Below, watch a selection of videos by Downie and his band.
By Fred Mills
In December of 2015, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was diagnosed with brain cancer, and he disclosed the news publically a few months later. The Canadian band – utterly beloved in its country and beyond – subsequently released final album Man Machine Poem and mounted a farewell tour of Canada that included a massive August concert in Downie’s hometown of Kingston (it was broadcast live and clips can be found on YouTube). This Tuesday, October 17, Downie passed away from his cancer, at the age of 53.
“Last night Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by.
“Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss… on the lips.
“Gord said he had lived many lives. As a musician, he lived “the life” for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one.”
With 14 studio albums since forming in 1984, the Hip frequently ruled the charts, notching multiple Platinum certifications and 16 Canadian Juno Awards. Along the way they became a genuine Canadian institution, and it wouldn’t be out of line to compare them to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in terms of their near constant presence in the minds of their countrymen. The fact that Downie, as a lyricist (and also as a solo artist, with five albums to his credit), typically invoked Canada in his songs and was also quite tireless with his work on environmental and indigenous peoples causes.
A 23-song solo album titled Introduce Yerself is slated to be released at the end of this month.
Bringing together some of the BLURT gang’s Tom Petty coverage from the past few years because… well… because there’s a dream we keep having. (Above photo by Scott Dudelson)
BY FRED MILLS, JOHN B. MOORE, TIM HINELY, LEE ZIMMERMAN, SUSAN MOLL, GREG KELLY, & SCOTT DUDELSON
Editor’s Note: Tom Petty passed away October 2, at the age of 66. After some initial media confusion, his longtime manager Tony Demitriades posted an official announcement (see below). An outpouring of grief on social media immediately followed, as did the mainstream reports, obits, and tributes—such as this heartfelt one by Jon Pareles of the New York Times (“A Mainstay of Rock With the Heartbreakers), this mini-retrospective by Stereo Williams of The Daily Beast (“Tom Petty’s Remarkable Stand Against the Confederate Flag”), this career overview at Rolling Stone by Kory Grow and Andy Greene, and “The Final Interview” at the Los Angeles Times, conducted by Randy Lewis a couple of days after the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour had wrapped at the Hollywood Bowl, and just five days before Petty’s death. The latter also includes a wonderful backstage photo gallery from the Bowl shows, taken by my friend (and fellow BLURT-er) Andy Tennille, who has been the band’s official tour photographer for years.
I’m not going to write an obituary; I just can’t do it now. It seems like I’ve already done that 50 times over the past 48 hours on social media and via sundry correspondence with fellow Tom Petty devotees. Let’s leave it at “permanently among my Top 5 artists of all time.” But when you factor in how much Petty and his Heartbreakers meant to me, as well as to my wife, from the very beginning—starting on that afternoon in 1976 when I wandered into the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, record store Schoolkids, spotted an LP with an insouciant-looking, leather jacket-sporting, blonde longhair adorning the cover, and had the shopkeepers cue it up over the house stereo—it’s impossible not to add my voice to the grieving choir. Apologies in advance for making your load heavier, fellow fans. But this is what we do precisely because we are fans.
How many times did the two of us get to see TP&THB? I’m not certain, to be honest, but who really cares? If you want to play the World’s Biggest Superfan game, seek elsewhere. But we picked some good ‘uns over the years to attend, ranging from the now-legendary evening in Charlotte 1990 when (as related below) Petty renounced his earlier marketing blunder involving the Confederate rebel flag; to the transcendental show in Phoenix in the late ’90s that featured no less than the Blind Boys of Alabama opening (!) for their avowed fan; to just a couple of years ago in Raleigh in which Tom and the gang gave us—presumably without realizing it—a wedding anniversary gift of a career-spanning show that, now, seems all the more meaningful. Along the way, I accumulated my share of shows on cassette, CD, CDR, and digital download, going all the way back to the beginning through the recent tour celebrating the band’s four decades. (Maybe I am a superfan after all.)
What follows, then, is my attempt to share some appreciations of Tom Petty that I have had the honor, along with my fellow TP fan Stephen Judge (owner of BLURT and Schoolkids Records), to publish in this space over the years, both in words and images. It starts with a terrific photo gallery, which is then followed by an extended (very extended—feel free to scroll past) essay/review I myself wrote on the occasion of Petty’s 2009 box set The Live Anthology. After that are some related commentaries and photos from everybody else. I wish I had a profound final tagline here, but I really don’t; there have been so many things written about Petty in the past few days (including the above-linked Daily Beast article, which actually quotes from my original piece on Petty and the onstage rebel flag incident), that I fear anything I might say would come across as redundant or, worse, facile.
So since Petty always had a knack for saying the things that the rest of us wished we had said, I’ll let him get in the last word for this introduction. I dedicate it to Allison Mills. —FM
“You know, sometimes, I don’t know why,
But this old town just seems so hopeless
I ain’t really sure, but it seems I remember the good times
Were just a little bit more in focus
But when she puts her arms around me,
I can, somehow, rise above it
Yeah man, when I got that little girl standing right by my side,
You know, I can tell the whole wide world, and shout it,
‘Hey, here comes my girl, here comes my girl, Yeah, she looks so right, she’s all I need tonight…’
Every now and then, I get down to the end of a day,
I’ll have to stop, ask myself, “What’ve I done?”
It just seems so useless to have to work so hard,
And nothin’ ever really seem to come from it
And then she looks me in the eye, says, “We gonna last forever,”
And man, you know I can’t begin to doubt it
No, because this feels so good and so free and so right,
I know we ain’t never goin’ change our minds about it
Here comes my girl, here comes my girl, Yeah, she looks so right, she’s all I need tonight…”
Writers whose roots extend below the Mason-Dixon Line have long dwelled on matters of heritage. Even those who preach the occasional necessity of getting out in order to make a life for oneself understand how roots run deep, and you can no more escape that heritage than you can declare your back yard a sovereign nation and secede from the Union. So to speak.
Tom Petty’s a writer, of songs, and while he’s a textbook example of a southern boy who got out and, in the parlance, done real good for hisself, in those songs there’s always been a lyrical tension between the past and the present that gives his material an autobiographical undercurrent, an ambiance, a vibe, peculiar to southern writers. I’m a writer, too, and the longer I do it the more I discover my own regional idiosyncrasies creeping in to my work; I suspect they were always there and I just didn’t recognize them as such. Finding parallels between Petty’s life and mine isn’t particularly hard, either. Both of us came of age in the sixties, he in upstate Florida and me in a textile mill region of North Carolina, right at the NC-SC line — which, if you know much about those two regions, suggests a distinct lack of cultural opportunities, so a person was usually left casting a wide net utilizing whatever resources could be found.
“Well she was an American girl Raised on promises She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life Somewhere else After all it was a great big world With lots of places to run to…”
As Petty pointed out in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, his best-known song “American Girl” is not about a specific girl: “I was creating a girl like I knew in Gainesville, the kind who knows there’s more out there than the cards she’s drawn.” But he was also subliminally sketching himself into the character, articulating what he had felt growing up in Gainesville. This is why the tune strikes a chord regardless of whether you’re a male or a female; the yearning is universal, and it’s not necessary limited to teenagers either.
In our mutual quests to find a little more to life Petty and I both eschewed high school sports for books, movies and, most particularly, music, and because of that our role models tended to be a few years older, typically long-haired and liberal-tilting types (and with good weed connections) who gave us the kind of encouragement we didn’t necessarily get from our peer group. Both of us took a lot of grief when we began growing our own hair out, including thumpings from local good ol’ boys who took exception to our appearance, and such incidents fueled streaks of anger, defiance and righteousness. Petty, for example, told Rolling Stone that during his early years as a musician he was harassed by rednecks and even refused service at truck stops and it helped him understand and sympathize with what African-Americans went through on a daily basis. Those angry, defiant and righteous feelings continue to manifest in us as adults.
