“LITTLE RICHARD” WAYNE PENNIMAN – 1932 – 2020

Aquarian Weekly
5/20/20
 
Reality Check
 
James Campion
 
 
“LITTLE RICHARD” WAYNE PENNIMAN – 1932 – 2020
 
I could do Little Richard’s voice, which is a wild, hoarse, screaming thing, it’s like an out-of-body experience. You have to leave your current sensibilities and go about a foot above your head to sing it.
– Paul McCartney
 
Surrounded by gospel music and the saccharine crooning of Bing Crosby and early radio-flavored Ella Fitzgerald, young Richard Penniman once remarked that he was looking for the an “edgier” sound of music and a “louder” singer to awake something in him. And then, he decided, that missing ingredient was him. And with this grand awakening, Little Richard was hatched from nothing, like the light that comes at the behest of God in Genesis. Because at his core, in his central being, Penniman was a man of God (his uncles were preachers) who also could not help frantically searching for edgier and louder (his dad was a bootlegger), and in there somewhere is America – the grand dichotomy of feral desire and better angels. At these crossroads lie the origins of rock and roll, also an American original. Only here could a hodge-podge of black blues, Irish jigs, redneck picking, and dance hall hype coagulate into a pristine soundtrack of rebellion.

Black. Gay. Primitive. Showbiz. Inventive. Influential. Penitent.

Little Richard was all of these.

In the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, my first introduction to the timeline of a music that had dazzled me since sentience, and a book I begged my parents to get me for Christmas, and they did, which may or may not have been a mistake, Little Richard comes after Elvis Presley and Fats Domino but before Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and everything else. When Berry died I remarked in these pages how he invented rock and roll. This is because at its nucleus the art form is rooted in guitar. Even though Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s pianist, built the foundation of Berry’s work, the piano would not define the genre. Yet, before all of that, Fats Domino, a master pianist and composer, was a New Orleans fixture, an original from the town that heeded the swampy crude rhythms that bounced off the bayou and back into the grimy streets of the French Quarter, pulling the jazz licks from its European parameters and slathering its slave hymns into a pure, primal groove. Fats Domino, then, was the smoldering fire. Little Richard came along and poured gasoline on that fire and from its lapping blue-orange tongue let out that primeval bellow from the nether regions of the soul.

“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”

It is the most famous of all early rock and roll lyrics. It means nothing and it means everything. It comes out of the speakers, a-cappella, raw and mean, as if the voice of the past and the future. A call of the wild that wipes clean anything before it. It heralds a career and a style, and it made Little Richard famous. “Tutti Frutti” was the song. The year was 1955. It was a paean to anal sex. Its original lyrics were “Tutti Frutti / Good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy”. It was, it turns out, the most subversive art in the history of popular music, making it to #2 on the charts and entering the lexicon of lily white mid-American as if a virus. Makes the Sex Pistols, Marylyn Manson and every hip hop record blush. It invented the part of rock and roll that counts. It was dirty and loud and ugly and sexy and puerile and fun and infectious and… dangerous.

Black. Gay. Primitive. Showbiz. Inventive. Influential. Penitent. Little Richard was all of these.

Beyond that, Little Richard sang with a smirk that challenged every notion of what music could do and in turn being as soulful and raucous as any young African American man could be on the Chitlin’ Circuit where the music was not meant to integrate but ingratiate. Unlike Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, Little Richard’s sound was black as night, as black as blues, as black as America, inventing things for the white kids who wanted to get out of the suburban dream and into the stark realities of the underworld. Little Richard did not pander, he commanded.

His first album, released by Specialty Records, Here’s Little Richard reads like a template, “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip It Up”, “Ready Teddy”, ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Jenny Jenny”. Then there would be “Good Golly Miss Molly”, who sure liked to “ball”, another pretty blatant euphemism for unbridled sex, and “Keep a Knockin’”, which may be the first punk rock song; “Keep a knockin’ but you can’t come in!” shouted over and over like a head-banging Ramones mantra.

Later, Little Richard’s shouts from the culture would bring us Sam Cooke, discovered and produced by Robert “Bumps Blackwell”, who worked on “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” and everything else Penniman recorded for Specialty Records. Cooke then toured with Little Richard, as did Jimi Hendrix, who would be his guitarist and protégé in histrionics and showmanship. The shy Hendrix, like Sam Cooke before him, credits the cool brashness of his mentor with unleashing his true talents, which included obliterating the landscape of electric guitar forevermore. As would the influence of Little Richard on James Brown, Otis Redding, Sly Stone and Prince Rogers Nelson tear pieces from what had come before. The Beatles worked with Little Richard in Hamburg, Germany before anyone knew who they were, as the Rolling Stones first toured with Little Richard as snot-nosed blues worshipers. There is nothing in the first two to three decades of rock and roll that doesn’t have Penniman’s stamp on it.  

In 1957, at the height of his powers, Little Richard famously quit rock and roll to become a preacher, after some spiritual revelation about hellfire on a near-death airplane experience. So, in essence, those two years, wherein he invented the howls later copped by everyone from Paul McCartney (whose first performance in front of anyone was a version of “Long Tall Sally” at fourteen) to every heavy metal screecher ever committed to the craft, was his legacy. When he returned he hid nothing; his sexuality, his annoyance that he was passed over as an originator, his unchecked flamboyance and a penchant for general upheaval. He became the living embodiment of his initial splash on the scene and everyone fed off the genuine article.

It should also be noted that Little Richard appeared in three seminal rock and roll films, not the least of which titillated a young Robert Zimmerman, who at first only wanted to be Little Richard before he wanted to be Woody Guthrie and invented Bob Dylan, and all-but triggered the British invasion. The Girl Can’t Help It, of which Penniman sings the title, along with performing out of his mind on others. The film starred a blonde bombshell named Jayne Mansfield, whose mere presence awoke the animal instincts of every breathing male in attendance and connected this ass-shaking, mind-quaking music to the purpose as well as any youth-film did during the time when that was not yet a thing but soon would be. It would be joined by Blackboard JungleHard Day’s NightSaturday Night FeverPurple Rain and 8 Mile in the roll call of culture-shifting rock cinema.

The most difficult aspect of writing about Little Richard is that one cannot begin to overstate his import and influence on what we understand about modern popular music. His voice was a clarion. His look was an outrage. His songs were a revelation. His kind did not have a mold to break. It came new. That is what you hear and see with Little Richard. In 1955. In 2020. He is always new. He is forever our red-white-and-blue shock to the senses, the thumping of our hearts. His paradox is America’s conundrum. Our most lethal attribute: We want to be good, but man, we can’t help, shit, we love being bad.

And it sounds like…

“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”
       

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ADAM SCHLESINGER – 1967-2020

Aquarian Weekly
4/8/20
 
Reality Check
 
James Campion
 
 
ADAM SCHLESINGER – 1967-2020
 
 
When you go out of the blackness
Into the great big sky
Supercollider
Shooting inside your mind

 
 
Adam Schlesinger has died from complications stemming from Covid-19. He was fifty-two. As of this writing there have been 51,809 cases in New York City, including 1,562 deaths. This number rises by the hour. He is just one of those and the 5,316 people who have perished in the past three months from this pandemic. But this one hits close to home, because Adam was a friend. Long before that I admired him for his music, his humor, his insights into the human spirit. He was unique talent, a throwback Brill Building songwriter’s songwriter, who could capture the spirit of a moment, an era, and even the workaday, hum-drum of life in and around his home state of New Jersey. He was a Montclair kid by way of Manhattan who made good, whose band, Fountains of Wayne, one of the finest pop/rock outfits of the new century, was named for a now long-gone relic of a bygone age for New Jersey.


Where do you start to encapsulate an artist who was everywhere and nowhere? Outside of the industry the name Adam Schlesinger is not as well-known as his canon would suggest. He won three Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, and an ASCAP Pop Music Award, and was nominated for Academy, Tony, and Golden Globe Awards. He penned dozens of themes and songs for television series, movies and worked on Broadway musicals. He wrote and performed with Fountains of Wayne on a Top 25 hit and co-wrote one of the most famous movie songs ever. Of course, that’s what Wikipedia will tell you. What it won’t tell you is what one of my favorite music essayists Tom Breihan wrote about him for Stereogum this week; “Maybe Schlesinger wasn’t doing the mystical personal work that we expect songwriters to do when he was writing all of those things. But the man was working. He was cranking out material at a high level every single day. Those of us paid to do the same at our own professions — those of us who, let’s say, are paid to blog relentlessly five days a week — should regard Adam Schlesinger as a hero, and as a monumental loss.”

Adam Schlesinger loved song. He loved songwriters. He loved talking about songwriting and songwriters. The last time I saw him we talked about Warren Zevon for an hour. It was just before my book on Zevon was released in June of 2018. Adam understood Warren like few did. I told him that night I should have gotten his take for the book it was so spot-on. I was considering picking his brain for an upcoming project I am starting. He understood how hard Zevon worked at his craft and how unique he was as a composer, both musically and lyrically, and how his take on the “everyman” that he and his partner in the by then defunct Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood was derived from artists like Warren, another celebrated industry figure, who had his hand in the scope of songwriting, from jingles to films to pop hits and personal expressions of longing and introspection.

“You can take a lyric that seems really silly and tossed-off but put it against a melancholy ballad, then suddenly it becomes so much more dark or poignant.”

I have spent over two decades interviewing artists for this historical rock weekly, but I always fondly recall my chat with Adam in the spring of 2007. It was just before the release of Fountains of Wayne’s fourth record, Traffic and Weather, another in a series of incredibly infectious and brilliantly crafted pop/rock albums brimming with melody, adorned with supple harmonies and played with innate precision. The band’s pristine effort was 2002’s Welcome Interstate Managers, quite simply a pop/rock masterwork. Every track is a gem, including the band’s biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom”, a cheeky tale of a suburban teenaged crush on the neighborhood cougar.

Adam couched his method of taking the everyday secretary, salesman, drunken frat boy, abused girlfriend and heartbroken schlep and making them epic tragicomedy figures for song. He told me, “I’ll focus on a phrase that you take for granted or that you don’t really think too much about and see if I can do something literal with it or stretch it out or do something unexpected with it.” Although he accused himself of being sloppy when it came to his immediate memory for such small incidents in the lives of the people around him, he filled in those spaces with mystical charm that lifted something as mundane as being stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge into an existential treatise.

Tom Hanks saw this in Adam Schlesinger in 1996, when he tapped his and fellow elastic musical storyteller, Mike Viola’s “That Thing You Do” as the song that reflected the title of his film ode to 1960s one-hit wonders. Barely in the business, the first eponymously-titled Fountains of Wayne album had just been released, Adam used his preternatural ability to tap into a moment, a genre, and an era to perfectly capture the crudity of teenagers from Erie, Pennsylvania, who distilled their rock and roll dreams in a two-and-a-half minute ditty. The song, much to Adam’s chagrin, but to Hanks’s delight, is played on a repeated loop in the movie – much like a pop hit might be in the mid-sixties; “The first time I saw the movie I almost wanted to apologize to everyone in the theater,” he recalled to me.

