked at the keyboard and worked it out in front of us.  Then he asked if we’d like to hear the organ part from Good Lovin’.  Mouths agape, we could only nod like bobble heads.  There was one last question.  “How the hell do you move that thing?” I asked.  That’s when Jim told us about his portable Farfisa organ and said while he’s in the band, he’d leave it my basement where we rehearsed.  Traveling to gigs, we’d stow it in the trailer with the rest of our gear.

Hundreds of kids attended a dance we played at the Janesville YMCA, our first with Jim, on a stage that was large enough to seat a philharmonic orchestra.  We opened that show with our cover of (Just Like) Romeo and Juliet and followed it up with In the Midnight Hour.  What a kick it was to look out from that stage and see nearly everyone dancing and a few kids standing in front of it gazing up at us.

The No Left Turns

Our set list evolved and was enhanced with Jim on the Farfisa.  Not everything was rosy though.  We debuted a new song, Whiter Shade of Pale, at the Star Zenith Boat Club after rehearsing it only twice the previous week.  Located on a lovely stretch of the Rock River, the Boat Club was a beautiful venue.  Beautiful was not an attribute of the song we tried to render, though.  My voice cracked repeatedly, reaching for impossible notes.  Sufficiently distracted, I forgot what my fingers were supposed to do on the frets of that bass.  Tony and Mike sounded like they each were playing different songs.  Exasperated, Bruce stopped playing drums entirely.  The only one who “skipped the light fandango” tolerably was Jim.  But the song remained beyond salvaging.  We never played Whiter Shade of Pale or the Boat Club again.

The No Left Turns played for a high school graduation “after-party” one sultry night in early June.  It was a learning experience.   Like most clandestine beer parties, it was held in an old, red barn near a corn field, somewhere off a pot-holed county road, a safe distance from the school and unwary adults.  We arrived to learn we’d be setting up in the hayloft, a short climb up a steep ladder.  We quickly learned the mechanics of operating a block and tackle to lift our equipment up and onto the platform like stevedores.  After a while we learned the limitations of drinking beer while performing on a platform ten feet in the air.  I calculate those limitations were realized when Mike grabbed the block and tackle rope, jumped off the platform, guitar slung over his shoulder, coil cord still plugged into his towering amp, and began swinging Tarzan style out over the dancers below.

I’m not certain which occurred first, his amp toppling over with a thud on the platform, or the block and tackle brake releasing.  Mike dropped head first into the crowd on the barn floor.  You might say he was ahead of his time, body surfing the audience.  Or you might say he was three sheets to the wind.  Fortunately, he broke neither his guitar nor any of his body parts. The same couldn’t be said for his amp, which suffered minor contusions and a broken knob.  After the party, we loaded up the trailer and I drove us home while Tony tended to the other groggy members of our band.  We learned to stay away from gigs involving stevedore apparatus and unrestricted alcohol consumption.

We were honored with an invitation to play for the Miss Rockford Teenager fashion show and pageant.  As honorable a gig as it might have been, I remember very little about it.  I do recall we stood around for quite some time before actually performing.  Though our very short set closed with We Gotta Get Out of this Place, it was nonetheless an honor and a privilege for us to have been a part of the festivities.

Rockford newspaper ad excerpt

Another memorable summer gig involved a two-hour road trip to Savanna, Illinois with the five of us crammed into a Studebaker Lark and no air conditioning.  Loaded up trailer in tow, we headed southwest to the furthest destination we’d ever traveled to perform.  Walking out the back door of my parents’ house, I snatched a Polaroid Swinger camera off the kitchen counter along with a nearby unopened film roll.  I hoped my sister wouldn’t mind my borrowing it.  We snapped some goofy pictures along the way and watched them develop before our eyes.  We were destined to become proficient in selfies, snapping even goofier pictures with our smartphones fifty years hence.

The Savanna gig was in a second floor dance hall above a tavern on the main street of town.  Lugging half a ton of amplifiers, speakers and instruments up a narrow flight of enclosed stairs did little to exhilarate the band.  We were even less exhilarated upon learning a major rock ‘n roll concert was occurring that very night some forty miles up the road and across the river in Dubuque, Iowa.  For the dozen or so teens who stayed in Savanna for lack of a ticket or a ride to Dubuque, we played our hearts out.  Given the choice, we would have played all night rather than having to lug half a ton of gear back down that claustrophobic stairway, loading the trailer and then driving two hours back to Beloit.  With deep disappointment, I must report that no Polaroid snapshots survived the evening.