And Petty and I both finally got out, too: he traveled far, to L.A., and embarked upon one of rock’s more storied careers; I made it to college, and in a roundabout way, not always financially fruitful but still aesthetically satisfying, to a life in music, too. All along, although the two of us have met just once and then only very briefly, our southern heritage has continued to link us in ways that gives his music a resonance that is deeper and more enduring than that of pretty much any other artist I admire.
One day in late 1976 I wandered into a Chapel Hill, NC, record store. Spying among the new releases a copy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I wondered who this leather-jacketed guy on the sleeve was. The shoulder-length blonde hair painted him a traditional ‘70s rock type, yet the jacket and half-smirk/half-sneer creasing his face suggested he was more aligned with punk, which by then I was already enthusiastically embracing. The guy behind the counter played a couple of songs, notably the Byrdsian raveup “American Girl,” and I was sold. It would be over-romanticizing matters for me to claim I converted, on the spot, to fan-for-life status — it was only Petty’s first album, after all — but I can confess, in all sincerity, that the net result was the same.
Other albums would similarly floor me — 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, 1985’s Southern Accents, 1994’s Wild Flowers (billed as a solo Petty release), even 2002’s The Last DJ, which did well commercially but took a drubbing from critics — while songs from all of Petty’s releases would find their way into regular mixtape rotation in the car, on the home stereo, and eventually on the iPod and smartphone, too. I recall buying the 45 of “Refugee” because it had a non-album B-side, “Casa Dega,” a spooky-sounding slow-burn number that referenced a strange little Florida town (it’s actually spelled Cassadaga) populated by psychics. I even penned an essay about the song for one of the indie rock zines I scribed for back in the day, attempting to probe the mysterious yet open-endedly romantic, lyrics, that to this day still get under my skin—like a partially-remembered dream that lingers and haunts you long after you’ve awaken:
“She said to me as she holds my hand And reads the lines of a stranger Yeah, and she knows my name, yeah, she knows my plan In the past, in the present, and for the future… ‘Baby, fools pay the price of a whisper in the night In Casa Dega Time rolls by, night is only night Can I save you?’”
Of course it was the live Petty experience that would cement my fanship. I’ll never forget squeezing down front at an outdoor amphitheater in Charlotte in the early ’80s (June 22, 1980, to be precise) to watch the Heartbreakers blaze through a set in the summer’s heat; I was surrounded by so many gorgeous, sweat-drenched, dancing, screaming females that I got a first-hand sense of what Beatlemania might have been like. Later that evening at the nearby hotel, who should I run into at the elevator but keyboardist Benmont Tench; upon learning that we had a close mutual friend, he paused to chat a few moments then invited me up to say hello to Petty, as the band was about to check out early and drive through the night on their bus to the next gig. Starstruck, I wound up mumbling at them something about “owning all the records” and “when are you going to start making better music videos,” thus ensuring that Petty and Tench quickly found excuses to go finish their packing before I could get around to asking for an autograph. But hey, at least I got to shake their hands.
Another time was the Echo tour in Phoenix, August 19, 1999, at a point when the Heartbreakers had skillfully merged both their own songs and Petty’s solo material to craft what was unquestionably one of the most dynamic stage shows by one of the most formidable live acts in the business. In particular, they brought down the house with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which had earlier been an MTV staple thanks to the goofy Alice In Wonderland-styled vid, but in concert was transformed into a psychedelic epic complete with an eye-popping, potentially seizure-inducing, lights and strobe production.
But the Petty concert I’ll always remember most vividly was on January 29, 1990, once again in Charlotte. In April of the previous year, Petty had released his first solo LP, the Jeff Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever, so he was spotlighting a good chunk of that record even though, with the exception of guitarist Mike Campbell, the members of the Heartbreakers only had cameos on FMF. The band was also doing a lot of the Southern Accents album, from 1985, and much of the same stage design (plantation mansion columns, assorted antebellum/southern touches, etc.) from the Southern Accents tour was still being used. It was during the “Southern Accents” song itself that something totally out of the blue happened.
A certain yahoo element had already been making its presence in the crowd known, emitting whoops and raising beer cups whenever Petty would make a regional reference. It was starting to feel like a NASCAR rally in the arena. Now, as the band eased into the song’s signature piano intro, somebody tossed a folded-up object onto the stage. Petty walked over, picked it up, and started unfolding it: a rebel flag, symbol of the Confederacy — and of a whole lot more. He froze, uncertain as to what he should do. Well, wave it proudly at all your fellow Southerners, you could almost hear the collective thought ripple through the air. Instead, while the band continued vamping on the intro, Petty walked back to the mic, still holding the flag, and slowly began to speak, talking about how on the Southern Accents tour a few years ago they’d included a Confederate flag as part of the stage set, but since then he’d been thinking about it and decided that it had been a mistake because he understood maybe it wasn’t just a rebel image to some folks. As a low rumble of boos and catcalls, maybe mixed with a few tentative cheers, came out of the crowd, Petty carefully wadded the flag up and concluded, “So we don’t do” — nodding at the flag — “this anymore.” Chucking it back into the audience, he started to sing, softly, gradually building in volume:
“There’s a southern accent, where I come from The young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb I got my own way of talkin’ but everything is done With a southern accent where I come from…”
Driving home from the concert that night I still could feel the combined chill and thrill I’d gotten earlier. A lesser performer wouldn’t have been able to pull off a simultaneous refutation and affirmation, and in the unexpected duality of sentiment and expectations of the moment, Petty and his Heartbreakers had gone on to perform the song with a visceral resolve imbued equally with grace and grit I hadn’t detected at previous concerts.
Turning on the radio, I heard the local classic rock deejay talking about the incident in disparaging terms and inviting listeners to call in and “let Tom Petty know just what we think about him.” In that moment, I felt the anger and defiance of my younger self return, and I wanted to punch the dashboard.
It’s these memories that steer me to The Live Anthology (Reprise), a five-CD, three-DVD, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers box. Arriving as a kind of two-year coda to 2007’s Peter Bogdanovich-directed TP&THB documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream and the accompanying book and multiple-DVD/CD set, it’s a dream date all on its own terms, stuffed to its 12” x 12” x 2”, Shepard Fairey-art-adorned gills with all manner of goodies and memorabilia. There are facsimiles of tour posters and backstage passes; a thick LP-sized booklet boasting detailed track annotations and commentary plus extensive liners from Petty, Warren Zanes and a host of music journalists; a pocket-sized TP “notebook”; and a reproduction of the 1977 promotional-only 12” EP Official Live ‘Leg that Shelter Records distributed to radio stations (the repro even duplicates the way the original had the same four songs pressed on both sides; incidentally, the nine-minute “Dog On the Run” is a must-hear). In short, pure collector catnip.
Sound- and vision-wise, Petty’s not just fucking around with a high-ticket item suitable for holiday shopping, either. One of the DVDs contains all of the live audio material in the high-resolution Blu-ray format, meaning that if you have a Blu-ray player and harbor an audio geek side, you’re in clover. Meanwhile, the two video discs nicely complement the other Petty DVDs in your collection (there have been quite a few, including RDAD, to date). Live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was professionally filmed at the Heartbreakers’ Dec. 31, 1978 concert, and it’s every bit as intense and celebratory as a New Year’s Eve show should be. That it captures the band on the cusp of — but not quite there yet — huge international stardom, a good nine months before the release of Damn the Torpedoes, therefore giving you a long-form look at a group still hungry and fueled by an almost punkish combativeness, makes for a revealing and rewarding viewing experience. Several as-yet-unreleased songs were already in the setlist at the time, notably “Refugee” and “Casa Dega,” and the closing Isley Brothers cover “Shout” completely smokes the version that appeared on 1985’s concert album and film Pack Up the Plantations: Live!
