Sarah June sings like a dead girl’s ghost. She’s got the kind of voice that sounds like the wind when it howls through door locks and window panes, the high-pitched and breathy wail of a drowned child’s spirit calling your name from the underworld. It’s the kind of voice you run from in your nightmares—not so much haunted as it is chilling—and the moment it raises a hair on your neck or a goose bump on your arm is precisely the moment June’s songs live in. To hear her sing for the first time is to never forget her, and the songs on In Black Robes, her sophomore LP released this past March on Silber Records, are no easier to get out of your mind than the name of the one who first broke your heart.
“This is the end, my friends / we’re all skeletons / with crossbones in our eyes / and wing-tipped shoes shined,” she sings. “I rattle like a poison snake / but that’s just the chance you take / when you get too close.” The song is called “Crossbones in Your Eyes,” one of the finest tracks to come out all year, and the second track on a record that plays like a goth-folk party in the graveyard of your mind. That’s where you’ll find Sarah June, rattling the bones of your fears and inviting you to delight in the mortality you’ve been sentenced to since the day you were born.
She’s cruising in her jet-black ’68 Caddy with blown speakers one minute and getting summoned to judgment day by a hooded man who points at her with his bony finger the next. “And now I’m just a lonely skeleton / in my coffin black / singin’ love songs to the grim reaper / I hope he brings me back,” she sings on “Judgment Day,” one of the record’s many standouts. Elsewhere she sings of peeling the label off of the bottle of regret amid a jazzy atmosphere of shuffling percussion and acoustic guitar that sounds like something off of Van Morrison’s Moondance, of the girl she studies from across the street as she ties her shoes–the one she loves “more than the girl on the second floor” or “the boy with the metal heart.” But mostly these songs gladly wander where your parents told you never to go, places where the night turns trees to “skeletons with filmy thin tired skin” and the people you cross paths with may be the last ones to see you alive.
In Black Robes is the work of an authentic American voice whose originality cannot be overstated. No one is making music like this–nobody. And while the songs may indulge an attraction to the mabacbre, they only do so with one eye fixed firmly on the influences that June weaves into her music like patches in some quirky quilt. She’s ballsy enough to drop an unmasked nod to Blue Oyster Cult (“don’t fear the reaper ‘cuz he’ll bring ya’ home”) just as she channels early ’60s girl-group pop with a shout out to The Crystals on “Mowtown,” her love letter to the Detroit where she cut her teeth playing gigs after dropping out of school as a teen (“and all the girls in the background sang / ‘da doo ron ron ron da doo ron ron”). She turns in a Jaynetts cover with “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” and reaches all the way back to turn-of-the-20th-century gospel on “Bluesy Melody”:
Well this is what they call life, baby
That bluesy melody that swings me
that sweet chariot that brings me home
June’s guitar playing exhibits the aplomb of Dave Van Ronk, and the songs on In Black Robes are just as unadorned as the music that high priest of folk made famous in Dylan’s prime (It was Van Ronk who taught Dylan to play “House of the Rising Sun,” later immortalized by The Animals). June summons more power from the snap of someone’s fingers on “The Reaper” or the shy intrusion of percussion on “Crossbones in Your Eyes” than a more ornate production ever could have. Her stripped-down delivery reveals a confidence in her craft that puts In Black Robes on par with some of the most rending acoustic albums ever made–Hurt Me by Johnny Thunders or Springsteen’s Atlantic City come especially to mind. It’s that cycle of songs you only encounter once every few years, performances of such sincerity that they need little more than a lone guitar and a good mic to play it for.
The songs almost never linger beyond the four-minute mark, and the record feels like it breezes by in the time it takes to say your prayers. And how fitting that is, because after June takes you on her trip to meet the ghosts that haunt the anguished landscapes where she finds her songs, you just might want to say a prayer or two.
Note: Silber Records offers a download of the album for just five bucks here. Click here for Sarah June’s FB page
To open Jan Reid’s book Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm (U of Texas Press) is to stumble into a time warp where Bobby Womack is more famous for marrying the woman whom Sam Cooke widowed than he is for anything he’s done on record, where Doug Sahm’s name looms far larger in Texas than Willie Nelson’s, and where growing your hair a little longer than most other folks in town is still enough to earn you a mean shiner from a cop in the street.
