As painstakingly detailed in this new book from author Ron Jacobs, the collective sunshine daydream of the earlier decade’s hippies, activists and provocateurs rarely turned out the way they expected—and even when it did, those sweet dreams were often short-lived. Pictured above, clockwise from top left: the Black Panthers, the iconic photo of a dead Kent State war protester, women’s liberation activists marching, Patti Smith, students and Yippies at a rally, and Occidental College students protesting via sit-in last week.
BY FRED MILLS
Quick, take this little test: (A) Which of these books have you read: If They Come in theMorning (Angela Davis, 1972), Ringolevio (Emmett Grogan, 1972), Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (George Jackson, 1994), Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Dick Hebdidge, 1979), Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press (Abe Peck, 1985) and Punk: The Best of Punk Magazine (John Holstrom & Bridget Hurd, 2012); (B) Or these magazines: Crawdaddy!, High Times, Oz, Ramparts, Berkeley Barb, and Yipster Times; (C) Or seen these films: Easy Rider, The Harder They Come, Woodstock, Sunshine Daydream, and Joe; (D) Or owned these albums: Live At Fillmore East 1971, There’s A Riot Going On, Red Headed Stranger, Horses, Déjà Vu, London Calling, My Aim Is True, and In God We Trust, Inc.
If you checked off even half of those listed, then Daydream Sunset: The 60s Counterculture in the 70s is definitely for you. You may not immediately recognize the name of the author, Vermont-based Ron Jacobs (several novels, plus The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground), although you probably have heard of his book’s publisher, California’s CounterPunch Books, which offers a range of politically-tilting books dealing with everything from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Imperial Crusades) and Israel-related matters (The Case Against Israel; The Politics of Anti-Semitism) to the fundamentals of black politics (Waiting For Lightning to Strike) and the so-called “politics of illusion” that have undercut the promise once posed by President Obama (Hopeless). All this helps provide preliminary context as the reader opens up Daydream Sunset while pondering its subtitle.
Indeed, this relatively slim (148pp) but intellectually nourishing volume sets out to examine how the ideals, politics and events we generally assume defined the ‘60s—from the hippies of Haight-Ashbury to the Yippies of the Lower East Side, from the Black Panthers to the women’s liberation movement, from Woodstock to Altamont, and of course the Grateful Dead—informed the ‘70s. It’s crucial to keep in mind how common wisdom has the earlier decade spawning a peace ‘n’ love Aquarian utopia of sorts, and that the hirsute, bell-bottomed denizens of the Woodstock Nation became stewards of the (whole) Earth who helped guide the nation from a Nixonian form of mass cultural insanity to a kinder, gentler, post-Watergate consciousness. But as Jacobs points out over and over again, that stereotypical reimagining of popular culture (hello, K-tel/Time-Life nation!) conveniently ignores how slowly the currents of civilization can actually flow—to say nothing of the inconvenient truth that what appears to be a victory for the good, righteous and true citizenry of today can yield a far-different result once you actually reach the near or not so distant future. And if you don’t believe that, then I have a fading “Mission Accomplished” banner once displayed on a U.S. naval vessel to sell you.
As Jacobs points out, in some instances those ‘60s ideals would certainly be elaborated upon and refined; the ecological and anti-nuclear movements of the ‘70s come to mind as examples of idealism transformed into positive action that resonate to this day. Other times, though, they were thankfully discredited and discarded: nowadays, in our gun-violence-drenched society, even the staunchest of former radicals would probably be loath to endorse the ethic of armed resistance originally espoused by both the Black and the White Panthers. (Hold that thought: in their infinite wisdom, survivalists and NRA-ers continue to resist any form of gun control whatsoever in the United States, even if it means that would-be terrorists will be able to get their hands on weapons as easily as weekend hunters. Maybe we need the Panthers as a kind of ad hoc militia to help hunt down those terrorists, hmm?)
And still others yielded improbable yet ultimately logical aesthetic and cultural alliances. Daydream Sunset discusses one such example which pretty much anyone reading BLURT will agree upon: Patti Smith, who came of age in the ‘60s and was deeply influenced by many of that era’s key artists, such as Dylan, the Dead and the Stones (along with, let us not forget, the Beats of the ‘50s), yet went on to become the acknowledged Godmother Of Punk. The existential tension between punks and hippies is well known, but Smith refused to genuflect exclusively before either camp, because the instinctively divined the very same cultural connections and through-lines that Jacobs now traces in his book’s narrative.
Daydream Sunset, then, is partly about the death of the hippie dream, sure, but it’s not residual sadness over or nostalgia for it that fuels Jacobs’ inquiry. Instead, he takes uses a host of ‘60s phenomena as jumping off points and follows their subsequent arcs and evolutions. The first chapter (“Them Changes”) succinctly summarizes the period bookended by the Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsys concert at the Fillmore East that opened the ‘70s and the punk and disco scenes that closed the decade. From there the book proceeds to look at sundry watershed moments and movements that arguably characterized the ‘70s as vividly as said hippie dream characterized the ‘60s. In “Test Me Test Me, Why Don’t You Arrest Me?” we learn about the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, George Jackson and Angela Davis, along with fellow combatants in arms the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, plus the radicalization of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the anti-Vietnam war protesters in the cities and on the campuses. Elsewhere, the “Celebrating Independence?” chapter outlines how drugs and drug culture played a key part in the radical politics of the times, including the authorities’ strategy of using drug busts as a pretext for jailing radicals, Timothy Leary’s descent into irrelevance during his Algerian exile with the similarly-exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, and the rise of High Times magazine and its efforts to help mainstream marijuana use.
Two of the best chapters are “Where All the Pigs Have Tails” and “Womyn Break the Bonds.” The former discusses the back-to-the-country movement among the counterculture and the prevalence of communes in rural areas of the country, and how those mini-societies adapted to some of the changes going on in the larger society; while the latter details the women’s movement in America during the ‘70s and how it paralleled as well as diverged from other such “rights” movements, rightly identifying the inherent sexism found not just in the broader culture but within the countercultural and music scenes as well. And, per my previous note about Patti Smith, the chapter “Punks and Glams” cites precedents for and overlapping aspects of the decade’s music scenes, additionally suggesting how punk’s sonic dissonance was inherently at odds with folk/psych’s mellower structures even though both the punks and the hippies had, ironically, similar roots in their respective spirits of opposition to the mainstream. (The segment on Jello Biafra and his disdain for hippie capitalists is also a lot of fun. Worth additional note: Jacobs names the Clash’s London Calling as the best album of the ‘70s—no argument there.)
Here and there the author injects personal anecdotes, but never in a self-aggrandizing or man-it-was-so-much-more-fun-back-then sense. Instead, those recollections help bring home some of his broader thesis points by putting a human face on them, like the times he attended political protests, or when he pitched in on a production line of freaks all rolling joints to distribute for free at an upcoming concert. There’s also the chapter titled “Crossing the Atlantic” in which he summarizes what was happening concurrently the ‘70s in the European counterculture; at one point he found himself attending a huge concert in Germany during which a small riot broke out between gate-crashers and the police. It’s a scene that was mirrored in the UK as well as America during this period, something I myself witnessed at an outdoor festival around 1973 or 74 when a large contingent of late arrivals decided that the event was “for the people” and therefore should be free, nevermind that the promoter who’d be left holding the bag was probably a long-haired, pot-smoking freak just like them.
One statement Jacobs makes towards the end of the book stands out in my mind. “It’s not my nature—not is it particularly wise—to make grand generalizations about history,” he writes, “especially when the history being considered is relatively recent… Nonetheless, it is possible to see the 1970s as a time when the cultural revolution of the 1960s retreated in the face of a vicious and overwhelming attack from the institutions of the dominant culture.”
To that I’d add the subtle forces of co-optation and how they can airbrush the “revolutionary” elements in the process of making them palatable for a broader audience. Numerous historians have looked at this over the years, although rather than it being a pessimist’s viewpoint it’s that of a realist who understands that for all our rallying cries of “change is in the air!” when we hit crisis points, “change” can rarely be viewed in the here and now, only in retrospect, after the aforementioned dominant culture has had its say.
It’s a notion today’s activists and college students beating the drums for immediate and wholesale changes should be mindful of: just like the revolutionary overthrow of a corrupt system turned out to be a ‘60s pipedream, with actual change occurring in gradients or undercurrents, in 2015, battling institutional racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. is going to require a degree of patience, a willingness to compromise, and ability to take the long view, and—most important—a deep understanding of history.
Not that a good ol’ fashioned campus or street protest won’t draw attention to a contemporary issue and get people thinking, however. As a great philosopher once noted, from small things, big things someday come.
To briefly circle back to that list of books, magazines, films and records I listed at the beginning: those were a small selection taken from the bibliography/discography/filmography comprising the book’s main appendix. What struck me in going over Jacob’s full list (which he notes is in no way complete, but rather “a useful beginning”) is how I was personally familiar with at least 95% of the titles, having read most of the print materials, seen all the films, and still own every single one of the albums. This may or may not mean that Jacobs and I are soul brothers of some fashion or another—full disclosure: I originally met him a few years ago when he was working at the Asheville, NC, library where I would frequently take my young son after school, and I immediately liked him—but it’s clear that we share more than a few cultural milestones, since I was a kid in the ‘60s and therefore during my subsequent coming-of-age teen years during the ‘70s I couldn’t help but be shaped, as Jacobs himself was, by the events of that decade.
As a kind of postscript, let me tell you a little story. I remember Woodstock quite vividly, especially the moment when the scene in front of my eyes suddenly split into multiple scenes, and… wait. Sorry. That’s the movie I’m remembering, when the filmmakers used this gimmicky-but-groovy split-screen effect. I actually was too young to go to Woodstock, But in the summer of 1970 when my family was vacationing at the beach, I noticed that the Woodstock film, which had recently opened nationally, was playing—inexplicably, as this was definitely a family-oriented beach—at the tiny local movie theater. Due to the rating, which prevented anyone under 17 or so from attending without a parent or guardian, I begged my dad to take me.