The third DVD is titled 400 Days, a documentary film directed by Martyn Atkins. Atkins had been introduced to Petty by Rick Rubin during the making of Wildflowers, and he accumulated footage of Petty and the Heartbreakers in the studio and on the subsequent 1995 tour – essentially a chronicle of 400 days in the life of an artist and a rock band. It’s an engaging portrait, necessarily less comprehensive but in places more intimate than the Bogdanovich film, with a number of the performance clips in particular demanding repeated attention.
Everything circles back to the live CDS, however. And while the thought of over five hours’ worth of concert material is daunting by any standard, as a live album in the truest, most classic sense — think the Who’s Live at Leeds, the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East, Gov’t Mule’s Live… With a Little Help from Our Friends, etc. — this surely ranks high. Petty told Rolling Stone that he put a lot of effort into sequencing the material in order to make each disc represent “a whole program,” like an individual concert set. Acknowledging the fracturing of artistic intent that iTunes represents and how people will undoubtedly cherry-pick the individual tunes they want to hear, he added, “But there’s somebody out there who will sit down and take it as the work it is.”
And what a work it is: a series of five emotional journeys (four, if you opt for the standard, budget-conscious 4CD edition, but I encourage you to be brave, hock your kid’s bike at the nearest pawn shop, and go for the full unexpurgated Kahuna), arranged not chronologically but in order to reveal, as Petty writes in his liners, “mood first… a band capable of thinking on its feet… one moment leading to the next.”
If you’ve had the patience to read this far you’re obviously a Petty fan and probably don’t need me to sell you on the music. I will say that, given the sheer quantity here, 62 songs in all, it’s damned remarkable that there’s nary a shred of excess on display. Even at their most demonstrative, say on a 2001 wig-out on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or the extended boogie/raveup/anthem that is 1993’s “Drivin’ Down To Georgia,” the Heartbreakers demonstrate a cool restraint that keeps the focus on the actual songs. They also, via a healthy sampling of cover material (my faves: Peter Green & Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” from Bonnaroo ’06, and Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” from the famed 1997 Fillmore residency), open the doors wide to an in-action view of the band’s roots, influences and inspirations.
And for a collection of tapes that spans three decades, the sonic consistency and flow across the discs amount to an achievement that’s equally remarkable. For example, the aforementioned “DCAHNM” is followed immediately by a 1978 recording of “Too Much Ain’t Enough,” but they sound like they could have come from the same show. Another memorable pairing juxtaposes “Southern Accents” with Wildflowers standout “Crawling Back to You,” confirming a notion I’ve long held, that the Southern Accents and Wildflowers albums, though separated by a decade, are linked musically and thematically in Petty’s mind. And in one of the most striking sequences, one that almost singlehandedly sums up the Petty musical and thematic aesthetic, you get “Even the Losers”/”Here Comes My Girl” (1980) followed by “A Thing About You” (1981), “I’m In Love” (1982), “I’m A Man” (2006) and “Straight Into Darkness” (1982) — an entire lifetime’s worth of defiance, bliss, celebration, swagger and heartbreak rolled into a 25-minute mini-set.
In the latter tune, originally from 1982’s Long After Dark, Petty sings:
“There was a little girl, I used to know her I still think about her, time to time There was a moment when I really loved her Then one day the feeling just died… I don’t believe the good times are over I don’t believe the thrill is all gone Real love is a man’s salvation The weak ones fall, the strong carry on…”
It’s a telling number that, like “American Girl,” has a universality sunk deep into its sonic and lyric hooks, and it’s emblematic of the many musical riches contained on The Live Anthology. Listening to the box is like immersing oneself in a sea of personal sense memories. Indeed, as a songwriter, Petty’s sometimes been accused of having an unvarnished nostalgic streak. (You could make a similar case for Springsteen.) But there’s a difference in nostalgia for the sake of cheap, fleeting emotion, and nostalgia that seeks to extract something that’s true and pure from a previous life in order to find clarity within the present one. The present’s never quite as clear-cut as we like to tell ourselves it is.
I reckon that’s something else Petty and I have in common. We both realize that to survive and move forward you often have to escape your current circumstances — after all, it’s a great big world, with lots of places to run to — but only a fool would try to erase the past. Luckily, I’ll always have my southern accent to remind me of mine.
Petty: The Biography (by Warren Zanes) review: John B. Moore (November 2015—full review here)
“While the book is crammed with a lot of the popular Petty lore that many may already know, like his friendships George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan – all eventual members of the Traveling Wilburys – his longtime collaborations and kinship with Stevie Nicks and his remarkable solo career, the book also covers some of the more interesting aspects of the Petty story, most that have never been told in full detail before. In particular, before the band really took off, Petty was signed on as a writer and collaborator for Leon Russell where he would often be sent for at all hours of the night, simply to cool his heels on the couch outside the studio waiting for inspiration to strike his boss.
“Despite his relationship with Petty, Zanes still tackles some of the tougher aspects of the rockers career, including his struggles with heroine and other drugs, soured relationships with his bandmates, his divorce and a strained relationship with his father. Petty discusses all in a refreshingly honest manner and still manages to come off as sanguine.”
“Mojo is billed as a return-to-roots affair, loaded with the blues, Southern rock and West Coast psychedelia of Petty’s youth, a loose, collaborative and comfort-zone effort for the band aimed at pleasing themselves first and foremost (but which won’t come across as exactly esoteric to theircore audience)…. it’s a stronger, more assured effort than the last proper TP and the Heartbreakers album, 2002’s The Last DJ, which was very good but got bogged down in a few spots by its thematic conceits. And it’s a zillion times better than 2006’s Highway Companion, a Petty solo album that, aside from some contributions from Campbell and coproducer Jeff Lynne, featured Petty playing most of the instruments and going for a loose (if polished) feel that ultimately came off as tentative and too introspective for its own good. So whether Petty came to view those two records as misfires or was energized by the Mudcrutch and The Live Anthology experiences (or both), the end result is a collection of tunes that sounds like it was fun to write and record, one which evolved organically from the sheer joy of making music together.
“Ultimately Mojo, by striking a deft balance between earthy performances and crystalline production and presenting a focused-yet-diverse array of tunes, is the most satisfying studio release from Petty in a decade or more. Damn the media clichés, then; it’s far more than a return to roots. It’s a goddam renewal, spinning the same kind of new-discovery magic that sparked the imagination of a pre-internet generation all those years ago. Who’s up for some memories?”
Mojo Tour 2010 Live Album Expanded Edition review: Fred Mills (December 2010—full review here)
“A superior souvenir from this past summer – you can track down full-show bootlegs and audience tapes easily enough, but probably not any that were recorded and mixed professionally for the band – and as kind of summation-to-date of the Heartbreakers and their
notable, time-tested live aesthetic.”
“The band hit the stage at 9:00 PM sharp and Petty seemed in exceptionally good spirits (maybe something in the, uh, Colorado air?) and if I may introduce the band? Benmont Tench still on keys, Mike Campbell on guitar (and though he is Petty’s age, looks much younger), original bassist Ron Blair on the bass, (all three with Petty since 1976 though Blair dropped out and then dropped back in after Howie Epstein’s death in 2003) as well as drummer Steve Ferrone and (very sharp dressed) 3rd guitarist Scott Thurston (Ferrone and Thurston are the “new” guys though both have been around at least 20 years).
“These days the band basically cherry picks the best stuff from their catalog (40 plus years worth) and they sounded terrific, though Petty was really the only one who moves about the stage, dancing, arms in the air/conducting, interacting with the crowd, etc.”
“It’s groove over gravitas. A deeply furrowed bass line underscores the restless rhythm of the aptly titled “Faultlines” and its apparent companion piece, “Shadow People,” while the boogie and bluster of “Burnt Out Town” sounds amazingly like a lost long gem from the ZZ Top songbook. More on point, the full throttled, unrelenting pace driving the majority of these tracks – “Forgotten Man” and “All You Can Carry” being two examples – brings to mind such early standbys as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and the equally edgy “American Girl.”
