Tag Archives: Woodstock

Joe Cocker and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

22 Dec

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame logo

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2015 was announced recently, and the carping began immediately thereafter.

Here are the inductees, according to category:

  • “Former Upstarts Who Became Mainstream Stars”: Green Day
  • “We’re Embarrassed that Brian Epstein was Inducted Before Him”: Ringo Starr
  • “It’s About Damn Time”: Lou Reed
  • “Wait, He’s Not Already In?”: Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • “Any Other White Blues Guys We Missed?”: Paul Butterfield
  • “Great Voice, but, uh, Why?”: Bill Withers
  • “We Have to Induct a Girl with a Guitar – Who’s Left?”: Joan Jett
  • “Uh, Who?”: The “5” Royales
Kiss Action Figures

Perhaps you’re more likely to get into the Hall of Fame if you have your own action figures

As usual, there were seminal acts on the ballot much worthier than the winners, and even more weren’t even considered who should have been ensconced in Cleveland years ago. You gotta wonder how the induction committee determines who gets in and who doesn’t. Beyond having recording at least 25 years prior to consideration, the criteria is purposely vague:

We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.

For my money, the key phrases here are,”musical influence” and “musical excellence.” Anyone who gets in should have moved the medium forward … which ought to excuse Ms. Jett from consideration in the first place. This would also justify 2014 inductee Kiss, which – despite critics’ deep distaste – inspired numerous (male) musicians at a formative age, ranging from ?uestlove to Rivers Cuomo (as a snippet of tape from his middle school days attests).

Joe CockerWhich brings me to Joe Cocker, who died Dec. 22.

Cocker is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps he isn’t because he was influenced more than he influences. By his own admission in a documentary I saw a few years ago (was it Across From Midnight?), he idolized Ray Charles so much, he imitated him down to rocking back and forth as if he was playing Ray’s piano. He was also a singer who didn’t play an instrument and rarely sang his own compositions.

But man oh man, how he sang: that’s the definition of “musical excellence” right there.

As much as his appearance at Woodstock cemented his place in rock history, the magnificent Mad Dogs & Englishmen exemplifies his power as a vocalist and musician. Backed by a phenomenal band led by Leon Russell (featuring 20 Feet from Stardom star Claudia Lennear, and saxophonist Bobby Keys, who also died recently), Cocker rolled through tunes by the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and a crushing “Blue Medley,” with the fervor of a revival preacher. Here’s a sample from the documentary of the tour:

 

Cocker had scattered hits later in his career, including the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” but it’s that sweaty, scorching, full-body singing in the late 1960s/early 1970s that was his gift to rock and roll, and to us.

Rest in peace, Joe, and may you be the first name on the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot.

See you on the flip side … and Happy Holidays!

A Little Is Enough

1 Jan

townshend memeI got some sad news over the holiday break: one of my favorite rock writers is calling it quits. On Christmas Day, Jason Wendleton announced he was closing down his rock blog Defending Axl Rose and, sadder still, stopping writing about music altogether:

I’m always going to be a music fan, but I’m not going to pursue writing about music any further.  The main reason being, I’m not really qualified to do so.  I know nothing about music and can’t play any instruments.  That’s a pretty big regret I have and maybe someday I’ll correct that, but for now I feel far too handicapped to really “be” a music writer beyond the amateur-level.  And that’s just not good enough.

This stung, not only because I’ll miss his perspectives, recommendations and sense of humor about this silly/serious thing called rock and roll. His belief that he’s somehow falling short puts me on the defensive as well. Considering bloggers write for love not money, we have to create our own yardsticks to gauge our success. If Jason believes he’s not measuring up to his own particular standards, I can’t tell him he’s wrong. Yet if you’re moved by music and can convey your joy in a way that resonates with others, what more do you (or I) need for our writing to be worthy?

The way I see it, just because you don’t play an instrument doesn’t mean you can’t be an engaging, insightful music writer. Likewise, just because you’re a rock god doesn’t mean you aren’t a wanker in print.