So the next afternoon we drove over to the movie house (against my mom’s wishes, apparently), purchased our tickets, and went inside, me promptly bolting down near the front while my dad settled in somewhere in the rear seats. After about 5 or 10 minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder, but rather than it being an usher wanting to find out who this kid was sitting by himself down front in his theater, it was my dad. “I’ll be back in two hours,” he said quietly. “Don’t tell your mother I left you here.”
That’s how my ‘70s began: with a much-coveted, long-overdue (in my mind, at least) immersion in the lingering counterculture of the earlier decade. Thanks, Dad, I owe ya one. And thanks as well, Ron Jacobs, for bringing it all back home again for me.
”I’m the only guy who’s slept under two presidents at the White House”: the irascible icon—who has his first album in three decades just out— explains. “I signed a man’s scrotum in Scotland once”: and then he ‘splains a little more…
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Kinky Friedman is many things: a singer, a songwriter, an author, a satirist and even a politician. But he’s also irascible and, when he wants to be — which seems more often than not — politically incorrect and pointedly critical of the absurdities around him. Often mislabelled as a misogynist, his most famous songs — “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” — have thwarted most attempts to take him and his band The Texas Jewboys seriously, even though his pioneering role in creating country’s crossover to rock ‘n’ roll made him one of the first authentic architects of modern Americana. His friendship with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan is legendary, and if any individual can compete with their iconic stature, suffice it to say Kinky himself can.
It’s been an incredibly long time since Kinky released an album — more than three decades in fact — which makes the appearance of his new effort, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, a significant milestone of sorts. However, like most things in Friedman’s life, it’s accompanied by no small degree of irony. Although, he made his name by writing songs, the new album finds him doing covers — or, as he likes to say, “interpretations — of material penned by Dylan, Nelson, Merle Haggard , Warren Zevon and other notable songsmiths. The arrangements are bare boned, sung with straight sentiment and even real reverence as well.
Although BLURT believed our interview was going to focus on the new album, suffice it so say that holding Kinky Friedman to a single subject is practically impossible. Consequently, our conversation frequently veered off into different tangents, mostly having to do with politics and the cynicism of society in general. Kinky kept us laughing, but beneath the sarcasm lurked a man of tremendous wit, wisdom and conviction. [Below: Willie Nelson’s song “Bloody Mary Morning” from the new album, featuring Nelson dueting with Friedman on vocals]
BLURT: Your new album is your first new release in 32 years. But you haven’t exactly been idle, have you? You’ve spent a great deal of time in politics. And you attracted a decent following as well.
KINKY FRIEDMAN: In 2006 my independent race for Governor found us winning everywhere but Texas. We had issues that were way ahead of the curve. You can chart them. Supporting gay marriage. I was the only candidate statewide that was supporting gay marriage at a time when Hilary and Obama were decidedly against it. So what the hell.
So how close did you come to winning?
We got thirteen percent of the best of Texas. That represented about 600,000 votes.
That put you on the map however.
Well, yeah. The late Ray Price told me it was a really mistaken thing to do because Jesus would have lost if he had run as an independent against Rick Perry.
On the other hand, Rick Perry just dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for president for the second time.
He’s not a bad guy. He’s just been in politics for too long, He was groomed right out of college. Not that I ever worked much. I bummed around, but I was in the Peace Corps and did some other things. Politics is really the only deal where the more experience you have, the worse you get. That’s what America is saying. That’s why it’s going for such polar opposites as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
So who are you leaning toward in 2016?
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. One of them. I’m not sure which one I’m leaning towards. The two of them would make a good ticket. They’re not corrupt at least. I talked to Jamie Johnson about running on the same ticket. I would run for president and he agreed to run for vice president and it would be the Kinky Johnson ticket.
But when you were running for governor, was it not a serious campaign on your part? It wasn’t a joke. Did you ever get the feeling that your name might have been some kind of hinderance?
Well, not in Texas. But if I didn’t run as Kinky Friedman, I would have won. It was all garbled up. They really kill ya. Your name isn’t even on the same page as the ballot. It’s like the Crips and the Bloods. I couldn’t believe it. I thought they’d have all the names on the same page. But no. You have to turn a page and then another page until you finally get to the independents, if you haven’t already voted a straight ticket. And then all the chickens come home to roost, that’s all. There was one point where we were winning. We were in the high twenties. The Democrats are very good at demonising and the Republicans are very good at having a lot of money and being corrupt. Not that the Democrats aren’t corrupt too. One is no better than the other. It’s the same guy combing his hair in the mirror.
Still, for all the great music you’ve made and your forthright stand on the issues, wasn’t the name Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys always perceived as some kind of joke?
Yeah, sure. It was a blessing and a curse. No doubt about it. My college roommate gave it to me. But it didn’t stop Nelson Mandela from appreciating me. Nelson Mandela had some of my tapes in the cell with him and he could have listened to “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” But the song he’s listen to all night was “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy.” That’s remarkable. Do you know who his favorite singer was?
No, I don’t.
The same guy who turned me on to this Mandela thing, who I met in South Africa, was Tokyo Seuchwhale. Tokyo was Mandela’s right hand man and was in the cell right next to Mandela for the duration, so he could hear what songs Mandela was playing. He says that for me not to get a swelled head about this because I was not Mandela’s favorite singer. Maybe I was fifth and sixth down the list. He said his favorite was Dolly Parton.
You must have admired Mandela for that reason alone.
That’s the kind of candidate that doesn’t come along very often. Do you see any little Mandelas rising up?
There doesn’t seem to be any JFKs or Roosevelts rising up either.
Or Abe Lincolns. In Europe you don’t see any Churchills either. That Mark Twain quote is exactly right. “History does not repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.” That’s what we have with the Iranian deal. It’s been pointed out before but it’s true. Kerry is the perfect example apparently.
So you like Donald Trump?
I think what he’s doing by not apologising for anything is admirable. Our shit’s really fucked up, as the title of the Warren Zevon song on my album explains. It’s an apt description of the world today and I don’t know that it’s fixable. I don’t normally admire and respect people who put their names are all over the wings of children’s hospitals like Trump’s does. I prefer Mr. Anonymous. Take the office of president ought to be a purely inspirational job. It ought to be occupied by those who do what Harry Truman did, which was to make some really significant big time calls. Imagine what Obama would do with a Hiroshima situation. He probably wouldn’t have done it. Once he got through talking to his lawyers, he’d probably back down.
So imagine where we’d be today. We’d have Japs coming out of caves for millions of years. We’d have lost millions of Americans and Japanese because there would have been a land war in Japan. So that was the choice. What I said after I lost the governor’s race was that the crowd always picks Barabbas. It’s really fucking true. They always do the same thing over and over. They say, “Free Barabbas. Not Jesus.” That’s why Rick Perry was the longest serving governor in Texas history and why you have Jerry Brown in California and why Schwartzeneger was such a good candidate as well. It’s because people like that always get elected. To slip a Churchill or a Lincoln in there is almost impossible. The people won’t let it happen and I’m a man of the people.
Were you friendly with Rick Perry or George Bush when he was governor of Texas?
George Bush and I were pals, mostly through his wife Laura who was a secret Democrat… back when the Democrats were good. She’s really got it. Of course, she’s a librarian. The kind of person Fidel Castro has been arresting for the past 40 years. But W and Bill Clinton are my two guys. In fact, I’m the only guy who’s slept under two presidents at the White House.
Umm. You better explain that.
I was an overnight guest during both their administrations.
I was close to be both of them. Again, like Churchill said, “History, with its flickering lamp, stumbles down the trail to the past.” So we don’t get George W right yet. He’s a very decent man. And he got really screwed because like me he had a really strong disdain for television. And so he would come across very stiff. In truth, he was very witty and funny. I’m the kind of guy who hangs around with Don Imus. Bill Clinton who is very witty and spontaneous and leads from the heart — which sometimes gets him in trouble — is a natural. W, when he’s off the air, is very funny and very quick. And he doesn’t come off like he does on TV. And of course the Democrats spent all their financial capitol demonising him. They’re horrible. Mention Benghazi to any Democrat and they’ll go, “You’re bigot! You’re a racist!” Benghazi revealed some things to us about our wonderful Hilary. She turned out to be an empty pants suit.
You seem to be especially popular with overseas audiences. Why do you think that is?
They loosen you up a little bit and you realize you’re representing something over all. These people are looking to America and they’re looking to Texas…
It’s a myth they’re looking to.
Yeah, there’s all that going for it. And those young German audiences that have made me the new David Hasslehoff are remarkable. You look around the room and I’m the oldest person there. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with these young people. They’re read my books, many of them in German, and I’ll be out there signing stuff after the show — I’ll sign anything, except bad legislation, I signed a man’s scrotum in Scotland once. They’re a great audience because they’re so emotional. They love Native Americans. They love Gram Parsons. They love Tom Waits. They love Iggy Pop. They love Van Dyke Parks, and they love Shel Silverstein and Warren Zevon too. They love the right people. They’re singing along on songs like “Old Man Lucas Had a Lot of Mucus Coming Out of His Nose” which I wrote when I was eleven, nearly 60 years ago. So you ask these Germans where they learned that and they say, “My parents taught it to me.”
And that’s true all over Australia and Canada too. Americans are still going to Celine Dion concerts because we just don’t care. I was arguing with Willie about this in Nashville last year. I was talking about how Nashville just doesn’t have it anymore. Its window is closed. It’s a corporate town. Everything’s coming out with click tracks. Every song is written by a goddamn committee and it all sounds like background music for a frat party. And Willie says, “Well, you’re being too harsh. It’s still the place, it’s still the dream where a kid in a pickup truck with a guitar and a suitcase full of songs still goes.” That’s how Willie sees it. I have nothing against Toby Keith. I never met him. I have nothing against Garth Brooks, who I refer to as the Empty Hank… He truly is. They’re all nice guys, but each of them has made more money than Willie Nelson or Hank Williams or Bob Dylan or Waylon Jennings or Kris Kristofferson or Merle Haggard ever made put together.
Bob Dylan’s made a lot of money.
He’s made a lot of money, but please — nothing like what Toby Keith or Garth have made. Toby Keith is coming up on a billion dollars. The only guy that can touch that is Barry Manilow. And Barry Manilow writes songs that make you feel good for a short period of time. These guys I admire write songs that might stay with you a lifetime, and they might make you think, and that’s the purpose of this record I’ve made. The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, which wasn’t recorded in Nashville by the way…
Yes it is! I’ve become rather facile at this. But I’m a struggling songwriter. I’ve always been one and I hope I always will be one.