Tom Hanks, who had also contracted the virus a month earlier with his wife, Rita Wilson, tweeted this upon hearing of Adam’s passing: “There would be no Playtone without Adam Schlesinger, without his ‘That Thing You Do’!  He was a One-der. Terribly sad today.”

Adam used that playwright mentality as musical director for the groundbreaking television series, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, a tuneful dramedy conceived and starring the multi-talented Rachel Bloom that ran from 2015 until last year. A quasi-post-modern musical that dealt with a staggering array of emotional and cultural issues, Adam, along with his team and Bloom, paid homage to every possible musical style and period. Composing for a myriad of character voices, in several and varied settings, moods and genres at that rate with such pinpoint alacrity is stunning. This genius is reflected in what he told me more than once, so much so, that I had to write it down: “You can take a lyric that seems really silly and tossed-off but put it against a melancholy ballad, then suddenly it becomes so much more dark or poignant. Or you could go the other way and just put it against something that’s fast and bouncy and it changes the meaning of it.”

Rachel Bloom tweeted the day he died: “I have so much to say about Adam Schlesinger that I am at a complete loss for words. He is irreplaceable.”

There was never a time that Adam Schlesinger came across as a big shot, but he was, a seminal American songwriting staple, but he was, or a major contributor to the universal songbook of our lives, but he sure as hell was. He was humble, intelligent, with a sense of humor you could carry with you after just ten minutes of his time. He inspired me. I was fortunate to know him, call him friend, but most of all enjoyed and cherished his art, which was immense and filled with a joy for life.

Rachel is right. His kind doesn’t come around often and to lose it has left me staggered. Like all the people he shoehorned so deftly into song after song after song, he is irreplaceable.

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DANIEL JOHNSTON – 1961 – 2019

Aquarian Weekly
9/18/19

Reality Check

James Campion


DANIEL JOHNSTON – 1961 – 2019

Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others aren’t so bold

That is the first verse of a song called “The Story of an Artist”, which would be the eighth track on the second self-made, independently released cassette by the then 21 year-old cartoonist/painter/singer-songwriter/producer/amateur film-maker/underground entrepreneur, Daniel Dale Johnston. It’s a paean to the struggling artist nearly crumbling under the strains of time while his friends, family and potential audience ignores or berates him. His voice, accompanied by an upright piano in desperate need of tuning, is a tender, upper register tweak held together with invisible strings and duct tape. Its phrasing and timbre make the sound of the broken but unbowed, irresistibly childlike and yet old before its time. He stabs at the words, as if harrowingly building a jagged conduit to his soul. The second verse goes like this…

And everyone in friends and family
Sayin’ “Hey go get a job
Why do you only do that only?
Why are you so odd?”

Daniel Johnston was odd. This had less to do with what would later be a duel diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. No, Daniel was odd because he was indeed an artist, with a story to show and tell. This made his movements, both physical and metaphysical, seem like a man in slow motion. While all else whisked around him in a scurry to become things and own things and conquer stuff, there was never a moment in his life where he was not an artist, even when he was passing out his tapes as arguably the most famous McDonald’s employee in the nation. This was in 1984, after a period of working in a traveling carnival, when he settled in Austin and began making these lo-fi, DYI, down and dirty and hilariously pin-point perfect cassettes of weird, wonderful music complete with original artwork on its inserts, including tiny drawings in and around the song titles. And, according to those who knew him at the time, he almost never used a copy machine. He would simply draw new covers for every single tape. Because, well, he was no “busser” or vagrant or random slob living on his sister’s couch. He was an artist.

“And we don’t really like what you do
We don’t think anyone ever will
We think you have a problem
And this problem’s made you ill”

He wrote tons of songs and recorded those songs on piano, guitar and chord organ with a $59 Sanyo monaural boombox he’d had since he was a teenager. He also made incredible surrealist drawings with vivid characters filled with pathos and dread and biting humor and furious audacity. The bravery in this work, like the ultra-creative films he made as a kid, is clear to anyone who ever attempted to put themselves “out there” creatively, who put things down to have them come back hard, to bare the ugly, the beseeching, insecure, frightened, unrequited edge of the edge. This is where the artist and the man/boy existed in Daniel Johnston. Beyond all the dangerous thoughts and burps and demons inside his head, this was his center. 

But the artist walks alone
And someone says behind his back
“He’s got some gall to call himself that
He doesn’t even know where he’s at.”

I first heard one of these Daniel Johnston tapes in 1988. A good friend of mine, Eddie, who had recently changed his name to Sean, a fellow songwriter and lunatic, had gotten it from another of our kind. These things were making their way up through Austin into the waiting hands of the NYC suburb starving artist cabal and shaking us up. Yip Jump Music and Hi, How Are You were the ones that initially stunned us. The latter had the iconic alien-looking Frog with the eyeball tentacles that served Daniel’s vision of good against evil. “Jeremiah the Innocent” was a godhead Buddha-like figure of moral certitude staring its way into your psyche. He would paint a mural of it on the exterior wall of what was originally the Sound Exchange record store in downtown Austin. It has remained a symbol of the strange, counter-culture revivalist nature of the town for decades. Daniel’s Jeremiah, his spirit of song, story and visions, is its patron saint.

The artist walks among the flowers
Appreciating the sun
He’s out there all his waking hours
Oh and who’s to say he’s wrong

He was no “busser” or vagrant or random slob living on his sister’s couch. He was an artist.

Hi, How Are You is a fucking masterpiece. It will always be near and dear to my heart – Daniel autographed a limited-edition album cover for me that hangs proudly in my writing nook. Although Yip Jump Music came first, early in ’83, and it has two of his best songs,“Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances”, both featured Johnston’s first use of his signature sound clips (children’s toys), crudely eerie but socially intriguing overdubbing (between two boom boxes), and a madcap white-boy unhinged sort of rapping that added to the sonic collage. But the whole Daniel Johnston presentation was fully formed two years earlier with his initial tape compilations, Songs of Pain, (1981), which includes probably my favorite of his early work, “Like a Monkey in a Zoo”, hurriedly followed by Don’t Be Scared, where “The Story of an Artist” resides, and The What of Whom (1982) More Songs of Pain (1983), even though you will find gems in everything Daniel recorded, like the achingly melancholic “True Love Will Find You in the End” from Retired Boxer(1984) and a song I have played countless times on guitar in abject glee, the infectious, “I Know What I Want” from Respect (1985).

These were the years where it appeared to those of us entranced by it, that Daniel was rushing to get these musical vignettes out of his skull and onto the whirling tape in front of him as fast as possible, before…

And they sit in front of their tv
Sayin’ “Hey isn’t this a lot of fun?”
And they laugh at the artist
Saying “He don’t know how to have fun.”

All the while, Daniel was descending into madness. He had several nervous breakdowns, long periods of incoherence and days of wandering lost through town, various erratic episodes due to prescription drug reactions, one harrowing one in which he took the keys from a plane his father, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, was manning and tossed them out the window. William Johnston’s training saved them as he managed to land it safely. He went to New York to record an album. Disappeared for days. These and similar incidents landed Daniel for extended stints in mental institutions, which is where he was in 1992 when Kurt Cobain wore a Hi How Are You shirt to the MTV Music Awards. Almost immediately Daniel began receiving calls from entertainment agents from all over the country. The MTV connection is odd since in the previous decade Johnston, curious about the cameras and hubbub, wandered into a production of the network’s The Cutting Edge featuring performers from Austin’s “New Sincerity” music scene in order to better hawk his tapes. The producers were so enamored with this off-kilter bohemian fast-food jockey, they gave him a spot on the bill of a show they were taping.

The odd detente of Hollywood agents and a committed mental patient was predictably terrible. Daniel had deep bouts of paranoia, much of it covered with incredible sensitivity in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. He wrongly jettisoned his biggest fan and benefactor, then manager Jeff Tartakov, who by then had mass produced the Johnston catalog and kept Daniel financially afloat and in the public eye. By then Daniel was trading his art for comic books and ignoring his music almost entirely. But he finally signed with Atlantic Records in 1994 and his debut album, Fun was produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, a huge fan. It predictably bombed. Critics were more or less confused and fans of his DYI days hated it. I love it. It has “Life in Vain”, one of my faves.

The best things in life are truly free
Singing birds and laughing bees
“You’ve got me wrong”, says he
“The sun don’t shine in your TV”

Mental illness and later obesity plagued Daniel for the rest of his life. He would have periods of stable behavior and tour, or at least make some shows here and abroad, but then would begin to detach and spiral. I had at least two potential times I could have seen him, but he cancelled, and we understood. My friend, songwriter, Dan Bern played with him in Europe and made him a character in his first novel, which I helped him edit and publish, titled, Quitting Science, while another new friend, the honey-voiced Maria Taylor of Azure Ray played piano with him a few years ago. But he mostly lived with his parents out in a garage/studio they set up for him. And, of course, he kept recording and releasing music and painting and drawing. When they passed away he began to deteriorate more and more. Again, there were moments of lucidity, an understanding of his worth and canon, occasional art shows (London’s Aquarium Gallery, New York’s Clementine Gallery, Sacramento’s Verge Gallery) and tribute recordings by such musical luminaries as Beck, Tom Waits, and bands like Teenage Fanclub, Death Cab for Cutie and the Flaming Lips.

Daniel Johnston was that artist that if you knew someone who knew and loved his stuff you were connected immediately. Daniel fans, people who were turned by his songs – those melodic gems hidden inside roughly ham-fisted playing and tape hiss and room echo, sung with such unerring emotion – were also inspired by their making and their dissemination. We shared those tapes. We played his songs and marveled at those characters that poured out of his pen or paint brush because there was something in Daniel Johnston that speaks to and for the goofy outcast making something for the sake of making it and to better reflect you into the world. And against all odds, mental illness and poverty, he forged ahead.

Until now.

Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growin’ old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others like to watch the world

And that is sad for those of us who see Dan still, sitting hunched over that piano and hitting record and belting out all of it.

He died this week.

He was 58.

And he was an artist.

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Rob Thomas: Out of the Pocket

Aquarian Weekly

Feature

5/22/19

James Campion

Hair-tussled and all comfy in faded jeans and a loose-fitting gray waffle shirt, Rob Thomas sits with his dog Sammy perched on his lap and intently bobs his head as a playback of the first single off his upcoming album, Chip Tooth Smile, “One Less Day (Dying Young)” fills his downstairs home studio. The vocal, a recognizable baritone accented in his always reliable surge of emotion, comes at you crisp, clear, relentless: “I’m not afraid of getting older/I’m one less day from dying young.” When the pulsing momentum of the track resolves in a heavy Celtic-styled accent, the 46-year-old singer-songwriter sits for a moment and exhales, “You know, they say you only live once… well, you die once, but you live every day.” Then, without hesitation, he concludes, “I wanted to write something that expressed that I like being older, which means I get another day.”

On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of his first amazingly successful solo project—working with Carlos Santana to write and perform what Billboard magazine recently calculated is the second-highest charting song ever, “Smooth”—and twenty-three years removed from the smash hit debut of Matchbox Twenty’s Yourself or Someone Like You, “One Less Day (Dying Young)” frames a life in and out of the spotlight. He sings with a measure of enviable unrepentance, “All my life I have been wandering/Burning up my candle like my time just won’t end/And I’ll keep burning ‘til there’s nothing left.”