“Although it’s easy to lament the fact that Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t vary all that much from their usual template. Hypnotic Eye also affirms the fact they remain an austere and unapologetic outfit, which has pretty much been their mantra since the start. After nearly 40 years, it’s almost reassuring in a way to find Petty’s still so full of purpose.”
The Screaming Eagle of Soul brought soul and funk to a new contemporary level and introduced it to an entire new generation. Photo above by Susan Moll. Below photos by John Boydston.
By Fred Mills
Last October, soul singer extraordinaire Charles Bradley saddened the music world with the news of a recent cancer diagnosis, writing at Facebook in a statement, “In the past few months, I have had to cancel a number of shows due to illness, taking me away from my beautiful fans. My doctors recently discovered a cancerous tumor in my stomach. I’m getting the best medical care and we are all extremely optimistic. I will fight through this like I’ve fought through the many other obstacles in my life.”
Sadly, earlier this month Bradley was forced to cancel yet more tour dates, and last night we learned that he finally succumbed to the cancer yesterday (Sept. 23). He was 68. The BBC reports that his publicist issued a statement that read, “Mr Bradley was truly grateful for all the love he’s received from his fans and we hope his message of love is remembered and carried on.” An outpouring of condolences and grief quickly followed the announcement, from fans and peers alike: producer Mark Ronson tweeted, “So sad that Charles Bradley has left us, what a voice & spirit. My heart goes out to his family-both blood & musical https://t.co/vQ0Pyq8Xes” while Daptone labelmates Antibalas offered, “RIP to our dear brother Charles Bradley. Your heart was too big for this planet. See you on the other side. We love you.”
“Man, can this guy let out a soul scream…. My appreciation for the soul greats was second-hand until way too late in life, meaning I mostly grew up listening to white rocker-crooners paying tribute. Meh. My bad. I’ve been making up for lost time of late, devouring all the Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown records I can find. So along comes Charles Bradley, and suddenly it’s not a nostalgia thing anymore. He is the real deal soul man like the greats who came before. He is also a great; not a revivalist or a retro act paying tribute. He’s Charles Bradley, and he’s bringing his world to new audiences.” (Follow the above link to view Boydston’s photo gallery from the show.)
Aside from the incendiary, sweat-drenched performances and near-brilliant recordings (such as on 2013’s Victim Of Love and 2016’s Changes), perhaps what I’ll remember most about Bradley was that closing-show ritual of wading into the crowd and hugging ecstatic fans. This wasn’t meet-and-greet handshakes, autographs and selfies at the merch table—this was literally demolishing the artist-fan, stage-audience barrier, a visual and deeply emotional expression of gratitude on his part for the love and enthusiasm those fans were giving him. Talk about a positive feedback loop. (The last video below will give you a sense of that scene.)
“A blitzkrieg of stories, anecdotes and tips on life”—and a night made all the more poignant and memorable in the aftermath of the legendary drummer’s untimely recent passing.
BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
I learned recently that one of my punk rock heroes is no longer of this world.
Grant Hart, the drummer and songwriting foil to Bob Mould in the now legendary Husker Du, has lost his battle with cancer. He was 56. I am saddened by this loss to the music world; a blow like this hit music nerds—like myself—hard. Hart is undoubtedly one of most influential drummers of alternative music and punk. He laid out a racket before him that has been copied many times over by countless bands, but no one got it quite as spot on as Hart.
He brought jazz precision and heavy metal aggression to the growing punk rock landscape and should be remembered as one of the Underground finest songsmiths. Whether it be with Husker Du (the band’s Zen Arcade is considered to be the greatest concept album punk has ever produced), as leader of Nova Mob, a solo performer, or as a well-respected artist, Hart has left his mark on the world, a mark that will never fade.
I’ll be honest: My job as a music journalist can be a pain in the ass at times. Labels, bands, publicists can be, shall we say, a sensitive lot. Don’t get me wrong; I love my job and have done it to the best of my abilities for the past twenty years. I’ve been to great shows and have seen wild things that have no place in print. Every once in awhile you meet someone, that changes your perception of music and life in general.
That hero for me was and is Grant Hart.
The first time I met Grant was at the Recordbar in Kansas City. He was opening for his former SST label mates The Meat Puppets; I had interviewed Kurt Kirkwood for a piece in The Pitch and was invited to the show. As I am standing at the merch table preparing to purchase yet another black t-shirt, this dude came up to me and commented about the Jack Kerouac button on my leather jacket. “You know, I’ve got William Burroughs’ copy of On the Road.” He said. My reply, in the horrible lighting of that small club? “Yeah? Good for you.” He laughed. After the show, he caught up with me at the bar. I apologized for my rudeness, to which he responded by buying me a beer. We talked about punk, guitars, the pros and cons of touring and whether or not there would be a Husker Du reunion. If there was hope for the reunion (he seemed to think it would happen) sadly, now that will never happen. After a half hour or so at the bar, he climbed into his goal minivan and drove to the next show like he had done a million times before in his 40+ career in music.
Fast forward six or seven years. I had met filmmaker Gorman Bechard after I had given a favorable praise to an exceptional documentary he had done on Minnesota groundbreakers The Replacements called Color Me Obsessed: A Film about the Replacements. When it came time for a follow-up, he aimed his lens on one of the most open characters in the history of punk and alternative music in general. When it was completed, Gorman sent me an early copy of Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart. What I saw was one of the best rock docs I’d ever seen. Not only for the quality director’s eye of Bechard but for the raw openness that Hart brought to the process: no bullshit, let’s do this and do it right.
The review that I originally did for BLURT MAGAZINE later was selected for the anthology, That Devil Music.com: Best Rock Writing of 2014. Because of all this, something happened that I never, in all my days, thought would happen, I was invited to dinner with Grant Hart.
Gorman told me that he and Grant would be in Lawrence, KS, for a showing of Every Everything at The Free State Film Festival. Hart was scheduled to hold a Q&A accompanied by a performance and showing of the film. Gorman reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in have dinner with he and Grant before the showing. Would I be interested? Are you fucking kidding me?? Of course I was interested.
It was not to be an interview; Grant liked my review and wanted to shoot the shit. No recording devices, no note pads, just food and conversation. After some fanboy awkwardness on my part, the talking began. Hart talked at a mile a minute, rambling on about music, his love of classic cars especially a 1955 Studebaker Champ, art, the film, his hopes for a Husker Du reunion, the man knew many things about many things. This went by as a four hour blur, a blitzkrieg of stories, anecdotes and tips on life.
As we walked down Massachusetts Street, beer in hand, heading to the premiere of Every Everything, he asked when I wanted to do the interview.
An interview is not needed; this was not about work; this night felt like two friends talking about life, music, and the joys of a well-made car.
From Phillips’ review of the documentary:
“Hart seems to be both at peace and at battle with his life. Nothing illustrates the point more than this sad tidbit from his childhood: Grant started drumming because, at 10 years old, he lost his brother Tom, who was a drummer, tragically in an accident. Grant inherited the drum set and started playing because a family member thought it would be a way “for Tom to live on.” Hart is a man constantly looking for something, looking for himself. To do so, he seems to be ready, willing and able to lay his demons in full view.
“Therein lays the beauty of Every Everything; where many iconic rock figures would most likely hide behind anecdotes from their career , vagaries, and a need to keep their legend intact, Grant throws everything on the table and starts chopping away.
“Hart is a man with a story to tell and Bechard’s film is a near perfect place to hear that story. All you have to do is sit down, watch and listen.”
A pull quote from that review appeared on the cover of the official Record Store Day vinyl release of the film’s soundtrack. Below: a photo of Hart and Mould that Mould posted at his Facebook page after Hart’s death.
A gifted musical and visual artist leaves us once again.
By Fred Mills
Hüsker Dü: without the Minneapolis band’s ’80s efforts, modern punk would have no doubt evolved far differently. Guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton, and drummer Grant Hart blazed a trail across the Amerindie underground and even helped make major labels respectable in terms of their hosting punk bands.