Reid set out to write a book about an American legend for whom he clearly harbors a great deal of affection, and he begins his tale with a note of modesty that belies his subject, explaining that he hopes not to write a comprehensive biography but merely “to convey some sense of the antic swath that for decades he cut through many communities in many countries, to call up some voices of the people who got to know him well . . . and to demonstrate the sheer knowing of his music.” What he ends up accomplishing instead, though, is much more: a great book about Doug Sahm that also happens to be a great book about American music itself.
Reid breathes life into a moment in American culture that can neither be recaptured nor replicated. The stories he tells–and the unreal cast of characters that move through them–comprise a wildly entertaining romp so vivid that you can hear Doug Sahm chuckling at himself somewhere between the lines. On page after page, you can see the Texas dust that Doug kicks up on his way to thrill yet another town just as clearly as you can smell the several tons of ganja he roasted along the way.
There he is in a rare moment of domestic bliss before his insatiable pursuit of the next hit single and the town he’ll play it in wrenched him away from his wife Violet, demanding that his children keep from opening presents on Christmas morning until “he came out with his pipe and big jar of pot.” And there he is on the road with his bandits of the beat–some of them are part-time barbers, some make doughnuts for a living, others have done time “in the sweltering fields of Angola” for pot possession. Augie Meyers, who played the meanest Vox organ anyone on earth has ever heard and brandished a “pickled ear” to perpetuate the myth that his ear was sliced off in a knife fight; Freddie Fender, who did those mean years at Angola only to hit the road with Doug and the boys once again and, with his slick talent on electric guitar and a hairdo that looked like a mushroom cloud, solidify his reputation as “the Mexican Elvis”; Huey Meaux, the “crazy cajun” who did several stints in the clink himself and once earned a full pardon from Jimmy Carter for one of the convictions that put him there.
The sum of all these inimitable parts was a musical stew that ranged from psychedelia to Tex-Mex, from Bob Wills to Jerry Garcia and all points in between. Sahm’s greatest notoriety came with his 1965 hit “She’s About a Mover” with the Sir Douglas Quintet. As Reid likes to note throughout the book, Doug went on to enjoy the rare distinction of a musician who never once had to hold a day job. The creative restlessness that Sahm exhibited from then on resembled that of Neil Young, always finding himself with a different crew of sidemen to back him up in the studio for yet another record, some as inordinately famous as Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia; others anonymous sidemen he picked up somewhere in Texas. By Reid’s count Sahm laid down no less than “140 records in the United States, Europe and Canada,” bringing Scandanavia to its knees with a gorgeous number called “Meet Me in Stockholm” that earned him eternal superstar status in that country, and firing off other Tex-Mex beauties back home like the chart hit “Mendocino” or the sublime “At the Crossroads.”
Reid’s book is full of forgotten treasures and the kind of rock ‘n roll trivia that you either never knew or had heard from a friend once and forgotten–that Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play harmonica, that Freddie Fender is the reason Austin’s own Roky Erickson graced the world with his brilliant “Starry Eyes” and “Two-Headed Dog” even as he struggled with the ravaged psyche of a traumatic pot bust recounted in detail here, or simply that Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo’s Cadillac is one hell of a record.
The book’s generous collection of photos is equally revelatory. Stunningly intimate in a way that makes you feel as though you’ve been invited to the man’s house to thumb through his family albums, the photos tell almost as much of American music’s story as Reid does. Many of them are provided by Sahm’s son Shawn Sahm, who today plays and tours with his father’s old bandmates. There is Doug accompanied by a seemingly teenage Stevie Ray Vaughn on page 80; and there are Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Leon Russel backing up Doug in a show at the Armadillo in 1972.
Doug never did quite recapture the stardom he attained with “She’s About a Mover,” but he never stopped recording and he did score a Grammy with the Texas Tornados in 1990, a group comprised of old cohorts Meyers and Fender along with Flaco Jiminez. The now-legendary alt-country group Uncle Tupelo afforded him a little cross-generation love when Sahm contributed “Give me Back the Key to My Heart” for their 1993 album, Anodyne. Today, though, Sahm’s music enjoys more air-time on barroom juke boxes in Europe than it does on radio stations in the Texas he called home for most of his life, where he contributed more to Austin’s emergence as the music mecca it has become than he’s given credit for.