Looking off in the distance, he smiles for a moment and then looks my way. He honestly wants to know what I think.

Thomas had contacted me in early November of 2018 to invite me up to his Bedford, New York home and down into his musical lair, complete with old stage guitars perched on stands or hanging majestically beside inspiring paintings, photographs of his favorite authors, and military-era ones of his dad, so he could play me these tracks. Back then he was deep into working out the songs and very excited about the prospect of the record. I had spent some time with him on tour with Matchbox Twenty two summers before when he was conjuring up the ideas for new music, and I felt when he called this was his way of completing the journey. In a way, I would be his finish line. It wasn’t until a few months of back-and-forth between us and more recording and mixing that I met him at his doorstep in early February, immediately noticing a bounce to his gate and a broad grin creasing his face. He knew what he had was good and he could not wait to share it.

As much as Chip Tooth Smile is Thomas coming to grips with his present and what he’s accomplished—a meteoric rise to fame during an incredibly creative past quarter-century; composing and performing four #1 singles with Matchbox Twenty and one as a solo artist—much of the record unerringly reveals from where the man who has sold 80 million records and played for millions more across the world has come. More pointedly, the album is a self-portrait and a celebration, if not a deep introspection of a journey to discovery. In the funky blues croon of “I Love It,” he defiantly sings for all he’s worth; “Won’t be getting played out/Never gonna fade out/I’ll just keep on nailing you with fire ‘til you flame out.” In other words, for Thomas, a voracious reader and adoring disciple of literature, it is very much a “rage against the dying of the light” statement while simultaneously coming to grips with its glare. And it is a glare he has known long before he became one of the most recognizable voices in rock history.

“When I was young, maybe fifteen or so, I thought. ‘I’m going to do this forever and I’m going to be really big’,” Thomas says, recalling his origins. “In my first bands, playing covers and shitty originals over tons of gigs that we traveled to in vans and trailers, I had enough suspension of disbelief to the actual possibility of this—I could visualize where I would go, and what I would be.”

Reflective of all this is the album’s title, which refers to a busted front tooth his wife of nearly twenty years, Marisol Maldonado, refused to let him fix for years because, for her, it was indicative of his personality. The dead-end kid with holes in his pockets and stars in his eyes. And it is that very personality—the core of the man and the artist—where Chip Tooth Smile is realized. It is in songs like “We Were Beautiful,” the seventh track on the album and the titular first song on the second side (for all you vinyl freaks, of which Thomas counts himself). It is a simple but chilling underscore to the memories of youth crystalized in a photo, produced by hit-maven, Benny Blanco. Before he plays it, Thomas explains, “We were so beautiful when we were young, and not just aesthetically… we had all this promise.”

Chip Tooth Smile is Thomas’s fourth solo effort, and perhaps it is his most, well, solo. Using only his exceptional alacrity for musical structure, melody, and innate pop sensibilities, with adroit assistance from musical co-conspirator, Butch Walker, the album is at the very least his most singular testimonial, both musically and lyrically. “I had full demos—drums, bass, and guitar—for some of these songs, but Butch didn’t want that to get in the way of how he sees a song,” explains Thomas. “I sent him just me with the guitar playing, then Butch would arrange and play everything, except for a few drum tracks. I was thinking of using the talented people from my earlier solo records like Mike Campbell, Wendy Melvoin, and Abe Laboriel Jr., but it came down to Butch and me deciding, ‘Okay, here’s the song. Where do you want to go?’”

The moment the music begins to pour from the speakers above a computer nestled behind a recording console, I’m led to where the duo would venture and end up; back to the decade of the songwriter’s youth—its sounds, its effects, its instruments, its aura. “An eighties theme runs throughout this record,” Thomas chuckles, knowingly. “It’s in the DNA of the recording.”

Listening to the unabashed tribute to his heroes, from R.E.M. to INXS to George Michael, and echoing the MTV-infused modernity of Human League and the Eurythmics, Thomas and Walker create a time-warp soundscape on the expertly realized “I Love It,” which more than harkens to mid-eighties Robert Palmer or the vocal and drum effects culled from Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” One could say it shamelessly slathers it on, but with an impish nod and a wink. Both men made concerted efforts to use authentic and, in many ways, completely antiquated instruments and sounds. On the achingly honest portrayal of coming to grips with racism, “Early in the Morning,” and the Tom Petty colored “Tomorrow Will Only Break Your Heart,” there is no question there is a thematic aural thread here.

Yet none of it devolves into mere homage. Thomas utilizes these muses as subtext to deeper themes. Although the veil is completely lifted on the engagingly fun “Timeless” which Thomas says is “a song about eighties songs, about listening to eighties music, sounding like an eighties song, but also made up entirely of eighties songs titles.” It is the meta equivalent of Ouroboros (the snake that eats itself) and as much fun for the listener to pick out each song reference as it apparently was for the composer and his bride. “I sat down here in the studio and my wife was texting me and feeding me our favorite eighties albums and songs,” he says, excitedly. “I had a list of like forty or fifty of them and I was just picking out the lines and titles that worked.”

The dozen tracks Thomas chose for the release from the nearly-thirty considered (he showed me his secret file called “The Stockyard” where the fallen tunes would remain) were whittled down from a mind-bending sixty. Most of them were composed over the past three years while he was touring solo and with Matchbox Twenty—locations as vast as hotel rooms, backstage corners, and somewhere on a bus rolling across America. All the while, Thomas, who’s prolific musical output has captured Songwriter of the Year awards from both Billboard magazine and BMI, was exploring a time long before he was writing songs with Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger, performing for sold-out arenas, singing at the White House, appearing on magazine covers, and collecting Grammys. These are rummaged snapshots from the energy, promise, and insecurities of his youth.

“You know, they say you only live once… well, you die once, but you live every day.”

“We were a radio family,” Thomas remembers. “The radio was always on, so eighties and late seventies radio that my mom and I listened to would become my foundation.” I casually cite his acute sense of the pop idiom for his most celebrated work and he doesn’t hesitate to let me know that it is very much a combination of natural evolution mixed with calculation. “I see myself as a radio kid who has always written radio music. I used to get busted on for that, but what I write is just music for the masses, because—come on, man—I am the masses.”

For those who have followed his career, Chip Tooth Smile is very much awash in Rob Thomas leitmotifs; songs of becoming a father (“Man to Hold the Water”), painful breakups (“It’s Only Love”), and a uniquely charming number entitled “Funny” that takes a steely look inside his deep and lasting love for Marisol in which he describes within as “Every trip and stumble and fall that has gotten me to this point/Making me stronger for the moment we’re experiencing right now… and life is funny that way.” Thomas strips bare how the past few years of Marisol’s very public health issues has affected him in the heart wrenching “Can’t Help Me Now,” something he’s shared from her perspective in previous songs but never from his own. “She’s the one I would turn to when things got tough,” he tells me in a quiet moment after its last note fades. “But when I’m the one caring for her during her difficult health issues, whom can I turn to then?” One can envision the Songwriting Hall of Fame honoree contemplating the weight of this soulful rendering as he was hunched over the piano, leaning in to read the lyrics of the chorus in which he sings, “You’re the one that talks me down/Even you can’t help me now.

But she did indeed help put a ribbon on Chip Tooth Smile. The album’s final salvo, “Breathe Out” almost didn’t make the record until Marisol intervened. Thomas was not sure the song fit with the whole “middle-aged artist rediscovers his past in sound and fury.” But it sure does. The final stanza, a mantra for Thomas’s journey as a young man, coping with his mother’s cancer and alcoholism, his sleeping in cars, and fighting to keep his dreams and music alive underscores the entire project as catharsis; “When the world is making promises that it can’t keep/You alone your only friend/Breathe out/Breathe in/Breathe out again”—the principal aspect of breathing out first, thus sighing, letting the burdens of the inner-conflict escape before finally breathing in again to allow life to renew hope is starkly brilliant, if not a subconscious piece of advice to take on each and every day. But mostly, it is a damn fine song and would be missed if it remained in The Stockyard.

“I don’t want to die with my best songs in my pocket,” Thomas tells me, agreeing that this gem making the cut was the right call (nice job, Marisol). “If I get a chance to put songs out there for people to hear them, then I’ll take it.”

Later at dinner, still waiting for my thoughts on the record, a man about to dive headlong into months of promotion, TV appearances, and a summer tour casually sips wine, unwinding before the deluge. Part of the day was spent discussing the edits to a video for “One Less Day (Dying Young)” in which he was directly involved. We bat around much of what I’ve written above, and I was quite frankly pleased to tell him I think Chip Tooth Smile is an ambitious triumph in sonic tribalism and personal confession; what all good solo albums from solid songwriters should be. But what I mostly take away from the music is how much it means to Rob Thomas, for whom persona and fame sometimes precedes it. It was back in the nineteen-eighties when a kid with big dreams believed only in the music and hoped for all the rest. And it is the music, it appears from this project, that endures. “I hear songs that haven’t been written yet,” he tells me before we part. “So much of my writing has always been just sitting down or driving down the road and humming a melody to myself and then trying to figure out what it is, and realizing it’s nothing, so it must be me!”

And so, Rob Thomas, on the eve of his fourth solo album, filled with stories and grooves aplenty, proving his youthful musical muse is still very much inside him, has made his case. He only had to wait for everyone else to hear it. These infectious and insightful songs are now finally out of his pocket.

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STEPHEN KELLOGG & HIS OBJECTS OF HOPE

Aquarian Weekly

Feature

4/17/19

James Campion

STEPHEN KELLOGG & HIS OBJECTS OF HOPE
Singer-songwriter Takes His Most Personal Musical Statement on the Road

He sings in its title track; Surrounded by family, 12 O’clock on New Year’s Eve / Throwing paper on the fire / Nothing else that we require / Cause a heart with no regrets / Is as good as it can get.

Stephen Kellogg stands with his arms outstretched on stage beneath the din of thunderous applause. Dressed in a black velvet jacket with his initials tapered in white on his right breast and a grey hat that keeps a tuft of curls from erupting across his forehead, he appears as if he wants to embrace everyone in the room. Beside him, sporting his own ragged fedora in a dark short-sleeved shirt and grey jeans, is his musical partner, co-songwriter, sounding board and main instigator, Eric Donnelly. Sitting with a bemused smirk on his face, Donnelly grips his electric guitar and waits for the man to give him a cue. Eyeing him, Kellogg flips his guitar strap over his shoulder and counts off. These compatriots in song and travel have been on the road now for three weeks touring an album that took them a month to record some nine-hundred miles south of here in Music City – Nashville, Tennessee. Kellogg ended up calling it Objects in the Mirror, because, like the memories he frames in each of its songs, they can sometimes be “closer than they appear”. It is indeed an album filled with snapshots in time, both past and present, and make up what might well be Kellogg’s finest work. It is at least his most autobiographical and eerily relatable.

“I’m gonna play some songs from the new album and then we’ll take requests,” Kellogg sheepishly tells the audience. “First part’s for me…the second one’s for you.”

