We settle in for a fresh convo with Australia’s Dom Mariani on his band’s upcoming April release, West Coast Highway Cosmic. “I’m a classic rock tragic at heart,” confesses Mariani. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. (Above photo: Ben Taylor-Vivian)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When it comes to music, it’s such a cliché to say about any locale, but we’re gonna say it anyway: there’s just something about Australia. Possibly because of its isolation – remote from everything, getting cultural influences second- and third-hand, having the artifacts but little of the attendant hype to deal with. Possibly it’s simply the independent spirit of the average Australian – the combination of isolation and (though it’s admittedly overstated) a history of penal colonialism contributing to a certain filter, a way of looking at the art of other cultures (particularly American and British) and transforming it into a distinctly Australian vision. Regardless, the rock & roll that’s come out of the island nation has its own special flair, a certain je ne sais quoi that other countries don’t have.
All that speculation serves as a lead-in to the introduction of one Domenic Mariani, a singular figure in Australia’s rock scene for forty years. Lover of melody, shit-hot guitarist and absolutely winsome singer, Mariani has made his mark on the fields of garage rock (the Stems, the Stoneage Hearts, the DomNicks), surf rock (the Majestic Kelp) and, especially, power pop (the DM3, the Someloves, the Summer Suns), gaining diehard fans around the world. His current project, a singular spin on bluesy power rock dubbed Datura4, pays homage to his youthful love of early seventies blues rock and hard rock, emphasizing his expert six-string pyrotechnics without eschewing his traditional, song-based melodic instincts. Joined by guitarist Greg Hitchcock (Kryptonics, You Am I), bassist Stu Loasby (the Majestic Kelp, Jack & the Beanstalk), and drummer Warren Hall (the Drones, Gutterville Splendor Six), Mariani made three richly produced, riff-soaked albums that sound distinguished from his other work, while still being of a piece with it.
Hitchcock has since left and been replaced by keyboardist Bob Patient; the reconstituted quartet returns to the record racks this spring, on April 17, with West Coast Highway Cosmic (Alive Naturalsound), its most varied and accomplished LP thus far. We caught up with Mariani via e-mail to talk about the new Datura4 album and how it fits in with the rest of his career.
BLURT: Congratulations on West Coast Highway Cosmic. The songs are catchier, the riffs are sharper, the vocals as strong as ever. You’ve mentioned not wanting to repeat yourself from album to album. What inspired you to push D4 further than it had gone before?
DOM MARIANI: A couple significant things happened during the sessions for previous album Blessed is the Boogie . The first was the departure of Greg Hitchcock, which reduced the band to a three-piece for the recording process. The second, and most timely, was hooking up with our keyboard player Bob Patient. We had Bob come in for a session. There was a connection and it really opened up a world of possibilities for us. Greg had been against the idea of keyboards on previous records, and his leaving really freed things up for us to go beyond the two guitars-bass-and-drums thing.
We were chuffed when Bob agreed to join the band. This led to two new songs (“Cat on a Roof” and “Evil People Pt. 2”) being added to the album. Both from a band and a personal songwriting perspective, it’s the best thing that could have happened. West Coast Highway Cosmic is the first full album with Bob, and is just the tip of the iceberg. There was more spontaneity, paired with a “let’s see what happens” kind of approach to the recording. Some of the tunes came from basic grooves that Warren and myself had worked up in the studio. The results are a little more eclectic than on our previous albums.
Though there’s plenty of heavy blues rock, this album really expands the band’s palette. In particular it’s more melodic and psychedelic than before. Did you consciously tap into your past with the Stems/DM3 to add some spice to this record?
If anything, subconsciously. It’s inherent in the way I write. I’m always looking for a good melody or a memorable riff – always striving for the perfect balance/combination in a song. I’m a classic rock tragic at heart.
These are some of the best tracks on the album. Do you have any comments to offer on any of them?
“Give”: I wasn’t sure if this song would work on the album. It was one of the last ones that went down and it came up great. The electric/acoustic guitar, combined with Bob picking up on the main melody line on the Hammond organ, works well to give it a folk/rock feel with a soulful touch.
“West Coast Highway Cosmic”: I’d had the title for a while. The West Coast Highway is a stretch of road that runs along our beaches here, west of Perth, and where one of our recording studios is located. We had the bulk of the song recorded, but I only had the chorus. I kept playing it in my car, heading to and from the studio, and eventually the lyrics came. Bob added some cool Moog to it to take it far and beyond.
“You’re the Only One”: It’s a love song to my wife, and the last song written for the album. I went for a live, stripped-back approach on the instruments and vocals by using and messing around with the natural reverb of the room.
“A Darker Shade of Brown”: That one came out of a groove that Warren and I set up while we were goofing around in the studio – a heavy fuzzed-out blues riff over a funky drum groove, while Bob plays wild organ stabs. I already had the lyrics before the song came about. I read an article once about how they closed down a popular beach due to a mysterious dark algae, or so they said.
Considering how prolific the band has been, is it safe to say that Datura4 is your main project right now? Are DM3, Majestic Kelp, etc. on hold for now?
Both DM3 and The Majestic Kelp have been ongoing projects over the last bunch of years, while Datura4 has become my main songwriting and recording focus. Datura4 has plenty more fuel left in the tank. We toured Europe last October and were very happy with the response. It’s a slightly different audience to, say, DM3 or The Stems, but there’s still a good crossover.
Datura4 seems to have increased your profile in America, where you’re finally getting regular releases. Why do you think that is?
Hooking up with US label Alive Naturalsound records has helped a great deal. We love what Alive stands for, and we’re label mates with some great bands.
After so many years of being known as the power pop ace, are you happy to be flexing your blues rock guitar muscles?
Absolutely! I’ve been a fan of blues and hard rock all my life, and felt the urge to get out there and have some fun with it, do something different. I’ve not turned my back on power pop. In fact, as a lover of pop melody and heavy riffs, I still love that stuff, but for now I’m preferring to mix things up a bit. I don’t want to be stuck on the same bus. I will get back to it one day, maybe on a solo record. I recall quite fondly working with Mitch Easter and talking about our favourite hard rock bands in-between takes, and how he’d seen some of them in the seventies. It made me feel like it wasn’t some guilty pleasure. Anyway, it’s all about songs for me and I don’t care what style it is.
Like America and England, Australia has a legacy of heavy blues rockers from the ‘70s. Which of them particularly inspires D4, and which ones do you think should be better known outside of Australia?
I really like the latter-day Master Apprentices and boogie kings Carson. Both bands had great singers and guitar players. I was fortunate to see The Coloured Balls play a concert when I was sixteen, and snuck in to the Raffles Hotel to see Buffalo and The La De Da’s when I got my driver’s license. Locally we had Sitting Bull, Fatty Lumpkin, and Bakery.
Do you plan on touring here in the States for WCHC?
If the new record does well and there’s enough interest, then sure. We’d love to tour the States, given the opportunity.
Watch BLURT for a special track premiere from the new Datura4 album very soon. Meanwhile, here’s some mo’ Mariani for your edification:
Our gal on the ground in L.A. does indeed believe in magic, and she’s got the images from this star-studded benefit for the Autism Think Tank to prove it. Initial details we posted HERE, so check out her photos and observations. Exclusive photos (pictured above: original Spoonful members John Sebastian and Steve Boone) and videos follow the text.
This year’s occasion was dedicated to the Lovin’ Spoonful, beloved sunshine boys of the ‘60s. Their folk-pop sound, admired by Lennon, McCartney and the brothers Davies, was a study in contrast to the pandemonium of the mid- to-late 1960s. As the Spoonful daydreamed, Watts rioted; as they believed in magic, Vietnam War protestors self-immolated. With songs redolent of sunshine and flowers, rain on roofs and summers in the city, the Spoonful served feel-good music to a country and a world desperate for something, anything, to feel good about.
It’s rare that a band shows up to play at its own tribute, and this year’s Wild Honey gathering marked the first time that original members John Sebastian, Steve Boone and Joe Butler appeared onstage together since their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two decades ago.
They maintain it wasn’t an official reunion – an impossibility without Zal Yanovsky, who passed away in 2002 — but a casual regrouping of the Nashville cats. A slideshow of rare images of the band snapped by renowned photographer Henry Diltz preceded the happenings, which lasted for nearly four hours. No one in the Spoonful or the vocalists and instrumentalists of the Wild Honey Orchestra, the collective that backed each of the guest performers, lacked in stamina at any point of the 36-song lollapalooza of a setlist. Sebastian, Boone and Butler radiated palpable delight in their togetherness.
Sebastian happily regaled the audience with vignettes from throughout the Spoonful’s career, each one more entertaining than the last. In the ‘70s, he lamented that his musical style was no longer in vogue until the Sweathogs barged in. Enter “Welcome Back,” one of many enthusiastic sing-alongs … Sebastian detailed the origins of “Summer in the City,” penned by his brother, Mark, who stood in for Yanofsky … Dave Alvin, who paired with Sebastian for “Night Owl Blues,” first encountered the Spoonful at age nine, when they appeared at the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena with Herman’s Hermits. Not only was it the first concert of his life, it was the first time he ever saw anyone play an electric harmonica … Cindy Lee Berryhill gave out “Money” with banjoists Rob Bonfiglio, Jordan Katz and Jason Berk and percussionist Jim Laspesa (Love and Mercy) clacking away on a vintage typewriter… Bonfiglio and better half Carnie Wilson dueted “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” the stuff of young boys’ fantasies. So many girls, so little time… Micky Dolenz turned in a sweet rendition of “Daydream” and Claudia Lennear of 20 Feet from Stardom fame lent the evening a soulful touch with “You Baby,” a Ronettes 7-inch as well as a Spoonful hit … Carla Olson, whose next album, Have Harmony Will Travel 2, comes out March 20, was full of fire on “Stories We Could Tell” and “4 Eyes,” performed with Sebastian and Peter Case, respectively. … Case, meanwhile, broke open “Blues in the Bottle” and Steve Stanley stepped away from his duties at the head of the Now Sounds reissue label to contemplate a “Younger Girl” … Marshall Crenshaw channeled hums of the Spoonful with “Rain on the Roof” backed by pedal steel player Dave Pearlman, who’s accompanied the likes of Dan Fogelberg, Bobby Womack and Phil Everly on tour … Leave it to Mark Eitzel to find a happy band’s saddest song — “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It”– which he sang with passion and compassion to spare … Durham-based singer/songwriter Skylar Gudasz , who has accompanied Big Star on its Third traveling concert series , sang “You’re a Big Boy Now.” (Her next album, Cinema, arrives April 17.)
The evening concluded with the entire ensemble gathered onstage for the finale, “Do You Believe in Magic?” It’s guaranteed that everyone did.
Dave Alvin + John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful)
Dead Rock West
Joe Butler (Lovin’ Spoonful)
Kathy McCarty (Glass Eye)
Summer (n The City: Sebastian & Wild Honey Orchestra
Next weekend, January 17 & 18, it’s gonna be an Athens-Georgia sonic love fest, featuring the Tractor gang (above, wayyyyy back in the day) plus OH-OK and Magnapop. If those names don’t resonate with ya, you have clearly found the wrong music website.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY JOHN BOYDSTON
There hasn’t been much good news ushering in 2020, far from it. But in the spirit of finding joy where it resides – here’s something fab for Love Tractor fans. The new year is bringing not only just better sounding Love Tractor recordings, but new music too. And to celebrate, the band is playing two shows – Friday Jan 17th at the 40-Watt Club in Athens with OH-OK opening, and Saturday January 18th in Atlanta with Magnapop opening that show.
I reached out to Love Tractor guitarists Mark Cline and Mike Richmond to preview the shows and releases – not to mention to add some crucial, and resonant, context to this beloved Georgia outfit’s colorful legacy.
Love Tractor is back from a long breather (pictured above is guitarist Mark Cline) doing live shows, restoring their back catalogue for new vinyl and digital re-release. And if that’s not enough for fans, get ready for new music from the band as early as this spring. (Below: guitarist Mike Richmond)
BLURT: Tell me about the upcoming re-issue of the first Love Tractor LP, originally released in 1982:
Mark Cline: We just finished reconstructing the album as the ¼” masters were a mess. Tracks were missing or corrupted so it forced us to go back to the 2-inch 16-track masters and remix the entire album. The record sounds great. Dave Barbe and Bill Berry chaperoned the remixing process, and Jeff Calder (from the Swimming Pool Q’s) was key in locating the tapes and having them digitized.
We tried our hardest to remain true to the original Bruce Baxter mixes, but the 1st remixed record has a lot more power to it. Someone in the studio, perhaps Bill (Berry) said when listening back to the remix that “it’s like cotton has been taken out of my ears.”
Mike Richmond: Mark, Army (Armistead Wellford, pictured below), and I were joined by Doug Stanley, Kevin Dunn, Bill Berry, and Mike Mills in the studio for this. It came out really nice and we were able to make slight improvements while staying true to the original. I think the plan is to re-issue record one in April of 2020 and then follow up with Around the Bend, Til The Cows Come Home EP, This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship,Themes From Venus, and The Sky at Night. We also have a recording of new material in the works.
Mark Cline: We did three additional enhanced mixes for Record Store Day. We have new material which we have started recording so those songs will be coming out as digital singles in-between the rereleases. At least that is the plan as of today, might change tomorrow.
Part of the beauty of Love Tractor music is how melodic and simple it sounds – but I know it is very complex from a player’s point of view. How do you get ready for these live shows, since you aren’t doing many per year at this point?
Mike Richmond: Love Tractor songs are deceptively difficult to play. I have to really stay on top of it by rehearsing several times a week. We live in different states (Georgia, Virginia, New York) so it is not easy for us to rehearse or perform. We all have to do this on our own and then a few days before we perform, we get together as a whole unit and go through the songs.
Mark Cline: For me, more than the other guys, when performing, I’m shocked at the level of precision the songs require and how many of my parts are quite difficult to play.
So, the music is dense, and you’ve added players for live shows – tell me about that.
Mark Cline: The auxiliary players in some cases are for large shows, so we can perform the albums as they were recorded. Love Tractor has been since 1986 a 5 piece band, Doug Stanley from The Glands was officially inducted into the band in the ’90’s, Doug is a brilliant musician, he is absolutely on the same wave-length as me, Mike and Army and in my opinion he really shaped the sound of The Sky at Night. Joe Rowe is an amazing drummer (also PRS’ new beat man). For the really big shows, if they are available, we like to add the Late B P Helium (Elephant Six Collective) and Jay Gonzalez (Drive by Truckers) and Kevin Dunn from the great seminal Atlanta band The Fans— it fills out the sound. The decision is artistic.
Right now, we are playing as a five piece, but one never knows who will be joining us on stage. (Ed. note, if you want to catch original Love Tractor drummer Bill Berry with the band, he’s prone to get up on stage at the Athens shows – visual evidence in below 2017 photo, below, where he’s pictured on the left – but you never know.)
Mike Richmond: Initially we had everyone that played in the WE LOVE TRACTOR tribute band. Jay Gonzalez (Drive by Truckers), Bryan Poole (Of Montreal), Doug Stanley (Glands), Joe Rowe (Glands), and then we added our long-time friends Kevin Dunn (The Fans), and Bill Berry (REM). It was great playing with all those guys on-stage. Nowadays the performing band is Army Wellford, Mark Cline, myself, Doug Stanley, Joe Rowe on drums. I have nothing but fondness for all the people that have played with Love Tractor.
What surprises you most about playing these songs live again?
Mike Richmond: It is pleasantly surprising that I never get tired of these songs. That don’t seem dated to me but evergreen.
Mark Cline: How fresh and timeless they sound – in some cases I realize what influenced a particular song (“Paint Your Face” and “Stand in a Corner” — in my opinion, which was influenced by Neu!).
What can fans expect from these two upcoming shows in Athens and Atlanta?
Mark Cline: We have been attempting to perform the albums in chronological order. Thus, the first few shows were exclusively our first album, then we added material from the second album and the EP. These next two shows we will begin performing a few songs from This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship, Themes From Venus and The Sky at Night.
I’ve heard of people flying in from different parts to catch a show, and for my part, I met a fan who drove from New Jersey. Any surprise there for the band about fan loyalty?
Mike Richmond: I was almost entirely unaware of what fans would think of us now or if we would even have any fans at all. So the response has been great. With the rise of social media, I get a sense that people are very receptive to the idea of seeing LT live, some of whom were too young to see us in the ’80s. It could literally feed the band in the sense that we could release new material or tour. That almost depends solely on fan support.
Mark Cline: The response has been great! We really want to give a great performance, it is also interesting for us as artists to revisit certain songs. Now of course they want us to tour, but we don’t have an “organization” (managers, agents, office) in place to really make touring happen. So right now, we are limited to where and when we can play.
All the new music and reissues will have a new home – Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records or HHBTM. Check out its home and impressive roster here: https://www.hhbtm.com/bands/
So, fans – now’s your chance with two shows coming up:
1) Friday January 17th, 2020 Love Tractor, at the 40Watt Club in Athens, GA. It’s a co-bill with OH-OK playing first, featuring original members Lynda Stipe and Linda Hopper, a band who got their big break when R.E.M., the band her brother happened to be lead singer for, needed an opening band in a pinch. (One of those Wiki factoids so good I don’t care if it’s true.) Playing with a full band tonight so the rock starts early.
Ye Olde Editor Side Note: a legendary party – statutory restrictions prevent me from detailed disclosure – in Chapel Hill that had brought R.E.M. and a bunch of their pals to the NC college town on the group’s initial non-Georgia mini-tour. That entourage included the lovely Ms. Hopper, who confided to aforementioned editor that she had a band percolating herself. That prediction came true. They were a delightful combo.She’s pictured more recently below in John Boydston’s photos of Magnapop from not all that long ago.
Back to bedrock with stoneage romeos the Hoodoo Gurus. Below, also watch the original video for ’80s mega-hit “I Want You Back,” which boasts the most awesome use of a green screen ever. Spoiler alert: despite the lyrics, that song was NOT about a girl songwriter Dave Faulkner was pining for.
News Item, December 14, 2019 – Hoodoo Gurus to Tour America (from HoodooGurus.net):
“We are finally coming back to tour the U.S. at the end of next year. About time, I hear you say. The whole tour is being presented by Little Steven’s Underground Garage, the hippest radio station in the world. Amongst many others, the Underground Garage features Count Zaremba’s Crypt, a spooktacular show presented by The Fleshtones’ own, Peter Zaremba, from midnight (ET) every Saturday.
“I know many people are going to be disappointed that their city (or country) will miss out on a Gurus gig this time – and that includes some of our favourite places to play (hello, Atlanta and New Orleans!). We will be coming back again asap with a new album and a much more extensive tour next time. This is just the first step in a much more active touring schedule for the band over the next few years, with visits to many other cities, countries and planets being in our long-term touring schedule. For reasons that are too boring to get into, we have to limit this particular U.S. tour to three weeks, and though we’ve squeezed as many gigs as we can into that time, we are barely scratching the surface. We’ll come back again soon, we promise.”
HOODOO GURUS U.S. TOUR OCT./NOV., 2020
Fri. 23 Oct. SEATTLE, WA – Tractor Tavern. Tickets here.
Sat. 24 PORTLAND, OR – Aladdin Theater. Tickets here.
Sun. 25 SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Slim’s. Tickets here.
Mon. 26 LOS ANGELES, CA – The Roxy. Tickets here.
Wed. 28 SOLANA BEACH, CA (San Diego) – Belly Up Tavern. Tickets here.
Thurs. 29 SALT LAKE CITY, UT – State Room. Tickets here.
Fri. 30 ASPEN, CO – Belly Up Aspen. Tickets here.
Sat. 31 DENVER, CO – Bluebird Theater. Tickets here.
Mon. 2 Nov. MILWAUKEE, WI – Shank Hall. Tickets here.
Tues. 3 CHICAGO, IL – City Winery (U.S. election night). Tickets here.
Wed. 4 NASHVILLE, TN – Mercy Lounge. Tickets here.
Fri. 6 NEW YORK CITY, NY – Webster Hall. Tickets here.
Sat. 7 BOSTON, MA – The Sinclair. Tickets here.
Sun. 8 PHILADELPHIA, PA – Philly Underground Arts. Tickets here.
Mon. 9 NORFOLK, VA – The NorVa. Tickets here.
Wed. 11 WASHINGTON, DC – The Hamilton. Tickets here.
Thurs. 12 JACKSONVILLE, FL – Private show
Fri. 13 JACKSONVILLE, FL
Sat. 14 CARBORRO, NC – Cats Cradle. Tickets here.
Now, while we’re almost a year away from the tour (you can bet I will find a way to catch it), never let it be said that I pass on a chance to sing the praises of one of my favorite bands. What follows is a retooled republishing of a tribute to the Gurus that I published at Blurt in 2010, which itself was an expanded take on a profile I had written for Harp magazine (BLURT’s predecessor) in 2007 as pare of my ongoing “Indelibles” series.
The occasion of my interview with founder and frontman Dave Faulkner was the overhaul of their extensive back catalog and a DVD career retrospective, Tunnel Vision; in addition, with an impending March trip to Austin for SXSW, expectations in their camp were high for a newly elevated American profile.
Forming in 1981, the Gurus had enjoyed a lengthy and successful career well into the late nineties until Faulkner decided to pull the plug (“I was all written out,” he confessed), only to resume operations in 2004. A new studio album subsequently appeared later that year, and during our conversation Faulkner noted that he’d been writing material for another one and predicted they’d have it out sometime later in 2007. Yet the record failed to materialize – twice, as a projected 2009 release date also came and went when the band reportedly grew unhappy with both the studio they’d worked in and the mixes
Luckily, their old friend and noted producer, Ed Stasium, stepped in and agreed to perform some of his mixing wizardry on the tapes. The resulting Purity of Essence, yielded a sparkling set of tunes bearing all the hallmarks of classic Gurus: sleek, hook-filled melodies; propulsive rhythms; heart on sleeve lyrics; terrific singing.
Having seen the Gurus at SXSW in 2007, I witnessed firsthand their enduring prowess as a live act. On 2010’s Purity, though, the band members – Faulkner, guitarist Brad Shepherd, drummer Mark Kingsmill, bassist Rick Grossman – genuinely sounded like they’d been granted a new lease on life. Whatever delays transpired in the making of it ultimately served to make everyone stronger. So, let’s revisit my conversation with Faulkner from 2007 as he recounted the band’s origins and trajectory…
Thanksgiving eve, 1984: Your future Harp correspondent is front and center at a packed Charlotte, NC, punk club, literally hanging on to the monitor of Hoodoo Gurus vocalist/guitarist Dave Faulkner. Amid an incessant, hypnotic tribal thud, searing psychedelic guitar riffs and football stadium-worthy chorus chants, Faulkner regales us with quirky lyric narratives about kamikaze pilots, zombie love and south-sea island sacrificial rites. No turkeys, though these Gurus: they rock like rabid wombats. And every last person in the venue is singing along and dancing so hard the room could pass for an MTV video shoot.
Afterwards, as punters clutching copies of the Australian group’s debut album Stoneage Romeos cluster around the band, a girl standing too close to Faulkner’s massive coif of teased-out hair almost sets him on fire when she lights a cigarette. Ah, the perils of the road….
“Oh god …” Dave Faulkner, speaking now from his home in Sydney, has vivid memories of the Gurus’ initial American trek. “We had so much Aqua-Net in our hair on that tour! It just got ridiculous. We were doing shows every night and couldn’t un-tease our hair and wash out all the goo, so it was just a succession of teasing upon teasing. By the time we got to Los Angeles, I think it was L.A. Times critic] Robert Hilburn, in a review, who said something like, ‘Dave Faulkner looks like a tumbleweed landed on his head.’ [laughs] And that’s how it did look! I got to the point at the end of the tour when I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do with it now?’ I thought I was going to have to shave it all off because it was like one huge dreadlock underneath, you know? It was kind of scary.
“But it really was a wonderful period. A lot was happening. People really were into us, and we had some great times even though we were living, er, low to the ground. We had this tour manager who didn’t think he was going to be paid so he stole all our gear in New York! We were playing with the Long Ryders the next night in Boston and had to use their gear.”
Within a year the Hoodoo Gurus’ star was in full ascent, the group a mainstay at college radio and on MTV. With the release of 1985’s Mars Needs Guitars the Gurus found themselves touring America once again, this time playing arenas as the Bangles’ opening act. And the band would continue to record and tour successfully for more than a decade, going on hiatus in January 1998 and then reuniting in 2004.
Before all that, however, there was just Faulkner and a long-simmering scheme to bring back “the dumbness of rock,” as he puts it now—the innocence, the naïveté, the joy of early rock ‘n’ roll.
Faulkner got his start in the late ‘70s playing in punk band The Victims (inevitably, he had a punk nickname: “Flick”) in his home town of Perth, located on the remote western edge of Australia. A ’79 pilgrimage to New York City, however, opened his eyes. He was already a fan of the bands dotting the lower Manhattan scene; through a mutual friend he hooked up with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, and the pair made the rounds of clubs, seeing everyone from the Fleshtones, Ramones, Talking Heads and Rigby’s own combo, to such recent Big Apple transplants as the B-52’s and the Cramps.
“I’d say the Cramps and the Fleshtones were the ones that really gave me the desire to do the Hoodoo Gurus,” says Faulkner. “Not that I knew it at the time, of course. But back in Australia a year later, I was seeing the legacy of Radio Birdman and all the so-called ‘Detroit bands.’ There was also this sort of homemade art-rock scene—I called them the suitcase synthesizer bands. But not much in between. And I just wanted to have something a bit more brash, more pop, I guess. In the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, the songs had a lot of jokey themes and titles. But I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ had this exuberance; it didn’t necessarily have to make sense, and it’s still just as exciting and direct today.”
Upon his return from the States, Faulkner briefly joined another punk group, the Manikins, then relocated to Sydney where, in his words, “It felt like a band was forming every week.” A chance meeting with guitarists Kimble Rendall and Rod Radalj at an end-of-1980 New Year’s Eve party led to the formation of Le Hoodoo Gurus, with former Victims drummer James Baker rounding out the roster.
The Gurus were initially conceived as a covers band, but Faulkner’s songwriting gifts quickly became evident. The band soon had a cache of catchy originals and notched a minor hit with their debut 45 “Leilani,” about a grief-stricken young man whose girlfriend gets tossed into an island volcano as a native offering to the gods, and set to an irresistible tribal thump one part Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” and several parts Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2).”
Turmoil then struck when first Rendall then Radalj quit, the former due to a budding career as a filmmaker, the latter out of frustration with Faulkner’s perceived dominance in the band as frontman and chief songwriter. By this point Faulkner was already convinced that a three-guitar Gurus was too limiting and gimmicky—earlier, they’d landed an actual spot opening for Gary Glitter when he toured Australia, and the consensus among Glitter Band members was that the Gurus needed to beef up their bottom end—so replacing Rendall and Radalj were bassist Clyde Bramley and guitarist Brad Shepherd, both alumni of Radio Birdman offshoot the Hitmen and of bubblegum tribute combo Super K. The band dropped the “Le” from the name and the classic Hoodoo Gurus lineup that would record Stoneage Romeos was in place.
Recorded under the watchful eye of veteran producer-engineer Alan Thorne, Stoneage Romeos, released in the spring of ’84, was an instant hit in its native Australia. And with good reason: Happily plundering trash culture, dropping in a trainspotter’s buffet of classic pop references, and powering along with an insistent—and danceable—turbine-like precision, the album has a seductive timelessness that, even two decades on, still connects with rock ‘n’ roll fans of all stripes. Nowadays, Faulkner’s reluctant to name it among his favorite of the Gurus albums: reminded how one journalist suggested that Romeos, draped in reverb and echo, “sounds like it was recorded in a cave” (in the context of the original review, a positive comment), he complains that the record “is, for me, very antique sounding—we always wanted to ‘make a din’ and some of the rough edges we had live got softened in the studio. What I am happy about it is that it still sounds fresh and lively. And good on the hi-fi.”
That it does: there’s the aforementioned glitter-glam slam of “Leilani”; Brit Invasion jangle, Flamin’ Groovies style, in “I Want You Back”; twisted Cramps psychobilly for “Dig It Up”; and vintage bubblegum pop in the “Hang On Sloopy”-like “My Girl.” It all bursts from the speakers, aglow with an analog warmth that not even contemporary digital reconfiguring can obscure.
As a wordsmith, Faulkner was, by his own admission, very specific with his imagery. On subsequent Gurus albums he’d deliberately move away from tackling quirky lyric topics, but for Romeos his imagination ran wild. For example “Tojo,” on the surface, concerns a girl named Tracy who blows in and out of a guy’s life and leaves him in ruins, but as Faulkner points out, “it’s really a series of very bad puns about a tropical depression,” e.g. Cyclone Tracy, which hit northern Australian city Darwin in 1975 on Christmas Eve. In the case of the heart-on-sleeve sentiments of “My Girl” (boy takes girl to school prom, girl slips outside to snog with a different boy), that song, too, has a double meaning: “It was a love song about love songs, a tribute to all the ‘60s boy-girl love songs, and I felt bad that some people would get quite sad about it —‘That poor guy!’—because it was just a joke!”
If there’s any one track on the record that sums up the Gurus aesthetic at the time, it’s album opener “(Let’s All) Turn On,” a boisterous, Fleshtones-worthy frat-party anthem whose lyrics namecheck all of Faulkner’s musical obsessions in just over three minutes. Sings/speed-raps Faulkner, “Shake Some Action, Psychotic Reaction, No Satisfaction, Sky Pilot, Sky Saxon/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like/ Blitzkrieg Bop to the Jailhouse Rock, Stop Stop Stop At The Hop, do the Bluejean Bop/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like!”
And that’s just the first verse.
“Ah-ha!” Even from half-way around the planet, I can tell Faulkner is grinning on the other end of the telephone line. “There was one review that actually criticized us for that, saying The Fleshtones’ ‘Hall of Fame’ was far cooler in its references. And it definitely is! But we weren’t trying to be the smartest guys on the block. We wrote that song over pizza and a flagon of wine.”
Unlike many of their Australian peers, the Gurus, who were signed to the Big Time label at home, secured a U.S. deal, with A&M, for their album, although a foreshadowing that the liaison wouldn’t last came when A&M insisted on redoing the Romeos cover art. The Australian LP sported a cartoonish nod to the 1966 caveman flick One Million Years B.C., all menacing dinosaurs and Day-Glo colors; in America, consumers got a stylized sleeve featuring arty renditions of the giant reptiles. “Bad coffeetable art, very anonymous and boring,” is Faulkner’s assessment. “On the U.S. tour fans are bringing up the Australian copies for us to sign—they were all getting them on import! Yet at the end of the tour, A&M says to us, ‘Oh well, we don’t really think the cover will affect sales it all.’ Like, when they’re right, they’re right, and when they’re wrong, they’re still right.”
Shortly before the ’84 American tour, drummer James Baker quit the band, replaced with Mark Kingsmill (another former member of the Hitmen), and, as previously noted, the band went down a storm in the U.S. The following year brought Mars Needs Guitars, released here by Big Time-America after a dispute with A&M resulted in the band being dropped by the label. Like its predecessor, the album became a college radio favorite on the strength of tracks such as rousing punk-powerpopper “Like Wow—Wipeout” and psychedelic ballad “Bittersweet,” and in 1986 plans were laid for the Gurus to do a co-headlining tour with another group of up-and-comers, The Bangles. However, just before the tour, the Bangles’ single “Manic Monday” started taking off, eventually reaching number two in the U.S. charts.
“We were like, ‘Well… I guess we won’t be co-headlining after all!’” Faulkner laughs good-naturedly. “So, it was more of a Bangles tour, doing larger and larger venues. But it was amazing—we ended up playing the Greek Theater in L.A. We had a great time, and both bands loved each other as artists, so it wasn’t hard, just fun.”
The Bangles connection extended to the third Gurus LP, 1987’s Blow Your Cool, which featured the four ladies singing on two songs (members of the Dream Syndicate also guested on the album, recorded in L.A.). Faulkner describes the making of the record as a “dark period” and calls its producer Mark Opitz (INXS, Divinyls) a “yuppie wanker, and arsehole” who pitted band members against one another in the studio. And while Blow Your Cool also did well, the strain of recording took its toll on bassist Bramley, who quit before 1989’s Magnum Cum Louder and was replaced by Rick Grossman.
The Faulkner-Shepherd-Kingsmill-Grossman lineup subsequently recorded the albums Kinky, Crank and Blue Cave, although not long after the release of the latter, Faulkner announced that the Gurus would tour through the end of 1997 then disband, a move he says was prompted by a sense that he was “all written out—I didn’t want to go in again and do a half-baked album, so hey, it’s been good, let’s stop it before we become embarrassing.”
Assorted solo projects ensued, then in 2002 a mysterious EP appeared by a band calling themselves the Persian Rugs—the Gurus in disguise, essentially pulling a Dukes Of Stratosphear and doing ‘60s-styled garage, pop and psychedelia. This was followed in ’03 by a Persian Rugs full-length, Turkish Delight, and with the old chemistry reestablished, by the following year the group had officially resumed operations under the Hoodoo Gurus banner, resulting in 2004’s Mach Schau.
“The Persian Rugs was me doing a complete ‘60s revival sort of thing,” explains Faulkner. “Also, in a funny way, it was my own sort of version of retaliating at all the critics who always harped on the Gurus’ ‘60s influences: ‘You want to hear what I do when I do ‘60s? Here it is!’ But I also had a whole lot of songs after the Gurus broke up, and though I rehearsed them with different musicians, they just couldn’t seem to get the flavor of what I was trying to do. It became obvious to me that there was only one band that could play these songs the way I wanted to hear them. So Mach Schau, far from us coming back and being ‘middle aged’ and writing for an older fan base, we just wanted to make a hard rocking record that out-did anything we’d ever done. We really blew a gasket on that one—it’s our Presence, like Led Zeppelin.”
Following the release of Mach Schau, in 2005 the Australian division of EMI Records reissued expanded/remastered editions of all the Hoodoo Gurus albums; also released was Tunnel Vision, a two-DVD set compiling every Gurus video, a wealth of never-before-seen live material and a smartly-done retrospective documentary, Be My Guru. The band subsequently struck a deal with New York label Virtual, which is distributed through Ryko, to restore their back catalog to print in the U.S.; the initial brace of releases, Stoneage Romeos and the Tunnel Vision DVD, hit stores in October. Still a significant draw in their home country (in 2005 the Gurus co-headlined the annual Big Day Out festival with Metallica and the Strokes), they hope to capitalize upon that American profile-boost by coming to the States in March for South By Southwest. And plans are in place to make a new Gurus album, but Faulkner says he needs more time to write new songs so they’ve postponed what would have been January recording sessions until May or June.
Absent from these shores since 1995, in spirit the Gurus never really went away. You can still catch the occasional video clip on VH1-Classic, and enlightened deejays at community and college radio stations are known to cue up a Gurus track from time to time as well. “I Want You Back” in particular hasn’t lost any of its jangly lustre—and the video for the song, which features the Gurus in all their teased-hair, Aqua-Netted glory performing while Claymation dinosaurs frolic around them, still exudes a quirky, primitive charm.
Noting that “I Want You Back” was the track that introduced the Gurus to America, I can’t resist asking Faulkner if the song, with its lyrics about a breakup and the messy aftermath (“It’s not that she’s gone away/ It’s the things I hear she has got to say/ About me—and about my friends…”), was about a particular girl who dumped him?
“No, and, ah, I don’t really want to go into it,” says Faulkner, adding, “but it’s definitely true.” He pauses for a moment, then emits a self-conscious chuckle, as if he feels foolish for coming across so cryptic. “Well… okay. I guess I can finally talk about that.
“Basically, when [co-founder] Rod Radalj left the Gurus he was very dismissive of us, trying to move on and kind of burn everything behind him: ‘Oh, it’s not worth staying in that band. They’re terrible!’ So, I basically turned that emotion around: ‘Here’s this guy who ditched us and he’s acting like the spurned lover!’ It was me saying, ‘You’ll regret it.’”
Yet with its jangly melody, soaring vocal harmonies and overall yearning vibe, “I Want You Back” has all the earmarks of classic guy-girl pop.
“Well, yeah, I just turned all that stuff into a relationship song.” Faulkner says. “I don’t know why people don’t realize that it’s an anger song. You’re right, they think it’s a longing song. But it’s not a song about ‘I wish you’d come back,’ but—‘You’ll wish you were back!’”
OK, Boomers: Ever wondered why Saint Neil’s biggest-selling album is also his sloppiest, least engaging one? Screw the music biz-approved “Heart of Gold” narrative, let’s dig a bit deeper. From the editor’s deep archives, originally published in the 2004 rock-writing anthology Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics (edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carmel Carrillo, published by Barricade Books). First installment of our new series, “Slaying the Sacred Cows” – step back, it might get bloody.
BY FRED MILLS
Let’s start with a selected time-line:
10 Bazillion B.C. – 1969: God creates the cosmos; Jesus dies for Mankind’s sins; McDonald’s serves its first cheeseburger; Charles Manson kills off the hippie dream; and Neil Young is inducted into the superstar club by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
1970: The perennially-waffling Young can’t decide which he prefers, being a hippie poet laureate or the “Y” at the ass-end of “CSN&Y.” He does decide that LA sucks, however, and he moves up north to a ranch.
1971: Thanks to a nasty back and spinal injury Young spends much of the year in bed and popping pain pills but still manages to assemble his fourth solo album.
February 1972: Harvest is issued by Reprise Records. Both the album and the single “Heart of Gold” shoot to the top of the charts.
1973 – 2003: The music world is overrun by simpering singer-songwriters obsessed with the D chord and first-person pronouns
2004: Charles Manson is denied parole once again.
Calling Harvest a lesser Neil Young effort isn’t that much of a stretch. Hell, a preliminary warning to that effect appeared shortly after the album’s release when critic John Mendelssohn, in the March 30, 1972, Rolling Stone, submitted a dryly hilarious but pointed assessment of its dubious charms.
Among Mendelssohn’s chief complaints: nearly every song on Harvest bears a “discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance” to earlier Young compositions; the stiff musical performances themselves are “restrained for restraint’s sake, and ultimately monotonous”; the lyrics are oftentimes “flatulent and portentous nonsense” routinely plagued by “rhyme-scheme forced silliness” and offer “few rewards to the ponderer.”
Mendelssohn also concluded that Young’s superstar status ensured his audience “will eagerly gobble up whatever half-assed baloney he pleases to record.” I’m here to tell you his prediction came true, and that – o, the shame! — back in the day I, too, did gobble my share of Youngian half-assedness.
My 17th birthday occurred right after Harvest appeared in stores. Do the math and you’ll quickly realize that, as a baby-boomer, I was primo demographic material for a record such as Harvest. Along with my boomer peers, I kept it in the Top 40 for 25 weeks and made it the best-selling album of 1972. Blame me for its ensuing cultural ubiquity if you wish. But understand that in 1972, for a liberal-minded teenager with inclinations towards hirsute grooming, sucking down doobs and pursuing those elusive young fillies in their peasant dresses, denim jackets and cowgirl (in the sand) boots, falling under the spell of a cultural totem like Harvest was a forgone conclusion.
As Johnny Rogan, in his 2000 critical bio Neil Young: Zero To Sixty, put it, “Young’s name was synonymous with the sound of the moment and he was increasingly perceived by the record-buying public as the hippie troubadour, blessed with a songbook of catchy, carefully crafted compositions and pleasing bittersweet melodies.”
My initial encounter with the album actually left me a tad underwhelmed; in retrospect I should have listened with my head and not my headphones. “Heart of Gold” sounded okay, but it didn’t “rock”; and even the “righteous jam” of “Alabama” paled compared to the similarly-themed and -arranged “Southern Man” from an earlier Young album. I also recall being sorta creeped out by the textured, chalky-grainy feel of the sleeve; give me the faux –leatherette sleeve of Déjà Vu any day. Still – it was Neil, and like most of all the other it-was-Neils who bought Harvest, I accepted it as my duty to embrace the album and proselytize in the name of you-know-who.
Blind faith, of course, always extracts a price.
Several decades’ worth of hindsight and a couple hundred Neil Young bootlegs later, I see Harvest as an unexpected but not altogether unexplainable artistic low sandwiched in between a pair of notable, three-album highs.
The first, which I’ll call the Laurel/Topanga Canyons trilogy (1969’s Neil Young and Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere plus 1970’s After the Gold Rush), has long been acknowledged as one of rock’s most impressive early-career sunbursts. The second, assuming we omit the 1972 film soundtrack Journey Through The Past, is an equally brilliant, but different kind of supernova, a booze- and chemical-fueled one, comprising rolling drunk revue live album Time Fades Away, from 1973; 1974’s moody but epochal On The Beach; and the black hole of nihilism that is Tonight’s The Night, recorded in ’73 but held back for two years. You get rock, you get revolution, you get sex, you get drugs — sometimes all at once, a six-album rollercoaster ride across the counterculture that, listened to now, conjures key moods of the era while still sounding fresh and provocative. Somebody should do a box set.
Leave Harvest out, however. Young biographer Jimmy McDonough, in his 2002 book Shakey, pointed out how much of the album now sounds “heavy – as in turgid,” and that’s as good a description as any. What should have been an engaging, back-to-roots project turned out instead to be a meandering, unfocused affair characterized by plodding-to-the-point-of-anesthetized rhythms, slight (if, on the surface, pleasant) melodies, and a lyrical outlook that could be charitably described as relentlessly narcissistic.
Young himself candidly admitted, speaking to writer Cameron Crowe for a 1979 Rolling Stone profile, how “being laid up in bed [following his back injury] … I became really reclusive. There was a long time when I felt connected with the outer world ‘cause I was still looking. Then you get everything the way you want it. You stop looking out so much and start looking in. And that’s why in my head I felt something change… I was lying on my back a long time. It affected my music. My whole spirit was prone.”
The Cliffs Notes version of the making Harvest goes roughly like this:
In the fall of 1970, following a massively successful CSN&Y tour and a breakup with his first wife, Neil bought a ranch so he could get back to the country, get his head together and whatnot. A subsequent back injury incurred while working on the farm, coupled with an aggravated spinal disc problem, forced him to spend a fair amount of time in bed and on heavy pain medication. Wearing an uncomfortable back brace, he went out on a solo tour in late ’70 and early ’71 during which time he premiered a number of new tunes, several of them hinting at Neil’s blossoming romance with actress Carrie Snodgrass.
Shortly after the tour Neil went to Nashville to appear on the Johnny Cash On Campus TV show. While in Nashville he hooked up with local producer and studio operator Elliot Mazer, who rounded up drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel player Ben Keith – Neil dubbed ‘em The Stray Gators – and commenced recording sessions for Harvest. Neil returned to Nashville later in the year to cut some more material, holding additional sessions back at his ranch when his ongoing back ailments precluded travel. Also in the Gators: Neil’s old friend and producer Jack Nitzsche, on piano and slide guitar, who’d previously overseen a February recording session in London featuring Neil on piano and backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Reprise Records initially wanted to release Harvest in time for Christmas. Those plans were scotched while Neil dithered over matters involving the track listing (at the last minute he decided he wanted to include an acoustic song, “The Needle And The Damage Done,” recorded during the earlier solo tour) and sleeve design (a gatefold affair, it featured a fragile and strangely-textured oatmeal paper for both the sleeve and the lyric insert). The album was finally issued the following February.
Harvest, then, represents a mish-mash of material culled from multiple recording sources: Four songs hailed from the Nashville sessions; three were cut at Neil’s ranch; two in London with the orchestra; and the live solo number. Therein lies one of the album’s chief flaws: its maddening lack of consistency.
Now, it should go without saying that Neil Young is among a select few artists – Dylan, in particular – who’s frequently revered for his very inconsistency. Fans have come to accept, for example, that the cost of getting a Freedom or a Ragged Glory is having to sit through a Landing On Water or a Life first. Critics, for their part, cite Neil’s damn-the-marketplace approach to record-making as evidence of a fearless, uncompromising muse constantly shifting gears in a quest for new artistic strategies.
I’m not so sure any of that applies to Harvest. Bloody-mindedness is one thing, but Percodan-fueled indecision is another matter entirely. Not even counting some of the problems (plodding tempos, overly reined-in performances, etc.) ticked off above, Harvest’s internal inconsistency makes for a bumpy, at times downright jarring, ride. One minute we’re in mellow-yellow lalaland (“Heart Of Gold”) then the next we’re tossing back shots and getting rowdy with the crew out in Neil’s barn (“Are You Ready For The Country?”); the reflective mood of “Old Man” is abruptly shattered by the orchestral bombast of “There’s A World”; and so forth.
Need I add that the actual sound quality of Harvest, is equally schizophrenic? One challenge for Neil, Mazer and Nitzsche was to make the Nashville, London and ranch material all synch up sonically, but if it crossed their minds at all they were still too lazy to put forth much effort. A striking example of this is when the audience claps at the conclusion of “Needle And The Damage”: instead of a fade-out, or the applause being cut entirely, a sudden edit boots the listener headfirst into the opening chords of “Words.” While I have no doubt the effect was intentional, it just comes across as sloppy.
What really bugs me about the album is what it could have been. “Country-rock Neil,” maybe, comprising an entire set of the Nashville material, and there are a number of viable contenders in circulation as bootlegged outtakes, notably the woozy “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the sweet “Dance Dance Dance.” Perhaps by keeping the overall vibe consistent with what Young presumably intended as a laid-back, autumnal theme, some of Harvest’s performance flaws wouldn’t have been as glaring. (In effect Neil attempted to right his own wrong some 20 years later by reconvening the Stray Gators and creating Harvest Moon, a vastly superior and more aesthetically pleasing effort than its namesake.)
I’d personally vote for “Jamming-in-the-barn-Neil”: Take slide-guit rocker “Are You Ready For The Country?”, gospel-blooze “Alabama” and the complete 16-minute version of “Words” (which would later surface on Journey Through The Past) then throw in a couple more tight-but-loose honky-tonkers and you’d have a – umm, well, you’d probably have a studio variation on what Time Fades Away, recorded on tour in early ’73 with the Stray Gators, sounds like. But you get the point.
In one sense, lyric analysis is a sucker’s game. One can take words and lines out of context to back up or illustrate practically any claim, pro or con. But some of the sitting ducks that Neil floats out onto the Harvest pond are too irresistible not to take a pull or two at ‘em.
As right-on as the sentiments expressed in “Alabama” are (yes, slavery and racism are bad!), the metaphor “your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch/ and a wheel on the track” seems slightly askew; shouldn’t that second wheel be on the road, since ditches are usually found beside roads and not tracks? (Is that a railroad track?) Of course, “road” doesn’t rhyme with the word “back” in the couplet that precedes it, so… The famous titular metaphor in “Heart of Gold” fares somewhat better; it’s kinda romantic-sounding, and it’s also gussied all nice and purty in burnished acoustic guitar chords, sweetly humming pedal steel and a subtly yearning bassline. But try popping the line on a gal at a bar sometime: “Hi. Looking at you makes me realize I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold for a long time.” Don’t forget to duck; she’s either gonna take a swing at you or beer will squirt from her nose from the laughter.
What about that nifty little simile bobbing politely there in the middle of “Old Man”? It goes, “love lost, such a cost/ give me things that don’t get lost/ like a coin that won’t get tossed/ rolling home to you.” I think I catch part of Neil’s drift; he’s talking about needing stability in life and love, right? But the whole coin thing eludes me. Does he mean the untossed coin is desirable because it’s safe in your pocket and won’t get lost, or is he saying an untossed coin is cool because the coin (representing Neil, who presumably doesn’t like making his decisions based on a coin toss) is free to roll on home? Oy. My head is hurting. Maybe he should have used “stone” in place of “coin” – then he could rhyme it with “home.” But I digress… I must admit I am attached to the simile in “The Needle and The Damage Done,” the tagline “every junkie’s like a setting sun.” Far from being a lazy rhyme (“sun” with “done”) or uneven imagery (one critic huffed that setting suns are beautiful whereas junkies most assuredly are not), it seems pretty dead-on, as anyone who has ever observed a junkie nodding out with his eyelids gradually shutting – or, in the large sense, watched a junkie’s spirit slowly close down — knows.
While I’m giving Neil some due here, let me also say that my favorite song on the album also seems to have the strongest, or “least flawed,” lyrics. For Harvest to be considered such a classic singer-songwriter album it’s remarkably devoid of epiphanies or universal truths. I’m sorry, but “Heart of Gold”’s tagline “and I’m getting old” won’t cut it, and I defy anyone to make sense – literal, poetic, cosmic or otherwise — of “words between the lines of age,” from “Words.” (Jack Nitzsche famously pilloried that song’s lyrics as “dumb.”) But Neil partly redeems himself in “Are You Ready For The Country?” It’s worth pointing out that to this day the song gets routinely misconstrued as Neil’s announcing his “new” country-rock direction. Blame lazy reviewers, who just looked at the song title, or country king Waylon Jennings, who covered the song, or Neil himself, who frequently whips it out at the annual Farm Aid concert. In fact, it’s so clearly a song about war (Vietnam was still raging in ’72), with direct references to the Left, the Right, the domino theory of Southeast Asia, dying for God and Country, etc., that it’s hard to fathom how anyone could get it wrong. While not as potent as “Ohio,” it’s still a compact, uncluttered anti-war number, a tale about a kid, about to ship out, talking first to a preacher (who lets him know that God will be on his side) and then to the hangman (who tells him unequivocably, “It’s time to die”).
Some have cited “A Man Needs A Maid” as an example of Neil being on top of his game. Admittedly it does carry a certain emotional heft, particularly at the end when Neil sings in a tiny, plaintive voice, “When will I see you again?” It’s a wonderful, nakedly vulnerable moment. But the whole housekeeper imagery, even as a metaphor for Neil’s insecurity and neediness, strikes me as slightly banal. I’m no poet, but maybe he could have considered some other lyrical options: “Hmm, lessee… ‘a man needs a – a- a- a- mechanic and, uh… someone to keep my gears turning and my motor running…’ Naw, naw…. howzabout – ‘a beekeeper, someone to keep my hive warm, bring me sweet nectar and buzz around all day…’ Yeah, that works.” Hey, it could have happened!
Earlier I called Harvest “relentlessly narcissistic.” Writing from one’s own point of view certainly isn’t a crime; part of any good songwriter’s appeal is how he translates his interior life to the lyric sheet. That said, methinks the man’s ego doth runneth over on Harvest. I ran the lyrics though my trusty old Schlock-O-Meter and arrived at some telling stats: “I” and “my” are the first words of three songs; “I,” “my” and “I’m” appear in the first line of three other songs; and in still three others, “I” is prominently positioned as a line’s first word. That’s nine out of ten songs. Even after giving byes to “Alabama” and “Are You Ready for The Country” for being political and not personal screeds we’re still left with a whopping 70% of Harvest being an exercise in solipsism, not storytelling.
The last thing I want to touch on might best be addressed in a court of law, but here goes anyway: Can Neil Young be sued for what he spawned with Harvest? Seriously. That album gave every half-assed folkie on the planet license to whine. All these years later we’re still knee-deep in legions of groveling, simpering, me-fixated singer-songwriters whose sole stock in trade basically boils down to this: “I got up today/ I fixed a cup of coffee/ Looked around/ And saw you were gone/ My heart was heavy/ So I wrote this song about you/ It kinda made me feel better….” Your honor, we’re willing to stipulate lifetime probation for Mr. Young, but absolutely no charity concerts in lieu of his community service.
It’s interesting to note that Harvest was recently the sole focus of an entire book, published in 2003 as part of part of Continuum’s “33 1/3” series in which classic records are dissected but otherwise praised by virtue of inclusion in the series. Author Sam Inglis does a fine job and he claims to love the album, although one wonders how loyal to Harvest he truly is given that he voices many reservations similar to those expressed above yet rarely offers any evidence to the contrary. (A probing of Tonight’s The Night would have made for far better reading.) If the best defense one can mount of a record comes across that conflicted, why bother in the first place?
So if Harvest’s faults are so glaring, if critics routinely savage the album — or, in the case of Inglis, damn it with faint praise — and if its creator even tries to atone for his lapse by redoing it years later, what accounts for the fact that it continues to sell bucketloads? (Fun Fact #1: Harvest was the first album in Young’s back catalog to be reissued on CD, while last year it also became the first Young title to be sonically overhauled – by Young and producer Mazer, no less — for the DVD-A format.) As recently as last year Aimee Mann, a gifted songwriter who’s hardly your garden variety mainstream Best Buy-shopping schmuck, was talking to Entertainment Weekly about essential records to own. Gushed Mann, of Harvest, “My babysitter brought this over one night when I was a kid and I was fascinated. It had such a haunting and mournful quality.” Mann should know better, but I’m not going to launch an ad hominem argument this late in the essay. I’m also somewhat tempted to take the easy way out and play the baby-boomer ’72 nostalgia card and be done with the matter. (Fun Fact #2: In August of 2003, a second-stringer named Josh Rouse issued an album of half-baked lite-rock entitled 1972.) But maybe the noble approach is to simply call Harvest’s enduring appeal a mystery, throw up my arms and say, beats the hell out of me.
Besides, I have a story to finish.
Back in the summer of ‘72 I’d become deeply smitten by a hippie-chick type who I privately referred to as my “Cinnamon Girl.” After finally screwing up the courage to ask her if she wanted to go out some night and smoke some dope, I rushed out and bought a second copy of Harvest, this one on 8-track tape (for the car, natch). I mean, how could these sensitive, tuneful songs about maids and men, about weekends and words – about hearts of gold! – fail to get me to first… second…. third base… oh wow…
Somewhere in between the mellow notion of Harvest as an album and the theoretically sure-fire “Heart of Gold,” however, my Cinnamon Girl turned into the Cynical Girl. I sensed I might be losing ground when she mocked my air-piano playing during “Maid.” Thirty seconds into “HOG” she complained, “Gawd, he is soo whiny sounding… you don’t have Deep Purple In Rock do ya,” and summarily ejected the 8-track. That’s when I deduced that tonight was not gonna be the, uh, night. With no Purp on hand, I shoved in Wheels Of Fire instead and fired up another joint. I think we both passed out during the drum solo in “Toad.”
For a long time afterwards, I held a grudge against Neil for delaying the loss of my virginity by at least six months. (That’s an eternity in teenage time.) I eventually got over it, though, and Neil is still my favorite all-time artist. Picks to click: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Sleeps With Angels, and the 1991 tour with Sonic Youth as the opening act.
To this day, however, I can’t pick up a copy of a Harvest and touch that textured sleeve without cringing.
It’s been just two years since the Austin-based rockers Fastball last released an LP. Clearly, they still had plenty more to say.
The Help Machine, Fastball’s seventh studio album since starting in the mid-1990s, sounds just as powerful as their 1996 debut, brimming with addictive hooks, taut power chords and a steady rhythm section. The band even brought along Southern California legend Steve Berlin (sax player for Los Lobos and The Blasters) to produce the record.
Though he’s best known as bassist/vocalist for the band, Tony Scalzo actually switched to keyboards and guitar for this outing. Scalzo spoke with Blurt recently about that decision, working with Berlin, and the band’s newfound – and fruitful – burst of creativity.
BLURT: The Help Machine comes not that long after your last LP. Did you guys just go through a fairly prolific period or were many of these songs originally meant for the last album?
TONY SCALZO: As songwriters, both Miles and myself have been generally prolific throughout even the “dry” periods of Fastball’s existence. We both put out solo albums in between releases of Fastball albums. Plus, there were two releases by The Small Stars, an interesting band Miles fronted for a few years. Speaking for myself, I’m always writing and composing. I had a band for four years with my friend, Kevin McKinney called Wrenfro. We performed mostly original music every week for three years at a now defunct club in Austin called, Strange Brew. When we released Step Into Light in 2017, I stepped away from that to focus on Fastball full-time. None of these new songs were written for Step Into Light, though some were written away from Fastball. Two of mine, “Doesn’t It Make You Feel Small” and “Girl You Pretended To Be”, were written while I was doing the Wrenfro thing and were performed live with other people before Fastball heard them.
How did you connect with Steve Berlin for this one?
Our manager brought up his name to produced and we jumped on it. I’ve been a fan of his work for years. Used to see Steve perform with The Blasters in the early ‘80s. Saw him a bunch in Los Lobos and was well aware of his production skills. I loved working with him and was kind of in awe of his focus on the project and his musical imagination. He came up with many ideas for parts I don’t think we could’ve come up with on our own. To my initial disappointment, he never busted out the sax, but as the project started taking shape, I realized there was no place for it.
What was the reasoning behind your decision not to play bass on this one?
I didn’t play bass on the record because Bruce Hughes was available. He has more imagination and way better chops than I do. I don’t see myself as a bassist.
Can you talk a little bit about the title track?
Miles wrote “Help Machine” and, in my opinion, it’s the kind of title that can be interpreted loosely. Song starts with lyrics that evoke a telephone help line or a 12-step meeting. Loosely. It’s very dreamlike and I think the songs provides all the information necessary.
You opted to put this one out on your own label? Why go that route vs. using a traditional record label again?
Fastball has been virtually independent since we left Hollywood Records after Harsh Light Of Day in 2001. Even while signed to Ryko it felt like an indie label because our A&R rep was our friend, Rob Seidenberg, who originally signed us to Hollywood when he was there. I see absolutely no reason to be on a major label. Nobody tells us what to do and we owe no money. It’s all us. As far as getting our music noticed, I think we do pretty well. Energy keeps building at a nice, consistent pace and I see much improvement. We just needed a bit of time to adjust to the way the modern industry works.
The band has been around long enough to experience the music business at two different extremes – when they spent a lot of money signing bands and where they are at now. Do you think it’s easier or harder now for new bands to get noticed?
Quick success is hard to adjust to and we had difficulty realizing just who we were as a band after All The Pain in 1998. We were so busy touring we never worked on improving any aspect of our band/live show. But since we never got huge that seemed to put us in a place where we just kept going because it was the best vehicle for all three of us to get records made and go out and play. I think if we sold twice as many records as we did, we may have imploded. All the weird things that happen with fame…yada yada.
You’ve already announced some new dates – do you plan on adding more and touring for much of the next few months?
Yes, we have future dates into 2020, we will probably do something that resembles a proper tour in the new year.
What’s next for the band?
We will continue to make records and play live all over the world at our own pace.
The mighty HASTCO returns, as promised a year ago in this space, with a remarkable new record. Visit their Bandcamp page to preview (or download) it, and then settle in for our review of the digital album and our new interview with the musicians, below.
If I look back to where Hair & Skin Trading Company (HASTCO) has been musically over the past 25 years, from the metallic tribal intensity of Jo to Over Valence’s psychedelics to the LSD infused shocking soundscapes of Psychedelische Musique, the band have consistently made bold and matchless musical statements throughout their career. Here we have the coalescing of those disparate elements into a superbly wrought album filled with propulsive atmospherics and an updated sonic palette that takes us over the edge never to return.
“Cruz” is the ignition that lights the area aglow as the jets start to come alive and the superheated mix of gases detonates and expands over the area. Here the throb of the bass and the sonic chug keeps the listener on the edge of their seat as they leave the ground.
“Cezanne” is a shocker with its Kraftwerkian processed vocals and dance beat. It’s a fascinating number that should be played at any number of end-of-the-world shindigs should America’s Cheeto in Chief get reelected.
“Nihil” is a menacing tune that builds brilliantly and leaves the listener devastated at its conclusion. The droning voices in the background leave you questioning your own sanity. The head fake of calm in the middle then coalesces into a massive sonic assault that would be the perfect soundtrack for a Mad Max sequel.
“Octo” if you imagine Hawkwind’s “Valium Ten” stripped, processed and then electronically sequenced you might get part of what this track has to offer. The fuzz guitar, spare bassline and pulsing singular beat mated with hushed vocals creates a narco-haze that is hard to shake and left me wanting more.
“Wabi Sabi” is a 14-minute stunner that makes its case early on and then builds certain looped elements to a euphoric rush. Through the dilaudid churn, like a whirling dervish we spin, trancing out, as we round the next corner seeing a car aflame and a glow off the canyon walls.
“Lila” closes out the album and left me speechless. It’s a uniquely arresting final statement, replete with an off axis recurring background with hallucinogenic guitar stretched over it. It’s unsettling, introspective and beguiling all in the space of seven minutes.
I Don’t Know Where You Get Those Funny Ideas From left me stupefied and a tad melancholy since many of the numbers on here made me look back at my own life and contemplate what’s next. It’s that sort of visceral, cathartic experience I crave. It will take you to uncharted territory in your mind’s eye. Key tracks to target for your streaming and/or downloading pleasure: “Cruz,” “Cezanne,” ”Nihil,” “Octo,” “Wabi Sabi,” and “Lila.”
I’ve been telling people for most of my adult life that this is a band worth checking out. This record shows the band at a creative high water mark. HASTCO, who’ve put this album together mailing the tracks back and forth to each other, have created an otherworldly, bold and intelligent record that will have you clamoring to climb aboard for another rotation.
I talked to the band recently about the new record, and the artists – solely responsible for the music: Neil MacKay, John Wills, and Nigel Webb – were more than forthcoming with their disclosures and observations.
BLURT: How long did it take to record this album and were there tracks left off it that will be used on future projects?
Nigel Webb: Probably took about 1 year to exchange songs/tracks and parts, ideas – total recording/mixing time a lot less. Similarly, I guess about another 10 months ‘maturing’.
John Wills : The album came together quite slowly mainly because we had to work remotely. We swapped files and tinkered with them but I found it a displeasing way of working.
Neil Mackay: Back a bit, John and I played in the Loop reunion and toured the UK and Europe a little. John left as he wanted to record and Robert didn’t want to record with us. When in London I met up and jammed with Nigel and we all somehow decided to do a new album. It took quite a while. I initially bombarded John and Nigel with tracks of varying quality! I have been doing online file swapping for quite a while with previous projects on the Escape Velocity Label, also I recorded a nice album with Randall from Fuxa called Fuxa and Neil Mackay. The album probably took 2 – 2.5 years. [The] next one will be quicker I hope. Many tracks left off. We wrote 75 [plus] tracks I reckon ( Nigel hope you’ve still got them all ! ) … We write material specifically for an album, we do not just release [“demos”] we had lying around. It’s bloody hard work. Bloody good fun [that] but can be frustrating, confusing and all the rest, but once you have something you like it’s well worth it. Everyone should try using a multi-track recorder at least once! Creation is fun, If it isn’t [then] don’t do it !
BLURT: You mentioned to me that you mailed the tapes to each other to add and complete the songs. How was it working like this and what challenges did this present to completing the record?
Nigel: Working this way [via mail] is a lot different, almost a concept really – I learned a whole lot.
John: HASTCO really [works] best when songs come from jams and live improvisations that could be later developed. [Having] said that, I think we have produced an album that’s vibrant and exciting and made us explore things differently.
Neil: Of course it is always best for everyone to be in the same room at the same time. Playing in a group is about the inter communication between humans. I would always prefer analogue to digital but not so possible these days. I still keep meaning to get my cassette 4-track out again!
BLURT: How does this album differ from HASTCO’s other recorded output?
Nigel: Most HASTCO things were recorded with all three people being in the same physical space. [This is not the case on this.] We also sometimes used to work with engineers, there are none [on] this one. Also we used to all have home studios but recorded/mixed in proper commercial studios. [This is all ‘home’ (ish).]
Neil: Less live drums. Less “liveness” to it in a certain way. Completely different in a way, although Psychedelische Musique employed lots and lots of edit, cuts, sound manipulation. So there is a bridge there.
BLURT: Any particular tracks that you are especially proud of?
Nigel: I like all of them but “Nihil”,”Yes/No” & “Cezanne” are my faves this week.
Neil: Same. Sometimes I think a track is awesome, spot on, then I spot the pimples, warts, varucas and scabs that we/I didn’t clear up. Listening back to your own music, one can be very critical of the work and attention to detail. FYI all the crap edits on the LP are mine(lol). In future it would be good if John could do all the editing so much more accurate!
BLURT: Will you release it on vinyl? Where can fans buy a copy of the CD/LP?
Nigel: Would be great to release it on vinyl/CD… but not sure if it will be possible (Neil?)
Neil: Yes of course Nigel, I have $3,000 NZ+. [I] would love to and am doing a limited CD soon. Keep your eye bananas peeled.
BLURT: Who did the cover art?
Nigel: Dan Holliday did the cover art, [although I have been ‘experimenting’ with it further].
Neil: Our main man Dan Holliday, premiere art man for the Sausage Machine [who] still makes awesome vibrant art. Check him [out] on FB. He has a new screen print out soon. Plus check Dans daughters band, Skinny girl diet! Thanks Dan. I/we owe you!
BLURT: It’s now been 25 years since your last record Psychedelische Musique. What informs the new record? Is there a certain statement you’re trying to convey?
Nigel: Yes, as a statement, you can still make records and be a band 11,659 miles (or so) apart, but you need much longer cables! I think we released a 4 track vinyl EP after Psychedelische Musique and had an album..or two of recorded material that hasn’t been released yet that isn’t to do with this new one. This is all new material.
John: I don’t know if there’s a statement other than we are all living in the most unpredictable times and this is how we all expressed it consciously or unconsciously.
Neil: I don’t know. I don’t understand what [you mean by] informs! I now do music as it is something I do. I try to be relaxed when I record / write, that’s the most fun for me. Creation! The record company side of things that I run is hopeless. In other words we need a manager but aren’t making any money to afford one. I must say I am really pleased and a big thank you to the people who have bought the album so far. Rock on. Hope you have fun listening and don’t take it too serious.
BLURT: In the intervening years, has your taste in music changed at all? What sorts of bands do you listen to these days?
Nigel: Since the last EP, I have probably gotten into a lot of different music. I found myself personally revisiting ‘rock’ music & krautrock for a while, and getting into a huge amount of YouTube stuff I hadn’t listened to in years:
Roky Erickson, A Place to Bury Strangers,Trumans Water,Polvo, Swans,Can and recently Son house,Charlemagne Palestine, and also The Urinals (SoCal 1980s) – all sorts.
John: My musical taste is constantly changing. I try to live in the present and hate nostalgia. You know, Facebook posts about how great classic albums are really piss me off. We mustn’t stagnate we must all create. I like some of the latest Grime[s] especially the female rappers coming from a very direct feminist stance. There’s some great poetry happening on this stuff. Other than that at the other end of the spectrum I’m really into field recording.
Neil: I worked at Rough Trade shops in London for 17 plus years so much musical tastes were pretty broad to start with (or after that I should say – what an education and a privilege to work with such awesome people and with such awesome product, music.) In my car I keep [flipping] between stations. I listen to Hindi, pacific islander, Chinese, NZ and anything and everything [that’s] on the radio. I do have a certain liking for Bollywood music. I find it is an awesome amalgamation of every style of music!
BLURT: Finally, any plans to play out for this album and are there future projects in the works? Any bands in particular that you’d enjoy playing with?
Nigel: Would be great to play live again, not sure if it will be possible.
John: I’m working with 3D sound and creating VR for theatre which is very exciting. I’ve just finished writing a new Pumajaw album which will have a vinyl release next Spring.
Taking a victory lap with a deep dive into both his solo and Roxy Music catalogues, and accompanied by a stellar crew that included UK guitar legend Chris Spedding, Ferry turned Atlanta’s sold-out venue, the famed Tabernacle, into his personal song-craft room of magic and mirrors. (Click on the images in the gallery, below, to enlarge them.)
TEXT/PHOTOS BY JOHN BOYDSTON
Bryan Ferry is back on the road touring the world has he has done for many years – but this time it feels like a bit of a victory lap, and in a good way. Ferry and the entire Roxy Music band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, and Ferry has said he appreciates the honor and loves the love.
If Ferry is feeling his 73 years he does a good job of hiding it onstage. He’s loose, poised, having fun, and the onstage mutual admiration between this legend and his fans is remarkable and a sight to behold. He’s also clearly leading the band, giving intro and outro cues, not that they need much direction once the show starts. All top-notch veterans, and pretty much the same as he has toured with in recent years, including the great longtime Ferry/Roxy Music sideman and UK rock legend in his own right — Chris Spedding. (Look him up. We might not have ever had the Sex Pistols without his involvement.)
In fact, a highlight was the spotlight Ferry shared with Spedding for a solo during a rousing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” I was reminded of Ferry’s all-covers solo record years ago, “These Foolish Things,” worth checking out as are all the Roxy and Ferry releases over the years. I didn’t own my first Roxy Music LP until a few years ago, so it’s never too late, so start at the beginning with their iconic debut LP Roxy Music.
Ferry’s currently playing the Roxy hits, and solo stuff. The guy is still making solid records. Did I mention he’s 73?
Only a few US dates left, this week in Dallas and Austin, TX. Then moving west to Denver, CO and onto California. Dates here: http://bryanferry.com/tour/
One other uniquely Bryan Ferry thing – he allows and encourages photographers to shoot the entire show. NOBODY of his stature does that. Usually it’s 3 songs and, get outta here, you weenies. That says so much about his personal confidence – and it’s smart, because a photographer willing to take the time can capture all moods and visuals as the show progresses. A Bryan Ferry show heats up as it goes.
Live, appropriately enough, at Brooklyn’s Gran Torino, the Pittsburgh garage-rock heavyweights covered a classic LP in full, and in the process, blew the roof off the sucka. Watch our video exclusives, below.
TEXT/PHOTOS/VIDEO BY JONATHAN LEVITT
It’s a wonderful thing when you love a band for almost 30 years and finally get to see them live. Last night was the night that The Cynics roared into town and scorched everything in sight with a blistering set celebrating their stone-cold classic album Rock ’N’ Roll. (I wrote about the album for Blurt back in 2015.)
Playing the album from start to finish provided a thrill that went by in the blink of an eye. I sang along with every song and had to pinch myself that I was really witnessing this. I’ll know it was real because the documentary crew that was filming the band last night ended up interviewing me for the film. You can contribute money to help the filmmakers achieve their vision by going to this GoFundMe link. (Amen. – Uncle Blurt)
The band, which is about to embark on another Spanish tour, have just repressed the album on heavyweight vinyl with a bonus live LP. Set to be released in September, the LP is currently only available at gigs with a tote and badge as a bonus. (Preorder it at the Get Hip Records website.) (I just did. – Uncle Blurt)
For our Blurt readers and especially for good ol’ Uncle Blurt, I filmed a few songs from the show so you can witness some of the magic from last night. Long live The Cynics!
Arguably South Africa’s greatest export ever, the Juluka / Savuka bandleader, and solo artist of equal acclaim, passed away a month ago this week. Journalist and longtime Clegg fan James Tighe offers this analysis and appreciation of the musical giant. (Above photo: courtesy Wikipedia)
BY JAMES TIGHE
It came out of the blue. The BBC radio announcement just before midnight on Tuesday, the 16th of July, that South African musician Johnny Clegg had died earlier in the day. Pancreatic cancer. He was 66-years-old. The news hit me hard. I didn’t know he had been diagnosed with the disease in 2015.
I first heard Johnny Clegg’s music during a three month stay on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1989. It seemed like everybody on the island was listening to him. As it happened, he played his final scheduled tour date there in October 2018.
Mauritius, being situated 500 miles east of Madagascar, is a member of several pan-African political and trade organizations. It has a sizable population of black citizens, Creoles, of east African origin, descendants of slaves imported to work the sugar cane fields by a succession of colonial powers, Dutch, French, English. These Mauritians, in particular, were ready-made Clegg fans.
The story of Johnny Clegg’s introduction to southern Africa’s Zulu culture and his lifelong identification with it has often been recounted. Born in England, he moved with his divorced mother to Zimbabwe at a very early age, then at the age of 6 to South Africa. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, as the story has it, he met a street musician, a guitar player, who happened to be a member of the Zulu nation. The black street musician took the young white boy under his wing, introducing him to traditional Zulu music, dance, the larger culture.
The boy became enamored with all things Zulu, picking up the maskandi guitar and concertina accordion. He eventually became fluent in the language, mastered the male dance traditions, and becoming in the process something of an honorary member of the Zulu nation, if not an actual one.
His first musical incarnation consisted of assembling a mixed-race South African band, Juluka, releasing their first album in 1979. His partner-in-crime was the guitarist Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker he met when he was 17. The songs were a mix of traditional Zulu music and rock-n-roll, with both English and Zulu lyrics.
Much of Clegg’s music is characterized by a chorus of deep male harmony vocals that help give the songs their power. Because the band was integrated, Juluka’s very existence was illegal, and the band members were arrested several times and their concerts broken up. At the time Clegg said that Juluka wasn’t founded as a political band, but, “Politics found us.”
He formed his second bi-racial band, Savuka, in 1986 (pictured above). Ironically, Clegg was expelled from the British Musicians’ Union around this time because he refused to stop playing shows in South Africa, a practice the international anti-apartheid movement didn’t condone.
After returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, from my Mauritius trip, Johnny Clegg became the matrix for my meeting a fellow countryman of his. One afternoon I was sitting in an Oxford bar, drinking a beer. No one else was in the place but the bartender. Behind the bar was a cassette tape player rigged to speakers. I asked the bartender to play the Johnny Clegg tape I had with me, one that I had bought in Mauritius. After a couple of songs, a guy walked up the stairs into the barroom. He was stout of body, with a black beard, longish hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles. He was about to seat himself at the bar when he stopped, looked up at the speakers with a quizzical expression, and said in a pronounced British accent, “Who’s playing Johnny Clegg?”
Thus was born the start of a friendship.
Peter Lee, like Clegg, was a South African of British ancestry. At the time we met he was the editor of Living Blues magazine, a University of Mississippi publication. He told me he had originally come to Oxford to enroll at Ole Miss as a result of his chancing upon a flyer posted on a bulletin board of the college he was attending in South Africa. The flyer invited students to apply to a foreign exchange journalism program at Ole Miss. Peter, a longtime American blues fan and collector of the music, immediately went into a mad scramble to get here. Mississippi. The word was magic to his ears. The Promised Land. The Birthplace of the Blues.
After graduating from the program, he was selected to become the editor of Living Blues. He went on to found Fat Possum Records in Oxford. His signing R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, among others, to the label revived their careers and helped put north Mississippi hill-country blues on the map.
It should be emphasized that Peter Lee didn’t start up Fat Possum just to make money. He founded the label to help black blues musicians make the money. And he wanted to promote the music. Peter’s deeply felt regard and respect for black people was catalyzed by his experience in the South African army where he witnessed first hand the brutality of his government’s apartheid regime.
As a South African soldier (military service being mandatory) he was literally placed on the front lines of the apartheid wars of the time, albeit not on the side he would have chosen. He witnessed up close and personal the savage inhumanity of violent racism as wielded by the state. The experience marked him for life. It is no wonder he loved Johnny Clegg and his music.
Johnny Clegg was an important public figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. His song Asimbonanga was dedicated to Nelson Mandela when he was still imprisoned on Robben Island. The song became an anthem of the movement. Clegg eventually received South Africa’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver. He was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government and was made an Officer of the British Empire. The list of honorary degrees he has received from universities around the world is a long one. I don’t think he was well known in the U.S., but internationally, especially throughout Africa and much of Europe, he was a super-star.
Back in the early ‘90s Johnny Clegg and Savuka performed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. It was quite a spectacle. The band members were dressed old-time ceremonial Zulu-style, half-naked, barefoot, draped in big-game animal furs and skins. With spears and shields they demonstrated Zulu dance rituals as they played and sang, deep-throated, resonant Zulu voices booming in harmony. The studio audience loved it. “Just wait until we tell the gang back home in Peoria about this, Gladys.”
Around that same time, I made a cassette tape of Clegg and Savuka for my friend Larry Brown, the late Mississippi novelist. On occasion, usually late at night in a barroom, he would incline his head toward mine and in a low, barely audible voice, begin singing, “Asimbonanga. . .” completing the first line of the song, pronouncing the Zulu words perfectly. He would always end by saying how much he loved the song.
Johnny Clegg’s songs were not only of visionary politics but also of his love for Africa and the African people, the rains they depend on, the ground on which they walk, hunt, till, and otherwise wrest a living. Hearing of his death that Tuesday night awakened in me many of the past associations he and his music have for me. He touched my life in the best possible way. The world is a better place because of him and his music. That, to me, is the ultimate tribute any one of us can ever hope to receive.
Below, watch a complete Clegg & Savuka concert from back in the day.
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