Sahm’s lifelong heart murmur culminated in a heart attack that took him from this world much too soon in 1999 at age 58, but the beautifully sloppy cache of music he left behind is worthy of significant critical reconsideration–records like Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, or Texas Rock for Country Rollers. And even in death, the legend that was Doug Sahm lived on, as buddies hunched over his body after the funeral service to roll a few last twists of weed and dump them in–just in case he ever felt the urge to light up as he took his final rest. In Texas Tornado, Reid has written a book that essentially amounts to a 200-page-love letter to the younger days that Doug Sahm colored with great music, good times, and, of course, what Reid refers to as “the good herb.” The ride he’ll take you on as he inches toward the end of Sahm’s uniquely American tale will linger with you long after you’ve put the book down.
Rocky Frisco “People will always consume musical Twinkies, but only the real stuff can satisfy a genuine hunger. When your lover leaves and hits the bed of somebody you know, Twinkies won’t save your life.” — Rocky Frisco
It is no piece of hyperbole to say that the story of Rock ‘N Roll’s birth cannot be fully told without mention of the great Rocky Frisco–one of the reasons why he factors into Peter Guralnick’s bestselling book about Elvis Presley, The Last Train to Memphis. Frisco has served as pianist to some of rock’s most lauded visionaries, such as the great and hugely influential J.J. Cale, whom the likes of Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson credit as a pivotal influence. Frisco and Cale were high school buddies in the mid 1950s, and Frisco has played in Cale’s band throughout his life. And he has one hell of a story to tell–costly run-ins with crooked record company fat cats, the night he bought Chuck Berry a bottle of whiskey and watched him down the whole damned thing before duckwalking across the stage, a 7-day bike ride from Tulsa to Texas to interview Elvis that left him burnt to a crisp in the deadly southern sun, racing a Morris Mini in the Canadian Grand Prix, running for office in Tulsa, starring in Disney movies with Dave Matthews–you name it, this guy’s been there, done that. It is not possible to overstate how thrilled we are to present to you our exclusive interview with this rock ‘n roll renegade, the one and only Rocky Frisco, a man whose grace and humility belie the kind of resume any lesser man would boast of.
Culturespill: You’ve been in and around the music business for quite some time, sitting in with Flash Terry’s band and playing your earliest gigs with J.J. Cale as part of Gene Crose’s band in the late 1950s. You’ve subsequently played with an amazing host of other acts over the years—Eric Clapton, Widespread Panic, Leon Russell, Clyde Stacy, Garth Brooks’s sister (with the Betsy Smittle Band), Johnny Lee Wills (just to name a few.) Who among these many bands and artists was/is the most fun for you to play with?
Rocky: I never played with Leon Russell. I met him as Russell Bridges once when Doug Cunningham brought him to one of my dances at the YWCA in Tulsa. Leon was 14 at the time. The most fun has definitely been with the Cale Band since I rejoined them in 1994. John took me on my first trip to England and the rest of Europe in 1994, something I had always wanted to do. I have been back a number of times since then. I thoroughly enjoy playing with the three Tulsa Bands I work with these days. Tom Skinner is a genius Oklahoma singer-songwriter and his Wednesday Night Science Project is packed with incredible musicians. Tom started Garth Brooks in the business some years ago as his rhythm guitarist. On Thursday nights, I play with Higher Education at McNelly’s Irish Pub upstairs. HE includes Dustin Pittley and Jesse Aycock, two unbelievably good young singer-songwriter-guitarists. Either of them could walk onstage and play with Knopfler or Clapton although they are in their middle 20’s. The band also includes David White, one of the best Bass players I have ever worked with, me on piano and a list of different drummers, most usually, Dylan Aycock, Jesse’s brother. Dylan and Jesse’s dad, Scott Aycock is co-host of Folk Salad, a local radio show that features many local artists. Scott is also a great songwriter whose CDs I have played on. Sundays find me playing with the host band at the Tulsa Sunday Blues Jam; the Kevin Phariss Blues Band is the old Flash Terry Band. Kevin was Flash’s band manager and second guitarist. Scott Santee was Flash’s sound man and he is now our lead guitar and main vocalist. He’s one of the best lead players in Tulsa, but he is known for his self-effacing humor, so few people realize exactly how good he is. He’s famous for ending each song with “I wrote that song.” Harry Williams was Flash’s drummer for many years and we are lucky to have him with us. Harry is in the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. I was inducted into the Hall just this year. Our present Bass player is Tiny Davis, a Tulsa music legend in his own right. The lineup is completed by Mike Winebrenner on Sax and Iona Gilliam on vocals. Iona is not only a wonderful singer, she is incredibly good-looking and charismatic. One other group I’m excited to be working with is “Li’l Tee.” Tee is Teresa Gross, a tiny little lady with an enormous voice and great charm. The band consists of Tee, me on piano and Bob Withrow on Guitar. I put Bob in my alltime top ten guitarists list. He plays with great skill and finesse. Bob and I played in the Mickey Crocker Band some years back when Warren Haynes sat in with us for one summer.