That sentiment could describe the tour thus far, two-parts struggle, one part joyous. To review; Kellogg has had to rush back home to tend to his family (wife and four girls) who were in a bit of a car bang-up (everyone’s fine), he’s severely sprained his left thumb (the one that grips the guitar neck) and battled a pretty nasty throat bug. He’s also played to packed houses of adoring fans and used the opportunity of this roving duet to bring these close-to-the-bone sonnets to love and loss and age and death and family and money and social and political concerns to the public completely unfiltered.

It is beyond the music, though. There is a connection Kellogg makes with audiences that is unique; the shared experience of his personal story, the way he finds the universal thread of humanity that gets under the skin with a voice that is a mixture of sultry country-tinged pinpoint melodic crooning and genuine rock and folk aw-shucks. He sings without the haughty weight of symbolism in the album’s first single, “High Highs, Low Lows”; Only one way the river flows / Was it comedy or tragedy / Both I would suppose / High highs and low lows. And when he is done everyone in the room is with him.

“The tour we’re doing, just me and Eric sharing it all night after night, which is the first of two ways we’re bringing this album to audience, just feels so correct,” Kellogg told me a few weeks back when he began this journey. “These songs and these venues are the perfect introduction, but then we’ll go out and play the album the way we recorded it… with a full band.”

Donnelly, who plays in both incarnations, co-wrote six of the songs on Objects in the Mirror, acting as co-producer along the way. He was also the impetus for the entire project as he prompted his friend to Come on and make an album already!

“It’s really special having Eric with me on the road and being able to share what I see going on out in the audience when we play these songs,” Kellogg said an hour or so before showtime. “Beyond being a great musician to play with a lot of his heart is in this record too, and it’s been pretty nice to soak it up together.”

The room is pin quiet when the new songs come (well, mostly, on this night Kellogg has to uncharacteristically berate some loud chatter over by the bar, which garners righteous applause). You get the feeling when listening to them one after the other that the songwriter is peeling back layers from his life. “Song for Daughters”, wherein he sings my favorite track on the new album– spoiler alert, I too have a daughter – has begun to move people as much as the songwriter. It’s chorus of Don’t be too hard on yourselves is chill-inducing, but not in any maudlin way. Just the opposite, there is a genuine sense of communicating with his children the way Kellogg does with the audience, through his most powerful tool, music.

He sings, This is a song for our daughters, cause there’s some things they need to hear / We never know when it’s our time to go, so let me be perfectly clear / You’re gonna win, you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna walk around in your shoes / ‘Til one day it’s you who will say… Don’t be too hard on yourselves…

One of Kellogg’s female brood has joined him on this leg of the tour, 11 year-old Adeline, an adorably semi-bored soul who occasionally puts her head on daddy’s shoulder during our backstage chat. Of course, I have to ask her about when her sisters had first heard the song. “Well, I remember dad got all of us together in the living room at my house and he played it for us and at first I didn’t really want to hear it because I didn’t feel like listening to a song right then…” Laughter fills the room, and after she politely allowed it to die down, she finishes. “But I listened to it and I really felt some kind of connection, and it is an incredible song and I was really proud of him for writing it.”

Adeline’s dad’s performances on this tour, and the current one he’s embarked on with a full band, suitably reflect what he achieved on Objects in the Mirror; this sense of self and a surge of positivity that comes from never having abandoned that most precious of human resources, hope. It is all over his record, from the sometimes humorous but endearing “All The Love (That Comes To Me)” (I’ve got all I ever wanted / But I still cannot believe / How I love to take for granted / All the love that comes to me) to his profession of undying love from the very start for his wife of nearly17 years (they’ve been together “26 years and counting”), Kristen, “Love of My Life” (But of all of the best memories that live in my head / It’s you in those blue jeans on the day that we met) there is a fierce embrace of life.  

“I’m feeling that the presentation of these songs is a different role than I’ve played before,” Kellogg tells me. “It feels more inclusive and it sort of operates on the basic premise that most people are fundamentally good and trying to take a breath and get back to that. And you know what, that feels really important these days.”

To that end, Objects in the Mirror does not shy away from the current climate of anti-civility that exists from Washington DC to the Internet, as in “Symphony of Joy” that cross-checks the breaking of glass ceilings and when they finally shatter; Those who pinned you to the margins, baby, they’ll be sweeping up. “I’m trying to find ways to discuss the way the world is right now that is beyond ‘they’re wrong and we’re right’,” says Kellogg. “But I feel anger too, and I am constantly battling this sense of just being furious with what’s going on, but I just can’t use my emotions up on that. I have to find the happiness in there.” And for this he presents perspective, specifically, and perhaps not coincidentally on the two penultimate tracks on the album, “I Will Always Have Your Back” and “Right There By You”.

However, there is one track on Objects that may explain this sentiment the best. It hits on several themes, some controversial, some spiritual, but mostly inspirational. It is called “Prayers”, but it ain’t what you think. Played softly on a piano – one of the first Kellogg has written on an instrument he is just beginning to comprehend – it is a beseeching to go beyond the vagaries of detachment and the impulse to give up, and offers a rather strict edict; Every unkind thing we say leads to our unhappiness / No one in the world gets by without feeling bad sometimes / I’m not trying to be a jerk / But say your prayers, get off your ass and get back to work.

Some have bristled at this as a tad insensitive, but when watching the songwriter hunched over the piano and singing it softly on this night, with zero pretense, it is hard not to embrace his refrain.  

“I reworked that one a lot, almost as much as I’ve worked on a song, because I didn’t want it to feel soap boxy at all,” he recalls with some measure of humor. “I was going for this idea, you know, say your prayers, hope for the best, but then roll up your fucking sleeves and let’s go! It requires you too, and that’s always been my shaky relationship with religion and spirituality. I found myself wanting to sing about it and the lyric really isn’t totally where I can land for songs, that end line, ‘Say your prayers and get off your ass and back to work’, so I wanted to make sure that I was one-hundred percent behind it and comfortable, and ultimately by the time that I was done with it, I was. But in no way did I expect what that song was going to mean to people.”

However, it is when Kellogg and Donnelly perform the title track that there’s not a rustle in the audience. Suddenly, all the hoopla by the bar and the clinking of glasses and murmur of the back tables drop silent. Last day I remember mama acting like herself / When the angels took her home / I was never so alone. “Objects in the Mirror”, as a song and an album, and as Kellogg likes to point out, an idea speaks of the journey, the one we have taken and the one we find ourselves on; most of it has little to do with our choices. Life happens, and it is good to remind one’s self of how and when it changes us. His touchstones are right there for us to see – childhood impressions, iconic public events, personal tragedies, the loss of innocence – the moments of mourning of death or the slow passage of time or the ever-evolving heart and its comprehending of an oft-times cruel world. This is both an unblinking glimpse at the tragic while celebrating the survival of it, as is his show, which is open, and conversational – in both storytelling and song-sharing.

“I am constantly battling this sense of just being furious with what’s going on, but I just can’t use my emotions up on that. I have to find the happiness in there.”

Donnelly’s recollection of the song speaks of how the album’s themes began to emerge. “Stephen had given me a Dropbox file of about 80 different ideas and ‘Objects’ had a couple different iterations and I remember that line wasn’t quite there yet, but it was close, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s something, but I don’t know what it is yet’,” he says. “And at the very end of the process, Stephen mentioned liking what he called then ‘the date song’ and then connected those dots of the objects in the mirror idea with this date song, and we started texting ideas back and forth. That’s when I knew Stephen was off to the races.”

Donnelly, whose work on the album Kellogg is quick to point out was not only paramount, but crucial, made sure I knew that he watched his partner at the top of his game when it came time to working with some of the best Nashville session cats, as if catching a glimpse of one of the world’s most accomplished athletes in his prime. “Maybe it’s because Stephen didn’t have a set band and was completely in charge of the project, but he became this person that I hadn’t seen before,” recalls Donnelly of the duo’s first days in Nashville. “It’s incredible to say this, whether playing the guitar or singing, I don’t think he made a single mistake, and the entire record was done live! I mean, that just doesn’t happen. On ten songs in four days, there wasn’t one time that we listened back to a take and said, ‘Oh, the vocal wasn’t good, but we’ll just have him re-sing it.’ It was just a really cool thing to be around how focused and how in his element Stephen was throughout those sessions.”

‘I feel like…woah, this album has created a moment for me,” Kellogg concluded during our initial conversation later last year, when the sessions were still freshly in his own rearview. “And for every listener that quotes it or shares it or someone who writes about it or you guys podcasting about it (Adam Duritz of Counting Crows and yours truly played some of the songs on our weekly Underwater Sunshine podcast) is all part of the momentum that allows you to believe in yourself enough to think like, yeah, I have things to say and we’re going to get this out in the world and act as the medicine that we intended it to be.”

The ovation continues throughout the night. It continues as Kellogg takes his band across the country getting these songs of hope and loss and love out in the world. I can hear them now, still bouncing off the walls of the place enough to last, like memories, like objects in our own mirrors, for a little longer than a single show.

Kellogg thanks everyone, gayly tips his hat and heads to the next stage to administer another dose of his musical medicine.

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Aretha Franklin – 1942 – 2018

Aquarian Weekly
8/22/18

Tribute

James Campion

 

Aretha Franklin – 1942 – 2018

Recently on a podcast called Underwater Sunshine that I co-host with the lead singer and main songwriter for Counting Crows, Adam Duritz, we played a live version of Aretha Franklin singing her early 1970s composition, “Call Me” from a stunning box set, Don’t Fight The Feeling: Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at the Filmore West. Adam had suggested the song as part of a Road Songs theme because as a traveling performer he’s always related to its now antiquated idea of life away from friends, family and lovers, which meant communication was near impossible. In an era where everyone can be contacted at any point, this may be a difficult concept to understand. But after listening to the poignancy of Aretha’s phrasing and signature vocal elasticity, it was hard not to understand it. It is one of those things, listening to Aretha, you understand. She communicates the key element of a song in the most efficient way – as does Sinatra and Elvis and Billie Holiday, but Aretha is better than them, or not so much better as more emotive. Her instincts for inhabiting the quintessence of a song is incomparable. She is the storyteller, a translator of feeling. Yeah, after the song finished playing I whispered, “Holy shit, that is another species.” Adam laughed. We both just sighed. We understood.

And, as Adam pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot of lyrics in that song. Doesn’t matter. She is bringing the real, mining the song’s texture, and, by the way, doing it live, without a net – courageous and impervious to danger. It is quite a thrill to be out there with her, even for a few minutes, to listen to the band try and keep up, to create the musical equivalence of a nice landing spot where she will eventually drift down from the stratosphere.

No one could own a song like Aretha Franklin. Understanding this is only part of the revelation of listening to her.

In 1967 Aretha recorded a song co-written by the great Carole King, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Structurally and lyrically, it is a masterpiece in soulful pride and expressive solemnity that eventually ended up on King’s groundbreaking 1971 release, Tapestry. Becoming the best-selling record by a woman artist ever until Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut topped it, it is one of the most personal statements of the singer-songwriter period. I love King’s version of it; she’s delivers such a wounded and beseeching performance. But it absolutely pales to Aretha’s reading, because, as a strong black woman, who had taken the slings and arrows the song connotes as a both an African American and a woman, she absorbs its essence and then funnels it into that searing timbre and mastery of octaves that slays you every time. It is as if there is no point to figure its implication beyond Aretha’s meaning, which, of course, you understood immediately and continue to understand 51 years after its release.