The Armory in Janesville presented yet another stairway to a dance hall. Not quite as narrow as the one in Savanna, but just as many steps.  To my knowledge, the kids who came to dance while we entertained there had no better concert to attend that night.

Janesville Gazette ad

Our best performance was for “Record Bandstand” at the Rock County Fairgrounds in Janesville.  The No Left Turns felt on top of our game that night, performing on a stage that had seen many regional and nationally recognized bands appear in previous weeks.  By then, the set list included Light My Fire and Incense and Peppermints.  Both featured longer organ solos.  Over the summer we’d built our own light boxes for stage lighting.  Wired with foot-switches for changing colors of the lights, sometimes I’d step on those switches repeatedly during a song.  That was the extent of our “psychedelic light show.”

At times we were as foolish as we were clever.  Once we spent hours cobbling together a Rube Goldberg mechanical strobe light out of old wooden box and electric fan parts.  Not surprisingly, it never quite accomplished what we had envisioned.  The No Left Turns were envious of our rivals, the Jaywalkers .  They’d found a real strobe light bulb with a control box.  The Jaywalkers also had a very large wooden and metal-framed wheel, painted with a black and white spiral design.  A motor would spin the wheel and the spiral would take on a hypnotic appearance, sort of like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  When the strobe light was switched on, band members and the wheel transformed into oddly psychedelic objects.

The Jaywalkers “Hypno-Wheel”

A dance in one high school gym we played had a psychedelic theme.  Even as the incoming Student Council president at that school, I still didn’t have enough influence with anyone in authority to loan us an overhead projector.  My plan was to get a clear plate to place on the overhead’s glass lens and have someone add drops of colored oils while projecting it on a large white sheet behind the band.  I’d read about it in a music fanzine, probably Song Hits Magazine.

Undaunted for want of an overhead projector, the No Left Turns borrowed an 8mm film projector and projected home movies from atop a scaffold on the gym floor onto a large white sheet which hung behind the band.  Our projectionist kept twisting the lens to keep the picture’s focus soft and mostly unrecognizable as family vacation movies.  Occasionally though, a waterfall or canyon gorge would clearly come into view as strains of Wild Thing filled the air.

Fall brought the return of school dances and more gigs at the American Legion Hall, all of which the No Left Turns relished with considerable enthusiasm.  That was our Summer of Love.  It had its ups and downs.  Some were in narrow staircases, some were in barns, but only one featured home movies.

Blonde on Blonde

It was hailed as a landmark album.  Rock music critics variously ranked it among the greatest albums of all time, with some placing it at the top of that all-too-fickle list.  Released fifty-one years ago this month, though the exact date is debatable, it’s still considered one of the finest recordings in the history of rock music.  To many, including me, it remains at the top of that list.

Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde capped a trilogy of albums that began with Bringing It All Back Home, followed by Highway 61 Revisited, both released the previous year.  In the history of rock music, Blonde on Blonde was among the first double albums with a gatefold cover and one song, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” that spanned the entire fourth side of that two-LP set.  Initially I thought Highway 61 Revisited, containing the timeless anthem, “Like a Rolling Stone,” could never be surpassed.  Man, was I was wrong!  At first listen, Blonde on Blonde blew me away.

For a budding teenage guitar player just beginning to get the hang of playing and singing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from the Bob Dylan Song Book I’d purchased months before, the songs from Blonde on Blonde offered a new challenge.  I desperately wanted a leg up on learning them.  Desperation turned into exultation when I spied the Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde “Deluxe Edition” song book in a local music store where I’d get guitar strings and picks.