Culturespill: Among the many fascinating anecdotes available on your website, rockyfrisco.com, is the revelation that, during basic training with the U.S. Army in Fort Polk, Louisiana, your commanding officer would sneak you off base to play in local bars and, of course, earn him some free drinks. What are your fondest memories of those days?
Rocky: The Army Basic Training was very difficult. Fort Polk in the summertime was unbearably hot and recruits fainting from the heat was not unusual. The best part of the illicit bar visits was that some of them had A/C. I was small and thin and I’m still proud of completing the training.
Culturespill: You also express particular gratitude for having gotten to play with Flash Terry—both back in the day and at his Tulsa Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2003. Just how big a presence was Flash in Tulsa, and what made you so proud to play with him?
Rocky: Flash was responsible for integrating the Tulsa music scene. He invited me to come and sing some songs at his home club in the Greenwood section of town, the Famingo Lounge. We had a deal: I would come and be the white boy at the jam session on Tuesday nights and I would win second prize, eleven dollars. You know, if you adjust for inflation, that was a lot more than I make now, playing in Tulsa clubs, and the gasoline was 20 cents a gallon then. As time passed, other white Tulsa musicians began to come to the jam. I have no doubt that Flash’s influence was a big part of the development of the Tulsa Sound, so, in a way, Flash influenced Eric Clapton and Leon Russell and JJ Cale. Flash died in 2004, one year after being inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, and we all miss him. He was once quoted by the Tulsa World newspaper with the best compliment anybody ever gave me in print, when he said I was the most “colorblind” musician he ever met. That may have been partly based on the night one of the guys at the Flamingo asked me if he could dance with my date, a little beauty named “Foxy” Baker.” I said, “Don’t ask me; ask her.” After that, I was one of the family there. In 1957, Tulsa was a very segregated city.
Culturespill: Was rock ‘n roll able to do anything to alleviate that racial tension?
Rocky: Very definitely it helped a lot. Tulsa is the city where America’s worst
racially-based massacre happened back in 1921. Rock and Blues Music were
the strongest influences toward integration and cross-racial friendship
here in the 1950’s.
Culturespill: Another fascinating anecdote you reveal is that, upon touring with Clyde Stacy in Toronto in 1958, you crossed paths with such stars as The Everly Brothers, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Frankie Avalon, and Jimmy Rodgers. What stories or memories stick with you the most about your encounters with those legends?
Rocky: The ones I got to be friends with were Jimmie Rodgers, Frankie Avalon, the Everlies and George Hamilton IV, all really nice guys. I once got Chuck a bottle of whiskey when he played in Tulsa back when we still had Prohibition (repealed in 1958). He chugged the whole half-pint and then went out and duckwalked across the stage. I wouldn’t have been able to even stand up.
Culturespill: Would you mind recounting for us the “infamous bike-ride to Texas” and your “interview with Elvis” in 1958, when you were known as “Rocky Curtis”?