Now… “Respect”, which everyone who remembers Aretha in print this week will no doubt refer. It is quite simply the finest soul single ever recorded in a world that is chock full of them. In the same year that Aretha slayed “A Natural Woman” she took the distinct writing and phrasing style of one of the finest rhythm and blues singers in American song, Otis Redding, and turned his cultural defiance into her feminist anthem. What transformed the 25 year-old Aretha Franklin from a misused and wholly misunderstood torch singer by Columbia Records into the Queen of Soul is her legendary Atlantic Records sessions, which produced the transcendent I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, the nucleus of which is found in this performance.

“Respect” is a tour de force in the art and majesty that was Aretha, as is the entire album and what eventually transpired in her years at Atlantic, which was cranking out music like this for a generation daily. She ran the studio like a master, sitting at its center, on piano, molding songs into down and dirty arias that rock and slither and take triumphant leaps into pathos and rapture. It is the pristine sound of America jammed through your speakers and into your bloodstream. Redding’s song does not spell out the title – as recognizable a break in a popular song as can possibly be imagined – never mind her arrangement of the backing vocals, an irresistible combination of show tune meets Chitlin’ Circuit. All that “Just a little bit…” and the “re-re-re-re-re-re-re-respect” and the syncopated brilliance of “Sock it to me…Sock it to me” is pure Aretha. “Respect” is a defining moment in popular song, when a good thing, even a great thing, becomes a standard, and the performer, an icon.

No one could own a song like Aretha Franklin. Understanding this is only part of the revelation of listening to her.

Then there is Aretha: Lady Soul.

Aretha Franklin’s 1968 masterwork, which cemented the whole thing forevermore, takes the bold promise of “Respect” and the album that surrounds it, and makes it stand. This is a distinctly American artist ushering the whole of the American experience back home, taking her craft beyond race and gender and style and genre to a place where anyone who attempts the artform of singing must embrace or get used to or become kin to or…understand. “A Natural Woman” ends up on Aretha: Lady Soul, but if you need to ever be lifted to some other plain, the opening track, “Chain of Fools” is your guide. It is the musical equivalent of GPS. Follow it. Trust it. Go there with her.

Listening to those Atlantic recordings is to hear a stellar, unique and indestructible artist in control. Aretha as Homer or Moses or Isis. When she’s done with her song, it is forever burned into your being. Hell, you take it with you. They say you can’t do such a thing, Aretha begs to differ.

Her natural instrument, that voice, the soul of it, not just the type of music, Soul, but the indefinable aspect of our humanity, would never fail her. She could, indeed, as I have often joked about with the supernatural Ella Fitzgerald, her jazz sister, sing the phone book and it would kick your ass. But it is in the tracks that make up those two albums in particular and a few that follow that paint the portrait of Aretha Franklin. This includes the unbridled and riveting spontaneity of Aretha in Paris – the way she impeccably leads the band, with a full horn section, is an insight into how she made those songs in the studio. It contains what I think is the best version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” outside of the Rolling Stones, as it lends some measure of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to Otis Redding’s dynamic late 1960s version that the Stones would eventually cop.

Just a week or so ago I was messing around with a version of “People Get Ready” on guitar, an elegiacal Curtis Mayfield song made first famous by his Impressions in 1965 and covered by nearly anyone who has carried a tune. While listening to alternative versions on YouTube, I stumbled on Aretha’s version. I stopped messing with it.

She owns that song. Like she owns everything she took a pass at.

One of the most distinct voices in the American experience is silenced.

Come to think of it, no it’s not. She left it, so take it with you.

Understand?

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STEPHEN KELLOGG – ROAD DIARY AT 40

Aquarian Weekly
Feature

11/15/17

STEPHEN KELLOGG – ROAD DIARY AT 40
Songwriter Marks Time Making Timeless Music

Gonna be a good friend
Gonna be a family guy
Gonna pour my heart out
Till the day after I die
And when I am an angel
Looking for a landing
Gonna be the last man standing

– Stephen Kellogg, “Last Man Standing”

“Hang on, man, I got to pull over.”

Talking to singer/songwriter, Stephen Kellogg as he works his way up the Hutchinson Parkway from New York City through Connecticut. “Wait…there’s a parking lot off this exit,” he earnestly reports. His cell phone is scrambling his sentences. Missing them could be dangerous. You see, Kellogg can be downright quotable when on the road, as his new record, Tour De Forty: Greatest Hits (So Far) Live will attest. It is a musical diary of sorts that captures his recent TD40 tour, which transformed the notable occasion of his turning 40 into a traveling review of his life in song. It also introduces new material that duly reflects this milestone while breathing new life into fan favorites.

“I always feel as though I’m singing to my contemporaries and singing to my peers and singing to people who are living through experiences like my own,” he says, as the engine hums along beneath him. “It feels like, ‘Hey, if you’re anything like me, here is a soundtrack for you.’”

Kellogg is bringing his soundtrack to the Bowery Ballroom this week to complete this year-long journey looking back and peering ahead. “This particular show will be a celebration,” he says, as it will also mark the official release of Tour De Forty. “I got some special guests sitting in, but it’s not a nostalgia show. It’s more like ‘Hey, we’re all still here everybody!’”

Kellogg sounds like a content man, who has happened upon a place he can now fully comprehend. As pulls his car off the road into “some sort of Mastercard headquarters” in Harrison, New York to get a clearer signal, I admit to him that it may be the first time I’ve literally interviewed a traveling musician talking about the road while he’s on the road.

He laughs knowingly; “I like to keep it real.”

And that makes sense too. Listening to Stephen Kellogg’s songs can get you back to “the real” with concussive rapidity. Each is an exercise in stripping away all the sheen that can sometimes be white noise to a composer. Artifice is something Kellogg cannot fathom. Listen to the first two minutes of “Open Heart”, which begins the new record; a probing ballad about being inspired to inspire, to pass on the fruits of the song; to live it and then tell it. And Kellogg is nothing if not a storyteller. He works from experience and sees the universal in the personal and uses inner dialogue as pronouncement.

“These songs hound me and they force me to ask, ‘What cosmic place am I…?’, he says. “And if I don’t write them down, don’t somehow share them, get them out, then they just follow me around and kick at my door and I start to feel so much that it becomes overwhelming.”

You can tell right away, Kellogg loves to talk about art as communication – between the muse and his mind; how it goes from there into the hands and through the guitar and out into the ether where the audience absorbs it and brings it back to him ten-fold. And this is where his traveling the nation over the past year has created a new beginning for him, while simultaneously wrapping up a profound chapter. You know, the storyteller thing again.

If you have a calling then you had better live it out, otherwise if you don’t it’s going to be a very frustrating existence.

Speaking of which, I first met Stephen in New York City while working with Counting Crows’ front man and songwriter, Adam Duritz on my current book project, to which Kellogg began picking my brain on his own attempt at penning a memoir of the road. “Counting Crows were always the blueprint of something I felt I could actually do,” he told me. “I always thought, ‘This makes sense to me. I can see how it works. I understand where that comes from.’ I cannot under estimate the importance of the Counting Crows to me personally.” And although he admitted to the difficulties of using his poetic muscles to tackle prose that night, one has to marvel at his dedication to communicate once again. It has indeed been an interesting run for him, as Tour De Forty dutifully documents. From the infectious “Fourth of July” to the sheer vulnerability of “Almost Woke You Up” to the sensuality in “Gravity” to the episodic grandeur of “Thanksgiving Day”, this is Stephen Kellogg as Homer setting sail.

“I thought maybe I would just start sharing more and more and more in an effort to really show people behind-the-curtain, so they could understand hopefully themselves and what they’re going through even more,” he says. “Sometimes I go out solo and I share a lot of stories and I talk about crazy shit my kids say and all that, but I know from being 40 myself that sometimes you just want to go out and you want to feel music that is meant to rock you and you want to remember that you’re still young. When I go a concert that’s what I’m looking for now. I want to sing along. I want to feel like, “Yeah! It’s okay to be 40! This is great!”

That is three times now that Kellogg has said “feel” as if he it was something tangible, like currency or a neatly packed gift, all ribbons and bows.

Here’s what you need to know about Stephen Kellogg, husband of his high school sweetheart, Kirsten, and father of four girls, Sophia, 12, Adeline 10, Noelle, six and Greta, five; he fronted a rock and roll band called the Sixers for eleven years and found himself a solo artist in 2012 with seven albums and thousands of fans in the rearview mirror. He had to get back up and re-invent himself and begin to examine his craft in a new way. “That was a rough period for me,” he remembers. “The Sixers were very much my Heartbreakers, my Crazy Horse. It was always my vision, but we were a band and we played like a band and we made a lot of those decisions together and then in this one year that goes away and you’re 35, which is still very young in the macro sense, but you’re also not a kid anymore and you say, ‘Damn… what happens now?”

What happened is Kellogg kept writing songs; some country, some folk, others rock and still others with a pop or Indie flavor. All of these styles ended up together on his last studio album, South, West, North, East, released in 2016 after being recorded in those four regions of the U.S.A.

“I gave myself permission to not have to always choose a lane because people want you to,” he says. “This way I got to be all the things that I actually am but it didn’t feel disorganized and jumbled because that was the whole concept of the record. South I did in Nashville, and that’s kind of the Southern rock part. West I did in Boulder, Colorado, and that’s more of the folk element. North I did in Woodstock, New York, and that was a little more of the Indie rock thing, and then East was a little bit of the pop thing and I did that in Washington, DC. Then I ended up calling the touring band South West North East, because I wanted some way to signal that this was a band effort and not a solo acoustic type thing.”

And that is where Stephen Kellogg feels most comfortable; at the intersection of the American invention; re-invention. The second act F. Scott Fitzgerald said could not be. But we so love the man who does not lie down on his sword at the first sign of adversity. The comeback is our shiny city on the hill, our better angels, our little pink house.

Of course none of this matters when a man sings, “If heaven and family and children / Are what’s left of the race that I ran / Then I’ll quietly slip to the slumbering peace / Of the sleep of a satisfied man” from another song included on Tour De Forty, “Satisfied Man”, arguably the most articulate expression of the significance of love and fatherhood and growing into one’s self as you could possibly hope to hear. You would not be blamed for thinking that comebacks only happen to those already not where they need to be, but that is far from Stephen Kellogg.

“I have kids that I love and adore and a wife I’m still crazy about after twenty-four years,” he says. “But I continue to do what I do because if you have a calling then you had better live it out, otherwise if you don’t it’s going to be a very frustrating existence.”

In filmmaker, Peter Harding’s short, Last Man Standing, which went on to become an Amazon exclusive film last year, Kellogg is seen both at home and on the road, and although his personality remains constant – upbeat, preternaturally hopeful and always philosophical – there is something that overcomes him there. And you get the feeling watching it that it is home where these songs come from, if not composed in repose, at least conceived, imagined and expressed. He brings his home into the art and the songs onto the road.

“I am taking a certain world view and message out into the world and trying to do some good with it,” he says, when I bring up the delicate balance of the road and family. “I feel very much called to share this message of letting people know they are not alone and this idea of forgiveness and perseverance and things like that that have been big themes in my own life.”