You represent yourself well, however.
Unfortunately, it’s quite an index of an empty life. I’ll tell, ya, it’s a privilege to get this many gigs easily after all this time and not really having a hit… and to make it a financial pleasure to go out and do this. It’s a joy. It’s absolutely great. A pleasure. It really is.
Your legend becomes you, sir.
Well, thank you very much. I don’t want to make this all about quoting Willie, but I love that quote of his, “If you fail at something long enough, you become a legend.”
But how does that apply to you? You haven’t failed. You’ve established a singular identity in an iconic sort of way.
Maybe so, but I prefer to be with that little fraternity of men that thought they were failures. It’s incredible to believe that, but I know it’s true. I’ve read about Lennon. He always thought McCartney was the genius, which was totally not correct. McCartney was the lightweight who did write a couple of great songs, but so did a lot of other people. Churchill thought he was a failure too. He architected the whole war, and then they pulled the rug out from under him. The crowd picked Barrabus.
You’re right, Kinky.
I’m always right. I was living with Miss Texas 1987 and I let her slip through my fingers. I feel that the ones you let slip through your fingers are the only ones you ever keep.
So you miss, Miss Texas.
Yeah, I miss Miss Texas.
I sure hope we don’t miss you and have to wait another 32 years before a new record arrives.
No that won’t happen. I’d much rather be a musician than a politician, I guarantee ya.
No more runs for us then? Politics is behind you?
I hope so. It’s an addiction, like when I walk into a restaurant in Austin and there’s applause all round. You do miss that after awhile. (chuckles) Now they just say, “Hey Kinky, how are ya doin’?”
Maybe there will be renewed applause with this new album.
Jangly Byrdsian psychedelia, ornate Big Star-esque pop and paisley-powered college rock par excellence—any questions?
BY BILL KOPP
At peril of engaging in a mild bit of hyperbole, Donovan’s Brain can rightly be described as a college-rock supergroup. “College rock” – those of you over thirty may recall – was the label applied to music of the 1980s and beyond that didn’t quite fit on commercial FM radio, but was quite popular in its own semi-underground way. Duran Duran wasn’t college rock, but R.E.M. was; Human League didn’t qualify as college rock, but New Order did. College rock was eventually re-branded as “alternative,” a slightly less meaningful term: alternative to what, exactly? Oh: yeah: commercial product served up by the likes of Bon Jovi. (BLURT, it should be noted, has an ongoing series called “The College Rock Chronicles” that is instructional, having featured, to date, everyone from the Dream Syndicate, the Gun Club,Green On Red and Winter Hours to Dumptruck, R.E.M.,Dreams So Real and NC’s Snatches of Pink, with a side dish of college rock godfathers Big Star and Dwight Twilley.)
“Supergroup,” of course, was a classification that had come about nearly two decades earlier: when musicians of some individual renown came together as a new group, they earned the tag: Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young; Cream; Blind Faith; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Or, in much later years, the Traveling Wilburys.
But back to college rock for a moment. The jangly sound – often thanks to Rickenbacker guitars – was a key component of some of the era’s best outfits. And a knowing update of ‘60s garage rock coupled with a new wave edge; that was part of the mix as well. And some of the groups that exemplified the best of what college rock had to offer were The Windbreakers, Rain Parade, and The Long Ryders. Each of those groups reached their apex in the 1980s; they recorded and released music that may have not shifted millions of units, but they created music that was critically well-received, and that has stood the test of time.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Most of the aforementioned acts have long since broken up, their members having moved onto other things (not to mention having their gotten three decades older). But their creative impulses have not dimmed, and select members of those groups, along with others of note and skill, formed a collective known as Donovan’s Brain. (Above: “Take Me With You When You Go,” from 2013’s Turned Up Later album)
The group, which is loosely based out of Bozeman, Montana, includes guitarist Matt Piucci, late of Rain Parade and – of all things – Crazy Horse; guitarist Bobby Sutliff (The Windbreakers; go HERE to read our feature on Sutliff from 2013); Tom Stevens (The Long Ryders) on bass. And if that’s not enough college rock/alterna-cred, the group’s lineup features guitarist Deniz Tek (of American/Australian punk heroes Radio Birdman) and drummer Ric Parnell (better known to rock fans as Mick Shrimpton, spontaneously-combusting drummer for Spinal Tap, and also a member for a time in Atomic Rooster). The group is rounded out by names slightly less well known but of equal musical caliber: founder Ron Sanchez (multiple instruments), Scott Sutherland (many instruments as well), and vocalist Kris Wilkinson Hughes.
But pedigree only takes one so far: none of this history would matter one whit if the music wasn’t worth the listener’s time. Happily, the players and composers involved have, in Donovan’s Brain, created music that’s in many ways more timeless and potentially enduring as the music they made in decades previous. The group plays down the composition credits, but the fourteen songs on their new Heirloom Varieties (released on Sanchez and Tek’s Montana-Australia label Career) were—as you’ll discover if you read the credits very carefully with Google at hand—written collectively by Sanchez, Sutliff, Sutherland, and Stevens. That said, it’s clear that the other players bring their unique and estimable talents to bear on the arrangements.
After the delightful (if slightly tentative and wobbly) country rock of “Brighten Up Shop” (above), the soaring and winsome “Houseboy” will evoke smiling memories of the twangy, Byrds-influenced end of college rock sound. The more deliberate pace of “Saw it coming” is very reminiscence of Third-period Big Star, filtered through Rain Parade’s paisley-psych sensibility. (Look closely at one of the photos here and you’ll no doubt notice that Sutliff is sporting a Big Star tee.) The whooshing phased-guitars of “Up to Me Down to You” lean even more in a Rain Parade direction.
“Great Divide” feels like Bobby Fuller Four (specifically, the classic “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” which is quoted) crossed with the Flying Burrito Brothers; lots of shimmering electric guitars and winningly loose-limbed vocal harmonies abound. The twelve-string guitar solos are maddeningly short, as they should be in a great pop song: “leave ’em wanting more” is always a good creative strategy.
Some simple yet effective piano is a key ingredient of “Long Time Ago,” a Tom Petty-esque contemplative and melodic number. “Scant Information” revives the paisley underground vibe, with subtle use of Mellotron and backward guitar figures.
Kicking off what’s noted as Side Two (the disc is available on vinyl as well) “Wedding Bell Ring” sounds like the best Byrds tune you’ve never heard: adding to the creamy Rickenbacker guitar is some tasty Leslie-effected soloing and an extended bridge that’s strong enough to be a song itself.
Guitar distortion – something largely absent from Heirloom Varieties – roars in the spaghetti-western flavored “Selfish Modern.” Parnell’s galloping drum parts duel with aggressively strummed acoustic and wailing electric guitars. When the song breaks out midway, it’s reminiscent of The Long Ryders, but with a harder, more menacing edge.
“It Wasn’t My Idea” would have fit nicely on Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Rain Parade’s 1983 debut. The beautiful guitar solo alone is worth the price of admission; the vocal harmonies are icing on the cake.
“Let it Go” has a melancholy air; its stacks and stacks of chiming, melodic guitar work eliminate the need for lyrics; word would have only gotten in the way in this breathtaking instrumental. “Lightning Life” saves its “Eight Miles High” styled guitar solo until nearly the end. The dreamy “Light in the Window” is a nice slice of retro-psych a la The Dukes of Stratosphear. The disc wraps up with the languid “Sailing off the Edge,” a minor-key workout that combines many of the disc’s best qualities – that Ennio Morricone vibe, those bright Rickenbackers, that keening Mellotron – into a lengthy and dramatic whole.
With Heirloom Varieties, the modern-day supergroup that is Donovan’s Brain has created a consistent, solid album that only gets better in repeated spins. If you’ve skipped to the bottom of the review looking for a quick summary, here it is: Heirloom Varieties is a likely pick for my Best Albums of 2015 list.
Below: an earlier version of the band circa 2009 performing live at the Seattle Terrastock festival.
Photos courtesy of Ron Sanchez and Career Records. Clockwise, from top left: Sanchez & Sutliff; Kris Wilkinson Hughes; a young Tom Stevens; Tek, Sanchez & Parnell; Scott Sutherland; Steven Roback, Sutliff, Matt Piucci & Sanchez (taken at 2013 Sutliff benefit concert). More DB details at http://donovans-brain.net/.
“It was a guerilla raid”: The Australian outfit’s classic 1990 release aimed to change the world—or, at very least, put it on notice, not the least of which came when the Oils stages a musical protest in front of the Exxon building in New York. It also very nearly swept the ’91 Australian ARIA awards to boot. Guitarist Jim Moginie and producer Warne Livesey take stock a quarter-century on.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin.Then we took a look at New River Head by The Bevis Frond, followed by Rock ‘N’ Roll by The Cynics, From the Heart of Town by Gallon Drunk, and Couture, Couture, Couture by Frausdots. Here’s our latest, and it’s an album that I daresay is very close to the hearts of all the BLURT staffers. Enjoy.—FM
It’s been 25 years since Midnight Oil’s personal and political statement of Blue Sky Mining hit record stores worldwide on cassette, CD and limited edition blue vinyl. The band at this point comprised Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Peter Garrett, Martin Rotsey and Bones Hillman. Sounding as fresh today as it did back then, the album managed to sear its way into the public conscience, taking aim at issues that not only permeated Australian culture but also amounted to global-scale environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill that ruined a pristine section of Alaskan coastline, the fragile ecosystem and the livelihoods of many who called the area home.
The album cover, with its parched earth and thunderstorm off in the distance, was the perfect imagery for an album trying to shed some light on issues for an ailing world. As Garrett would go on to sing, “In the end the rain comes down.” With the deluge of emotion that runs through the 10 cuts on the record, the band was hoping that some of the music would permeate the body politic, not just flow through it.