Rocky: Actually “Rocky Curtiss.” I took that last name from the Curtiss Wright Aircraft Company, where my father was once a test pilot. I was working for radio station KOME in 1958 (stood for Kovering Oklahoma’s Magic Empire) when the station manager and I concocted the publicity stunt. I pedalled a Schwinn bike from Tulsa to Killeen, Texas, to do the interview. It took me seven days of cloudless skies and Summer heat to get there. We didn’t know beans about sunscreen or skin cancer back then.I was burned really badly; some of the scars didn’t fade for years. Elvis was charming and friendly. He had hired a Photographer to come from Temple to shoot pictures of us together, one of the most thoughtful gestures I ever experienced. In the days before the interview, I spent some afternoons with Gladys, eating cookies and listening to stories about Elvis when he was a baby. She was a wonderful woman and a great mother. Gladys died about three months later and I have always thought that was when Elvis lost his life’s anchor. She didn’t care about the money or the fame; she just wanted her boy to be happy and stay right with God.
Rocky Frisco Performing His Song “Pursuit of Happiness”
Culturespill: You’ve mentioned in our correspondence leading up to this interview that J.J. Cale is a unique friend and the finest person you’ve ever worked with in the business. Would you mind elaborating?
Rocky: John is 100% genuine. He has always been, from the first time I met him. He was the coolest guy in Central High School, because he completely didn’t care about such things. He told me that fame just limits your choices. He said, “Elton John can’t go to the Burger King.” He once said that the bane of being famous is that drunk people want to tell you their life story. “I really love your song, Magnolia; it changed my whole life; it reminds me of the time my sister had the gout and her husband left her and . . .”
Culturespill: One of the lingering narratives surrounding Cale’s illustrative career is that some of his own best-known songs tend to be associated not with him, but with Eric Clapton, who turned Cale’s “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” into huge hits. Some people like to suggest that Cale, consequently, fails to get the credit he deserves and is overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. But judging from his recent work with Clapton on The Road to Escondido, Cale himself seems to enjoy a great relationship with Clapton and doesn’t much mind being, in a sense, the man behind the music. In your long experience with J.J., can you discuss how Cale responds to his comparative lack of commercial success over the years?
Rocky: Maybe a lack of personal fame, which is changing now that “Escondido” has paired him with Eric, but as far as money is concerned, he has done very well. I think he likes it that way. He drives rusty old pickups and wears jeans or fishing clothes, even at our most prominant gigs. I wear some pretty fancy threads on the gigs. One fan asked me on the 04 tour, “Aren’t you overdressed for a Cale Concert?” I told him, “This is what I wear when I mow the lawn.”
Culturespill: You played on J.J. Cale’s excellent 2004 album, To Tulsa and Back, which was his first since 1996’s Guitar Man. Songs like “Stone River,” “The Problem” and “Homeless” delivered quite a bit more political statement than I ever recall hearing on a J.J. Cale album. What encouraged J.J. to head back to the studio after the long lay-off, and what inspired the album’s more political material?
Rocky: John genuinely cares about people and the health of our planet. I was really impressed by his courage in making those statements in such a repressive, unamerican period of time, when our government has turned rogue and our “leaders” are mass-murdering war-criminals.
Culturespill: You yourself have demonstrated a rather active political conscience in your life, contributing to the 1977 nuclear protest album For Our Children: The Black Fox Blues, and even running for office in Tulsa. Can you elaborate on your life as a political activist—what inspired you to use your musical talents as a means of political message, what motivated you to run for office yourself, etc.?
Rocky: The deal with Black Fox was that it wasn’t just a nuclear power plant, but that the design was an experimental “thought exercise” the designers were appalled to see being actually built. Carrie Dickerson’s legal battle with the power company brought out the “Reed Report,” showing that the original designers had resigned their lucrative jobs to protest the plan to actually build it. Thanks to Carrie, we stopped the plant. My latest run for office convinced me it’s a waste. I doubt you can fix anything through politics when politics is the source of all of the problems. When Ron Paul was mostly ignored by the mainstream media, I gave up on politics. None of the other candidates, including the two present ones, even came close to Paul’s integrity. I strongly disagreed with many of his positions, but saw that he was the only one who could be trusted to honor his oath of office.