And this returns us to the aforementioned elegiac “Thanksgiving Day”, which sounds like a long handwritten letter in the age of emails and texts, with building stanzas deeply reflective of what this year has meant to Kellogg. This weird young man’s legacy to the maddening pursuit of art as memory and foresight. He sings in its opening verse; “The trees were blowing in the breeze all high above my head / When a cavalcade of memories appeared to me in words I wished I’d said / From that point on a song stayed in my thoughts most of the time / But when I tried to sing it out loud it would always leave my mind / Like the things you know are true, but never can explain when you get asked / A melody floating just within your grasp…”

“What has allowed me to be sort of an optimistic person and have a generally bright and happy life has been my ability to write the melancholy down and to share and to explore what’s causing that and where it’s coming from,” insists Kellogg. “And the same is true of other emotions, not just melancholia, but joy and anger is a big one for me. I feel so much anger, but by writing it down it has allowed me to not be an angry person.”

All these feelings, all these songs, all the miles down the road and many more to go; Stephen Kellogg is finishing up one journey in New York City on Thanksgiving weekend; a place where the song and the road can indeed become one. “We’ll play some football during the day and then go do a couple of shows that weekend and whenever possible I like to do New York City, because it’s the best. You know?”

Then he bids me ado, pulling out of that parking lot and heading back on the road…going home.

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THOMAS EARL PETTY – 1950 – 2017

Aquarian Weekly
10/11/17

Cover Tribute

James Campion

THOMAS EARL PETTY – 1950 – 2017

Comedian Marc Maron has a bit in his most recent Netflix special in which he struggles with bridging the gap between Trump voters and Trump haters which centers on the universal appeal of Tom Petty. “People who voted for Trump are just like you, man,’ the character in Maron’s piece argues. “We all listen to Tom Petty…” It was Maron’s way of saying that despite great divides Tom Petty is our American connection. Well, of course, who doesn’t love Tom Petty? This immediately came to mind when word of Petty’s death at age 66 from cardiac arrest came down this week. Of course, I’d imagine that there are probably a few people out there, maybe you, that don’t “love” Tom Petty, but at the very least there doesn’t appear to be much if any disdain there. Sure, I’ve been confronted by a few contrarians who can wax poetic about how the Beatles are overrated or what is wrong with the Rolling Stones or why Michael Jackson fails at this and that and on and on. Somehow Tom Petty escapes this.

How is this possible?

Beloved is a tough chore in entertainment, especially for rock and roll, and specifically for four decades, as Petty and his indestructible band the Heartbreakers recently celebrated with a six-month tour that ended mere days before Petty collapsed and never recovered. Tom Petty seemed to just go on being loved, until the end.

For this, I have a few theories.

Firstly, and most importantly, Tom Petty is one of the great American songwriters of the latter part of the twentieth century; working in all of the genres that make it universal; rock and roll, country, folk, blues, (he even occasionally dabbled in funk and punk when feeling frisky). Not that any of the artists mentioned above failed to do so, but there was something about Petty that swerved around pretention or artifice or marketing or promotion or all the things that plague any act that becomes a household name. You got the feeling when listening to Petty’s songs that he wrote them to make himself happy or say something to himself and if you could share in this experience that’s great. Otherwise, have a nice day.

This also spread to his complete inability to get political, something the purported voice of his generation, Bruce Springsteen has done repeatedly, in both ideology and comportment. And while Springsteen arguably wrote some of the most striking inner-dialogue personality songs of his era, his penchant to expand his voice to that of the “everyman” made him too universal. Petty did not play in that sandbox. He built his own, thank you very much. And again, if you dug it, great, if not, well…have a nice day.

And speaking of songs; anyone who has tried their hand at laying melodies over chord progressions and trying to get the words to rhyme in all the right places totally gets Tom Petty. There is no “figuring” with these gems. And that is not to say they were not as complex or deep as say some of his contemporaries who were lauded as such; Tom Waits, Jackson Browne or Randy Newman, but listen to Petty’s very first hit, “Breakdown”, a strangely arranged but simply compiled little ditty that has more atmosphere and attitude than most of what was going on at the time. It doesn’t rush to curry your favor and it doesn’t even bother to hang a hook on you with the vocal, it’s the damn guitar line that makes you hum and leaves you with a slow, sexy fade. It’s simple, but not really.

This is another reason why everyone loved Tom Petty; he did not try and reinvent the wheel. Petty understood something given to him by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers and the Byrds and the Beatles and Dylan and Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters; it’s all in the foundation. There is no sense fucking with a good thing, and this is evident every time you listen to a Tom Petty song, especially the earlier band-oriented work that seems to come from so many familiar corners of your musical taste buds you think you’ve eaten every sandwich conceived by man. “Free Fallin”, perhaps his most hummable tune, captures this marvelously. Although to be fair so does “The Waiting”, “American Girl”, “Even the Losers”, you get the point.

Petty was indeed a musical short-order cook with the genius of a top-shelf chef, he could make you taste the backbeat of Gene Krupa and the wit of Jimmy Reed and spice of Keith Richards and the pain of Billie Holiday and the anger of Johnny Rotten and the pathos of Johnny Ray and the tender mercy of George Jones and the spit and vigor of Robert Johnson. And he did this in usually three to four minutes…tops. Put some brass on there, sure. Sweep in some Hammond and toss in a harmonica and sprinkle in the background singers and a smattering of riffs and you get it, right away.

Tom Petty made songs that spoke to you and made you tap your feet and recognize their lineage without effort. Making that happen took finding the best band, and the Heartbreakers were that and more. Some of them went on to play with almost anyone who was anyone – above and beyond backing up Bob Dylan in the 1980s. Benmont Tench is the keyboardist’s keyboardist, and guitarist Mike Campbell became the finest accompanist to the simplicity and ingenuity of Petty’s songwriting method as could possibly be offered. Understanding musical compatibility was a primary instinct for Petty. He famously said, “No one cares how you make it…does it sound good?” I use that one all the time for everything.

Petty was indeed a musical short-order cook with the genius of a top-shelf chef…

In 1985 Petty created, in my estimation, his masterpiece; Southern Accents, a penetratingly honest, excruciatingly tempestuous and exceedingly funny look at his childhood, his roots, his oeuvre and his place in the world. Many will point to his breakthrough 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, produced by the guy who claims to have invented music, Jimmy Iovine. And while it is chock full of hits (my senior year of High School was plagued by “Refugee”) and a fantastic record, it is only a prelude. Others will cite the 1981 follow-up, Hard Promises, an album so perfectly constructed it seems silly (“Insider” is the height of understated fierceness; a rarely lauded element in rock and roll). I saw Petty for the first time during this tour and he and the band were sublime and the songs, again, were stunning, but it still sounds as if it is leading somewhere. Still others will bring up his monster solo effort, Full Moon Fever from 1989, wherein he reinvented the idea of the aging rock star and made it super cool to edge into middle age and not simply choose between Neil Young’s burning out or fading away (almost every time I’m privy to an electric guitar my hands I cannot help but move in the direction of the opening riff to “Runnin’ Down a Dream”). But that never happens without Southern Accents.

If I do nothing else with this tribute to the beloved Tom Petty I hope to get everyone to listen to the eerie pulse of that album’s opening song, “Rebels” just once, as it brings you deeper into Petty’s psyche, something he rarely did with such fervor. It ended up making him crazy and pushed the limits of his band, but it accomplished something none of his other albums did; it defined him. When I first heard it the day it arrived in the record store where I worked I could not stop listening to it. It helps to unfold this airtight narrative of a man in search of the search. It was as if the magician was letting you peak into how that rabbit got in the hat. For just a second, but then turn away because here comes “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, which may be my favorite non-Prince / non-R.E.M. / non-U2 song of the decade. This needs its own celebratory piece that I am not about to dive into here.

But I digress from my letting you know why Tom Petty was so queerly beloved.

The main thing may be that Petty was a big enough, rebellious enough, cool enough rock star not to fall into any of its clichés. He did not have a rock star wife. He did not make a rock star spectacle of himself. He did not flaunt it or piss on it or sell it to the highest bidder. The most decadent thing he may have done was punch a wall and shatter all the bones in his chording hand during the making of the aforementioned Southern Accents. Doctors said he was through playing guitar. He wasn’t. Pretty cool. He also took on record companies who wanted to out-price his competitors when the Heartbreakers were the hottest commodity in the biz and won. Very cool. And one time he put a lyric about rolling a joint in a single (“You Don’t Know How It Feels”), which MTV and the radio garbled to save us from ourselves. Super cool. Even when someone did something otherworldly around him, like the oft-viewed video of Prince going off on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, there’s Tom just grooving along and singing the song as if he just rolled out of bed to lean into the microphone. Damn cool.

Really, I think, that is what made Tom Petty so endearing. He eased into it and never took it for granted, like how we all want to approach something we love, that we find we’re good at and are glad we can do, because it simply makes life worth living. It is what we would do if we could do it, which Tom Petty always seemed to be saying to me in song. And because he was such a seminal songwriter it is what he leaves behind; a legacy of fine, pure, relatable music that he shared. And if you’re into it, cool, otherwise, you know…have a nice day.

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LOVE…TO…TURN…YOU…ON

Aquarian Weekly
5/31/17

COVER PIECE

James Campion

LOVE…TO…TURN…YOU…ON
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 50

It was fifty years ago today…

June 1, 1967, to be exact; the day the cultural axis of the Western hemisphere is altered by a singular artistic event. The Beatles, the most celebrated, imitated and dissected entertainers on the planet, release their eighth studio album.

It is true that anything released by The Beatles is a momentous event, especially an album, which used to mean a bunch of desperate songs thrown together for forty or so minutes around one hit single to wrest money from impressionable teenagers. The Beatles turned it into a cohesive collection of musical and lyrical insights into the artists and their times. However, this one is made far more significant due to four (as in Fab Four) key elements that will indelibly mark its dramatic impact and widespread influence; timing, arrogance, creativity and grandeur. It is those ingredients that make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band unquestionably the most important aural, visual, and especially cultural rock…ahem…artistic statement of its time.

In the decades that follow June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s will be heralded, with very little protest, as the greatest artistic endeavor of the twentieth century. Enough of this hyperbole eventually results in a serious backlash of “highly overrated” and for a time it is hardly considered even The Beatles best work, just the fawning reverberation of sophistic Baby Boomer miasma. Yeah, enough of goddamn Sgt. Peppers, what about..?

Yet what is missed by those who insist on Top Lists and the unofficial results of critical bar stool geek spats is the historical space the album carved for itself above and beyond the music found therein or the musicians who wrote, performed, produced and released it. Simply put, after Sgt. Pepper’s what once existed in the art form and its genre could no longer do so without acknowledging it. So incredibly dense and concussive was its force and meaning it would spawn an entire age of replication, homage and satire. It would place interior dialog, social commentary, psychedelic hippie fashion, Indian spirituality, and a mash-up of generational call-to-arms meets mind-altering self-expression into to-do list for poets, musicians, performance artists, painters, graphic designers…(gasp for breath) and such and so forth for evermore.