The wonderful thing about Midnight Oil is that they have always managed to tackle large issues without forgetting the human connection. On Blue Sky Mining the band is confronting the issues with you, never placing themselves above the common man or the people living life on the front lines of existence. Herein lies the appeal of a group of musicians that has always had a working class, not afraid of getting their hands dirty, ethos. Something else that has always been refreshing about the band is that they seemed to forgo the material trappings of fame that have managed to add layers of separation between many a band and their audience. It’s true the band—even after countless tours and playing for countless millions—seems like the type of guys you could invite for a beer and actually become friends with.
Midnight Oil is mixed for me with some pretty intense memories from my young adult life. Being from El Paso, unless you happened to be into Iron Maiden or The Scorpions you’d never have a chance to see alternative acts play in town. Instead you’d have to make the trek to Las Cruces or sometimes even as far as Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre. I was a big fan of 1987’s Diesel and Dust and remember reading that the band would be playing a show at the University of New Mexico, so I asked my mother if I could drive up and see the show. It didn’t take too much convincing on my part since she always was up for a trip through New Mexico. The concert was amazing with John Trudell and Yothu Yindi as openers, The Oils turning in a raucous set that had everyone up and moving. I made my way back to the hotel and rested for a few hours and then at 2 a.m. we checked out and I drove back to El Paso. I was just so psyched to be able to show off my tour shirt to people at El Paso High the very next morning. Being quite the fan boy I even had the ticket stub laminated.
I kept that laminated stub in my wallet until college. At that point I was the music director for my college’s radio station and when I was given a chance to see the band perform in Chicago for the ‘93 Earth Sun & Moon tour, I went to the meet and greet arranged by the label and met lead singer Peter Garret. It was then I pulled the stub from my wallet. There were plenty of people waiting to speak with him and I recall he did a double take when I handed him the stub, probably thinking what a nut this guy is to keep this thing in his wallet all these years. I used my twenty seconds and said something about road tripping to the show, and then as these things go was pushed aside. It didn’t matter though because it was one of those full circle moments you have in life.
Personal remembrances aside, Blue Sky Mining is a record that has one foot planted in looking outward at a world going to hell one environmental disaster at a time, the other looking introspectively inward at what it means to be Australian. It takes in a painful sweep of history with wars, the soldiers that fought for the nation, the politicians, the raping of the land, and the notion of corporate greed as it bleeds workers who toil in obscurity deep inside the earth or in the cane fields above ground.
The track “Blue Sky Mine” is the opening salvo that is remarkable because the band here went for a decidedly cleaner sound that evolves into a gritty manifesto railing against labor injustice driven by organ, some clarion call harmonica, acoustic guitar and a metronomic rhythm section. Here Garrett and crew place the listener in the position of being the exploited worker, the painful reality of being at the whim of a company that may be the only game in town and where workers exist paycheck to paycheck, trading blood sweat and tears for their meager lot in life. Garrett sings with desperation, “And if the blue sky mining company won’t come to my rescue/ If the sugar refining company won’t save me/ Who’s gonna save me?”
“Bedlam Bridge” tells the story of the world being leveraged to the hilt, with politicians who are, as Garrett sings, “captains not courageous.” It’s a moody number that adds to the unease of the record as The Oil’s assess a world where “the city is closing in around my head.”
“Forgotten Years” is one of The Oil’s greatest statements; here Garrett examines the uneasy pain of a nation’s past and turns it into a rallying cry for people to know one’s collective history and to not shy away from examining it whether it’s good, bad or horrific. Here the music has the perfect tension that serves as the ignition for turning the song into an anthem, one which will have you singing the refrain long after the song has finished.
“One Country,” coming late in the album, is a bold, awe-inspiring song punctuated with heartfelt emotion and tackling some of the most important themes on the record. Beyond the apparent notion of healing a divided nation, the band amalgamates the two perspectives of the record, yielding devastating results. The divisions between people whatever they may be are so infinitesimal, Garrett and company tell us (and herein this is where the beauty of the song lies), that we must look past these schisms towards loftier, more ambitious things such as healing a wounded planet, which will ultimately unite us in a common cause.
Blue Sky Mining is an album that shows a band at the height of its creative powers, and is an experience that will have you raising your fist in one song and yearning to change the world in the next. I was fortunate to be able to convince Oil’s guitarist and one of its founding members, Jim Moginie, to answer some of the questions that have been on my mind for more than two decades. As a bonus, Warne Livesey—the producer of Blue Sky Mining—also agreed to be interviewed for this article. So do yourself a favor and sit down and listen to the record, and then continue on to the interview section.
BLURT: First, where and when was the album recorded?
JIM MOGINIE: Rhinoceros Studio, Sydney in 1989.
How long did it take to record the album?
3 months from memory.
Who designed the album cover?
I think it was a mate of our manager’s, a guy called Brian Livingstone, but don’t quote me.
What led to Blue Sky Mining?
Well, we had just come off the Diesel and Dust tour which took us all around the world for the first time. We knew we had to do the next record so we got straight to it. Funnily enough I don’t remember any undue pressure to do a follow up such a big album as Diesel. The Oils were a no fuss, practical kind of band. We booked a long period of time to do demos and we led a 9 to 5 kind of existence, going in every day for a couple of months, writing and jamming and recording. So we were well prepared, too many ideas in fact, which is a good problem to have.
How long had the songs on the record been floating around in some form before you set about to formally record them?
I don’t remember any of them hanging around for long, apart from the track “Blue Sky Mine” for which most of the music came from an idea I had when I was 15. I don’t know why that came back to me at that point, for the life of me! So mostly they were fresh.
Was there a point in the recording of the album that you knew you were onto something special?
The funny thing with making records is you never know if it’s special or not, you just do them.
Can you describe the evolutionary shift from Diesel and Dust’s gritty focus to BSM with its tackling of larger more universally identifiable issues?
The Oils had good radar for issues that were floating around but still had not had any mainstream recognition. When we were touring the Diesel record, and living on the tour bus, we were touring America and Europe and we could see firsthand the industrial landscapes and ugly strips of fast food restaurants coming in and out of most cities, and that had an effect. Songs like “River Runs Red”, “Antarctica”, “Shakers”, and Blue Sky especially. And “One Country” being more of a personal view. But many of the songs were about other subjects.
In terms of the running order, what decisions were made regarding the flow of the songs? Can you enlighten us if this is solely a band decision or if the label has input?
Running orders are really hard, but “Blue Sky Mine” was a natural lead off song with that harmonica and guitar intro. “Antarctica” a natural closer. I think we were still in the vinyl age somewhat so “King of The Mountain” was a good opener for Side 2. Having vinyl made orders easier in a way with that side 1 and 2 division. The order was done by Warne and ourselves, no record company ever influenced our decisions in these areas.
Which of the songs went through the most radical changes from when you first started demoing in the studio?
“Bedlam Bridge” was more of a straight rocker as a demo and became much more atmospheric. Warne Livesey our producer had just come from making Mind Bomb with The The so “Bedlam Bridge” acquired that steamy, slightly drugged electronic feel. “River Runs Red” on the album got some Roland 808 beats on it in the verses which made it sound sparse and electro, until the chorus, when the band comes back with a vengeance. Then, we were curious about making records and texturalising in the studio, even using samplers and an early Atari computer to assist, which ended up in the bin a few years ago! The record took a long time to make as a result. One of our sayings at the time was: ‘Big Ideas = Big Sound’.
As a songwriter, can you tell me your process for coming up with some of the songs on BSM? Did you come in with a sketch of a guitar part and then you all would jam and see where it would lead, or were you bringing in much more fully fleshed out ideas to the band?
It was a combination of both, I brought in “One Country” pretty much in a finished state, I had the music and chorus words for “Stars of Warburton” and “Shakers and Movers” and Pete wrote great lyrics for the rest of it. “Forgotten Years” were Rob’s words with quite a lot of my music added to by Pete, “Blue Sky Mine” was a collaboration with everyone that happened in the studio with the clock ticking, not the best place to write songs in my opinion, but we pulled it off. Most of the writing happened in the demoing stage; I think we were almost ‘demoed to death’ by the end of that process but there was a feeling in the band of really wanting to get it right, not taking any chances with the songwriting. In the past we had been on the back foot following up a successful album, but not this time.
“Hands have been clenched into fists too long” from “Forgotten Years” is such a moving line: when you wrote this song with Rob Hirst, did the lyrics come much later in the process or did Peter have some rough sketches for the topics he wanted to cover?
Rob arrived pretty much with that whole lyric from memory, but I could stand corrected on that one vis a vis Pete’s contribution. I always assume Rob wrote the more militaristic type of songs. “Forgotten Years” started as a song called Jacob’s Ladder which then underwent a substantial lyric rewrite with Peter involved (I think) and a few chord alterations as well, so now he could hook into it lyrically. Win!
Rob’s experience with his relatives that had fought in WW2, which inspired the song, was not unique amongst our baby boomer generation: my uncle, who had fought in France and Papua New Guinea and worked tirelessly for Legacy told me when he heard it and saw the video, it really summed up how he felt about the war and the sacrifice so many made. So I love that song.
How did it feel to win 5 big awards at the 1991 ARIA ceremony for Blue Sky Mining?
I think we were doing so much touring and the like that, great as it was, it didn’t even register! I knew we were becoming increasingly popular and were even mobbed when we went to Paris once, but we were always righteously thinking of songs for the next album, not necessarily celebrating climbing to the top of the mountain, real or imagined.
Playing in front of the Exxon building in NYC in 1990, what are your memories of that day? Do you feel that was the turning point that helped propel the band to a full-on breakthrough in the US?
The day was completely chaotic, even though it had been planned with military precision. It was a guerrilla raid on New York City. We were playing 2 nights at Radio City and Exxon was on the morning of the second day. We had all slept after the previous night’s gig, and the gig time was moved hours forward, so were dragged out of bed and had to jump onstage without even tuning up. The police wanted to shut it down as we were disrupting traffic. There were heated negotiations between the mayor’s office, our record label Sony and the NYPD to keep it open for us.
It felt great to play to the crowd, even though it was only 8 songs: they were rocking. We played “Instant Karma” for the first time, which summed up matters pretty well about the oil spill. It felt good to make the point that needed to be made about Exxon. It was only afterwards I realized the event was front page news all around the world. I’m so glad it was filmed and recorded. Everybody heard about it in the mainstream media world so in that sense it put us in front of more people.