Rocky with Elvis Presley
Culturespill: We share an affinity for Ron Paul, and your statement that our government “has turned rogue” also resonates loudly with me. In your view, how does today’s political climate compare to, say, the days of Vietnam, JFK, LBJ or Nixon? Is one any worse than the other? How so?
Rocky: I think it’s all worse now, since the President doesn’t even pretend to
act within the law. John Adams said the USA is a nation of laws, rather
than men. That’s obviously no longer even partly true. The present day
America is a nation ruled by powerful outlaws who break the law with
impunity, but require absolute obedience from the citizens. We no longer
have a legal government, but rather the latest of a long line of outlaws
who have hijacked the Ship of State.
Culturespill: You seem to have become disillusioned with the political process, partly because of your experience running for office. At the time when you say you returned to rock ‘n roll and never looked back in 1969, there was a genuine belief that music was capable of changing the world–a spirit Neil Young carried on with his “Living With War” album a couple years ago. I think of anthems like “Ohio,” “Fortunate Son,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Is music capable of provoking change?
Rocky: I’m saying this with only the tip of my tongue in my cheek, but I think
the only thing that has the capability of changing this world, so
polluted by citizens who are shallow, lost and stupid, is The Return of
Christ and that this Christ will not be the storybook Jesus the churches
pretend to follow, but rather the Lord of the Storm, the God of the
Elephants and Whales and Zebras. Recall the bumper sticker that said,
“Jesus is coming soon, and boy is He pissed!”
Culturespill: Your own long-standing relationship with the music business has undergone quite a few evolutions over the years. Most notably, you “retired” from the business in disgust after losing thousands in royalties to a corrupt A & R man in the 1960s. Would you mind recounting that episode and why you dropped out of the scene for a while after that?
Rocky: I was working very hard to support myself, my wife and two kids when I found out that the Columbia Records guy in charge of my account had embezzled around $45,000 from the account. He had been giving the band members money every Christmas to keep quiet about it, but one of the guys had a strong conscience and sent me $500 one Christmas and told me what was going on. Before I could do anything about it the guy from Columbia died. I’m not sorry I quit playing in disgust, since I spent that time in basic electronic research and racing MGs and Mini Coopers, activities that enriched my life immeasurably.
Culturespill: Is the music business any more or less corrupt now than it was back then? How, in your view, has the industry changed over the years?
Rocky: It’s the same old corrupt money-grubbing sewer, with fancy new clothes.
Culturespill: You say that in 1969, you quit your regular job, grew your hair long “and started playing rock ‘n roll again and never looked back.” What brought you back to the music business at that time, and why did you, as you say, “never look back”?
Rocky: I was doing most of the actual work for an IBM machine leasing company in Tulsa, maintaining the equipment of my own account and also the account of an inept bumbler who couldn’t fix a bicycle bell, let alone an IBM machine. When the boss was kicked upstairs, they made the bumbler the new manager. When I raised hell with them, they explained that they couldn’t give me the management job. “Who would fix the machines?” I told them they still had that problem, since I was quitting. I never again worked for “The Man.”
Rocky as “Rocky Curtiss” in a Publicity Photo
Culturespill: Other artists from your generation—such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and even Leonard Cohen—are enjoying amazing popularity and success in the 21st century. What is it, do you think, that keeps people coming in droves to see these guys live after all these years and, at least in Dylan’s case, buy their new albums by the millions?
Rocky: Their music is written from the heart, not from the wallet. People will always consume musical Twinkies, but only the real stuff can satisfy a genuine hunger. When your lover leaves and hits the bed of somebody you know, Twinkies won’t save your life.
Culturespill: Now I’m going to put you on the spot, Rocky: Who is the greatest guitarist of your generation?
Rocky: In which genre? See what I mean? Would it be Chet Atkins or Billy Grammer? Eric or Knopfler or Jeff Beck? I recall Stirling Moss once saying that the greatest racing driver of all time probably never saw a racing car, was maybe born with the reflexes and ability, but lived his (or her) entire life in the outback somewhere. One of the finest guitarists I have ever worked with, Bob Withrow, is practically unknown outside the local music scene. Who can say what other great guitarists are virtually unknown? As far as influence over other great guitarists, I have to say Cale is unmatched.