Today we learned that Hart passed away last night at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. The cause of death is listed as complications from liver cancer and hepatitis. Hart was 56.
“It was the Fall of 1978. I was attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. One block from my dormitory was a tiny store called Cheapo Records. There was a PA system set up near the front door blaring punk rock. I went inside and ended up hanging out with the only person in the shop. His name was Grant Hart.
“The next nine years of my life was spent side-by-side with Grant. We made amazing music together. We (almost) always agreed on how to present our collective work to the world. When we fought about the details, it was because we both cared. The band was our life. It was an amazing decade.
“We stopped working together in January 1988. We went on to solo careers, fronting our own bands, finding different ways to tell our individual stories. We stayed in contact over the next 29 years — sometimes peaceful, sometimes difficult, sometimes through go-betweens. For better or worse, that’s how it was, and occasionally that’s what it is when two people care deeply about everything they built together.
“The tragic news of Grant’s passing was not unexpected to me. My deepest condolences and thoughts to Grant’s family, friends, and fans around the world.
“Grant Hart was a gifted visual artist, a wonderful story teller, and a frighteningly talented musician. Everyone touched by his spirit will always remember.
“Godspeed, Grant. I miss you. Be with the angels.”
Hart embarked upon a post-Husker career than included both solo albums and under the name Nova Mob, and he also worked as a visual artist, as Mould notes. According to NPR, his final show was “July 1 at the Hook and Ladder Theater in Minneapolis [and] was actually a surprise tribute to him that featured Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, Babes In Toyland’s Lori Barbero and others: ‘I carried my guitar in, and it was like this sea of faces turning to me with great affection. There’s not too many big surprises that have been successfully thrown at me, but that was definitely one,’ Hart is quoted as saying.”
Below, revisit some choice video memories of Hart.
Songwriter, guitarist, singer, artist, a mentor, an inspiration—a spark.
BY FRED MILLS
Dynamic Nashville indie rockers Those Darlins broke up last year, but the garagey and totally rock ‘n’ roll outfit left behind a memorable decade-long legacy. Simply stated, and as we put it in a 2013 feature on the band, the group served up “tough, fully realized songs; muscular, rocking playing; smart arrangements; convincing singing—the whole package.”
So… this week brought the immensely sad news that one of Those Darlins’ two frontwomen, Jessi Zazu, has passed away from cervical cancer, leaving a huge hole in the collective heart of we here at BLURT, and no doubt in the hearts of fans across the globe. The Tennessean reported that she died Tuesday, September 12, at Nashville’s Centennial hospital. She had family members and friend with her at the time of her passing.
The gifted, witty musician was only 28, which makes the loss all the more poignant. She was raised a musical family (her uncle was country star Steve Wariner), telling us, in that 2013 interview, “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
Zazu, fellow guitarist Nikki Kvarnes, and bassist Kelley Anderson formed the band in ’06, eventually drafting drummer Linwood Regensburg after the release of their 2009 self-titled debut, and with the release of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the critical floodgates—not to mention the public’s adoration—poured forth. Early on, the word was that the almost-all-gal band was a distaff take on the venerable insurgent country ethos (as epitomized by the Bloodshot Recs stable of mavericks). Which was fair enough; twang ‘n’ drawl was certainly a large part of the band’s sound, abetted by telling covers of both A.P. Carter and Uncle Dave Macon, and it was also pretty hard to overlook their moniker and their record label name (the delightfully blue collar-sounding Oh Wow Dang Records) in terms of presuming some serious hillbilly action going on. But by the time of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the group’s garage-punk roots were also on clear display, with reverby electric guitars as prominent as strummed acoustics, and some serious ‘60s girl-group vocals creeping into the mix as well.
Though Anderson left the following year, to be replaced by Adrian Barrera (from Gentlemen Jesse & His Men), Those Darlins lost no momentum, leading to 2013’s Roger Moutenot-produced Blur the Line, which figured highly—and in many cases, topped—that year’s best-of lists from critics and fans. (Pick to click: The sexysaucycool, almost T.Rex-like “In the Wilderness,” accompanied by an even sexier and cooler video.) It was a bold, mature, genre-traversing album beholden to no single factor other than talent. Sadly, the group wouldn’t last to cut a fourth album although for Record Store Day 2015 they did appear on a split album with Diarrhea Planet, Live at Pickathon.
“On December 9, 2015, the band announced, via its Facebook page, that it was going on hiatus. “We’re here to deliver some unfortunate news… Those Darlins will be taking an indefinite hiatus effective after our final tour in January. We’ve had a really great run together, but the time has come for us to move in different directions. We really appreciate all the love and support from our friends, fans, and family over the years.”
Zazu subsequently turned to working on her art; according to The Tennessean, she mounted a display in June at the Julia Martin Gallery that included works from her mother Kathy Wariner. And she also made public her battle with cancer, having been diagnosed in early 2016. She created a striking tee-shirt design reading “Ain’t Afraid” in order to raise funds for her chemotherapy, and as Those Darlins had been one of Nashville’s most popular indie rock groups, the fanbase responded accordingly. A recent John Prine tribute concert in Nashville even wound up being a Zazu fundraiser—those Darlins had previously appeared on a Prine tribute album—when the organizers announced they were donating the proceeds to her medical fund.
As of this writing no announcement had been made regarding a funeral or memorial.
“Zazu was a rock star in her hometown, but one completely free of attitude. She lifted up her peers and always welcomed newcomers. As an integral part of Southern Girls Rock Camp, she devoted herself to convincing girls that they could talk about anything, through music and also through visual art, her other medium. Small in stature, Jessi lived her message that creativity can make a person — especially a young woman — heroic, though she’d never use such a self-inflating term. Jessi was more playful and ever-curious, a 21st-century female version of Jack conquering the beanstalk — always climbing higher, killing giants, enlarging her worldview.
“More remarkably, she never stopped creating. In her last year, she produced enough drawings, ceramics and other artworks to stage two major exhibitions, recorded an as-yet unreleased album, and kept coming up with new projects… Fundamentally, she was a spark. She started things, connected people, lit the ignition in our sometimes tired minds and hearts. Her slogan was “Ain’t Afraid” — and she wasn’t, because there was no darkness that her brilliance couldn’t cut through, or at least make light enough to live in. The fiery particle that was the gift she gave us will never burn out.”
In the aforementioned 2013 interview, Zazu offered contributor Steven Wilson a number of memorable quotes regarding her roots and her approach to music. They bear repeating here. After that, check out some more of the band’s delightful videos as well as some choice live clips.
Jessi Zazu on…
…her childhood and path to music: “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. My parents were artists. I was around creativity my whole life… I never considered many other options. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
…John Fogerty & Creedence: “I was a huge fan of John Fogerty when I was a little girl. I love his guitar playing. When I [first] heard Creedence on the radio I said, ‘Mom, who is this?’ I loved the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Creedence’s Chronicle. Those were the two first albums I got into. So much of that is still alive in my songwriting.”
…Neil Young: We listened to a lot of Neil Young. We read his book Waging Heavy Peace, and listened to Zuma—well, most of his albums actually!”
…Patti Smith: “Nikki and I were listening to a lot of Patti Smith [before cutting Blur the Lines]… we had read her book Just Kids and sort of went on a Patti kick… [And the Velvet Underground] “was a connecting point.”
…musical influences in general: “We do have a lot of influences from the past, not a lot of current influences [but] part of what I wanted to accomplish was to take our influences and make something meant for now.”
… being based in Nashville, where relationships can often be adversarial: “Everybody’s played a million shows, everybody has the best gear, everybody’s better than you are.”
…her philosophy of music-making: I want to be really honest in everything we’re doing, especially in the lyrics, because honesty is the only way to be original. [So] I have to check myself and I want to be as brutally honest as I can right now. Part of the goal with this album was to be about now, not the past, not the future. The inability to be ‘in the now’ is the cause of the modern identity crisis we all have. I get irritated when people say, ‘I wasn’t made for these times.’ You were made for these times because you were born in these times!”