Regretfully, I never convinced my garage bandmates at that time to include a Dylan song or two in our repertoire.   Instead, I learned a few of them for practice and to entertain myself.  Eventually, I learned enough of them to entertain my college housemates and an occasional campus coffeehouse audience.  Over time, I’ve entertained some of those same housemates, their spouses and friends whenever we’ve gotten a chance to reunite for special occasions.  Long ago, I’d allegedly perform for about anyone at the drop of a hat.  Those days are becoming fewer and further apart.  When it does happen, you can be sure I include a hefty portion of Dylan songs, some by request.  If you find yourself in the audience on one of those rare occasions, please don’t request “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” unless I have my Blonde on Blonde “Deluxe Edition” song book handy and you’re ready to settle in for the night.

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?
Bob Dylan – “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Lay Down Your Weary Tune… Please

I took saxophone lessons in grade school.  At the slightest provocation, I’d perform for family and friends.  It was a character-building experience.  Perhaps not so much for me, but certainly for the adults feigning interest in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.  It’s a pleasant instrumental piece I learned to play well enough for people to recognize by its more popular adaptation, Stranger in Paradise from the musical Kismet.

I taught myself to play guitar.   Like many boys my age, I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star.  My first acoustic guitar had twelve strings which, if nothing else, made it twice as difficult to keep tuned.  Fortunately, it made a very sweet sound on those occasions when it was in tune.  I practiced on it more often than on the sax.  Recognizing their son was not destined to become the next Boots Randolph, my folks traded in the sax for a piano.  I got to keep the guitar.

My parents wanted to visit Boston one summer. They’d received an invitation from some old friends with whom they once socialized in our hometown.  The friends had moved to the northeast in search of greener pastures.  My parents took them up on the invitation and didn’t think twice about piling themselves and four kids into a big old Pontiac sedan to drive there.    Surprisingly, they allowed me to bring along my guitar.  Cars were larger then.

The friends had two kids of their own, a girl two years my junior and a boy the same age as my younger sister.  I confess to having had a crush on the girl that began before she moved away.  Bringing along my guitar was partly a ploy to woo her despite already having a girlfriend back home.

We arrived on a warm summer day and made ourselves at home thanks to the gracious hospitality of our hosts.   We might have resembled the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation.  One rainy evening, while sitting around with little to do, I was included in a conversation with the adults that somehow wound up on the subject of folk music.  Someone asked me to play a song.  Perhaps they expected 500 Miles or Lemon Tree.  I probably should have selected something other than the one I played.  Instead, I performed Lay Down Your Weary Tune by Bob Dylan.  I played and sang all the verses, very dirge-like, each preceded by the chorus, “Lay down your weary tune, lay down.  Lay down the song you strum.  And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings, no voice can hope to hum.”   I was not asked to play another song for the adults.  I did, however, manage to play a Beatles song privately for their daughter after she proudly showed me her new Rubber Soul album. That was the last time I ever saw her.

A couple years later in college, I brought the old twelve-string to a girlfriend’s home for a weekend.  One morning her father invited me to the local country club to complete a foursome for a round of golf.  I tried to beg off, claiming I didn’t golf and had no clubs with me.  I jokingly offered to bring a guitar instead.  He thought that was brilliant and the next thing I knew, my guitar and I were tooling around on a golf cart.  It was about the same time I was entering my “protest years.”  Naturally, I played a couple of Dylan songs for them.  One in particular was The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.  It’s s serious song with many verses of depressing lyrics. Not your typical upbeat entertainment for a golf outing..  Later that evening, while gathered in the family room watching  TV, her dad tried to poison me by repeatedly pouring Scotch whiskey into my often half-full glass.

Today, if I were forced to choose between drinking Scotch or singing Lemon Tree, I’d happily choose the latter.  I learned a lesson about trying to entertain adults back then.  If truth be told, I’m still learning.


Lay Down Your Weary Tune by Bob Dylan, covered by the Byrds.  (It’s still among my favorites.)

Electric and Eclectic: A Concert Review

Martin Barre, guitarist of Jethro Tull for more than 40 years, has recorded several solo and collaborative albums. His latest effort, Back to Steel, was released in 2015. I saw Barre and his current touring band at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina on March 24, 2017. The band included Dan Crisp on second guitar and vocals, Alan Thomson on bass and harmonies, and Jonathan Joseph (formerly with Jeff Beck) on drums.

