Notes from Nashville

20 Apr Hee Haw Honeys

At last, I have made the pilgrimage to Nashville, and I’m still basking in the barbecue-basted afterglow.

Nashville string bandThis city is teeming with talent, since this is where musicians and songwriters from all over the world come to make their fortunes. In the meantime, they have to make a living, keep their chops up and be ready for the next gig that could be the big break. So no matter where you go, music squirts out of every doorway and windowsill and pours out of bars and burger joints, and it’s almost always crazy great.

Want bonafide old-timey music with a side of sleeve tattoos? You got it outside of the Boot Country store on Broadway (see above). Want to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s take on “Little Wing” even though he’s moved on to the Great Beyond? Order some sweet potato fries at Paradise Park Trailer Resort and give a listen to the house band at 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Need to unwind after a long day of driving? Go to your hotel lobby and hear a gal do a credible acoustic version of “Angel from Montgomery” as you take in the exhibition of works by painter/musician Ray Stephenson that includes a portrait of John Prine.

Rock came up from country music of all stripes – gospel, Texas swing, hill music, blues – and that bloodline is being celebrated now at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in their current exhibit, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” The logo and other poster art was commissioned from Jon Langford, a musician with the punk band the Mekons:

Nashville Cats artwork

Even without this terrific exhibit – showcasing the time in the 1960s and early 1970s when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash came to Nashville to record, followed by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt and many others – I would have gotten a kick out of the place. I grew up in the early 1970s watching The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. Plus, my brother lived the Urban Cowboy life in the early 1980s when he worked in Houston, and I spent a lot of time with that film’s soundtrack. The fiddles and banjos, the wigs and rhinestones, the Qiana and the cowboy boots: it’s part of my childhood. (Sadly, the volume on the Hee Haw video clips at the Hall of Fame was so low, my daughter could not fully appreciate the comic stylings of the Hee Haw Honeys.)Hee Haw Honeys

Still, I sped up once I got to the displayes featuring stars of the 1990s and beyond. I have no time for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or the other Top 40 country guys. Also, no matter how many articles I read about how Taylor Swift is a critical favorite as well as great person on and off stage, I just can’t bring myself to give her music a listen. Just considering it makes my neck stiffen.

Clearly I am one of those insufferable snobs Chuck Klosterman called out in “Toby over Moby,” a 2003 essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

[T]hey’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know that hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner.

Klosterman goes on to call alternative country “the most popular musical genre of the last twenty-five years that’s managed to remain completely unpopular.” (I have at least half of the albums featured in the Hall of Fame’s alt-country display … ahem.)

But the sincerity of pop country gets dulled by bro country‘s formulaic songwriting and singers Auto-tuned into sameness. There is so much better stuff available. Classic material from Hank Williams and Willie Nelson hasn’t lost its luster, and 21st century musicians – the Punch Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few – are reclaiming and reinterpreting the old-time catchiness of roots music without being precious about it. Plus, musicians on the rock-and-roll side of the spectrum like Jack White and Dan Auerbach make Nashville their home, soaking up the traditions and giving a platform to lesser known yet absurdly talented locals.

And on top of all this is the Grand Ole Opry, still exemplifying the best in country and roots music after 90 years on the air. More on that to follow.

See you on the flip side …

Great artists steal, questionable artists lose copyright suits: Robin Thicke and the “Blurred Lines” suit

12 Mar

The jury has spoken: “Blurred Lines” is a rip-off of “Got to Give It Up,” and Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke owe the family of Marvin Gaye $7.3 million.

Robin Thicke - now with a reason to sweat Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ambism/

Robin Thicke, now with even more reasons to sweat
Source: Ambism

And Robin Thicke has spoken: he is a music weasel.

This has been an emotional case since the Gaye family began the suit in August 2013. Marvin Gaye was a true musical genius, and his 1977 song about getting up the courage to get out on the dance floor is a funky tune that makes it nearly impossible to stay still. Gaye died way too young – at the hands of his own father, no less – and his children are rightly concerned about preserving his legacy.

Then you have “Blurred Lines,” which is as much of an ear worm as “Got to Give It Up” yet has none of the innovation and taste of the Gaye classic. Its insidious popularity was stoked by a bazillion views of its video featuring Live Nude Girls. It’s also responsible for your grandmother knowing what twerking is, thanks to Miley Cyrus joining Thicke at the VMAs.