An immense loss to the indie rock world – and the music world, period.
By Fred Mills
One of our favorite bands here at BLURT, of the last decade, has to be Nashville’s Those Darlins, and if you don’t recognize that name then you are clearly on the wrong website. Put simply—or, as we put it in a 2013 feature on the band—the group served up “tough, fully realized songs; muscular, rocking playing; smart arrangements; convincing singing—the whole package.”
So today brings the sad news that one of Those Darlins’ two frontwomen, Jessi Zazu, has passed away from cancer. The gifted, witty musician was only 28.
Zazu was born into a musical family (her uncle was country star Steve Wariner), telling us, in that 2013 interview, “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”
It was a public battle with cancer, for sure. Zazu put together a teeshirt design reading “Ain’t Afraid” in order to raise both awareness and medical bill funds, and as Those Darlins had been one of Nashville’s most popular indie rock groups, the fanbase responded accordingly. A recent John Prine tribute concert in Nashville even wound up being a Zazu fundraiser—those Darlins had previously appeared on a Prine tribute album—when the organizers announced they were donating the proceeds to her medical fund. The band broke up about a year ago, and Zazu turned to her art; according to The Tennessean, she mounted a display in June at the Julia Martin Gallery that included works from her mother Kathy Wariner.
BLURT will have a tribute to Jessi shortly. In the meantime—rock:
Can bassist and sonic provocateur was a potent musical force from the ‘70s all the way through the present.
BY FRED MILLS
The music world has lost another giant: Holger Czukay, of Krautrock pioneers Can, has passed away from as-yet-undisclosed causes. He was 79.
According to The Guardian, Czukay “was found by a neighbour at his apartment, converted from Can’s old studio in Weilerswist near Cologne.” His body was discovered yesterday, Sept. 5.
Czukay was born in Poland in 1938, his family expelled after WWII. While growing up he took a job at a radio repair shop and became familiar with engineering and electronics, in particular shortwave radio. Later he studied music under avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen from 1963 to 1966 and eventually became a fan of underground rock music—which of course would lead to co-founding Can, for whom he oversaw most of their recordings as primary engineer.
Among the great German bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s none stand taller than Can. The group’s groundbreaking sound, a throbbing cauldron of psychedelia, dub/funk, jazz improv and warped worldbeat, influenced artists as diverse as The Fall, Gang of Four, PiL, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, and the group’s back catalog continues to inspire new generations who whiff Can’s rare essence.
Speaking to me in 1999 in an interview to promote the archival release Can Box Czukay observed how in the band’s time, “Can was never very successful, commercial-wise. But as I said at the very beginning to all the others, ‘This, what we do here, will become one day our life insurance that we give our children, and you don’t need to make insurance contracts with insurers. Just this music will do.’ And it turned out exactly this way.”
Indeed. Although he was speaking to me from overseas, I could picture him grinning broadly as we talked, offering a mischievous little giggle from time to time as he reflected on his work over the years and his ultimate legacy, of which he was deeply proud—but there was no hint of ego or vanity, for the easy-going way we conversed suggested he was a man very much comfortable in his own skin. (Below, watch the videos for his “Good Morning Story” and “Cool In the Pool,” both of which showcase Czukay’s delightfully whimsical sense of humor.)
Can came together circa 1968 at the hands of double bassist Czukay, classically trained pianist Irmin Schmidt (also a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen), free jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and rock guitarist Michael Karoli. Initially the group’s vocalist was American sculptor Malcolm Mooney, although he was soon replaced by Japanese street busker Damo Suzuki. Such diverse backgrounds, plus a collective appreciation for the underground sounds of Hendrix, Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, meant that Can’s goal of fusing leftfield and oftentimes incongruous musical elements just might be attainable.
That the world outside Can’s rehearsal space, an old castle near Cologne, was undergoing huge social and political upheavals meant the Can aesthetic was nothing less than an artistic imperative. And from the outset, boundary pushing marked Can recordings and performances. The former’s outlines and textures were shaped by Czukay’s mad-scientist tape-editing techniques (must-hear early Can: 1971’s sprawling, psychedelic Tago Mago), while the latter frequently left audiences so stunned they didn’t know how to react. (A striking display of Can’s live prowess is the Peter Przygodda-filmed “Can Free Concert,” from Cologne ’72, included on 2003’s Can DVD.)
Can’s reputation soon spread beyond Germany’s borders – in ’72 the song “Spoon” became a hit single in Britain — even as the group evolved at a rapid pace. With 1973’s Future Days, Can arguably introduced ambient music to the rock world; 1975’s Landed was a then-unlikely collision of electronica, heavy metal, fake reggae and protopunk.
Still, internal pressures gradually mounted. Suzuki had left in ’73 to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving behind a hole that was never fully filled. Czukay, whose attentions were turning towards non-traditional instrumentation (e.g., short-wave radios, Dictaphones), quit in ’77 not long after the arrival of bassist Rosko Gee and percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah, both from English band Traffic. The original Can chemistry had been permanently altered, and as 1978 came to a close the decision was made to disband. (Go HERE at the Blurt site to download a pair of good sounding Can concerts from 1975 and 1976.)
The members subsequently took up their own projects, although they did come back together for a one-off reunion to record 1989’s Rite Time (documentary footage of the sessions is on Can DVD). Over the years Can aficionados have also been privy to such treats as Liebezeit’s Phantomband and Club Off Chaos ensembles; Karoli’s Sofortkontakt combo plus collaborations with Damo Suzuki; Czukay in a dizzying array of solo and collaborative guises (see below); and Schmidt’s film scores, his Gormenghast opera and his work with producer/deejay KUMO.
1999 saw the release of the above-mentioned Can Box, an elaborate book/video/live CD package. Neatly coinciding with that were “The Can Concerts” in Germany: Schmidt, Czukay, Karoli and Liebezeit each presenting his then-current solo project on the same stage — although, significantly, they did not perform together as a unit. Karoli performed with Sofortkontakt, Liebezeit as Club Off Chaos, Schmidt as Kumo and Czukay with experimental vocalist U-She. During 2004-06 the group’s back catalog was reissued as remastered SACDs, while 2012 saw the release of The Lost Tapes, a box set comprising previously unreleased material. And in 2014 the group’s back catalog was reissued on vinyl.
Czukay’s non-Can projects over the years were nothing if not intriguing. 1981 solo album On the Way to the Peak of Normal remains a critical favorite (the psychedelic gem was reissued in 2013). Other notable solo releases were 1991’s shortwave-as-live-instrument Radio Wave Surfer and 1999’s Good Morning Story featuring U-She on vocals. Two collaborations with David Sylvian were also well-regarded, as was the album Snake Charmer that he recorded with Jah Wobble, The Edge, and DJ Francois Kevorkian. He also worked with Brian Eno, Trio, and U.N.K.L.E. And 2013 brought the reissue of the uber-obscure Les Vampyrettes, an esoteric 1980 recording of Czukay and Can producer Conny Plank described along the lines of “a metallic and ghostly voice in a state of nocturnal intoxication welcomes us to a sonic backdrop of hallmark krautrock pings, drones, susurrations and clatters.”
Czukay’s beloved wife Ursula passed away this past July. Can guitarist Karoli previously died, in 2001. And Liebezeit died in January from pneumonia. Czukay’s impact upon music was profound and lasting—he will be deeply missed.
Fans and admirers of Glen Campbell knew the day was coming; we’d been prepared for it since 2011, when he went public with the news he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, along with details of a farewell tour and plans for releasing some final recordings. Still, that didn’t make the news yesterday, August 8, any less brutal, when Campbell’s publicist at Universal Music released a statement that read, “It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and legendary singer and guitarist, Glen Travis Campbell, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease.” According to the New York Times, in an obituary published late yesterday, on his final tour the musical icon “performed 151 shows over 15 months… [his last one] was in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, and by the spring of 2014 he had moved into a long-term care and treatment center near Nashville.” He’s survived by his wife Kimberly along with eight children, three sisters, two brothers, “and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.”