Pete Townshend ought to have written a great rock memoir. He has credentials to spare. A founder of The Who, keynote performer at Woodstock and Live Aid, one of popular music’s best composers/lyricists and a rock blogging pioneer: he should be able to capture the giddy energy, sharp danger and ineffable cool of being an authentic rock idol. He was even an acquisitions editor for Faber and Faber—for God’s sake, he ought to know how to tell a good story.

Must ... be taken ... SERIOUSLY!

Must … be taken … SERIOUSLY!

And yet, Townshend’s memoir, Who I Am, is a pretentious, insufferable slog of a book. He wallows in perpetual angst about his overweening artistic ambitions, his sexual uncertainties, his less-than-successful self-monitored sobriety and his proclivity for expensive recording equipment and boats. No detail is spared, so the trivial is given the same weight as the monumental. (He spills a lot of ink  over his real estate dealings without a word about how his single “Rough Boys”  reflected his coming to terms with his own bisexuality.) There is no arc to his life in his telling, no sense of lessons learned or great moments appreciated, no moments of grace or humility to offset the self-indulgence. Even the amusing anecdotes aren’t very amusing.

Silly me. I thought being a rock star was supposed to be fun.

That’s the danger of reading a memoir, I guess: if you want to meet the real person behind the persona, you run the risk of not liking him very much. The Pete Townshend portrayed in his book is obsessed with being taken seriously as an artist to the expense of all else. I had been hoping to learn more about the guy who wrote “Long Live Rock,” one of the funniest songs about rock-and-roll decadence ever.

Here’s a live performance of that song on British television, introduced by a hipster of the time underscoring the Importance of the Band … then Pete goes on to flub his own lyrics:

Pete, here’s hoping you find your sense of humor again soon … I’m sure Jason can help you.

See you on the flip side …

Stop Making It Make Sense

10 Feb

For years I have been schooling up my older girl in the finer points of rock-and-roll. I’ve done my job so well, she took great pains to learn how to pronounce the word “pedagogy.” (In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “pet-uh-GO-gee” … and the fact that I am sharing that information here proves her point, I suppose.)

Since I’ve made so much progress on that front, I have decided to expand my efforts to include a new pupil: my nine-year old. It may be long while before I’ll take her to a concert, so I’m introducing her to the magic of live performance via great rock documentaries. We began with, what else? Woodstock.

My first viewing of the classic was a midnight showing in Richmond when I was in high school. My suburban mind was successfully blown about 2:00 a.m. when Joe Cocker came on and, due to the late hour as much as his volcanic performance, he and the falsetto-singing Grease Band became the most smoking hot bunch of longhairs ever.  My daughter had to settle for a small screen screening on our upstairs TV.

When the naked hippies went flitting by and she got age-appropriately grossed out, it occurred to me that parental guidance was going to really be needed if we watched any of the other interviews.  I skipped ahead to key performances, starting with Santana’s barn-burning “Soul Sacrifice”:

Given that most of the gossipy trivia I knew about Woodstock involved drugs, drugs and more drugs, I couldn’t say much about the performers (other than assure her that yes, the Grease Band singers were guys).

Of course, rock and roll movies aren’t all brown acid and Wavy Gravy. For our next Rock and Roll movie night, we watched Stop Making Sense.

Made sense at the time …

When I watched this in Cambridge when it came out in 1984, the Talking Heads and David Byrne’s shark-eyed stare were cool, no explanation necessary. Watching it nearly 30 years later with my youngest, though, I was barraged by questions:

“Why is he using a tape recorder?”

“Why is he jerking around?”

“Why is the stage all red?”

“Why are those words on the screens?”

(It was as if she had read the taglines for the marketing campaign.)

I tried to get her revved up by sharing tidbits about my favorite numbers. “Those back-up singers had to be in great shape,” I pointed out when “Life During Wartime” began. “They’ll be jogging through the entire song.”

“Spoiler alert,” my nine-year old muttered. I think I heard her eyes roll. Once again, I had to shut up. I had to allow her to absorb the musical experience on her own terms.

She fell asleep before David Byrne toddled in wearing the Big Suit. Clearly not her cup of chai tea, this movie. Oh well, at least she tried it once … like avocados.

Over time, we’ll find our musical groove – watching rockumentaries, sharing playlists, going to concerts. I’ll just have to get used to the fact that I won’t need to narrate the tour forever.

See you on the flip side …

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