What is fascinating about this case is that the Gayes do not have the rights to the produced song, only the sheet music. The prosecution brought in musicologists to instruct the jury on what to look for on paper that would constitute plagiarism, since the family couldn’t play the version of the song most people are familiar with.

Marvin GayeA casual listener to both songs would hear “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” have a lot in common: cowbell, a bass-driven groove, crowd noise and so on. (To my ear, they are much more alike than “Free Fallin'” and “Stay With Me”, an unintentional incident of plagiarism that was settled between the artists without a lawsuit.) But if you had to examine the chord changes on paper, I’m not sure the similarities would be obvious.

Making the trial even weirder, Robin Thicke ducked responsibility for creating the contentious song in the first place, saying Pharrell Williams wrote pretty much everything because Thicke was too drunk and high to do so. In his deposition excerpted in The Hollywood Reporter, he admitted:

I was high on Vicodin and alcohol when I showed up at the studio. So my recollection is when we made the song, I thought I wanted — I  — I wanted to be more involved than I actually was by the time, nine months later, it became a huge hit and I wanted credit. So I started kind of convincing myself that I was a little more part of it than I was and I — because I didn’t want him — I wanted some credit for this big hit. But the reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song.”

Once they heard that, I wonder if the jury’s musical morality overran the facts of the case. The good people in the jury box probably looked at Thicke, who threw his songwriting partner under the bus while also admitting he was jealous and lazy, and thought, “I don’t care if there isn’t a single note in common. This sorry excuse of a music weasel doesn’t deserve a dime.”

You know who I’m worried about now, though? “Weird Al” Yankovic. Now his song is a work of true genius:

See you on the flip side …

From underground obscurity to international phenomenon: “It Came From Detroit”

2 Mar

It Came From DetroitThank goodness I moved to Detroit when I did. If I’d arrived in the 1990s, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold down a steady job or get any sleep because I would have spent every spare dollar and minute in a scuzzy bar somewhere downtown listening to garage bands.

I know this thanks to a very thoughtful gift from my cousins-in-law: a copy of the 2013 documentary, It Came from Detroit, chronicling the garage scene before, during and after the White Stripes made it big and gave the world a glimpse of the home-grown music scene.

The way the musicians tell it in the film, many of these bands were formed out of boredom by music geeks who clogged the aisles of record stores looking for albums by early 1960s American bands like Bay City’s own ? and the Mysterians. Having no experience playing an instrument wasn’t necessarily a barrier; friends would pick up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks and jump right in. As more bands formed, they took over whatever space was cheap and available (dive bars, bowling alleys, stripper transvestite clubs) to play for whoever would show up. The sound – fuzzed up, fun and really loud – was dubbed “Detroit garage rock.”

The crowds grew, the bands (which often shared or swapped players) got better known around town, and while they weren’t exactly able to quit their day jobs, bands like The Demolition Doll Rods, Electric Six and The Detroit Cobras were able to play rock music their way – as this video from The Gories shows:

 

Then came Jack and Meg White.

Jack had played with a number of Detroit bands like Rocket 455 and the Hentchmen, but once the White Stripes started, they were on a different trajectory. The documentary uses their rise to the top as a line of demarcation between a time when music was just a way for friends to get together by making music, and one in which Detroit bands like the Von Bondies were getting national praise and international exposure … which didn’t last long.

It Came From Detroit took ten years to film and features dozens of interviews and music clips. I’m glad that many of these bands are still playing (I’ve seen a couple recently) and grateful their commitment to having fun onstage hasn’t waned. And as for those that are hiatus or broke up long ago, at least we can experience some of that Motor City magic on screen. As my cousin writes,

Looking back it was by far the most enjoyable job I have ever had. For 9 years 3-4 nights a week my job was to go witness great rock and roll shows, well for the most part at least.

There are lots of stories to go along with all those shows. It did kind of dampen my enthusiasm of seeing national acts in larger venues, knowing that I saw so many great bands that were just as good and many times far better than those big touring bands.

Buy the documentary, spread the word, and share your experiences here. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from Ann Arbor-based The Paybacks:

 

See you on the flip side …

Good artists copy, great artists steal: Tom Petty, Sam Smith and so many others

13 Feb

Especially in the wake of Sam Smith cleaning up at the Grammys, I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for me to chime in about the revelation that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne will each get 12.5% of his royalties for the mega-hit “Stay With Me” because of the similarities between its melody and that of “I Won’t Back Down.”

Sorry to take so long to comment about this because … well, I’m torn.

No surprise I’d like to come down on Tom’s side, especially as he graciously said in his Facebook page statement there was no lawsuit and he has no hard feelings because “these things can happen.” Smith stated that when the similarities were pointed out, his team agreed to name Petty and Lynne as co-writers even though he hadn’t ever heard Petty’s song because “I am 22 years old.” (Snap!)

But here’s the thing: Petty’s people hunted down Smith’s for royalties, even though he just shrugged it off when other acts blatantly ripped off his work on purpose. To wit:

  • “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers mimics the licks and the lyrics of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (although this YouTubian blames their common producer, Rick Rubin)
  • The Strokes admitted they lifted a lot of “American Girl” in their 2001 tune, “Last Nite” – which, according to Petty, “made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’”

So why did he go after Sam Smith? There can be any number of cynical reasons, leading off with Lynne and Petty wanting a piece of his revenue stream to see them into their sunset years. Perhaps this is also part of some kind of campaign to remind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folks to induct ELO on the ballot next year.

As for me, I’d like to think it’s retribution on behalf of their great friend and fellow Wilbury, George Harrison.My Sweet Lord

He's So Fine“My Sweet Lord” was the first single off of Harrison’s 1970 solo album, All Things Must Pass. In January 1971, music publisher Bright Tunes sued him over similarities between Harrison’s hit and “He’s So Fine,” a Ronald Mack song made popular by The Chiffons in 1963. The suit lingered on for years and was settled in favor of Bright Tunes when the judge determined Harrison had committed “subconscious” plagiarism and owed $1.6 million in damages. But from the start, Harrison contended he was actually inspired by a different song: “Oh, Happy Day,” a hymn that was in public domain.

The additional kick in the head? By the time the suit went to trial in 1981 (having begun in 1976), Bright Tunes was owned by Allen Klein, Harrison’s manager who had advised him when the suit began. Harrison eventually bought Klein out for $587,000 to settle the case, and it took until 1998 to wrap up all the loose ends. It cast a lingering pall over Harrison’s songwriting, although he found a way to laugh about it at the time:

(Extra points if you can identify the comely blonde juror in the black hat.)

So, in my vain hope that Tom Petty was being somehow altruistic when he sloughed off thousands of dollars from a man who had no knowledge of his music, I choose to see the “Won’t Back Down”/”Stay With Me” settlement as karma … because in the music business, what goes around, comes around.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Love is on the airwaves! Get your copy of Love and Other B-Sides for the Valentine in your life!

New to the Rock & Roll Bookshelf – Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of “Purple Rain”

30 Jan

Where were you when you first saw Purple Rain?

If you graduated high school within five years on either side of me, I’m almost certain you saw it in a packed theater. Given it opened in July 1984, you probably had to wait in a long, sweltering line to get in. You might have been amazed to be part of a racially mixed crowd (or, in our case at the Broad Street Cinema in the West End of Richmond, to be pretty much the only white people there).

Lets Go Crazy book coverAnd when the movie started and you heard Prince intone, “Dearly beloved,” your mind and your ears were blown simultaneously.

He played like Jimi Hendrix, squealed like Little Richard and danced like James Brown. His size and style took androgyny to uncharted territory. You readily forgave the movie’s porny women’s roles, the ridiculous dialogue and amateur acting – although Morris Day and the Time were almost worth the price of admission alone – because Prince was so off-the-charts RIGHTEOUS!

Rock writer Alan Light was a Cincinnati high school grad spending his last summer at home before college when Prince’s semi-autobiographical extravaganza came out. In his latest book, Let’s Go Crazy, he  provides as much of the backstory as he can about the making of the movie without being able to interview Prince anew or reprint any photos. As the many online lists of “things you didn’t know about Prince” demonstrate, there’s still a lot here to delight long-time fans, especially the commentary by Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman) of the Revolution.

But Light has a larger mission. He wants to prove why Prince matters, since anyone younger than him (us) may never have the opportunity to see what the man can really do. That’s not just because he’s not touring as much or because his albums have been a really mixed bag since Sign O’ the Times. As Light points out, Prince’s drive to keep moving forward – propelled by his exceptional ego – is destroying much of his legacy.