And it is especially important to remember that unlike other seismic shifts in, say, literature, Moby Dick, or film, Citizen Kane; both considered horrendous failures upon their release but are now accepted as signature expressions of their art forms, there would be no gradual recognition of this fact. It happens on June 1, 1967. The day Sgt. Pepper’s made the world anew.

Timing

Like its birth in the opening years of the 1960s, a magical, turbulent, youth-infused era of revolution, experimentation and liberation, and its arrival in America, smack in the middle of the century it dominated, The Beatles instinct to capture the moment is unparalleled.

Consider that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band arrives ten months after the band plays live for the last time, closing the book on an unparalleled level of global mania to begin an unprecedented era for a performing act to, well, not have an act, but instead retreat into art for art’s sake; no more showbiz in the showbiz – no more mop tops, fancy boots, matching suits, screaming girls, Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Hollywood Bowl, Queen’s Command Performance. For the first time in popular music it will be the music and its packaged presentation that becomes the impetus, execution and result.

In those months away, the band would exhale from its achievements over the past three years of miraculous popularity and creative evolution, the evidence of which is found on their previous two albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver that explored maturation and alienation, spirituality and drug-induced mind expansion sending musicologists to the thesaurus and contemporaries like The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys to the woodshed. Every rock artist (the roll part would be discarded as some middling kiddie form in the wake of the new guideposts The Beatles had built) would be shaken to the core. All of them almost immediately began experimenting frantically to keep up. Beach Boys Svengali, Brian Wilson would infamously descend into near madness creating a masterwork he called Pet Sounds, which then made dizzy the two main composers in The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

By late 1966, McCartney is immersed in London’s growing avant-garde underground, while Lennon is entranced by a portentous Japanese performance artist, and lead guitarist, George Harrison is lost in the hills of East Bengal and its hypnotizing Hindustani rhythms. While for his part drummer, Ringo Starr is just happy being Ringo Starr, they had all moved swiftly from marijuana to LSD to escape the crushing effects of celebrity and become creative individualists; helping them come to grips with the emerging world bazaar of like-minded egalitarian hedonists they’ve inspired.

The time has come to distill this into an imprint, and with the coming year of war, assassination, and indistinct revolution, it would be a welcomed moment frozen in time.

Arrogance

The entire Beatles universe squeezes into Studio B of EMI’s Abbey Road complex in the form of six supremely talented and motivated men at the peak of their abilities.

John and Paul, whose prolific compositions continue to soar beyond scope, George, whose own songs have found transport in their comet’s tail, the dutiful and wholly underrated drummer, Ringo, the band’s producer and musical Sherpa, George Martin, and an instinctual sonic worker-bee engineer, Geoff Emerick fill the magnetic strips of the Studer J37 four-track reel-to-reel with sounds never before heard. And I write that with no trepidation, as I defy anyone to find anything that sonically resembles the spastic calliope tape-looped instrumental break in Lennon’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or the sitar/orchestral call-and-response in Harrison’s “Within You Without You”. The eradication of monetary, time-frame or creative parameters means that no one can stop The Beatles but themselves.

Freed from the hindrance of having four instruments present their vision on stage, they deem the whole Beatles thing too narrow a framework from which to work. They will be something else, literally and figuratively. The alter-ego of Sgt. Pepper and his band (complete with uniforms and fictional characters like Billy Shears and Lucy in the sky with her diamonds, the voices of troubled parents and the drone of chanting mystics), which comes with an introductory theme song in case you were expecting something else, allows them to be anything they wish.

The transformation begins with musical memoirs. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, which share their humble beginnings draped in psychedelic notions. Every heroic epic needs an origin story, and this ground-breaking double-A side single would act as precursor for the Pepper experience with its eerie Meletron openings and Bach trumpets, boldly declaring “behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout” that “nothing is real”.

Its spectacular success, supported visually by promotional films (perhaps the first ever music videos) reveal the band’s new look – facial hair and vivid clothing with long coats and flowing scarves – obliterating the monochromatic ensemble that conquered the planet and replacing it with trippy avatars that provide the group free reign to turn the studio into both palette and stage.

It took The Beatles ten hours to record their first album. It would take 700 hours over six months to bring Sgt. Pepper and his band of lonely hearts to life.

One wonders if something from 1917 had remotely mattered as much on June 1, 1967.

Creativity

It opens with the tuning of a quaint orchestra beneath the murmur of an expectant crowd and ends in an apocalyptic hum. Along the way there are stops on a river with tangerine trees under marmalade skies, a traveling carnival, and a glimpse through the walls of illusion; penetratingly illuminating slices of life as seen by extraordinary commentators – a little girl who runs away from home, a young man ruminating on love in advancing age, an insecure soul whose machismo has kept him from true happiness, and still another who witnesses a fatal car accident that somehow makes him laugh.

On Sgt. Pepper’s The Beatles will introduce thematic cohesion (concept album, anyone?) to pop music. A song cycle that connects exploration to an understanding of humanity through the use of global instrumentation and sophisticated melodies that soar above the drudgery of their subjects’ loneliness, confusion and insecurity with an eye (and ear) aimed at a higher meaning; achieved, by the way, in merely 39 minutes and 52 seconds of listening. Not bad for an epic.

According to both Emerick and Martin in their memoirs – Martin would pen a detailed account forty years later and tour his lecture, “The Making of Sgt. Pepper’s” in 1999 that I would attend at New York’s prestigious Town Hall with my long-time friend and colleague, Chris Barrera in which he plays naked tracks and duly explains the team’s numerous intricate recording techniques – the mission for Sgt. Pepper’s is to push every possible boundary; technically, lyrically, and, of course, musically. It is, in the end, the sound of the album that shakes the foundation of the rock esthetic. It is also crucial that the songs will have little to no breaks between them; they flow, as if a singular statement. Thus, The Beatles achieve a soundtrack worthy of the demigods they’ve become – bigger than Jesus and all that – signaling not only The Summer of Love but a road map for Prog Rock that will dominate the next decade.

It seems redundant to list the songs again, but suffice it to say, whenever you listen to Sgt. Pepper’s, no matter how many times you may have already done so there is still something at which to marvel. For me it is always “A Day in the Life”; a remarkable feat of songwriting (Lennon being Lennon in his detached surrealism while McCartney is soooo melodiously McCartney), performance, (this may be the finest effort of expressive rock drumming ever), production (the reverb on Lennon’s voice alone set against the sheen of the acoustic guitar and the percussive piano flourishes is enough to induce chills, but the dissonant orchestral crescendos…come on!), and mood (a central dynamic for the entire album). Sgt. Pepper’s forever sets the standard for a great album; a memorable opening to an engaging final song of Side One (remember sides, kids?), a stark open to Side Two, and a startling coda.

The first time I would hear Sgt. Pepper’s in its entirety, as intended, was at around ten pm on June 1, 1977 on its tenth anniversary. New York’s rock station, WPLJ or maybe it was WNEW, played it at the top of the hour all evening. I caught the last playing. For the first time (even with all the music I had heard up to that point, most of it sparked by The Beatles) lying in bed with tightly snug headphones I could see this music, not just listen to it. It was like a great film that I could relive in my head. In other words, I think I got it.

Grandeur

Everyone gets it. Well, nearly everyone. There is some bitching from the odd reviewer who thinks this is all a bit much. This again recounts Sgt. Pepper’s greatest achievement; it hits the ground running.

Much of it thanks to its design; the first album to print the lyrics, the band dressed in their Pepper military garb, and the colors, ooh-boy, the colors. The cover, art-directed by Swingin’ London trend-setter, Robert Fraser and photographed by the omnipresent Michael Cooper, is not merely iconic; it literally celebrates the concept of iconicity. The Beatles surrounded by their heroes, the faces of the century, artists and athletes and dignitaries and characters, even their own wax figures. It is hard to imagine the impact of this until you spend a little time perusing album covers of the day; it is like Dorothy wandering out of her Kansas black and white into Oz. It is three-dimensional sensory overload.

The release comes with communal overtones. For the first time labels in both the UK and America launch a Beatles album at the same time (June 2 in the States), with no difference in the track listing, alternate titles or covers. Suddenly it is Sgt. Pepper’s. Period. Right now. The sights and sounds of something new and exciting. Fans and other artists play it simultaneously through open windows, blasting it over rooftops and into the streets while pouring over the lyrics and singing along to the infectious tunes; “I get high with a little help from my friends!” – “It’s getting better all the time (It can’t get no worse!)!” – “Lucy in the sky with diamonds!”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band debuts in the UK at number one – where it solidly remains for 22 consecutive weeks – selling 250,000 copies during the first seven days. Soon it would eclipse everything that came before it in terms of sales and impact (Beatles or otherwise). It will sell nearly three million by year’s end in the U.S. and eventually top 11 million. On June 6, Jimi Hendrix, who has exploded onto the British music scene, opens a concert with the title track as The Beatles and seemingly the whole of the hip, young, tuned-in glitterati look on. It is a triumph, an alchemic achievement in art, fashion, music, influence, statement, and homage. And it will not have to wait to be understood as such. It is immediate, like a storm. More like an eclipse.

Legacy

Sgt. Pepper’s becomes something like the ’27 Yankees; so uniquely magnificent it is used as a demarcation of sorts, as in, “It’s not like it’s Sgt. Pepper’s or anything” or the obligatory “this is Michael Jackson’s Sgt. Pepper’s”. It would make the record album so important it would render the single release to merely a prelude. It would cement rock music as an indelible link to the other musical movements of centuries past. It would refine the entire culture into a single resonant day. And it would begin to erode the band that made it happen.

On May 19, Beatles manager, Brian Epstein hosts a release party packed with the beautiful people, hangers-on and journalists, as the album blasts forth stunning everyone. John, Paul, George and Ringo arrive decked out in their 1967 best; psychedelic ties and fur coats and ruffled shirts amidst an absurd shower of balloons and confetti as fancy drugs and drink flow. Paul meets American photographer, Linda Eastman, whom he would marry in due time and announce in the British press that he is dissolving the group in a torrent of lawsuits. Before this, John would disappear into Yoko Ono and reduce The Beatles to some kind of existential prison. George trades the trappings of fame for Eastern philosophy. Ringo keeps being Ringo.

Before the end of the year they would lose their beloved manager, Brian Epstein (apparent drug overdose), produce their first flop, the opaque Magical Mystery Tour film, follow a lascivious mystic, put out a series of solo efforts crammed into a double album that inspires ritualistic murders, and before imploding, play an afternoon concert on a roof of their offices that is shut down by police. They would still make some pretty damn great music, but it appears that Sgt. Pepper’s would not only be The Beatles’ apex, it is their swansong – at least in terms of solidarity between its members, its support group and its fans, all of which on June 1, 1967 figured it would go on like this infinitely.

After all “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is more than a seminal Beatles album or the creative height for the rock and roll elite; it is a pristinely captured moment of hope. This, above all, is why it matters 50 years hence. One wonders if something from 1917 had remotely mattered as much on June 1, 1967.

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CHARLES EDWARD ANDERSON “CHUCK” BERRY – 1926 – 2017

Aquarian Weekly
3/29/17

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

CHARLES EDWARD ANDERSON “CHUCK” BERRY – 1926 – 2017

E=Mc2 – Albert Einstein

Rock and Roll – Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry invented rock and roll.

