Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

If you're celebrating this All Hallow's Eve inside, I recommend you take a look at Roger Ebert's site, where he presents ten classic horror movies, from Un Chien Andalou and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Orson Welles in The Third Man - which isn't that scary, but is real good nonetheless. When I say Ebert present these movies, I don't mean he's telling you to go watch these movies; I mean you can literally watch them, in their entirety, right there on his Web site. The Internet is cool.

I am reminded tonight of perhaps my most memorable Halloween, when I was still in college but living far enough off campus that we did get some trick-or-treaters. My roommate and I had bought some candy, but between what we handed out and what we ate, we ran out pretty quickly.

But the kids kept coming. One thing we had was a box of those yellow vanilla-flavored Oreo knockoffs, and some plastic baggies. We prepared some bags with two cookies apiece in them, and gave them out to some neighborhood children.

Everyone involved knew this was kabuki of the highest order. The kids knew they never would be allowed to eat those cookies, like they're never allowed to eat any Halloween handouts that are not professionally prepared and hermetically sealed. We knew the kids wouldn't get to eat them, but we had to hand something out or the kids would have been crushed. And maybe egged our door.

The whole exercise was irretrievably sad. And what really bothered me is that if any of those kids had been permitted to eat those yellow sandwich cookies, they would have gotten a Halloween experience they'd still be talking about today - if they were still able to talk after getting a razor blade through the tongue.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Easy Like a Sunday Morning

I always thought it was odd that David Bowie chose to put a non-original song in the middle of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars - which served not only as his statement of artistic purpose but was a storytelling concept album to boot. Not the most propitious place for a cover, you'd think. Plus, the song in question, "It Ain't Easy," is quite possibly - depending upon how you feel about "Rock 'n Roll Suicide" - the worst track on the record.

But what makes it even odder is where Bowie got the song from. It was originally done by a gentleman named Ron Davies on his 1970 album Silent Song Through the Land. Davies' work sounds unexceptional to me, just another acoustic troubadour of the early 1970s, but he was able to get Leon Russell to play on that record, and at the time, Leon Russell was big bananas indeed. Bowie then cut the song in September 1971, as the first one done for Ziggy Stardust (which also seems strange, doesn't it? Maybe the concept didn't emerge till later).

But Bowie wasn't the first one to get to the song. I can't find a release date for the Davies album, but "It Ain't Easy" appeared very quickly on the album of the same name by Three Dog Night in April 1970. The following year, Long John Baldry, who was best known for giving Elton John his start in his band Bluesology, also made Davies' song the title track of his own album. (Has any other non-holiday song served as the title track for two different artists' albums? I can't think of any). One side of Baldry's It Ain't Easy was produced by Elton John, and the other side was produced by Rod Stewart. I wouldn't make this up.

So where did Bowie hear the song? It's tempting to say he got it from Baldry, who was very well-known in England. The album also contained Baldry's only American hit, "Don't Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll." I can't pinpoint a release date for Baldry's record, but one source says it was a hit throughout the summer of '71, leaving plenty of time for Bowie to record the song that September.

So Bowie may have gotten it from Baldry, but Baldry probably got it from Three Dog Night. It's hard to overstate how big 3DN was in 1971; they had had seven Top Ten hits from 1969-71, and two Number Ones. It Ain't Easy had the Number One "Mama Told Me Not to Come," as well as the gorgeous "Out in the Country," which somehow peaked at only Number Fifteen. (R.E.M. would later cut a version as the B-side of "Bad Day.")

Three Dog Night is somewhat out of fashion now, in part because they famously didn't write any of their hits. But this is what they did: they found great unknown songs, often by then-obscure writers like Randy Newman and John Hiatt and Laura Nyro. And by writers who remained obscure, like Ron Davies.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Second Mrs. Dylan

One more note on Dylan: I was recently watching the DVD of the fifth season of Saturday Night Live, and on October 13, 1979, Bob made his one and only appearance on that show, in an episode hosted by Eric Idle (who introduced him as "the very wonderful Bob Dylan"). Bob sang three numbers: "Gotta Serve Somebody," "I Believe in You," and "When You Gonna Wake Up?," all taken from his recently released LP Slow Train Coming.