How did the makeup of your fan base change after BSM became a hit?
I’m not sure that it did; we were pretty big by then anyway, but numbers seemed to be increasing. If anything, our music was becoming more melodic from album to album, so it was a more radio friendly mainstream audience that was turning up at shows now. MTV also played a part as they aired our videos regularly. Some people who liked the Oils cared about the planet and what was happening to it, others I met just liked the fact it was a kicking rock band. But I think all realized that were we doing it our own uncompromising—and sometimes stubborn—way, and they respected that.
I remember seeing your band at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for the Diesel and Dust tour. With BSM what was the transition like from small halls to arena’s like?
Oh, I remember driving from Albuquerque to Phoenix for the first time: amazing landscapes, what a great trip that was! Well, the first thing was we had more crew because the production and the stage sets got bigger. We had a huge mining gantry behind us on stage, and we performed standing on a giant canvas painted with a cracked earth motif. It felt bigger in terms of the venues yes, we were known around most of the world by then. But we had worked hard for many years up that point so it was a gradual climb up the ladder, so none of that feeling of an overnight success. We had a good set of songs and the audience knew most of them, doesn’t get much better than that.
The band was mainly doing arenas on the BSM tour in the US. What songs from BSM do you feel work well in an arena and which ones work better in a more intimate setting?
The acoustics of the bigger stadiums didn’t always suit the cyclonic trash of our early stuff. Sparser songs like “River Runs Red” and “Antarctica” sounded great in those environments. The shows had a lot of set design, lighting and great sound to make them work in the stadiums. We did well in club shows just doing what we knew and trusted, rocking. Only when we did the Unplugged thing a couple of years later that we stripped it back, a bit, not a lot!
Back in 1990 the band was being compared with U2 in terms of social action and championing global causes. Did the band even consider U2 as a peer in this arena?
U2 were kindred spirits in a way. They sang about issues, and wore their hearts on their sleeves like we did but in that wonderful Irish way of theirs, and their evolution in the ‘90s and embracing rock star irony is widely documented. We did it a bit differently—it was an Australian perspective. We knew them, and liked them as people and musicians, but that was as far as it went.
Did the band write at all during the tour and if so what songs came from it?
We wrote a few Blue Sky songs on the road on the Diesel and Dust tour, but most came when we regrouped back in Sydney afterwards. “King of The Mountain” came from a writing session with myself, Rob and Martin in a Baltimore hotel. “One Country” a sleepless night in Quebec City.
What’s your favorite and least favorite song on the record?
I like all of it really, it works well as an album and a cogent vision of the times. “Mountains of Burma” might be a bit overblown with all the strings and backwards echo, but it’s very powerful with all of the kitchen sink on it!
Will there ever be an expanded reissue of the album featuring demos, and or live tracks?
That’s a good idea, as we had too many demos of songs when we went in to the studio with Warne. I think good taste prevailed, and the best songs made it through the process to the album; however, I think that would be a good idea to give the album context of what else we were all writing, if only to make the album sound better.
In the intervening years since BSM was first released, what mark do you feel the record has left on the bands that followed and were influenced by Midnight Oil?
I’m not sure that that record on its own had an influence of anyone more than any other record. If [1982’s] 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 was about nuclearism and Diesel was about Aboriginal people, then Blue Sky Mining might be remembered for being about the environment. So in that sense we never shied away from talking about issues that were important to us. What followed soon after in the early ‘90s were the grunge bands where most of the lyrics were about ‘me, me and me’ so perhaps Blue Sky marked us as being one of those ‘politically correct’ bands. Perhaps proudly so. I don’t think we fitted in with the new crop, even though as a live band we still rocked harder than most of them. In hindsight, the records took more of a ‘pop’ direction as the songwriting got more sophisticated, but I think with [1998’s] Redneck Wonderland we certainly reclaimed the rock side of the band on record.
You often read about bands who are caught completely off guard by the success a certain album has. Were you surprised by how well received BSM was at the time?
I was, and that was good because most audiences internationally only knew Diesel and Dust so now we could tour and alongside the Blue Sky material we now could do a whole night of songs that people knew. I think we were more off guard with the success of Diesel than any other album to be honest.
Now that 25 years have passed, how do you regard this album in The Oils canon? When was the last time you listened to it?
I like it a lot, I think there was a feeling that there should have been less keyboards and more fast songs on it at the time (we were a rock band), but I’ll stand by it. It’s a soulful record, all the songs stand up well. I don’t listen to our old stuff much, but I listened to it 6 months ago and the first impression I had was I thought the vocals were really good thanks to our new (at the time) singing bass player Bones Hillman and producer Warne Livesey.
The band reunited for 3 benefit shows in 2009 – how was it to be back in the saddle?
It felt like getting back on top of the wild stallion after lounging around in the saloon for many years, so a few sore spots and scratches, but strangely familiar on a cellular level to be doing what we had all done for so long.
It seems to me now more than ever the world needs a band like Midnight Oil to give people hope and to raise awareness on a multitude of issues. Given this, will the band ever record again?
It could be. I never say never as far as the band is concerned.
Does Australia have any bands that you feel channel some of what the Oils were doing back then with bringing some issues front and center?
Oh yeah, Urthboy, John Butler Trio. I wish there were more in one sense, but I never felt anyone had to feel obliged in any way to write about issues if they didn’t feel them.
Finally, how is your solo career going—any albums or collaborations slated for release in 2016?
It’s been quite liberating after the band split, though difficult at first to get used to not working with the same people all the time. I’ve stayed quite busy since then, making 7 albums since the Oils split, alone and with others, as myself and under monikers such as Shameless Seamus, Utes in The Paddock and Fuzzface (with producer Nick Launay). I’ve worked as a producer myself on many others including silverchair, Sarah Blasko, Neil Finn, and countless others and as a session musician occasionally. And composed a few soundtracks.
I play with Rob and Martin from the Oils (as well as Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes) in a surf band called The Break.
I love, and am a student of, traditional Irish music and play in a band called The Tinkers. I also play guitar with a collective called the Australian Chamber Orchestra Underground or ACO Underground, here and overseas, playing alongside string players from Australia’s premier string ensemble.
My most recent project is called The Colour Wheel with Jim Moginie’s Electric Guitar Orchestra. It combines music and art in the form of live painting, to create synaesthesia. That will be released in October this year. I’ve written all the music, I’m very excited by it and we have already performed at the Sydney Opera House, MonaFoma Festival in Hobart and in Ireland.
BLURT: Was there a different approach to recording Blue Sky Mining versus let’s say Diesel and Dust?
WARNE LIVESEY: I wouldn’t call it a different approach. Fundamentally, both albums were approached in the same manner. After we had gone through the process of ensuring we had the songs we needed we went into pre-production to play with the arrangements and fine tune the songs. Then the recording for most tracks were started with bed track live takes of the band (2 guitars, bass and drums with a scratch vocal) all performed together. We would often edit a master take together from several takes to get all the best bits. Sometimes we would redo parts of that take later and would overdub extra parts and all the vocals, of which there were many. There are a few songs that also involved various computer sequenced parts that were then built around.
The main differences were that in the meantime Bones Hillman had joined the band on bass and also we recorded Blue Sky Mining in a different and much more flexible and better equipped studio.
In terms of studio set up was everything done in isolation booths?
Yes. The layout of Rhino Studios was that there was a main room where we had the drums and a room either side of that where we put the two guitar amp setups. There was also a smaller Iso booth where Peter sang scratch vocals and another for the Bass Amp. All the rooms had good visibility. But essentially all the instruments were isolated from each other.
Which song was hardest to nail for the band?
Well, there were a few songs that went through quite a transition during the course of the sessions. The title track “Blue Sky Mine” being one. That song actually started out as a different song. After we had started the song if felt a little lacking and I came up with the idea of giving it more of a Motown feel. We started working on the Vox organ riff and then Martin came up with the echo guitar part and the guys wrote a new chorus inspired by that. It was a more convoluted process but it worked out well.
There are other songs like “Mountains of Burma” and “Antarctica” that involve more electronics, sampling etc. that were pieced together more than a straight up performance. But I don’t think there was any song that the band struggled with nailing from a playing point of view. They were well prepared.
Did the band have a clear idea of what they wanted to do with this album when they entered the studio?
That’s an interesting question to answer. The band has a strong identity of sound and style that is clear and they also demoed the songs prior to recording for the album. So yes, there was some clarity of objective. But they engage a producer like myself because they want my vision as well and also we all want there to be a freedom for the creative flow to take the songs off in new directions when doing so improves them. So as I already explained, some tracks like “Blue Sky Mine” transformed quite radically. But others stayed closer to the direction of the demos and pre-production sessions.
As a producer I always do a lot of prep work before I start recording. And I normally get a pretty clear idea from listening to demos how I envisage the songs could be best represented. Then when we all get together I present my vision as do all the band members bring their ideas, and we sift through what works best. But ultimately it’s the energy of the creative dynamic between everyone that produces the magic when its working well (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts dynamic).
Was there pressure on the band at this point to come up with hits?
Not really. Certainly not externally. “Beds are Burning” off the previous album Diesel and Dust was obviously a massive hit worldwide and of course we were aware of that and aware of how having a song like that positively effects the album sales and the career of the band. But the band had made probably 10 or so albums by that point and operated somewhat independently from external influence as far as recording was concerned. But I think we might have felt some internal pressure. In general I think as creative people we are all somewhat driven to keep improving and being more successful musically. That may not necessarily mean ‘hits’, but I certainly want to rise to the challenge of outdoing past work and I think the Oils did too.
Was most of this material already written in some form or was a lot of the material for BSM worked out in the studio?
A mixture. Some songs were pretty locked down. Others transformed and evolved.
I’ve always been interested about the wider global scale feel of the album: how do you feel your production enhanced this sense?
Well in the most generic sense, me being a Brit obviously brought a different perspective. More specifically, when I started working with the band on the previous record they indicated to me that they wanted to evolve and I thought the areas where we should really focus were on songs and vocals. They were obviously a great band. Fantastic players with a great energy. There were moments prior to those albums when you heard the vocal potential they had both from Pete and the background vocals. But I thought we could really enhance and greater utilize that side of the band and bring more melodic sensibility to these records. So we focused heavily on vocal performance and huge background vocal arrangements where appropriate. I was also quite driven for the production to be contemporary and appropriately incorporate new and modern techniques of the day (like sampling and programming) alongside more classic recording.