Alan Thomson (bs), Martin Barre (gtr), Dan Crisp (gtr/voc) and Jonathan Joseph (dr).
They played two sets that were heavy on Jethro Tull classics in addition to material from Barre’s solo work. Opening with the driving instrumental “Hammer” from Barre’s Back to Steel, his guitar virtuosity was immediately displayed. “Hammer” was followed by two Tull numbers, “To Cry You a Song” from Benefit and “Minstrel in the Gallery” from the eponymously named album. As Barre doesn’t sing, Crisp handled the vocals and made each song his own, capturing the intensity and inflection of Ian Anderson, without coming off as a mimic. Arrangements were appropriately modified to suit the twin guitars, bass and drums format of the band. In that regard, there were several instrumental breaks during which Barre and Crisp sounded much like the famous twin guitars of Wishbone Ash.

Their next selection was the 1961 blues classic by Bobby Parker, “Steal Your Heart Away,” a song the original Moody Blues recorded in 1964 when they started as a R&B band. It’s been covered more recently by the likes of Joe Bonamassa among others. Crisp’s vocals were pure hard rock blues.

After “Steal Your Heart,” Barre stepped to the mic to welcome everyone and to introduce the band before launching into “Back to Steel” from his most recent album. It was followed by “Love Story” from Tull’s This Was.  Then it was back to Barre’s creative improvisations on the instrumental “After You, After Me” from his third album release, Stage Left.

Another brief interlude found Barre at the mic introducing a Beatles composition, “Eleanor Rigby” which the band performed with a Tull-esque flare quite unlike the original before segueing into “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” rendered as the title implies, heavy. It was followed by two Jethro Tull songs rarely heard in concert. One was “Sweet Dream,” the first Tull single on the Chrysalis label which made #7 on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1969. Recorded around the time of their Stand Up sessions, it never appeared on an album until Living in the Past was released in 1972. The second was “Sea Lion” from the 1974 War Child album.

The set closed with an extended “end bit” from Tull masterpiece, Thick as a Brick, featuring all the vocal and instrumental frenzy leading up to a subdued finish.

Martin Barre
After a twenty-five minute intermission, Barre kicked off their second set with a brilliant cover of Porcupine Tree’s “Blackest Eyes,” a tune only vaguely familiar to me. They dove back into the Tull catalog with well-known favorites “Nothing to Say” and “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day).”

On the guitar rack near Barre I’d been spying a mandolin. Barre finally set down his electric guitar and picked it up. Someone in the audience shouted a request for “Fat Man,” a Tull song in which the mandolin is featured prominently. Barre and the band, however, chose a different path. They instead performed a mesmerizing cover of the delta blues classic, “Crossroads,” before segueing into “Martin’s Jig,” Barre’s electrified mandolin and Crisp’s lead guitar and vocals filling the venue with multiple sparkling ear treasures.

For their next song, “Bad Man” from Back to Steel, Alan Thomson handed over his bass guitar to Crisp, then picked up a Fender Stratocaster from the stand behind him and placed a slide on his pinky finger. Thomson played the Strat with reckless abandon in a more rocking version of “Bad Man” than what’s heard on the studio recording. It was followed by a bluesy “Song for Jeffrey” from Tull’s This Was release before returning to the Back to Steel album for Barre’s “Moment of Madness.”

Heading into the big finale, they played three Tull classics in a row with new arrangements that only Barre’s band could pull off successfully: ‘Teacher’ from Benefit, and “Fat Man” (sans mandolin) and “New Day Yesterday,” both from Stand Up.  Exiting the stage to a standing ovation, (not much choice as it was a standing room only show), the band returned for an encore, “Locomotive Breath” from Tull’s classic Aqualung album.

Their polish, professionalism and performance left nothing more to be desired. Barre and his band put on more than just a Jethro Tull tribute show, offering new arrangements for every song, Tull’s or otherwise, sound fresh and new. Martin Barre rocked it all the way home.

Is the governor singing?

I was listening to the radio last night.  It wasn’t how I used to listen to the radio when I was a teenager.  I’d be in my bed, ear pressed to the tinny speaker with the dial tuned to WLS, “the Big 89” from Chicago.

That was then.  This is now.  I was streaming a classic rock station through a smart television equipped with a radio app and connected to an audio system.  The end result was the same.  Music from the sixties.