Although Mark Knopfler was the key guitarist on the record, he didn't appear on SNL. Dylan apparently wanted to assemble to dorkiest-looking band he could find; the only members without full beards were three-quarters of the backup singers. It was these singers that I was interested in, for I knew that one of them was Carolyn Dennis, who would end up marrying Bob and having a daughter with him (not necessarily in that order) in 1986. Dennis had been with Dylan since Street-Legal, in 1978 (one wonders if she spent her free time during those sessions writing "Mrs. Carolyn Dylan" all over her lyric sheets), and would sing on his records all the way through Down in the Groove, from 1988.

I wondered which of the three female singers she was, so I went searching on the Internet for photos of Carolyn Dennis or Carolyn Dennis-Dylan, and couldn't find anything that was clearly labeled as her. Now, I understand that Bob is fiercely protective of his privacy, as is Carolyn, apparently, but still: These people are in show business. She has sung with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, in addition to Zimmy. Her mother was one of Ray Charles' Raeletts, which I found very interesting: At least one Raelett also gave birth to the boss's child. You'd think there would be some public documentation of Carolyn's image and identity. But no. I bet when they got married, they didn't even register anywhere.

I'm not being critical; certainly, Bob and Carolyn don't owe me anything. But you'd think a publicity photo would have survived from somewhere. The one thing I have to go on is a Farm Aid-era photo of the Queens of Rhythm, which featured Carolyn and her mom, but isn't officially captioned anywhere I've seen.

During the good-nights on that SNL, Bob came out and stood next to Eric Idle, still looking as uncomfortable as he had the entire evening. One of the singers came over and talked to him briefly as everyone was waving goodbye (Bob even offered a single stiff-armed kind of salute). I'm going to assume that that was Carolyn. Having seen that, and seen this not-well-ID'd picture, I think this is her on Bob's left:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Solomon Burke, 1940 - 2010

Solomon Burke — boy preacher at age seven, gospel recording artist by 17, street corner beggar turned mortician by 20, and the crowned king of rock and soul by 21 — dead at 70. Solomon Burke — the man who sold ice water to his fellow artists on the tour bus, who took over the Apollo theater during a stand there and sold popcorn in the aisles, who interrupted recording sessions at Muscles Shoals to pray with young female supplicants, who told stories of old Southern women leaning out their windows to proffer fried chicken and sometimes also their daughters who wore no underthings and asked for a ride just to the main road — no longer walks the earth, though at well over 300 pounds of heavenly joy, for his last few years on earth he’d more gotten around by cane and wheel chair than walked. No matter. He leaves behind over 20 children and 90 grandchildren. His work will continue.

His voice will not. Burke was Jerry Wexler’s pick for the greatest of the soul singers, and it’s easy to understand why: He was certainly the most versatile. Otis Redding made raw emotion impossibly delicate; James Brown made pleading into celebration; Wilson Pickett packed swagger, sweat and sex into a 1,000 dances a second; Aretha was a force of nature. But they were utterly distinctive, unmistakably themselves. Burke had four different ways (at least) of approaching any one song: the raw pleading preacher; the seductive basso profundo (a Philly native, he’s a clear template for Jerry “The Iceman” Butler in this mode); the sneak-attack falsetto that disarmed women by approaching them in their own voice; and the smooth and mournful country crooner. It’s this last that scored Burke his first major hit, “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms),” which had already bombed for Patsy Cline and others when Burke took it to the top of the r&b and pop charts for Atlantic in 1961. His country songs weren’t soul-country; though they swung more than Nashville, they were straight country, right down the slip-piano style borrowed from Floyd Cramer. Burke went for clear diction on these cuts, no open-throat roar, and like Elvis at the start, he blurred racial distinction until it didn’t exist. So much so that he was once booked at a Klan rally.