What were some of the songs you initially gravitated towards in the BSM sessions?
In all honesty I don’t remember. Looking back, I think the whole record is strong.
What songs changed the most in studio?
“Blue Sky Mine”.
In terms of the album did you have a hand in what the lead cut would be on the record as well as the running order?
When you say lead cut I presume you mean first single. I am not technically involved in that decision. That’s normally decided by the label in conference with band and management. But I give my opinion and there is normally an awareness during recording which songs are most likely the radio songs. And most of the time that turns out to be correct.
Do you remember any moments in the studio for the recording of BSM that you knew that this record would go further than any of their other records up to this point?
Hmm. I don’t think that’s quite how I relate to the process. As I already mentioned, I think we are always driven to improve and do better work. And I think there is a natural dynamic for us to be generally excited about the music we are working on. The way that translates into how the record is perceived by the audience and how it performs sales and chart wise are somewhat unpredictable. And I think BSM actually didn’t sell quite as well as Diesel: about 4 million as opposed to 5 million. Both of which are pretty successful sales. I do think we felt like we were evolving artistically.
The song “Bedlam Bridge” is really beautifully produced, the space that is created inside the song immediately sucks the listener inside a world where we are alone with Peter Garret’s word. Can you talk about how you went about sculpting the feel of this song, including the ability to sculpt out an aural world which wraps the listener in the music?
Wow, thanks. I’m glad to have that feedback because I think that’s what we were going for. Firstly, I have to give the credit to Pete’s incredible vocal. He has such an intensity in his vocal performances, even when he’s singing softly. There’s this believability and real emotional connection in his performance that is the centre of affecting the listener with the song. We worked very hard on lyrics: often they were written and rewritten many times to perfect them. And we also worked very hard on vocals. As regards to the musicality and atmospheric parts of the production I’ve always been influenced and inspired by more esoteric music and had a desire to incorporate that within a rock/pop context. I guess at that time, those inspirations came from people like Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Eno, The Blue Nile etc.
There’s a duality in the lyrics: the observation of the darker sides of society against the hope and positive potential. So I wanted to create that tension in the soundscape aspects of the track that enhance the more band like components. So there are angular elements like the reverse guitars mixed with sweeter synth pad sounds and the programmed sampled ethnic drums. Explaining it all in retrospect makes it sound much more calculated in how it’s put together, whereas in reality when we were working on the song we were following a general idea of what we were going for and are mainly led by intuition and what felt right.
Listening back to this record how do you feel it has aged now that its 25 years old?
I think it has some elements that seem dated to me. Certain sound choices perhaps. But overall I think it has aged well.
What is your favorite track on the record?
It’s always difficult to pick one favourite, but if I’m pushed I will go with “Mountains of Burma”.
Did you have a hand in the remaster back in 2007, and if so, what changed with the updated edition?
No I didn’t. It was just straight remastering from the original edited mix masters. Mastering for digital has improved a lot over the years since we made the record. So they were able to make a much better and truer representation for the remastered version.
With all of the bands that you’ve recorded since these sessions are there any bands that have cited this album as an influence on their sound or have any bands come to you and said we want this sound?
Not precisely bands wanting to sound like that, but it is certainly one of the records that many artists I’ve worked with since cite as a reason they want to work with me. And I get comments from musicians and producers that they were inspired by it.
A new box set collecting the ‘70s singer-songwriter’s oeuvre retrospectively casts a shining light on his keen pop instincts.
BY BILL KOPP
Even a music consumer who vastly prefers vinyl over compact disc must allow that there have been some very important creative/aesthetic triumphs that have happened only because of compact disc technology. From its beginnings in the 1980s, the lower manufacturing cost of CDs meant that it became practical to reissue out-of-print music. In plainest terms, the labels could often justify the costs involved in reissuing albums of note, even if those albums might not have sold in vast quantities on original release. Moreover, they didn’t have to shift gajillions of units in reissue form, either. So it was that relatively obscure records became available once again in the digital-based physical format. But the CD era began some thirty years ago, so one would think that the archival vaults have by now been pretty well swept clean, right? Well, no.
Keyboardist/vocalist Lee Michaels created an impressive body of work on Herb Alpert‘s A&M label, and even hit the Top 40 once or twice with some singles. There was a 1992 best-of CD that is itself long out of print, and some small labels had done reissues of his albums, but those aren’t easily found, either. Between 1968 and 1973, the keyboardist/vocalist released no less than six studio LPs and a live set, but unless you dug around used record bins, you be hard-pressed to lay hands on more than two or three of them. And that was a shame, as Michaels’ music is, at its best, an exemplar of certain musical styles of the era.
So it’s a quite welcome circumstance that a small, Los Angeles-based independent label called Manifesto Records has secured the rights to reissue Lee Michaels’ seven A&M albums on CD as The Complete A&M Album Collection. Housed in an admittedly flimsy box, each of the seven discs is presented in mini-gatefold LP sleeve, with the original art and graphics (downsized, of course). And the package features a booklet full of photos plus a very informative historical essay from Brett Milano, author of the new Game Theory bio Don’t All Thank Me At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller. (There’s also a separately available tidy twenty-track best-of CD for those who aren’t ready or willing to take the box set plunge; Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels also features “Goodbye Goodbye,” a non-LP cut unavailable elsewhere.)
Those looking for bonus tracks and rarities will be disappointed; this new set has none of those. But the relative unavailability of Michaels’ music makes the reissue welcome, and it’s a fine excuse to revisit the man’s catalog of work.
Carnival of Life
Released in 1968, Carnival of Life marked Michaels’ album debut. A varied disc, it displays his strong, soulful vocals out front of a full band; there’s lots of heavy guitar riffage, and the dramatic “Hello” may remind some listeners of Vanilla Fudge. Michaels’ keyboard work (organ, piano, harpsichord) is prominent but – unlike his later work – not a central focus of the record. Carnival of Life is a “band” record in every sense of the term. The famed “Hendrix chord” is a centerpiece of the hard rocking “Love,” which was released as a single but didn’t chart. The title track departs a bit from the heaviness to focus on harpsichord. The baroque-flavored “Sounding the Sleeping” is ambitious in its structure and arrangement, a sort of proto-progressive rock. Tack piano moves “My Friends” along. The list of musicians backing Lee on this disc include organist Rev. Gary Davis and in-demand session drummer Eddie Hoh. Overall, Michaels’ debut is an r&b flavored rock disc that – while it’s typical of the sounds of 1968 – has worn rather well. Carnival of Life didn’t make a mark on the Billboard charts of the era.
It seems odd in today’s world, but before the year was out, Michaels had recorded and released another album. 1968’s Recital again featured all original songs, and it sidestepped the dreaded “sophomore slump.” In many ways a stronger album than its predecessor, Recital benefited from a more pared-down musician lineup: Johny Barbata (The Turtles) was behind the drum kit for most of the tracks, while session bassist Larry Knechtel played bass, and Michaels stopped – for good his earlier practice of ceding some keyboard duties to others. Meanwhile his friend Drake Levin – co-leader of Brotherhood and former lead guitarist with Paul Revere and the Raiders – played all of the guitar parts. The arrangements are tighter, sometimes making use of brass and other instrumentation. The rocking parts rock harder, the subtle bits are even more refined, and the songwriting is top-notch. While the other players are solid, Recital clearly marks the arrival of Michaels the singer/keyboardist, the focus of the album. “Time is Over” sounds like an upscale Grassroots. “Fell in Love Today” seems to quote The Beatles‘ “I Am the Walrus.” Michaels’ rhythm and blues orientation is channeled into highly melodic tunes with memorable riffs. And his vocals are somehow even more assured than on the debut. “Blind” is a rare contemplative turn on an otherwise upbeat disc. The brief “What Can He Do” could be a prototype for Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Basic Knowledge” features some tasty Michaels solos on harpsichord and organ. The lengthy instrumental “Spare Change” is a keyboard tour-de-force, and perhaps the best single-song sampler of Lee Michaels’ talents to that date. “The War” was perhaps the least commercially viable track on Recital; inexplicably and somewhat perversely, it was selected as the (non-charting) single. It stiffed. Its b-side, “Goodbye Goodbye” was never released on an album, but is now part of the 2015 Heighty Hi best-of collection. Recital didn’t chart.
By summer 1969 Michaels had made fundamental changes in his musical approach. Paring back the instrumentation to its most basic, the self-titled third album was essentially cut live in the studio (with minimal bass overdubs by Michaels) and featured only the keyboardist/vocalist plus drummer Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost, better known as Frosty. With nothing to hide behind (so to speak), the arrangements on Lee Michaels rely completely upon the energy generated by Michaels and Frosty. The approach works surprisingly well, as can be both heard and seen on a January 1970 clip of “Who Could Want More” from the variety TV show The Music Scene. (The TV version is live, and quite different from the version on the album; that’s the video in the introduction to this article, above.) The entirety of the original LP’s Side One is a multi-song suite that includes a drum solo titled “Frosty’s” (this was the late 60s, after all). A breathtaking and dramatic reading of the blues classic “Stormy Monday” is different than – but in many ways equal to – the version The Allman Brothers Band would release a little over a year later. The rethink of his musical approach paid off, and for the first time ever, Michaels hit the charts: the album reached #53 on the Billboard charts, and the jubilant, singalong Southern soul of “Heighty Hi” was released as a single (though it failed to chart; it became an FM radio staple).