Speaking personally, I’ve been listening to Glen Campbell since the mid-Sixties and the release of his hit single “Gentle On My Mind”; I still own a battered 45 of that and other Campbell gems, like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” a song that will eternally be in my personal top 20, and one which I found myself playing over and over again this morning. Here at BLURT we’ve covered Campbell on a number of occasions, so I thought it appropriate that we republish a pair of features by A.D. Amorosi and Rick Allen that particularly stand out in my mind as fitting tributes to the man. I hope you enjoy. —Fred Mills, Editor
BY A.D. AMOROSI and RICK ALLEN
A number of years ago longtime BLURT contributing editor A.D. Amorosi was able to sit down with Campbell and talk about his career, his then-new album and the upcoming tour. We published the interview in issue #11 (Winter 2011). The story is one we remain deeply proud of here at BLURT, unquestionably among the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to present.—Ed.
Memory fades. Sifting through images and ideas is no easy process, not for the young or old, not where the distant past and recent immediacy is concerned.
When Glen Campbell announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, would be his last and that his recent tour would put a cap on his long career, the desire to mourn – to treat him differently – kicked in. This was, after all, the golden boy of epically cosmopolitan country pop whose every ‘60s hit from Chris Gantry’s “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” to the soaring subtlety of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” the latter two reminiscent of Bogart’s phrase at the end of Maltese Falcon – “the stuff that dreams are made of” – became the soundtrack to my youth.
These sonic gems were only made bolder by knowing that Campbell – a masterful guitar picker – was a touring Beach Boy that nearly replaced Brian Wilson and had played on hits by Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees and Elvis Presley, the latter a fellow country boy whom Campbell befriended. Campbell’s image, too, is burned into the collective retina as he had starred in the original version of the revenge western True Grit and his own network TV show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
Certainly he had his Rimbaud-esque season in Hell – the post ‘60s comedown of boozing, drugging, carousing (notoriously with firebrand country howler Tanya Tucker) and various arrests. Yet, Campbell had commercial hits into the ‘70s and ‘80s with “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,” “Sunflower” and “I Have You.” He kept the live fires burning with gigs in Branson, found God, a good woman Kimberly Woolen to whom he’s been married since 1982 with three kids who have their own Arcade Fire-y band (Instant People) currently backing Campbell on tour. This latter day joy – to say nothing of the potency of the deeply etched Ghost and its ruminatively ratcheting lyrics and still expressively clarion vocals – made Alzheimer’s an even more heinous verdict. (Below: Glen and Kim; photo by Scott Weiner)
Look into Campbell’s eyes and despite the lines in his face (he’s 75) and his occasionally forgetful demeanor and you see a man not so much struggling with memory but more alive with the past then the present. This author isn’t trying to soften the blow or demystify the disease but seriously, I have a better grasp on what I did ten years ago then what I did ten minutes ago. Yet here they are, Glen and Kimberly sitting before me, frankly discussing the problem without letting it ruin their future.
Campbell, his producer Justin Raymond (who worked with the singer on his previous recording Meet Glen Campbell) and a crew of instrumentalists such as Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Chris Isaak were already at work on the riveting Ghost when the diagnosis was announced. Suddenly the press made a big deal out of it, something that doesn’t affect the Campbells – as long as the disease doesn’t overshadow the work,
“No. it doesn’t bother me,” says Campbell with a slight cough. “I’m used to it by now. I leave it in God’s hands that it’s gonna be the way He wants.” His wife Kim follows that with an understanding of an audiences’ curiosity – how the disease works, how it affects her husband. “We understand,” she smiles. “But the music is just so good we hope they get to that message as well.”
Mention the contribution of songs from Paul Westerberg, Jakob Dylan and Robert Pollard along with self-penned tracks with Raymond (culled, interestingly enough, from the producer’s daily diaries of what the singer/guitarist said), and you’ve got quite a set of messages. As Campbell starts singing the new album’s title track in a strong burst of melody, he states. “I’m really not a songwriter so if I hear a song, I feel it and like it, I’ll do it. But I’ll make it the way I want to hear it.”
Part of this comes down to asking songwriters if he can turn negatives into positives (“but with their permission of course,” says the gentlemanly Campbell) and accommodating where Campbell’s heart is now. “She’ll be running around the mountain” just doesn’t sound right,” he laughs. “It ain’t the way the song goes. “She’ll be coming around the mountain,” is more like it.”
Campbell slowly and deliberately tells me how he takes songs one a at time and lets the good ones carry him away, the songs of other writers as well as the tunes presented by Raymond, a hands-on laid back producer who, during Meet Glen Campbell, started writing down what the singer said about life, confusion and happiness. “Julian wrote down the meaningful things that Glen would say about being baffled by what was going on in his head, as well as how life was good to him,” says Kim who recognized that Campbell’s memory was slipping during those 2008 recording sessions. “We’re so glad Julian got those meditations down and put those verses to music.”
“I need the ones I love more and more each day.”
“This is not the road I want for us.”
Mention Campbell’s famed sense of perfection and he laughs. “Nah. I may sound like one,” he laughs. “But I want it be natural. If I get a song – a GOOD song – I just sing it the way I hear it in my head. If anybody else wanted to add whistles and bells and chains rattling that’s fine. Just not too much. I actually just do things as straight ahead as possible. You add the ifs, ands or buts.”
To that end, Ghost has the richly orchestrated jangle of Pet Sounds with a country twang.
Campbell knows he’s been blessed with great collaborators and productions, a powerful clear voice that was forever gifted with dynamic songs that suited his vocal range and challenged his playing skills.
“Things turned out pretty well,” says Campbell. (Below photo by Robert Sebree)
Pretty well indeed.
Blame, in part, his having come from a large all-singing all playing Arkansas family who took Glen to church regularly to express him self in song. Other than getting his first guitar at age four, a seminal moment for Campbell came when he nearly drowned at age three: his Army-bound brothers dragged him out of the water, pumped the water and did CPR on the young Glen. “That night back at the house while keeping time to the radio, I didn’t say anything. I just sang. Something had changed me.”
His distinct guitar playing, inspired by the likes of Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt (“Django was my main influence”) gave him the confidence to form western swing bands and, by age twenty-one, head to Los Angeles where he quickly became a sought-after session musician. “I think I mainly got all that work because I was the only guy who could use a capo,” he laughs.
As he was just starting to make his session-man bones, he recorded a single for the Crest label. When I mention that 1961 track to him, “Turn Around Look at Me,” Campbell flashes a big smile. “Well I thought that was ‘it’ you know,” smiles Campbell who starts singing the lines “there is someone/walking behind me” so mellifluously, it’s as if he’s a kid in 1960 again. “Even then I did songs that I liked, never tunes that I didn’t care for. Otherwise it wouldn’t be satisfying.”
Campbell stops, leans into me and turns to his wife. “Excuse me, honey,” says Campbell who then turns from his wife and conspiratorially pulls me forward. His long fingers become a circle with another finger on his other hand barely peeking through the top. He’s made a tiny cock of it all.
“It’s like a guy going into a whorehouse with THIS little thing and the woman says, ‘Well who you going to satisfy with THAT?’ And he says, ‘ME.’ That old joke, that stupid analogy – that’s the best way of describing what I want to do: satisfy me.”
Campbell fast-forwards and says he did things he didn’t want to do: lousy albums, hell-raising backstage antics of cocaine, booze and sex. “I spent some time in Hell,” he smiles. “I got so high I could fart in a Martin box,” he starts slapping his knee. “I’m glad that’s over with – it was a stupid place. I drowned,” he starts to say, realizing that he told me that story before. Then again, perhaps he meant the psychic drowning that led to the rejuvenation of finding God and his wife. (He teases about meeting her on a blind date. “I thought she was blind,” he yuks, then quacks like Daffy Duck.)