Culturespill: You’ve also dabbled in film, Rocky, starring in the 2003 Disney remake of Where The Red Fern Grows, among other projects. Can you elaborate on your interest in movies? Are they as much fun for you as playing music?
Rocky: One aspect of acting in films is the people you meet. Dave Matthews was in “Fern” and he’s a very nice guy. My stint as a crowd extra in “UHF” allowed me to meet Weird Al, one of my heroes, and the great Billy Barty. My dream is to have a speaking part in a production with Billy Bob Thornton, the greatest actor/filmmaker alive. It’s a different kind of fun, since you don’t get to see the finished product until months later. The music is right now.
Culturespill: You mention an interest in working with Billly Bob Thornton and praise his work in film. I’m sure you also know about this involvement in music. I was struck by his love of Warren Zevon; Thornton played on the album Zevon recorded as he knew he was dying of cancer, sadly passing away just shortly after its release. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the work of Zevon, yet another unsung genius who never really got his due as a songwriter?
Rocky: I’m not really familiar with Warren’s songs, except for “Carmelita,”
which is a favorite of mine. I know the song from hearing Brad Absher
and Steve Pryor do it.
I think the lack of commercial success Warren suffered was because most
Artist and Repertoire Agents, with a few notable exceptions, are shallow
Culturespill: In yet another of your many lives, you were a racer—driving a Morris Mini in the preliminary races for the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix. Since you’ve also repaired Mini Coopers in your spare time, I’m curious: any thoughts about the new Mini Coopers that BMW put out on the market in the past few years?
Rocky: The BMW “Mini” is charming and small, but it’s not really a Mini. I have a 1967 Cooper S on my driveway that I rebuilt in 1998 with a 1990’s bodyshell, so it has rollup windows and the big rear window. The reshell means it’s not a concourse car or true collector’s item, but it has a factory racing engine built by Adrian Goodenough for the Sebring 24 hour race years ago. I met Adrian a few years ago when I was in England and he identified the parts used in the engine. The little beast will do an honest 132 mph on a cool day. The BMW car is 16 inches longer, a foot wider and higher and it weighs 1000 pounds more than a real Mini, so it’s not anywhere near as fast or maneuverable as the Austin-Morriss car. I still wouldn’t mind having one for highway travel.
Culturespill: Are there any newer or up-and-coming bands/artists that either you or J.J. enjoy? Anyone you’d like to recommend?
Rocky: Can’t speak for Cale, but the artists I like the best and think will be
very large in the future are Dustin Pittsley and Jesse Aycock in the
Blues-Rock genre, Rachel Stacey in country and England’s Lata Gouveia in
the folk and pop categories. Culturespill: Thanks so much for graciously allowing us some of your time, Rocky.
Rocky: Thanks for giving me a chance to; it was fun.
Bob Dylan’s recording career is replete with tragic omissions that might have turned mediocre albums into masterpieces–and sometimes at the least likely points of his career. In a fit of indulgent self-pity amid his now-infamous period of artistic oblivion in the 1980s, Dylan willfully refused to release some of the greatest songs he ever recorded–songs that might have established the 1980s as one of the most peculiarly fertile moments in his creative life. Many Dylan dorks (myself included) know that he kept from the public such sublimities as “Blind Willie McTell and “Foot of Pride,” recorded during the sessions for 1983’s Infidels with Mark Knopfler on guitar. He similarly refused to allow the great “Series of Dreams” to be included on 1989’s Oh Mercy–despite producer Daniel Lanois’s impassioned arguments to the contrary–taking the attitude that one more Bob Dylan song really doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things, a callous indifference that lends credence to one of two possibilities: 1.) artists really aren’t great judges of their own work, or 2.) Dylan struggled mightily to overcome the deliberate destruction of his reputation that he began after becoming disgusted with his fame in the late 1960s, a disgust that produced Self Portrait in 1969, probably the most famous “fuck you” album ever made (right up there with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Neil Young’s Everybody’s Rockin’).