Months later, Lee Michaels returned with 1970’s Barrel. Seemingly determined never to take the same musical approach twice in a row, for Barrel Michaels brought back Drake Levin; the guitarist’s playing is all over the album, meshing tightly with Michaels’ and Frosty’s playing. Levin’s deft use of Leslie (spinning speaker cabinet) amplification on his guitar somehow makes the stringed instrument fit even better within the confines of a keyboard-driven album. “What Now America” picks up thematically where the previous album’s “The War” left off. A rare Michaels love song, “Ummmmm My Lady” was selected as the (you guessed it: non-charting) single. Either a throwaway or an important statement, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (yes, that one) gives nearly half of its run time to Frosty’s marching snare. A cover of Moby Grape‘s “Murder in My Heart (For the Judge)” is even more soulful – and less histrionic – than the original. “Day of Change” has worn exceptionally well; it sounds more like the kind of album track one might hear in, say, 1973. “Didn’t Know What We Had” features Michaels on electric piano, an instrument of which he made surprisingly little use elsewhere. The brief “As Long As I Can” closes the album on a downtempo note. Barrel reached #51 on the album charts; it was Michaels’ best chart performance to date, and a taste of things to come.
If there’s only one Lee Michaels LP in your collection, it’s probably this one. “5th” was the album that launched Michaels into brief stardom. As ever, Michaels altered his approach for the 1971 album: Levin was absent, but so was Frosty. Drummer Joel Larson (Grassroots) took over percussion duties; his approach was a bit subtler and finessed, and suited the material. Merry Clayton, the stirring voice heard on The Rolling Stones‘ “Gimme Shelter” lend her impressive (overdubbed) pipes to the album opener, “Keep the Circle Turning.” The gospel flavor of that song is carried through on most of the album; Michaels’ approach of simple chord structures gave him plenty of room to add filigree and nuance within relatively straightforward arrangements. Some yakety saxophone (courtesy of Jackie Kelso) shows up on several numbers. Longtime Michaels followers may have sensed that his songwriting muse was wearing out; half of “5th” is given over to cover songs (“Willie & the Hand Jive,” “Can I Get A Witness,” “Ya Ya”). The album’s breakout track – and by far Lee Michaels’ most well-known song – is “Do You Know What I Mean,” a simple, soulful number that sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1971. Even though it was initially released as the b-side to “Keep the Circle Turning,” “Do You Know What I Mean” top-tenned – #6, actually – and no doubt helped “5th” reach #16 on the album charts.
Space & First Takes
Frustratingly, Michaels’ follow-up to the smash “5th” seems – at least in retrospect – designed to sabotage any chance of commercial success. Space & First Takes (1972) is a fine album; it simply isn’t the kind of thing people who bought “5th” would have been expecting. Gone are the short, concise pop-soul of that album (and previous records). Instead Space & First Takes is pretty much what its title suggests: a jam album made up of a mere five long pieces. As ever, the lineup doesn’t repeat its predecessor; here it’s a returning Drake Levin on guitar, drummer Keith Knudsen (later of The Doobie Brothers), and bassist Joel Christie (the latter was the composer of “Keep the Circle Turning” from the previous record). If all that weren’t enough, Michaels drastically scaled back his keyboard playing and picked up an electric guitar. The guitar work – whether it’s Levin or Michaels – is impressive and well worth hearing, but that and the long song structures weren’t what people wanted at the time from Lee Michaels. There’s also a slightly distressing sameness to the first three numbers (the title track goes in a different direction, but would have felt more at home on the jammy Record Three of George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass). Around the five-minute mark of “Space & First Takes,” some ill-advised vocal meandering threatens to render the track unlistenable. A paucity of lyrics didn’t help the one-chord jam, either. Needless to say, there weren’t any hit singles from Space & First Takes (“Hold On to Freedom” was a non-charting single). The album only reached #78, the beginning of a rapid downward spiral in Michaels’ commercial fortunes.
The tour supporting Space & First Takes yielded the recording that made up this 1973 live album. Recorded at Carnegie Hall, Live‘s sleeve made no mention of the venue; the box set’s liner notes explain why. Knudsen stayed on for the tour, bringing Michaels back to the two-piece approach of Lee Michaels. The song selection on Live is curious: only one tune from the album supposedly being promoted (Space & First Takes), and no “Do You Know What I Mean.” It does, however, provide a nice overview of Michaels’ catalog, with at least one song from every album except 1968’s Carnival of Life. An incendiary “Stormy Monday” is a highlight. The seven minute “Drum Solo” is a bit much even for 1973, but the slow burn of “Forty Reasons” is superb. After some downtempo numbers, Michaels implores the audience, “You gonna help us sing?” and launches into a rousing, nine-minute version of “Heighty Hi.” The audience eats it up, and stays excited for the bluesy closer, “Rock Me Baby.” Live reached #135 on the Billboard album charts. Despite that poor chart showing, it’s a fine document of Lee Michaels’ onstage performance, and it’s well recorded for its time.
After fulfilling his contractual obligations with that live disc, Michaels left A&M and recorded a couple of albums for Columbia, followed by some extremely rare indie releases. But after 1982’s Absolute Lee, he retired permanently from the music business. And he doesn’t give interviews, as I learned while trying to track him down a few years back for his perspective on guitarist Drake Levin’s group Brotherhood (he gave the group an unreleased track of his, a cover of Joe South‘s “Rose Garden,” – probably cut during the Recital sessions – to which they added new vocals and released as their own; that, too, is another story).
The Lee Michaels box set The Complete A&M Album Collection will be released November 20 on Manifesto Records; the single-disc collection Heighty Hi: The Best of Lee Michaels will be released on the same date.
Ed. note: a few months ago we ran a contest here at the site giving readers a chance to win vinyl and DVD copies of R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 and 2001(Rhino/Viacom) which documented the group’s two key appearances on the MTV Unpluggedseries. To enter the contest you had to submit an R.E.M.-centric-related story, anecdote or appreciation. We received a slew of entries, many of them apparently from readers that didn’t bother reading the terms of submission (they only sent their name and mailing address). Several, though, were corkers, including the winning one by Christopher Keller, who recalled for us a chance encounter with members of the band. That, along with several others we enjoyed, are below. –FM
Reuniting the Band, by Christopher M. Keller, Esq.
I was attending the UGA School of Law between 1996 and 2000. My first job was at a local restaurant called The Last Resort. Athens is a pretty small town, but Last Resort is frequented by all of the R.E.M. guys and there were a variety of experiences over the years (my wife nearly punching Michael Stipe in the face comes to mind, but isn’t something that I want the world to know) but my favorite is probably my (unintentional) reuniting of the band.
It was in the fall of 1997, I think, though it could have been 1998, but regardless, Berry had finally left the band, leaving the town of Athens in shock. Everyone knew about his health problems and no one was surprised he decided to retire, but there was something of a (claimed) surprise by the other band members when Berry announced publicly he was retiring. From what I heard, he may or may not have told everyone before he decided to leave. Regardless, Berry and his friends were eating on the patio, when Michael (yes, that is how we would refer to him) came in, saying that he was meeting friends. Always helpful, I showed him onto the patio, “come with me”.
When we walked onto the patio, Michael stopped, turning white, looked at me, then at Berry and his group. Michael started to say something along the line of “That’s not who I am meeting….” But we were already out and too close to walk away. Pleasant “Hey”(s) were exchanged, with hugs and small talk, but Michael repeatedly (and imploringly) looked in my direction. He quickly said that he was meeting Hassan, the owner of Marrakech Express, and left the group. As we walked out of the patio, Michel turned to me and said, “I didn’t need that”.
Later in the evening, Bertis Downs, their attorney and eventual manager, came into the restaurant. We were on friendlier terms … more so than with Michael, and he complimented me for “reuniting the band”. He later explained that it had been several weeks since Berry announced his retiR.E.M.ent and that the band had somehow avoided running into him during that time. Of course, Berry never came back to the band, but I like to think that I paved the way for reunions such as the one at the 40 Watt before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
You know, now that I read the story, it doesn’t seem as unusual as it did at the time. Let me tell you about the time that my wife raised her fist to punch Michael after he pushed her when we were in the Living Room….
First Time’s Always the Best Time, by Matt Kessler
So my first encounter with R.E.M. was as a freshman in high school. I took a theater class and we had to write a play, and in the play there was a scene where a bunch of the “nerdy” kids in school were wandering into the classroom after being bullied, and the teacher suggested we play “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. as we walked on and found our seats. It was my first time hearing R.E.M. and the song echoed in my head for weeks after the play, and then I dove into their catalog and became a lifelong fan!
Smells Like Teen Spirit, by Tim Taylor
Like certain smells can bring back memories, the album Automatic For The People always brings me back to that one girl. I had never listened to R.E.M. before that, but now I can’t hear them without thinking of her.
Anarchy on the AM, by Darren Thornberry
Well, just a simple story. As a kid in rural Alberta in the late ‘80s, I was getting a massive dose of hair bands on the radio. I have no doubt that was to be my destiny as a music consumer UNTIL “Stand” somehow snuck under the wire of our lonely AM station. I will never forget the explosion of my musical consciousness that song caused, and I will forever be thankful to R.E.M. for a string of great albums. The band, which I was lucky enough to see on the Monster tour in 1995, also opened the door to wide swaths of music I never would have found without them.
The Shocking Conclusion, by J. Batchelor
I’ve been a huge fan since hearing Murmur which happened about the time Rolling Stone Magazine named it Album of the Year. In a small town in eastern North Carolina, I lived a bit off the beaten path and wasn’t as up to speed on current music in those pre-internet days as if I had lived in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. Still I purchased Murmur (probably in Raleigh or Chapel Hill on a visit but possibly in Greenville) and was totally blown away on first listen.
Next I got Chronic Town and pretty much purchased each album when it came out after that. I first saw R.E.M. in Page Auditorium at Duke University in Durham, NC when I drove up with a friend in September 1984 a couple of days before my 29th birthday. I was lucky enough to see R.E.M. four more times before they split up, including the show in Raleigh at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre when Bill Berry rejoined his old mates on stage in 2003 and again at Walnut Creek when Don Dixon, Mitch Easter and Johnny Marr joined the band on stage in 2008.
Still, there are other interesting bits, like when I took a diversion off the road in 1990 coming back from my old room-mates wedding in New Orleans and went to Athens and visited Wuxtry Records (where Michael and Pete first met). I ended up staying there overnight and saw “friend of the band” Robyn Hitchcock play a solo acoustic show in the 40 Watt Club (this would be a few years before Peter Buck bought the Club to save a bit of Athens history from the destruction that is called urban renewal). A couple of years later, I happened to be in London when I read in TimeOut that there was going to be a benefit for Bosnian Refugee Relief with members of R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Holsapple and others performing.