Prince is prolifically innovative in terms of erasing himself from the historical record. After all, he changed his name to a symbol, introducing the meme “the ___ formerly known as ___” before we knew what memes even were. During his bitter feud with Warner Brothers, he’d perform with “SLAVE” Sharpied on his cheek so the label couldn’t use the photos for promotions. His professional reputation was just as disposable. Lest we forget, in the space of only four years

Purple Rain album

he went from this …

Parade

to this …

Around the World in a Day

then this …

and this ...

and, amazingly, this …

yet still ended up here

yet still ended up here

Prince is also famous for tracking down every scrap of online video and yanking it. I tried to find some early 1980s material to share in this post and came up empty: nothing from Purple Rain, none of the salacious MTV videos that primed us for the movie. (I did find a grainy version of his music video for “Kiss” on a German music site, featuring Melvoin in brocade for old times’ sake.)

Of course it’s Prince’s world and we just live in it, so he is perfectly within his rights to disavow his earlier stuff in order to follow his faith, control his image and promote the newest version of himself. While he’s still technically brilliant and can drop a really good album when he wants to (or two, as he did last fall), I doubt that will ever be enough to turn the younger generation into the hyperventilating, crazy-eyed fans we Xers will always be.

Biggest Prince Fans Ever

And that’s a damn shame.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Valentine’s Day is coming up – the perfect time to woo the rock-and-roller in your life with a copy of Love and Other B-Sides!

Day tripping at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

8 Jan R&R Hall of Fame

Propeller Head Jesus

Propeller Head Jesus

I am a museum geek. Give me admission, and I’ll tool around the galleries until the lights dim. This is enormous fun for me but not so much for my companions. Years ago when my partner and I went to Florence – a city with 72 museums – she humored this behavior for about three days, at which point she put her foot down. “If I have to go to one more museum and see one more painting of Jesus with a propeller on his head, you’re walking back by yourself. To San Francisco.”

It’s a lot like me and rock music. Just mentioning a musician turns on a spigot of trivia, unbidden and unstoppable: “Oh, you like the Black Keys? They’re from Akron, Ohio, you know, the birthplace of Chrissie Hynde, the Waitresses and Devo. You know, Devo was actually a seriously subversive band. The name is short for “de-evolution” reflecting their disillusion with the direction of society. Mark Mothersbaugh, you know, has scored a bunch of Wes Anderson films, and just did The Lego Movie, and … wait, why are you leaving?”

Put rock and roll together with a museum, and it’s my idea of heaven on earth. However, asking others to come with me would usher them into a bowge of hell. So, on the second day of 2015, I drove myself from Detroit to Cleveland to revisit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on my own.

R&R Hall of Fame

Cue the angels singing and the doves flying: at the front door of the Temple of Rock & Roll

The last time I went there was 2011, with my son and younger daughter (then nine years old) in tow. They were great sports, but ultimately they got their fill just as I was getting started. This time, I wanted to be there from open to close, giving myself permission to wallow in whatever I fancied.

As much as I carp about their induction choices, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is well curated, beautifully laid out and engagingly interactive. They make the most of video and audio to augment the collection of instruments, costumes, posters and paraphernalia on display. For instance, the Early Influences listening station near the front of the main gallery features the forefathers and foremothers of the genre, coming from blues, gospel, country and jazz, providing brief biographies, photos and choice examples of their songs.

I got to know a few of these folks better during my visit, including Louis Jordan, who certainly gave Little Richard some ideas …

… and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, whose Texas swing inspired Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” with this song:

After a couple of hours tooling around the exhibition hall in the lower level, I grabbed a sandwich then got comfortable in the Hall of Fame theater showing the video highlighting each year’s inductees through 2013. Given there are more than 304 inductees in the past 29 years, this takes a while, even as they gloss over some of the greats to keep things moving. In my opinion, 2011 was their best year for showcasing artists who run the gamut of what rock music can be. My particular favorites from that year:

Dr. John, who you can see here doing “Iko Iko” in concert with Ringo Starr and some of the best side men of the 1970s: Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, 2/5 of The Band, Billy Preston … boo howdy!

Tom Waits, who knew he was an acquired taste from early on, as spoofed in his appearance in 1977 on Fernwood 2 Night:

Leon Russell, who played elegantly powerful piano for everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Harrison without losing his Okie weirdness, which is on full display in his Homewood Sessions:

Sorry … the trivia spigot just went full blast again.

More than six hours after I arrived, I was back on the road home, sated after gorging on music all day. And the thing is, if someone would offer to go with me, I’d be back on 75 South to 80 East in a second, to see what more I could explore.