Whatever it was before him, some analogous, coagulated pre-form that would come to be known as rock and roll, is ultimately irrelevant in the hands of Chuck Berry, because as a cultural, iconic, lyrical, American force, what happens in, say, the first thirty seconds of “Johnny B. Goode”, is the very foundation for all that came after it. Six decades of a genre, a movement, a youth zeitgeist fused together in volume, rhythm, sex, greed, freedom, slashed together in 1955 and wood-shedded along the Chitlin’ Circuit through Jim Crow and out the American Bandstand tiny mono speakers and flickering black and white televisions in 1958 has had some legs. Duck-walk, two-string bending, riff-laden rapper delight is a celebration of all things. It is, he is, the symbol of that most cherished American institution; excess.

Yes, Virginia, there is no Aquarian Weekly or Rolling Stone or certainly no Rolling Stones or The Beatles or The Beach Boys or The Velvet Underground or Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix or AC/DC or MTV or The Sex Pistols or Madonna or Jam Master Flash or Beyoncé or whatever the hell is smoldering in some garage somewhere around your corner without Chuck Berry. The thread leads back to the further reaches of lurid New Orleans brothels and the primordial sweat of Mobile swill and the smoky whiskey-stench of a Chicago South Side juke joint, but it really begins in a shape that forms this thing, this huge, unstoppable thing; filled with rebellion and seduction and speed and drugs and death and rebirth and subversive poetic fashion rebuke in the slender, dark, smooth tones of a Chuck Berry song.

Elvis Presley wanted to be black, and those who were not black got that. Mostly. And those who didn’t were fooling themselves. This is all you need to know about the import of the purported King of Rock and Roll. You see, Chuck Berry had no interest in being white, but he was interested in their ears and eyeballs and their greenbacks and he knew how to get in there, like a generational virus. And he did not need Ed Sullivan or the Colonel or some ostentatious Memphis mansion between Bluebird and Craft to prove it. This is what the twelve-bar, I-IV-V, four-on-the-floor fat-back boogie woogie shuffle gets you. It’s a fever, man, and it spreads.

There can be a strong case that none of it has improved a whit from the moment it emerged from those amplifiers when Chuck Berry got the screaming Gibson hollow-body ES-335 turned up; a piece of eminent machinery built by some enterprising guitar engineer that could not have imagined what the hell he had wrought.

If he is known for nothing else, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was an alchemist. He transformed Mississippi mud-water and mid-west exhaust-pipe fumes into gold. Grits and burgers, bobby socks and pig-tails, souped-up engines and Army jocks and testosterone fist-fight, slick-talking pool hall jail-cats and apple pie, baseball, corner-store egg-cream slicksters dr-rrrrroppin’ the coin right into the slot. Hail, hail, little sweet sixteen, the middle class pimple-faces are taking over and it’s time to give them a lesson in the street-walk jive. Make no mistake, Chuck Berry was first and foremost a capitalist; his rise to fame and his individualist nature along with an uncompromising attitude permeated his life and his art reeked of it.

Chuck Berry became in many ways both the figure and bane of the American edict; his subversion of the button-down, conservative 1950s and its bursting sexual rage of rock and roll eased neatly into one of the most profitable, conglomerate showbiz industries known to the Western world. You could not undo Chuck Berry. He made damn sure you could never go back. It was his little invention that made the American way the choice over every other way, as it also assisted greatly in dismantling its hypocrisies.

Berry was deeply and richly mid-America, like the car and the microwave and the step one-two-three soldier boy after the second war to end all wars. Born in St. Louis, Missouri as a blues trope – the fourth child out of six; you make up the rhyme if you wish. He grew up in the snooze of the kind of mass wealth that is accumulated when you stomp the conquerors of Europe and carve the world up for amusement. His daddy was a builder and a Baptist deacon, who could preach about concrete and Jesus and his mamma, a school principal, was smart and beautiful, and took shit from no man.

It was when he may have heard those scratchy J& M 78’s of Caledonia Inn’s Professor Longhair and Fats Domino that he picked up the instrument that would make him the first guitar hero. Right around the same time he was sent to the rather auspicious Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men after a botched car robbery that may or may not have included a gun. He would not botch the guitar. It was far more lethal and lucrative. He would wield it as his weapon of choice for another 70 years, turning an entire movement into his plaything in the process.

The two best things Chuck Berry would ever do would be to join a rhythm and blues outfit called the Jonnie Johnson Trio and then stumble into Muddy Waters, whose acquaintance would lead to his signing with the legendary Chess Records.

Johnson, arguably the finest and certainly the most influential boogie-woogie pianist of the era, provided a stage for Berry to expand on his T-Bone Walker moves; slide, spin, split, and ramble, whilst riffing wildly beneath a torrent of foot stompers. Johnson would also be the template for the songwriter he would become; many of the best of Berry’s work is heard first from the piano, what those who would play with him quizzically understood as those “strange keys”; all flats and sharps that would keep pace with what was first the realm of the 88 keys to salvation. Ain’t no coincidence what is sometimes considered as the first ever rock and roll song, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats set the tempo of the instrument in 1951. Soon to follow would be freaks and madmen such as the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

It was Berry’s unique combination of piano phrasing and the horn riff that he clipped from Louis Jordan’s 1946 romp, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do it Every Time)” that provided him a signature guitar intro for nearly all of his rockers, and most famously, the aforementioned “Johnny B. Goode”, which is without question the most recognizable rock and roll song from its inaugural period and covered in more styles of music than almost anything written from the era. Johnson’s contributions to Berry’s work is paramount and helps to better understand his signature beat-turning guitar solos that shift and toss the rhythms inside-out, a device so imitated but never duplicated it is almost criminal.

For his part, Muddy Waters, who had already invented the rock band with his electric Chicago outfit of bass, drums and guitar, would be all that the young guitarist needed to gain the favor of Leonard Chess. In a little room on South Michigan Avenue, Chuck Berry would record a song called “Maybelline”, a thrasher version of some bumpkin ditty he turned into hot-rod metaphor heaven. With all its V8 Ford/Cadillac Coupe DeVille scatting and chug-chug guitar raunch, it is pure Americana and yet it isn’t. It is what would later be attributed to epiphany songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “She Loves You” and “When Doves Cry” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that are at once familiar, but on a more primal level come on disturbing in the best sense. “Maybelline” shattered the glass before anyone knew it was there to be shattered.

You could not undo Chuck Berry. He made damn sure you could never go back.

The car/girl thing was Chuck’s raison d’être, and subsequently the very core of the rock and roll ethos. The engine of the nation and the engine of your loins and the engine of the music and the manic state of fury that comes from good times; this is where Chuck Berry splits from the black blues experience. Even in his most famous blues number, “Wee Wee Hours” there is a tenderness not found in the braggadocio or steamy sexual threats that could never have found a place on mainstream radio in 1955. There are no snake-moans or painful yawps associated with anything in his reliably formulaic canon. Joy and youth and a love of fun reached beyond the racism that plagued the nation.

Chuck did something unique; he did not fight or comment on or bludgeon the great racial divide, he ignored it. “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” obliterate lines and would define the latter half of this decade and the first wave of rock and roll by attracting those who would make it the billion-dollar concept, as it would become in the hands of whiter and in many cases non-American faces.

In the glare of The Beatles, his “Rock and Roll Music”, a clever mashing of musical styles made to bend to Chuck Berry’s will, became a mantra. Lennon and McCartney both understood the inner couplet rhyming of “use it/lose it/music/if you…want to dance with me” that they nicked it for dozens of songs. And in the hands of The Rolling Stones “Round and Round” becomes a sinister caterwaul against insipidness. Watch something truly horrifying as Mom & Pop Lunch Pail sit agape while digesting the Stones on national TV rip their way through that song and usher in the next half-century of satanic debauchery. Watch them use the 1960s to invent the ‘70s while giving us Berry’s 1950s.

Perhaps this lineage can best be described in two seminal Chuck Berry compositions, “You Can’t Catch Me” (1956) and “Back in The U.S.A” (1959); both set a dizzying course from The Beatles “Come Together” to The Beach Boys “Surfin’ U.S.A.” to The Beatles again in “Back in the USSR” to Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”, which ends up in some circular parody of itself and still out-shines the bunch with lyrical gems like “I put my foot on my tank and I began to roll / Moanin’ siren, ’twas the state patrol / So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn / Bye bye New Jersey, I’ve become airborne.”

By the time this was all happening, and the 1960s happened, and all those bands and their offspring were pouring so much syrup on Chuck’s pancakes you could hardly taste the damn things anymore, Mr. Berry was done. Or sort of done. At least done as an American institution. Or a perceived American institution. As much as an African-American man can be. But he became again the first in a long line of rock and roll miscreants, outlaws, and nose-thumbers.

The lore goes like this; at the end of the 1950s, before all the noise from England when the pop charts were thrust into an opaque dissonance of Pat Boone blahs, the second most important singer/songwriter of the first rock and roll wave, Buddy Holly died in an airplane crash, Little Richard became a preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis went off and did the Southern thing and married his 13 year-old cousin, and Elvis went into the army. Chuck Berry, as a prelude to the coming decades of anti-social, anti-authoritarian acts, went to jail.

The official records state he made a mockery of the Mann Act, when he allegedly had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old Apache waitress, whom he then transported across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl at his club. After several appeals on the grounds that (clear thy throat) the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him, he went to prison for 17 months.

For all intents and purposes that would be the end of the glory years for the man who gave us the music, the guitar hero, the outlaw rocker, and the mantra-poet that everyone from Dylan to Nas has since liberally borrowed.

But, of course, Chuck Berry would hear of none of it. He toured and toured and did more touring, in caravans and festivals and by himself, grabbing only his guitar and a hat and coat and meeting reverentially confused young musicians along the way from Bruce Springsteen to Keith Richards to my dear friend and once band-mate, Barry Geller. And for good measure as last resort to piss off and endear all at once, he oddly had his only #1 record in 1972 with a double-entendre tour-de-force called “My Ding-a-Ling”, which you needn’t be Fellini to deconstruct.

What followed were, to put it mildly, “the mean years” in which “dealing” with Chuck Berry became something of a Herculean chore; whether promoters or musicians, the press, the fans, whomever. For a great example of his prickly-to-outright-bitchy demeanor check out the 1987 tribute concert film, Hail, Hail Rock and Roll which illustrates clearly that this is a man who trusted no one and listened to less. The aforementioned Keith Richards, who looked at Berry as nothing less than a messiah, spends the entire journey from rehearsals through the show fighting with him. This makes perfect sense since Keith’s best feature, beyond commandeering the guitar and staying alive, is social combat. The first time these two met Berry punched him in the face.

I can say, for my part, I have played and sung Chuck Berry songs my entire adult life and enjoyed every note and syllable, and for some time, in the 1980s – during which in a one-year span early in that decade I would see both Chuck and Muddy perform on separate occasions – I would make it a prerequisite that anyone worth his weight had to at least get through one of those tunes to make the grade.

The very DNA of this thing that has enchanted me viscerally and intellectually for my entire life begins and in many ways ends with Chuck Berry.

He may not have invented freedom and rebellion and seduction and mischief and rollicking fun, but he distilled it into a goddamned raucous art form.

Good work, if you can get it.

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