Downloading some Solomon Burke from emusic yesterday, another racial distinction vanished. There are detailed recording credits on emusic, and thus did I find out that my favorite Burke cut, "Cry to Me," featured the great jazz pianist Hank Jones (played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker), as well as Bucky Pizzarelli, another jazz player, on guitar. The drummer, Gary Chester, was unknown to me. And the beat on this — a powerfully syncopated habenera with a bell-ringing pizzicato offbeat that hits like shot after shot of cold gin — is ridiculous, a wonder of polyglot hip shaking. Turns out Chester was born on the east coast of Sicily in 1925, and went on to become one of Manhattan's most in-demand studio drummers. That's him on "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand by Me," the Coasters' "Little Egypt" (greatest song about a stripper ever), and most of the great Dionne Warwick cuts. Did he play on the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"? He did. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) He also kept time on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic." And if you're hungering for more B.J. Thomas arcana, know this: The drummer on "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" is Gary Chester. And thus did a white man born in Italy come to bring a Spanish rhythmic influence to early rock and roll, as well as lay down a more mellow backbeat for some of the most ubiquitous '70s pop. Ain't that America?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Phantom Drummer

I'm sure you all know the story of how Levon Helm left the Band in November 1965, and thus he wasn't around in 1967 when Bob Dylan laid down the Basement Tapes with the Band in Woodstock. The Band used a couple of interstitial drummers after Levon left, but when they repaired to Big Pink in Saugerties, New York, it was the core four of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson who set up housekeeping there.

The accounts I've read have the Basement Tapes period starting around June 1967, and ending that October when Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding. Levon Helm rejoined the Band that same month, which brings up a question: Who played drums on the Basement Tapes recording? On the album credits, Robertson and Manuel are both noted as having played some drums. That makes sense, since both those guys were kind of expendable: Garth Hudson could handle any keyboard parts that Manuel wasn't playing, and Dylan himself could spell Robertson on guitar.

And I can hear those shifts in the lineup in some of the Basement Tapes songs. "Apple Suckling Tree" doesn't seem to have any lead guitar, although it does have a bit of flashy drumming, which I assume would be Robbie's doing. Other songs, like "Tears of Rage," don't have any drums at all. (Once you start listening for these things, it's also obvious which songs the Band recorded later then slapped onto the LP, since Levon has a distinctive crackling drum sound, and he's also miles better than any of the other guys in the Band.)

But on "Odds and Ends," I clearly hear a piano (Manuel), organ (Hudson), a stinging lead guitar (Robertson) that seems way beyond Dylan's capability, bass (Danko), and vocals from Dylan, indicating this was recorded before Levon returned. And drums. So who was playing them? One of those instruments might have been added later, but overdubs don't really seem to be in the spirit of the Basement Tapes, do they? If anyone knows, please tell the author in the comments.

That album cover, by the way, was shot in the basement of a YMCA in Los Angeles.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dylan's Blue Period

In the spring of 1974, after the tour with the Band that would spawn Before the Flood, Bob Dylan showed up at a painter's studio on the 11th floor, high above Carnegie Hall on 57th Street in New York. The painter was named Norman Raeben, and he was the son of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem; Dylan had turned to him for some Hebraic guidance.

But Dylan was also, of course, a painter himself, having done the covers for the Band's Music From Big Pink and his own unjustly maligned (well, OK, not that unjustly) Self-Portrait. So in addition to steeping himself in Raeben's knowledge of Jewish philosophy, Dylan also used their acquaintance as an opportunity to learn how to paint better. So for two months, Dylan spent all day, from 8:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, at Raeben's studio, working on both his painting and his spiritual heritage.

One day Dylan painted a still life of a vase, all in blue - apparently too much blue, because Norman Raeben, who had a penchant for calling Dylan (as well as his other students) an idiot, told him the colors were all wrong. Dylan, as Raeben put it, was all tangled up in blue. I don't know how much improvement Dylan ever saw in his painting skills from all these sessions, but at least he got a song title out of them.