Tag Archives: George Harrison

A Poem is a Naked Person: Leon Russell’s New 1974 Documentary

11 Nov

http://www.janusfilms.com/poem/downloads

“I’ll put on a show for you if you put on a show for me” (www.janusfilms.com/poem)

If you can hum “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” or “Superstar,” you already know more about Leon Russell than you’d learn from watching A Poem is a Naked Person. This free-form documentary has been kept out of distribution since it was completed in 1974 due to creative differences between Russell and director Les Blank, who chose to focus less on the musician and more on the crazy quilt of people surrounding him – including the director himself. Following Blank’s death in 2013, Russell relented, and now the film is making the rounds of art houses, including the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA.

Russell was in demand as a session pianist and arranger before he became better known as a songwriter and Joe Cocker’s long-haired bandleader for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concerts in 1970. In the 1960s, he played behind everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Herb Alpert to the Rolling Stones. Working for Phil Spector, he arranged Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” He toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; one such Friend, George Harrison, called him into service to manage the superstar line up playing the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Around that time Russell released his first solo album, featuring “A Song for You” – which is as lovely a love song as ever was written.

poem_poster_smallBy the time Blank showed up in Oklahoma in 1972 with his cameras, Russell had founded the Shelter recording label and was building a studio in rural Tulsa to give a variety of musicians a place to play and develop. But instead of putting Russell center stage in his own documentary – a movie he spent $660,000 to produce – Blank looped in whatever image, sound or message he found interesting (undoubtedly made all the more interesting thanks to the huge quantities of drugs they must have ingested, if the ruby-red eyeballs and twitchy freak outs of Russell’s bandmates are any indication).

For a fan like me who’s eager to see Russell performing in his prime as a headliner rather than a band leader, the film is a frustrating experience. It captures a few moments of musical genius, like clips of Russell’s concert performances and studio sessions for his Hank Wilson’s Back country album, including George Jones singing a heartbreaking solo version of “Take Me.” But Blunt’s penchant for the bizarre overwhelms the impact of the music and the story of the star. In addition to a lot of b-roll of the (often toothless) denizens of Tulsa, the director wastes valuable screen time in order to pontificate about art and capitalism, demonstrated by a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a chick (you read that correctly). You can understand why Russell was less than happy.

Yet it’s not a total loss. Watching Russell play – gray-eyed and steel-haired, his elegant fingers rolling from gospel to honky-tonk to rock and roll – is transporting.  It’s worth the 90 minutes of drug-soaked oddness just to see that.

See you on the flip side …

Bonus Tom Petty trivia! In 1974, Petty and his Mudcrutch bandmates traveled from Florida to Los Angeles with a demo in hand. London Records offered them a record deal the first day they arrived, thanks to a mix of talent and beginner’s luck. Thrilled by the prospect, they went back home to sell everything they owned to relocate. While in rehearsal, they got a call from Leon Russell’s producing partner Denny Cordell, who convinced them to stop in Tulsa on their way to LA to meet him at the studio at Shelter Records. They spent the night, did a session in the studio and decided to sign with Shelter instead … which resulted in the first two albums Petty recorded with the Heartbreakers. 

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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!

Beware of Darkness

29 Nov

Nearly a year after it premiered on HBO I finally watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s expansive documentary. For two weeks I’ve had an amalgam of “My Sweet Lord,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun” running through my head: sadness and bliss.

There’s not a lot I can say about Harrison or Scorsese that hasn’t already been said, other than to share my utter awe. When you have one of the world’s foremost music documentarians chronicling one of the most obscenely famous and talented musicians/spiritual seekers of the 20th century, it’s going to be good.

Before watching this I didn’t know much about George Harrison apart from the basics: regarded as one of the most influential rock guitarists ever; left the Beatles to explore Indian music and transcendental meditation; had a huge, semi-controversial hit praising Krishna; invented the megastar charity rock show with The Concert for Bangladesh (and strengthened its fundraising success by insisting on creating a film and double album); became a Traveling Wilbury; died way too soon and too young.

The secret of this telling of an almost too familiar story was how many surprises there were, some delightful and some dark:

  • He was a huge fan of Formula One car racing and became a good friend of Jackie Stewart.
  • His doppelganger son Dhani rebelled against his parents by going to military school.
  • He financed all of Life of Brian when the original producers backed out fearing the controversial content
  • When a mentally unstable man attacked George in his own home, stabbing him severely, his wife Olivia fended off the intruder by beating him with a poker and lamp. George later told his wife that during the attack, he had the awful realization that he was in the process of being murdered.

(Olivia is someone I’d love to have dinner with. She comes off as a grounded, intelligent and deeply compassionate woman who was well suited for the task of being married to George: an otherworldly man who, for all his pursuit of perfection, also committed all too common sins like infidelity. She also got the best line of the film: “What’s the secret to a long marriage? Don’t get divorced!”)

It would be wrong to say the best thing about watching this documentary is learning more trivia. George Harrison: Living in the Material World connects you musically and viscerally to his passionate world view, which he deftly made part of our own. That was made clear in one of the extra scenes available on the DVD, in which Dhani sits at a mixing board with Beatles producer George Martin exploring the various vocal and instrumental tracks that were used or discarded in the production of “Here Comes the Sun.” As George Harrison’s acoustic guitar offered the indelible final notes, Dhani points out that his father used an Indian rhythmic structure throughout the song.

If you transcribe that rhythm using Western time signatures, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. It traipses through 11/8, 4/4 and 7/8. It’s irregular and alien, so difficult to grasp that Ringo Starr said he had to plow through it because if he thought too much he just couldn’t play it. Yet Dhani points out it’s actually very simple. It’s  just : 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1. The beats resolve themselves from 3 to 2 to 1.

The One.

See you on the flip side …

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