Let me know when you’re up for a road trip. I’ll pay the tolls on the turnpike … although I’ll control the stereo.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need even more evidence of how great the Class of 2011 was? Tune in at 12:47 in this clip from the 2011 induction broadcast to see Alice Cooper – bloody tux and all – trade verses with Darlene Love on “Da Doo Ron Ron.” How I adore rock and roll!

Right Around the Corner: The Detroit Cobras at the UFO Factory

29 Dec

Tied and TrueThis year has been a personal best for concerts. I saw some of my favorite bands of all time and went to nearly every major Detroit venue, many featuring not just places to sit but actual seats. It’s been grand.

My final show of 2014 was a departure. I and my intrepid concert buddy Lois ventured to the UFO Factory in Corktown to see a local favorite I’ve wanted to catch live for a long time: the Detroit Cobras. This outfit’s specialty is doing lesser-known R&B songs with a pumped-up tempo. One of my favorites is “Right Around the Corner,” originally recorded by newly-minted Rock & Roll Hall of Famers the “5” Royales:

Having missed the Detroit Cobras the last time they were in town, I made sure to buy tickets in advance. (Lois’ comment: “At these low prices, I’m guessing there are no seats.” Correct.) Another sign this was not going to be the usual Ticketmastered affair: my online receipt confirmed the date of the show as follows:

Start Date: December 27, 2014 9:00 PM
End Date: December 28, 2014 2:00 AM

I made a note to myself to use those Starbucks gift cards I got for Christmas. It was going to be a long night.

Tim V. of The Hentchmen

Tim Purrier of The Hentchmen

There were three warm-up acts on the bill, all of them new to me: Twine Time (not too bad, featuring a drummer who looked like he had just gotten his learner’s permit); J. Walker & the Crossguards (meh); and The Hentchmen. These three guys have played together for more than 20 years; Jack White sat in with them back in the old days. The guitarist, Tim Purrier, is a force of nature, unleashing muscular garage rock with every song. Great, great stuff.

When the Hentchmen wrapped up, it was after midnight. By then the place was filled to capacity with an admirable mix of age groups, although it was pretty much an all-white crowd, as has been the case at all of the shows I’ve attended out here (even Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ audience wasn’t particularly diverse). Some local rock stalwarts were rumored to be in the room: one of The Romantics was standing in the back, along with a guy from The Howling Diablos. The DJ kept things lively, blasting punk singles louder than any of the bands; Lois gamely shielded her eardrums. Finally some of the Cobras got onstage to set up. We were more than ready.

Rachel Nagy

Rachel Nagy and a Cobra

The constants of the band over the last two decades have been singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist “Mary Cobra” Ramirez. They look like the gals you want with you in a bar fight: tough and battle-tested. Nagy was the last one on stage, puffing on an e-cigarette and adjusting her t-shirt to better feature her tattoos. They got on with the show, kicking out three or four boppy, garaged-up songs in 15 minutes.

Before one of the tunes ended, however, Nagy left the stage. The remaining band members took it in stride, cracking lame jokes to cover for a few minutes. Then she returned to explain her absence, looking a bit worse for wear:

“Clearly I’m not as punk rock as I used to be,” she admitted. “I don’t throw up onstage anymore.”

Dearie me …

Whatever the cause for her indisposition (heat stroke? jello shots? stomach flu?), Nagy and the band got back into the groove. By 1:15, the 25-ish lead singer of Twine Time, boozy and uninhibited, was attempting to chat Lois up, and I had had enough of contending with the giant photographer blocking my view. The ink of our hand stamps had faded; we’d proven our mettle; it was time to go home to the suburbs.

I have gone to more concerts in five years in Detroit than the rest of my years combined. No doubt this has to do with my advancing age, knowing I’d better do it now before my aching back won’t let me stand in General Admission anymore. Still, rock music isn’t some fountain of youth for me. It’s not my aspiration, either; as much as I wish I could have sung back-up for Joe Cocker, I would have wanted to do so in 1969. And Lord knows no matter how many shows I attend, “cool” will never be synonymous with my name.

I simply like to feel the music as well as hear it, surrounded by fellow members of the tribe, especially when friends and/or family agree to share, or at least humor, my obsession. It’s fun; it’s silly; it’s glorious; it’s rock and roll.

May the journey continue in the New Year and beyond.

See you on the flip side … and here’s to more music in 2015!

P.S. A special thank you to everyone who has bought, read, reviewed and talked up Love and Other B-Sides. You helped make 2014 truly spectacular!

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