Dipping backwards to his session career and “Turn Around,” he mentions how he stayed in the studio and played for the greats so that he stick close to home and make more money doing session work than he could promoting a struggling single on the road. The wrongs of the road remind him of Elvis Presley, an old friend whose “Viva Las Vegas” he played on. “He was a good man but I understood the peril his career had taken on. I didn’t have the luggage he had, that entourage he had to take care of. I should’ve kicked his ass from here to Japan to get some sense in him. His old friends from Memphis were just bringing young girls backstage and crap like that – distracting him.”
Campbell went on to work and play with the Beach Boys and was nearly the front man when Brian Wilson broke down and left in 1965 yet Campbell was more into doing his own music than joining a band (Capitol wound up signing Campbell on the basis of his strong showing with the Beach Boys). “Plus, you know, Mike Love was there. He’s talented, but,” Campbell scrunches his face.
The young Campbell continued to play on records by Frank (“Strangers in the Night”) and Dean (“Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”) guys a generation before him – the establishment – before the counter cultural hippie-dippie movement took hold. He was no hippie but he was a young cat. What was he thinking?
“They were the tops. If you heard their stuff up close and saw them on stage – they were incredible actually,” says Campbell of the Rat Pack titans. “There was no mistaking their voices or their presence.” Campbell was hanging on the musician side of everything, playing guitar by their side. .But he got wise watching those men that singing would get him farther.
Enter guys like Jimmy Webb and John Hartford, songwriters whose best work came through the conduit of Campbell’s rich voice. It was a blast according to Campbell, wonderful those melodies at his ready and those sorts of storytellers in his corner. “If you have guys like this in your corner, you better have your chute together or you won’t get down,” he laughs. In particular, Campbell has a warm long smile reserved for Webb’s longing literate lyrics and winnowing melodies. “My wife will tell you. I pray to the Lord and thank Him for letting me do those songs. When my dad heard those tunes he said “it’s a good thing we didn’t throw you back in the water.” (Kim reminds me how, famously that Webb used to pray, after hearing “Turn around Look at Me,” that Campbell would sing his songs)
Though the Ghostly songs of Westerberg and Pollard aren’t quite the stuff of “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” they are crucial, rare and deeply ruminative. They feel like the contemplative stuff of a finale. At 75 – anybody at 75 – the level of winding down that the Campbell’s plan on doing would seem essential and right. While Kim confides to me that she wishes they did more recording during the Branson days, she also mentions more tracks featuring Campbell and their kids, might be recorded at tour’s end. “We still have a few special tricks up our sleeves. Other than that, we’re happy to go to Hawaii, watch Glen golf and sit by the side as the kids start their career,” says Kim Campbell…
As for Glen Campbell, a singer and guitarist whose recent tour finds him in strong voice and ticklish guitar skills, he’s content to go out with an album as rich as Ghost on the Canvas. “I want to slow down – you know, it’s really about whatever she wants to do – but the record? You throw them out to the world and hope it comes back positive. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did. I have to listen to it, you know.”
Also in 2011, shortly after the release of the Ghost On the Canvas album, contributor Rick Allen penned an appreciation of Campbell that we’re also quite proud of. “As the famed guitarist and song stylist prepares for his final bows,” wrote Allen, “let’s pause for a moment and think about what that really means.” Given that those final bows are truly final — Campbell released his final album, titled Adios, just a few weeks ago — now more than ever. —Ed.
Glen Campbell never became a darling of the too-cool set that embraced Johnny Cash, rightfully, but who could not also see the true folk musician in someone like Merle Haggard. Likewise, Campbell has never been appreciated by the crowd that thinks a performer cannot be popular and valid at the same time; too bad for them.
Campbell is one of the best rock and roll/country guitarists ever, a veteran of the famed collection of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Other Crew members, Carol Kaye, James Burton, Leon Russell, Mac “Dr. John” Rebbenac to name a few, accrued much more hip cachet than he did. Had Campbell continued to record material like “Gentle On My Mind” and even some of the better Jimmy Webb pop classics like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” or Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” he might have done better with the NPR crowd. But his reliance on songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the admittedly artificial and overblown production of it (and others like it) meant that few of Campbell’s albums could be listened to without hitting a “Rhinestone Cowboy” or other such musical bump or two.
On what’s being billed as, most likely, Campbell’s final album, Ghost On The Canvas – which is to be accompanied by a farewell tour; the musician’s been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s – there’s considerably less artifice.
Campbell shows exceptional depth with brilliant takes on “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” written by Jakob Dylan, “Hold On Hope” by Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and some magnificent pieces of California pop music including a Paul Westerberg composition called “Any Trouble.” (The title cut, another Westerberg number, is slo good but marred slightly by so-so lyrics.) Campbell’s voice is as robust and clear as ever and he is likely playing a significant amount of guitar although there are no specified credits. “Strong” reflects (musically) his time with the Beach Boys but the entire album has got “Beatles” written all over it. Producer Julian Raymond seems to have cut his teeth on post-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles music, including the solo albums of Lennon and Harrison. One can imagine Jeff Lynne gnashing his teeth at hearing that someone got this stuff right. The guitar solo on “There Is No Me…Without You,” probably from Billy Corgan, Marty Rifkin, Rick Nielsen, or Brian Setzer who all play guitar on the cut (Setzer, Chris Isaak and Dick Dale also add guitar to Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms”), is an elegant cop of George’s Harrison’s in “Something” while the drums are pure Ringo. The tune extends Beatles-like into infinity a la “A Day in the Life” and provides some of the album’s best moments.
Campbell chose to go out big. The orchestration is big, the production here is big, almost “Rhinestone Cowboy” big, but tempered by taste and restraint, and the album only improves with repeated listening. Most important, the themes are big, life-and-death-big, as is befitting an artist who knows he is near the end of his career. Like a battered athlete he will also outlive it and not necessarily under the best of circumstances. As the world watches Campbell ring down his own curtain will there be a rediscovery, a re-evaluation of a great but often dismissed career? Will people learn about Glen Campbell as they seem to have learned about Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones, that a superiorly talented pop artist who doesn’t write much of his or her own material (Campbell did co-wrote several of the cuts here) can be just as great – often greater – as any of the so-called “hipper” acts?
It’s all showbiz folks, all of it. No matter how tattooed, pierced, smack-addled, in-you-face, amped-up-to-10 the act is. Even that bearded, bobbled headed, slacks/vest-wearing emo vocalist singing about growing up in simpler times out in the Midwest is in showbiz. They are all song and dance men (and women), as Bob Dylan once referred to himself. The best of them, like Campbell, realize that and they consider entertaining you to be a worthy pursuit. Sometimes they do it with some damn good songs, too, and underneath the rhinestones is a person concerned with living and dying just like everyone else.
With Ghost On The Canvas Glen Campbell has chosen to share such concerns, but like the pro he is, he’s done so without sacrificing a drop of entertainment value. Campbell is at the top of his game even at closing time. If there’s no more to come then this is as good a spot as any to ring down the curtain.
It was expected, but is no less crushing: the news that Glen Campbell passed away today at the age of 81. According to the New York Times, reporting on Campbell publicist Tim Plumley’s statement, indicated that the cause of death was Alzheimer’s.
“Mr. Campbell’s last performance was in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2012, and in the spring of 2014 he had moved into a long-term care and treatment center near Nashville. Mr. Campbell released his final studio album, “Adiós,” in June. The album, which included guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and three of Mr. Campbell’s children, was recorded after his farewell tour.”
BLURT will have a remembrance of Campbell this week. (You can read our 2011 coverage on Campbell HERE and HERE.) To his family, friends, associates, and fans, we extend our heartfelt sympathies. Glen was an inspiration to all of us.
Photo Credit: Robert Sebree
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