It was a disgust that Dylan transformed into a concerted and enduring project of public self-destruction. In Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan describes going to such lengths as pouring bottles of liquor over his head and wandering around in public wreaking of alcohol to perpetuate the myth that he was little more than a hopeless and washed-up drunk, an artifact of a dead era to be swept under the unclean rug of American culture. In that fabulously written–if occasionally strange–memoir, we also watch Dylan wince on a car ride with Band guitarist R0obbie Robertson as Robbie asks Dylan where he will “take the whole scene,” never considering for a minute whether Dylan had any interest in being nominated Cultural Czar of the world–he clearly did not; and that, more than anything, is exactly the disdainful reluctance that contributed to so many mediocre albums Dylan produced in the wake of his creative renaissance in the 1960s. The music sucked because he wanted it to suck. He wanted to be left alone, and damaging his own reputation as persistently as he did with garbage like Down in the Groove offered him the most likely path to that desired infamy.
Throughout the book he recalls time and again a feeling that the world really did not need another Bob Dylan song, a conviction that made it rather difficult for him to turn what he called “pieces of songs” into the full-fledged comeback album they became in 1997: the brilliant Time out of Mind. Only when he saw fans thirty years his junior sing along to “Love Sick” and “Cold Irons Bound” did he realize that, yes, the world really did need more Bob Dylan songs. More to the point–the world craved them, helping Dylan rediscover an inspiration he’d left behind so long ago.
Some say that the Oh Mercy and Infidels omissions were ultimately of little consequence, because they were eventually released on the 3-disc Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 in 1991. That, of course, is totally beside the point: not only did the electric version of “Blind Willie” never see the light of day, but the withholding of these tracks kept two decent albums from ranking among his very finest at exactly the moment in his career when the world had damn-near left him for dead (and perhaps with good reason.) You only get one chance to make a masterpiece; many great bands fail to produce even one. But to hold one in your hands and send it down the trash-shoot is both inconceivable and tragic.
Bob Dylan: “Band of the Hand,” Band of the Hand (1986)
But the Infidels and Oh Mercy outtakes are merely the better-known instances of this sad pattern in Dylan’s creative life. Other work is scattered across bootlegs, obscure soundtracks and tribute albums–work which proves that, contrary to popular belief, Dylan was still operating on all cylinders in his creative dark ages from the late 1970s and through the 80s–he just didn’t want anyone to know that. Until Columbia Records decides to avail the world of these performances, a full understanding of why Dylan’s name is engraved in the American consciousness is impossible. Just listen to the work he recorded with the Traveling Wilburys–particularly “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”–and tell me he was washed up in the late 80s. To the contrary, the man remained in full possession of his faculties throughout that period, but he chose instead to take a torch to his reputation and stand by watching while it burned.
“Band of the Hand,” a track recorded for a forgotten movie of the same name from 1986, is a devastating tune produced by Tom Petty that Dylan recorded around his Knocked Out Loaded period–it is, predictably, a million times more powerful than anything that unfortunate album offers, and yet it only saw the light of day on the soundtrack to a film nobody remembers. His early-80s masterpiece, “Caribbean Wind” is, in its original form, quite simply one of the best songs the man ever put to tape. But he murdered it later on with Joan Baez and released that pathetic byproduct on Biograph after trying–and failing–to redo the song long after the fire that produced it had faded.
But perhaps no album more thoroughly illustrates this unfortunate mishandling of Dylan’s most inspired recordings than 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Dozens of tracks were recorded for the album, and while only a fraction made the cut and some of those songs went on to define his legacy (“Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “Blowin’ in the Wind”) a score of absolutely devastating acoustic blues numbers–tracks that foreshadow an early and growing affinity for rock ‘n roll–was tossed to a scrap heap of genius that would grow over the decades. We’re proud to offer a few glimpses of those gems here. Check out these unreleased cuts from the Freewheelin’ sessions, material that Dylan’s label bafflingly allows to languish in the vaults while releasing one inconsequential live set after another (like the 1964 Halloween concert which, compared to the Freewheelin’ outtakes, is an utter bore.) Sadly, the only way to get your hands on this stuff is if you’re lucky enough to live near an indie record shop somewhere in a large city (like NYC) that carries bootlegs (also remember that ebay is your friend.) Click on any of the titles below to hear for yourself . . .