A strong male voice was singing passionately about a girl.  I recognized that familiar voice, but not the song.  Singing in a full, rich baritone and ultimately reaching crescendos layered with full orchestration, while repeating the name “An-ge-LI-ca,” it was compelling enough for me to uncover more about the song.  I located the station web site where a slowly scrolling playlist noted the title currently streaming was Angelica by Scott Walker:

You know, it’s been a while since the sixties.  For one split second, upon seeing the name “Scott Walker” scroll past, I envisioned a notorious politician crooning from behind a podium, and it wasn’t Scott Walker the singer.

A group named the Walker Brothers had a hit song in 1965 titled The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, the refrain of which I often sing aloud while shuffling around the house on gloomy, winter days.  It was that song in which I’d first heard the Scott Walker I was hearing now, the one my mind’s eye initially offered up as a politician from Wisconsin.

Most of what I know about Scott Walker the singer, I learned on Wikipedia just a few minutes ago.  Most of what I know about Scott Walker the politician has come from newspaper articles and social media over a number of years.

The Wikipedia article about Scott Walker the singer is surprisingly good and rather extensive.  It captured my interest for quite some time as I sought out YouTube videos of him as a solo artist and singing with his brothers.  I don’t spend that kind of time on politicians.  Unless, of course, they’re singing.

For better or worse, Scott Walker the politician isn’t among them in the above mashup video.  But depending on whether it’s Scott Walker the singer accompanied by his brothers, or Scott Walker the politician accompanied by his environmental policies, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore can carry two distinct messages.  Sad as it is, I prefer the singer’s.  The other is unthinkable.

 

 

Disturbing the Sound of Silence

Letting go of the past can be a challenge.  We’d like to think the music we grew up with was the very best and most innovative.  To some extent it can be argued that certain songs and musical works set a standard that might never again be achieved.  Mozart’s innovative symphonies and operas are held up as examples of classical innovation.  At least that’s what I learned in a “Classical Masters” course many years ago.  Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were innovators and giants of jazz.    Their music is still regarded among the best in that genre.

When modern orchestras and opera companies perform Mozart’s works, they may tweak portions here and there, but the result is still the same breathtaking music that we can only assume sounds the way it did in its original form, perhaps taken to new sonic levels through vastly improved acoustics or recording technology.  When contemporary jazz ensembles perform the music of Ellington or Davis, we anticipate new, uncharted improvisation, for that is the very essence of jazz.

In popular music, we cling to the past more than ever.  Who can top Sinatra’s interpretation of the American songbook?  Tony Bennett perhaps?  Who can surpass Elvis and his Jailhouse Rock?  No one else has ever done it justice, though I must confess I’ve enjoyed the Jeff Beck Group’s cover of it on their 1969 Beck-Ola album.  Or how about any originals by the Beatles or Dylan?  There are some “prettier” covers of Dylan tunes that have been released, but the originals still endure.

A music video has been circulating on Facebook recently, linked from within a “Society of Rock” online music zine article.  The video is Simon & Garfunkel performing Sound of Silence in a 2009 reunion performance at Madison Square Garden, fifty-two years after they first introduced the song.  It’s usually accompanied by comments like, “Nothing beats the original,” or something similar.  The zine article that many ignore is about this year’s Grammy-nominated, live cover of Sound of Silence performed by the metal band “Disturbed” on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show.

While the band’s name and heavy metal music may be disturbing to some, Disturbed’s live performance of Sound of Silence was one of those “Oh, my!” moments that made me wonder why I don’t listen to more metal music.  Granted, nothing can approach the seamless, soaring harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel in their 2009 performance.  But for me, the orchestral crescendo backing the unique vocals of Disturbed’s singer, David Draiman, snatched away any preconceived notion that there are no other ear-worthy versions of that song.  I’m only sorry it didn’t win the Grammy for Best Rock Performance.  It might have led to a greater appreciation for the original artists by Disturbed fans too young to remember them.

Here are both performances, snatched from YouTube, so you can watch as well as listen.  Simply click on each of the links below to enjoy.  If there’s a favorite cover version of a song you like, feel free to share it in a comment.

Simon & Garfunkel (Live at Madison Square Garden- 2009)
sg

Disturbed (Live on Conan O’Brien- 2016)
disturbed