Along with my friends, I went looking for the venue but apparently we got Liverpool Street and Liverpool Road mixed up and never found the place (though I have since acquired a bootleg recording of the performance). And speaking of bootleg recordings, I stumbled into a record store in Nuremburg, Germany three or four years later and bought a bootleg CD of R.E.M. doing a benefit show in the 40 Watt Club from November 19, 1992. On another trip to Europe in 1993, I got off the plane in Riga, Latvia and the radio in the airport was playing a song that featured what was unmistakably Michael Stipe’s voice. I was somewhat shocked because it was a song I had never heard and I was very familiar with all of R.E.M.’s material. The song was “Alive and Living Now” with Michael as guest vocalist for the Golden Palominos. As soon as I returned home I bought the CD and the earlier Album by the Golden Palominos that also featured Michael singing (and if I’m not mistaken Mike Mills played bass on a song or two).
Since the breakup of the band, I’ve been lucky enough to catch Peter Buck performing with Minus 5 and Mike Mills performing with the Baseball Project. Unfortunately Peter was not with Minus 5 the second time I saw them or with the Baseball Project when I saw them. He was off doing his own gigs.
Previously in the BLURT “In The Hands Of The Fans” series:
A just-released collection of previously unheard home-recorded tracks catches the great British folk guitarist (and Pentangle legend) just before he made his name in the early 1960s. Below, hear key tracks from the album.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
John Renbourn was one of the great folk fingerpickers of the 1960s, classically trained but best known for his work alongside Bert Jansch in Pentangle. The Riverboat label’s new collection of previously unreleased, home-recorded tracks, The Attic Tapes, catches him just before he made his name, in the early 1960s, a formative period when he hashed out his mix of folk, blues and baroque classical and toured the south of England with cultish innovator Mac MacLeod.
The name of the compilation comes from the fact that the tapes were discovered in someone’s attic a remarkable find made all the more remarkable by the clarity and quality of these cuts. In the home-recorded tracks (there are a few live cuts), Renbourn sounds like he is sitting right next you, dexterously tracing out complicated patterns of three finger and thumb picking, his skill eclipsed only by the warmth and lucidity of the tone he coaxes.
Other 1960s not-quite-yet luminaries make cameo appearances. Beverly Martyn sings a tough, reverberant blues on “Picking Up the Sunshine” and, later, “Come Back Baby,” punching out a gutsy melody over Renbourn’s bends and slides. Mac MacLeod, who talk Donovan how to flat pick, is on hand for his signature “Cocaine” and “It Hurts Me, Too;” he and Renbourn would later, in 1964, record “Cocaine” as a demo together. He covers Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” in one of the album’s best vocal tracks. And, weirdly, Renbourn performs the intricate, intoxicating finger-picking exercise “Anji” several years before its author Davey Graham got his version on tape. Graham also sings on the Django-esque “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which closes the disc.
Mostly, though it’s Renbourn himself, razor sharp but unhurried, playing melody and counterpoint, folk and blues, call and response, all by himself. Casual, even sleepy sounding on tracks like the live “I Know My Babe” (recorded live at the then-pre-eminent Cousins folk club), he nonetheless executes complicated tangles of notes with blazing speed and certainty, dissolving the difficulty in an unshowy virtuosity. Renbourn is, obviously, known mostly for his folk skills, but here in the 1960s, he was steeped in swampy blues. Songs like “The Wildest Pig in Captivity” bend and curve and slide low-riding Delta style, with only a touch of baroque ornamentation.
Renbourn was still a year or two out from 1963, the year he met Bert Jansch, recorded the Bert and John album and laid the foundations for Pentangle, but you can already hear his restless, genre-crossing curiously in the way that blues morphs into Celtic folk, and Appalachian finger-picking leads to renaissance motifs. “Plainsong,” one of several original Renbourn compositions, is damned near unclassifiable, classical flourishes melting into the sunny serenity of porch blues.
The surprise, really, is not that Renbourn was such a great player, but that he sounds so well, on tapes that have moldered for half a century and were probably never that great to begin with. But there it is, the sound quality is wonderful, warm and intimate but shockingly clear. Renbourn himself participated in the making and annotating of these cuts, but he passed away earlier this year, at the age of 70, before the material could be released. Sad, but if you close your eyes, it sounds like he’s right there across the room, alive and well and playing his heart out.
Below, watch a very special video of Renbourn and co-conspirator Bert Jansch of (comparatively) recent vintage from the DVD “Acoustic Routes”.
The erstwhile Creedence frontman has a new book, Fortunate Son, that details his ups and downs with fellow bandmembers and his record label. It’s clearly an exorcism of sorts for Fogerty. For readers, though, while a fascinating read it may also feel a bit like a self-congratulatory exercise in the airing of dirty laundry…
BY JOHN B. MOORE
When it comes to record companies screwing over the artists that make the music they profit from, the list is a long one. But from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, few deals were as blatantly lopsided as the one Creedence Clearwater Revival signed with Fantasy Records. Despite owning a slew of hits created by the band, and more specifically singer/guitarist John Fogerty, the label ended up suing the front man in the 1980s because a song, “The Old Man Down the Road,” on his Centerfield solo album, sounded too much like a song he wrote and sang on from his CCR days – so he was being sued for allegedly ripping off himself. (Go HERE to read about the fascinating legal wrangling that ensued between Fogerty and Fantasy.)
Over the past few decades, Fogerty has talked a little bit about his clashes with Fantasy chief Saul Zaentz, but he finally discusses the relationship and history in full detail in his memoir, Fortunate Son (published by Little, Brown & Company). The book feels almost like an exorcism of sorts for Fogerty, who also goes into great detail about his falling out with his bandmates, including his brother Tom, in the mid-‘70s, when all members wanted more say in the writing of songs.
“As I have been quoted as saying, the worst thing that happened to my band was the Beatles, because the guys in my band thought they could be the Beatles,” Fogerty writes. “Not only did the Beatles have three of the greatest songwriters ever, they had two great singers plus another pretty good singer – and actually a fourth guy with so much personality that it worked.”
He then asks the reader rhetorically if he feels like he was a tyrant in Creedence: “I don’t feel like I was.”
To the reader though, you can’t help but feel like he was at the very least pretty damn difficult to deal with (though it is easy to argue that the guy who wrote “Proud Mary,” “Run Through the Jungle” and “Long As I Can see the Light” deserves his fair share of ego). No one has yet disputed his assertion that he had to teach his CCR band members the various song arrangements on their instruments in the studio.
“Was I sure-handed, a perfectionist, even bullheaded about what I wanted? Yeah, you bet, sometimes. And sometime not… I didn’t sit there and berate or belittle someone in front of everybody else. That just wasn’t in my makeup.”
Along with finally telling his side to oft-discussed CCR music lore, Fogerty shares a number of interesting anecdotes and facts here, like his penchant for punk rock (he liked The Ramones and Bad Religion’s Sorrow is one of his favorite records). He also finally explains the genesis of the song Willie and the Poor Boys, which came to him on tour as he saw an ad in the paper for the “Winnie the Pooh Super-Pooh Package.”
“I just loved how that sounded, and I wanted to create a cartoonish Winnie-the-Pooh story in a song, with a mythical group.”
The book, a long time coming for many classic rock fans, is a solid read, though perhaps a bit too self-congratulatory. But hell, if you can’t tell the world how great you are in your own bio, who will? [Below: Fogerty performs a Creedence medley on the April 29, 2015 broadcast of the Letterman show]
There’s an interesting Swedish media interview with Fogerty from 1998 well worth viewing that finds him opening up about his CCR-related frustrations. Meanwhile, Billboard magazine recently published a short excerpt from the Fogerty memoir that’s also worth checking out—including the readers comments that follow the excerpt, as they dive straight into the old Fogerty-versus-Creedence-bandmates debate. The excerpt reads, in part:
In 1988, Saul sued me, claiming that my  song “The Old Man Down the Road” was an exact copy of the Creedence song “Run Through the Jungle.” There was a lot at stake in this case. We’re talking about two songs that had been on the radio and earned a lot of money… If Saul won, he would own this new song, just as he owned the older one. My lawyer asked him why he sued. Saul answered, “Well, that bass player in Creedence… came to my office and played John’s new album.” Stu said, “‘John is ripping off Creedence! You should sue him!’” I felt that I had been intentionally stabbed in the back. For Stu to go see Saul — a person who’d cheated and lied and really treated all of us like crap — and do that?
Way back in 1968, I had made an agreement with Tom, Doug and Stu to be equal partners. I let them share in my songwriting money. At the time, I thought I was dealing with people who understood the responsibility of what we had. But in 1988, they sold their votes to Zaentz for $30,000 each — that’s right, thirty pieces of silver. Stu told me, “I don’t care what they do with the music — just give me the money”? I was disgusted.
When the Hall of Fame called in late 1992, they said, “We are going to induct CCR into the Hall of Fame. Would you perform with the other band members?” I said, “No.” I’m just not going to stand on a stage with those people three in a row, play our songs and be presented as a band — particularly because these guys sold their rights in that band to my worst enemy…After Bill Clinton was elected, they wanted Creedence to play the inauguration in January 1993, and I had rejected it. I said, “I don’t play with those guys. We will never play as a band again.”
Worth one additional final note: almost as a prologue to publishing the memoir, late last year Fogerty and surviving former bandmates Doug Clifford and Stu Cook (brother Tom Fogerty passed away earlier) jumped into a legal skirmish that was purportedly over unpaid royalties. Lurking in the background, of course, was Fogerty’s long-simmering resentment towards them for having toured as “Creedence Clearwater Revisited” and performing classic CCR songs, and Clifford and Cook’s asserting that Fogerty himself had engaged in unlicensed uses of the CCR “trademark.” Fascinating stuff – go HERE to read up on it.
A Blurt Boot Video Exclusive: Simon Bonney & Bronwyn Adams (Live NYC) 5/14/2019 WARSAW
Filmed by Jonathan Levitt. Check out Bonney's latest record "Past, Present, Future" http://smarturl.it/SimonBonney
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Psychedelic Furs "Only You and I" (Live Costa Mesa CA 7-19-18
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea