Culturespill » Flashbacks

Ah, Gerry, We Hardly Knew Ye

22nd May

Dogs

If you’ve ever worked up the brass to sit through the brilliant scene in Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs when Michael Madsen pulls a blade on a cop to cut the mother fucker’s ear off–but not before shuffling his best Texas Two-Step to the tune “Stuck in the Middle With You”–then you know Gerry Rafferty. Recorded with an outfit called Stealers Wheel that Rafferty put together with Joe Egan in 1972, the song was an only hit for a band that made more money for the lawyers they needed to get out of contract hell than its members made for themselves–an all-too common industry nightmare that would recur in Rafferty’s odd career, as EMI kicked him to the curb about five years later when they bought out the flagging Universal Artists in 1980. It’s little wonder the guy preferred music’s version of the witness protection program for the rest of the decade–what artist of any value DIDN’T vanish in the 80s?–and only resurfaced sporadically after that to record one critically adored but commercially disastrous album after another, each of which moved about 3 1/2 units (that may be a mildly optimistic estimate.)

Culturerspill newsflash: the record industry blows, especially when you’re trying to make it with a label that consists of more than a phone in an abandoned garage and some Emo dork with a borrowed kazoo. In an era void of ring tones, myspace profiles and, well, the whole damned internet in general, Rafferty surrendered to this sad fact after making bank with his brilliant City to City album in 1978, an album that featured his enduring masterpiece, “Baker Street,” about busking in the subway station. So enduring, actually, that The Foo Fighters got their hands on the song not too long ago–which is either a blessing or a reason for instantaneous self-immolation, depending on your taste. Chances are that the size of the royalty check Rafferty took to the bank was enough to keep his food down, even if the cover sucked. Decide for yourself here. (The brilliant Eagles of Death metal, for their part, served up a killer cover of Raffery’s “Stuck in the Middle With You. Check it out.)


Reservoir Dogs: “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel

Rafferty adamantly refused to tour even in support of that hit–a single so successful that it booted the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack off the top of the charts at the height of disco’s infamy–so he sure as shit isn’t about to make much of a fuss about himself these days at 61-years-old and counting, but, dammit, that doesn’t mean WE won’t!

Of all the immortal albums in rock ‘n roll history, City to City just HAD to be recorded in the late 70s, the most confused decade in the history of modern pop music. For an era that pumped out acts like Alice Cooper and The Clash alongside a seemingly endless barrage of disco trash and some of the most mawkishly produced pop music ever to soil the ears of man, calling it “confused” is an act of extreme courtesy. Yet this seems precisely the thing that designates City To City a masterpiece.

Despite the album’s love affair with the flowery, post-psychedelia production that turned pop music into a pageant of circus cast-offs by 1978, the strength of Rafferty’s songwriting stands firm. The album’s most amazing moments come at times when Rafferty seems to have sent his producer out on another take-out run for the band. Good clean tracks like the stirring “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart” and the flawlessly composed “Right Down The Line” attest to the power Rafferty commands when left to his own devices. By contrast, the hysterical onslaught of bells, cymbals and synths that usher in “Baker Street” sound like the start of some 25-year-old Perillo Tours ad.

Rafferty
Gerry Rafferty

Yet the songs themselves endure: “Baker Street” soon clears the clutter and slides effortlessly into a gorgeous ballad with Raphael Ravenscroft’s unmistakable sax riff cutting a backbone through the song, rivaled only by Rafferty’s stinging guitar work in the song’s amplified crescendo. “The Ark,” a beautifully understated ballad brought to fruition by a genuinely moving vocal performance, is as successful an opening track as there has ever been. Only the title track and the album’s last two songs seem incapable of overcoming the desperate production that threatens to derail the album throughout but, thankfully, never succeeds. It is this tension between indulgence and tact that makes for one incredible listening experience. That Rafferty essentially abandoned his talents in apparent disgust with the industry soon after this is just as tragic as City To City is miraculous.

Culturespill Flashback: Warren Zevon’s “The Wind”

15th May

Zevon in Shadows

One lesson learned from the success of Warren Zevon’s musical epitaph, The Wind, is that any artist struggling too long for that big break probably hasn’t tried dying yet. As the speed with which Zevon’s final album flew off the shelves confirms, there is no better way of boosting record sales than a well-timed death. The album, released just two weeks before Zevon succumbed to lung cancer, sold over 50,000 copies in only its first week out of the gate, making it his first top forty album since 1978’s Excitable Boy.

Mostly, Warren Zevon’s name might get passed around a few dinner tables now and then, and, in a reasonably informed household, the grumbly old man will grunt something like “oh, yeah, the werewolf guy who died of cancer,” before stuffing another forkful of canned lasagna in his face. Yes, it’s true, Zevon wrote the immortal “Werewolves of London,” and if he is remembered for nothing more than its instantly captivating piano riff and that wolf guy strolling the rainy streets of Soho for some Beef Chow Mein, well, that’s more than most schmucks will be able to say for themselves when their cards are called.

It is also true that Zevon did indeed fall prey to cancer at 56 years old Sunday, September 6th, 2003, but not without having something to say about it. He had a whole lot to say, actually-nearly 3 decades worth of death, blood and gore. Zevon always seemed like the kind of guy who’ll take fangs over flowers any day of the week. That said, it’s most fitting that Mr. Zevon’s last word includes some of the most emotionally urgent music of his life, void of even the slightest pose or mask; though a few of the album’s real rockers do pack a claw or two.


Warren Zevon: “My Shit’s Fucked Up”

Death’s approach galvanizes even the most mundane lyric on The Wind. When Zevon sings “Let’s party for the rest of the night . . . we may never get this chance again,” he means it quite literally. The tune itself rocks with the fury of war, as Tom Petty and his trusty Heartbreakers sidekick, Mike Campbell, rock and howl their way right through the song’s last line.

Most remarkable is Zevon’s apparent ease with the fate that awaits him, as though, after learning from his doctor of the inoperable tumor in his lung, he decided to record The Wind in celebration, not despair, for the life he was about to lose. Zevon audibly trades chuckles with members of the band on numerous tracks as they erupt into song together. “Let’s do another bad one, then,” Zevon tells his bandmates before lapsteel guitarist David Lindley rips into “Numb As A Statue,” the album’s fourth track, “because I like it when the blood drains from Dave’s face.”

Of the many renowned friends that joined Zevon to help him make what they knew would be his last album — names like Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and Billy Bob Thornton top the list — still the primal drum work of lesser-known Luis Conte raises “The Rest of the Night” to the height of its booming promise. One icon falls; another gets busy making his name.

But while similar tracks would rock most other acts off the stage–the stomping, electric blues of “Rub Me Raw” or Springsteen’s jangling guitar searing through the frenzied “Disorder in the House,” for instance–it is the album’s surprisingly tender moments that make it a masterpiece. Concluding with one of the most poignant codas in rock history, the divine, understated “Keep me In Your Heart,” The Wind congeals into a uniquely sincere and confident embrace of mortality. “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / keep me in your heart for a while,” Zevon croons along to Jorge Calderon’s acoustic guitar and the legendary Jim Keltner’s shuffling drums.


In Memoriam: Warren Zevon

It is interesting to note another song that begins with an image of “falling shadows”: “Not Dark Yet,” by one of the many noted comrades Zevon gathered over the years, Bob Dylan:

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Whether or not Warren had Dylan’s song in mind when penning his own, it is just as preciously coincidental as it is moving. This is not the only shadow Dylan casts over the album. Zevon’s taut cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is nothing short of sublime. The timeless tune is another of the album’s bitingly appropriate and all too literal anticipations of finality.

Arguably, though, the album’s highest moment arrives amid the ghostly, possessed chants of “Prison Grove”:

Dug in, hunkered down,
Hours race without a sound
Gonna carry me to where I’m bound
Looking down on Prison Grove

Iron will hard as rock
Hold me up for the fateful knock
When they walk me down in a mortal lock
Out on Prison grove

Zevon groans as a harrowing swarm of voices that sound like the mantras of the dead howl “Shine on / Shine on all these broken lives / Shine on / Shine the light on me,” as though begging for a break from some underworld of their own doing. Everyone and their mothers chime in for this one, including old pals Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Warren himself. The effect is chilling as Warren snarls “come on!” before each additional chant, as though daring death to show its face amid such dark divinity. Ry Cooder is in rare form here, his famous slide guitar rivaling even the licks he got in on John Hiatt’s brilliant Bring the Family seventeen years prior. Cooder’s prowess captures perfectly the immediacy and courage with which Zevon confronts his owndestruction. “They say you’ll hear your own bones crack,” Zevon asserts, “When they bend you back to bible black.” Well, Warren, is it true?

Culturespill Flashback: Donovan’s “Beat Cafe”

9th May

Donovan

After a forty-year run as the master of Mellow, not much has changed on Planet Donovan. It is 2004, and the wisdom is still as abundant as the weed. Poets in berets still blow saxes in the coffeehouse at night, and flowers still don heads of bushy hair in the crowd. The man himself may be a little older now, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not coming on:

If I was your lover I’d take you to the sky
If you are feeling low I will make you high
Let me be your lover baby I will be your beau

This is not exactly the language of a man taking his social security check to the bank on the way to the golf course. In fact, Beat Café is an album that delivers the urgency and freshness one might expect from the debut album of a 20-something nobody, no less a 60-something flower-child of the original Woodstock generation.

Hushed and haunted, Beat Café plays like a long, seductive whisper from somewhere within the listener’s consciousness – a knowing and familiar voice spreading the rumor that utopia is not something that happens in the external world, but rather within the self. It is a sunrise of the soul; a placid and breezy terrain the mind brings you to when the gates of its imagination are unlocked. “Gonna do all the things I’ve never done before, gonna get myself together somehow,” Donovan sings on the downright wicked “The Question.” Many of these new tunes expand upon the kind of optimism with which Donovan managed to pit himself against that brooding, bitter and more famous American counterpart, Bob Dylan.


Donovan: “Season of the Witch”

Unlike Donovan’s last album – the spare but alluring Sutras produced by Rick Rubin for American Recordings in 1996 – Beat Café explodes into a varied and distinctive musical brew. Danny Thompson’s bass playing is worthy of Apollo’s crown, and the legendary Jim Keltner turns in a surprisingly hip performance on drums and percussion, managing to keep up with Donovan as he slips in and out of beat after groovy beat.

Whereas Rubin seemed to make a Rick Rubin record of Sutras – mired as it was in his minimalist approach – John Chelew allows for the making of a Donovan record this time around. Chelew, whose resume includes work with John Hiatt and Richard Thompson, proves a more sympathetic cohort throughout this musically fascinating project, even lending a hand on keyboards throughout the set. The atmosphere is much more relaxed and suggests that the artist was allowed to breathe freely during these sessions.

The only resemblance between this latest album and Sutras is the mystic airiness of Donovan’s lyrics, an eastern spiritualism cloaked in the psychedelic lexicon Donovan continues to employ. “You yin my yang / I’ll yang your yin,” he directs on “Yin My Yang.” For an album as overtly conscious of its heritage as this one, it seems almost obligatory that Donovan would nod to Oar, Alexander “Skip” Spence’s masterpiece of psychedelic folk/rock from 1969. “I could use me some yin for my yang,” Spence sings on his “Dixie Peach Promenade (yin for yang),” “that would make everything alright.” Spence’s work is not only a direct echo of Donovan’s “Yin My Yang,” but of the entire universe Beat Café evokes – from its “beatnik café” where “the reefer blow” to the time and place where “there’ll be music in the air/flowers in your hair/life without a care.”

Donovan

But where the nostalgic lyrics retread familiar territory, the music reinvents an artist in his fifth decade as a performer. The beautifully brittle “Shambala” closes the album with a moving dream of yearning, escape and resignation:

Take me home back to Shambala
where peaceful rivers flow
Take me home back to Shambala
Where seeds of love they sow

The appropriately titled “Whirlwind” – a song that wins the “coolest groove of the year” award – is dark and sly enough to suffice as the soundtrack for a land-falling hurricane. Most startling, though, is Donovan’s impassioned cover of the folk standard, “The Cuckoo” which, amid so many interpretations of the well-traveled song, ranks as one of the most commanding and memorable.

Really, though, only Donovan’s own smooth voice manages to outdo Danny Thompson’s pervasive double bass, which thumps and groans through every minute of the album, lending a jazzy depth to the distinctly international sound Donovan achieves here. Thompson raises “The Question” into a kind of frenetic street march through “the darkest hour of night,” while abrupt solos on “Love floats” or the instant classic, “Poorman’s Sunshine,” fuse these songs with the spontaneity of a particularly inspired demo. It bears mentioning that Donovan tosses some killer guitar licks of his own into the mix, most notably on the deliciously fiendish title track.

After following up a prolific period of creativity in the 70s with two decades of piercing silence, the release of a new Donovan album is unlikely enough. That the man would emerge out of nowhere with the coolest album of the year nearly forty years after his debut is nothing short of astonishing. Beat Café is further proof that something incredible happened in the decade of assassinations, flowers and weather factions, and the story is still far from over.

Culturespill Flashback: The Kinks’ “Low Budget”

1st May

Kinks

As Rod Stewart poured himself into a pair of leather pants and asked us if we thought he was sexy, The Kinks strapped on the same old guitars and once again spoke to the daily anxieties of the common man. It was 1979, and the average Joe’s heartburn raged for reasons that sound painfully familiar. “Gas bills, rent bills, tax bills, phone bills,” Ray Davies sings on the tenacious “Superman,” one of the many highlights of his songwriting career, “there’s got to be something better than this.” Indeed there was, and it was this album: an engaging brew of the opposing musical poles that contended with one another at the time (disco and punk–back when “disco” and “punk” actually meant “disco” and “punk”.)

Critics too frequently mischaracterize Low Budget as some kind of “come back” for The Kinks who, by 1979, had come a long way from the days of Apemen and Preservation Societies. Released on the heels of phenomenal rock albums like Misfits and the especially brilliant Sleepwalker, gems that reintroduced the Kinks to the top 20 charts with singles like “Juke Box Music” or “Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy” after Clive Davis rescued them from the anonymity of their concept album haze and whipped them back into craftsmen of the great rock single. The Kinks hardly had anything to “come back” from by the time they released Low Budget. They were already there, and no informed fan of classic rock can suggest otherwise. Yes, the album landed them their first headlining gig at Madison Square Garden, and they did become early gods of MTV with the video for State of Confusion’s “Come Dancing” shortly thereafter. But these were the inevitable glories they’d been building toward for decades, not some sudden and baffling resurgence.

Feet

Low Budget marked an obvious yet tactful attempt to connect with the cultural context in which it was recorded: oil embargoes, disco, terrorism, punk rock, inflation (“gas strike, oil strike, lorry strike, bread strike”). It all sounds terribly familiar, only now we have wicked Reverens and daily tracking polls to anesthetize our anxieties at every turn. It is a real testament to this band’s integrity that they managed to make music as timely in sound as it is in message without sacrificing their songwriting or rock ‘n roll roots. The Kinks, perhaps the most underrated rock band in history, never get quite the credit for their music’s working class message that others like Bruce Springsteen do. Part of the problem is that they never turned it into some cheap marketing shtick, posing in T-Shirts and soiled jeans in front of an enormous American flag with red bandanas danging from a back pocket. Their music isn’t a Halloween costume; it’s art. Getting banned from touring the U.S. in the late ’60s due to a union dispute that got them delisted by American promoters for four years surely didn’t help either.

The immediately catchy “Superman” nods to disco while never straying so far from the things that connected The Kinks to such a vast audience: the vividness and compassion of Ray’s lullabies to the ordinary world, the guttural peels of Dave’s guitar, the way they captured all the urgency and spirit of rock ‘n roll within a song of just two or three minutes in length. “Superman” would be the album’s only overt nod to prevailing tastes of the time (though not nearly as “overt” as the embarrassing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or, for that matter, “Miss You”, the Puerto Rican Girls notwithstanding.) The title track, “Attitude,” “Misery” and “Pressure” all echo that distinctive crunch and clamor The Kinks pioneered 15 years prior, while “A Gallon of Gas” serves up a stripped-down tribute to the blues: both the blues of their roots and the blues of the time–then and, increasingly, now.

Records this honest were not exactly made in abundance in the days of Leif Garret and “Midnight Cowboy,” and in an industry that continues to pass off bubble gum as rock ‘n roll and mistake some plastic whore’s cleavage for a news headline as we cough up more for a gallon of gas than we paid for the cars we fill with it, Low Budget’s relevance endures.