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. The 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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VIEWS FROM THE ROAD: THE ADAM DURITZ INTERVIEW

Buzz Feature
8/9/16

James Campion

VIEWS FROM THE ROAD: THE ADAM DURITZ INTERVIEW
Counting Crows Frontman Reveals the Band’s Unique Performing Secrets, His Love of Creative Spontaneity, and Remembers David Bowie and Prince

Over the past eight years now Adam Duritz and I have spent some quality time just talking; much of it has ended up in this paper. Each time Counting Crows comes into town, which is quite a bit, we chat. And each time it is engaging, informative, intimate, and analytical. In all my years doing this I have rarely found a more insightfully honest subject.

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This time is no different, as the band readies another swing around the U.S. this summer; a perfect opportunity for Duritz to share his views on his organically emotional live performances, playing with Springsteen, the passing of David Bowie and Prince, and “normal” life versus that of “the road”.

jc:A Counting Crows show always features unique versions of your songs, as the band often follows your lead on stage, which always appears to be extemporaneous. You get into an emotional state and you take a song into different directions, which is remarkable when considering how many musicians you work with.

AD: Oh, yeah. That’s exactly how it happens. The first time you try something it might not be all that good, but as you work it through more and more you get better at finding your way. But they’re good. It would be impossible if we weren’t. Listening is really everything for us. It’s a big thing in our band. It’s like they say about jazz and soul music, it’s more important what you don’t play than what you do play. I would probably phrase that more like, “It’s more important how you listen on stage than what you play on stage,” because no matter how good you are as a player, if you’re not listening to the other guys, it’s a train wreck, especially in a band like ours, where there’s so much improvisation. It’s not like solo improvisation, more like necessary group improvisation. You really have to listen and that’s the thing we really kind of beat into each other’s heads for a long time.

jc:I always get the feeling that you are kind of leading the band down the proverbial rabbit hole, and once the song gets in there, now it can go anywhere.

AD: Yes. It makes it a little dangerous to not listen for me too because people will do things and on top of it, it’s messy. That’s the one thing in our band that everyone will call you out on, just not paying attention. Also a lot of things that may seem like me leading down the rabbit hole, might have been me hearing something cool someone else did that was a small thing, maybe too simple for anyone else to have heard or for the audience to have noticed it, but that might have given me an idea. It’s not like I’m the one coming up with the ideas every time. It probably sounds like it is, but probably a lot of times; it’s someone else doing something kind of cool that I hear and then I start something different and then that’s the part you hear, or the audience hears because it’s a little more obvious when the vocal does it. I suppose I’m the one making the decisions to take everyone down the rabbit hole with me, but I’m often inspired by just something little someone else did – or not so little. Little is the wrong word. Just something cool that someone else did.

jc:That reminds me of your putting “Thunder Road” in the middle of “Rain King,” and I remember you doing it back in ’97 in Jersey and I thought, “This is perfect. It’s a homage to Springsteen.” But then it became part of what you did with the song, and after we did our first interview in 2008 you played that Apple show downtown in Soho and you did it again, but this time it was a different way of utilizing it. When you include a verse or even a chorus of one song, maybe yours, maybe another’s, how predetermined or organic is that idea?

AD: Could be a little of both. It could be an idea that comes while I’m on stage. The “Thunder Road” thing is a perfect example. I just started doing it one day, and granted, “Thunder Road” is one of those songs that without thinking about it we kind of know it from start to finish. It’s so dynamic in the way it builds that you kind of know most of the words. Even if you didn’t bother to learn them, they’re in your head. I was never really in cover bands very much. I never played “Thunder Road” in a band, but I started singing it that day. The first time I did it I only got about a third of the way through. No matter how well you know “Thunder Road” I’m singing it to the music of “Rain King” and that can get confusing.

jc:(Laughs) Right.

AD: You know? The next night I got a little further through it and eventually I put almost the whole thing in there. But it took a few days to do that. And sometimes you just get an idea while you’re singing something, like just a melody from another song will seem really cool in there, but the first time you do it you might not have the focus or the wherewithal to think of that melody in the context of the different song and also remember the words. The funny thing is a lot of times when we remember songs we remember them because of their melodies too, so when you try to sing them over a different song it can make your head spin around a little bit.

jc: How much post mortem do you guys do on that? Do you guys get together after a show and say, “Oh, that one part of ‘fill in the blank’ we went there and I could see it going there”? Is there any way you can verbalize it?

AD: We talk about it a lot, especially in the middle of a show. If I hear something that we keep doing wrong or something, I’ll go to the mike at the back of the stage where I can talk to my monitor guys and my stage manager and I’ll often just give them a note, like, “Can you just tell Charlie this later or tell Immer this about ‘Good Night Elizabeth’?” I will make quick notes, so I don’t forget. We’ll also talk a little bit about it the next night at soundcheck and work on it.

A good example is the Teenage Fanclub song, “Start Again”. We really love playing it and we didn’t stop working on it even two years after the record (Underwater Sunshine – 2007) was already out. I still kept feeling like it didn’t work right. It starts with just an acoustic guitar and then it’s an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, and there’s some piano that comes in and then more vocals and then the twelve string comes in at one point, but all that’s about two thirds of the way through the song, and for the last third of the song I really felt like it was a song we established through dynamics by slowly building things, but nothing happened for the last third of the song. Then we came up with an idea, I guess it was the last chorus of the double-chorus, to drop all the instruments out and have it just be vocals. I think it happened because someone forgot to play something in one show and one of us noticed it and we talked about it the next day and sort of then tried to do it on purpose. So eventually we then kind of came up with a way of doing it where everybody dropped out except the twelve string, which kept playing.

I really wish we had that when we recorded it, but we didn’t. Even though the recorded version is the ultimate version to me, it’s great if you can come up with all that stuff. But sometimes you just don’t, so why not make the song better if you can?

jc: And the happy accidents only happen if you keep playing. There is no way to get a happy accident or something that’s organic like that unless you’re playing all the time and constantly listening, as you say.

AD: And also being willing to see something as not just a mistake, but possibly an improvement; seeing a happy accident as happy as opposed to just an accident. Because the fact is that music is that way, so people do things because of some gut instinct and often that seems like a mistake and it is a mistake, but the jazz of playing together is that you can hear something and it just gives you a different way to look at the song.

Just the same way that my being in a different mood on any given night might cause me to take a song in a different direction, it’s the subtle stuff that takes it to another level. We’re playing every night for twenty-five years, so, like I say, why not keep getting songs better?

It’s more important how you listen on stage than what you play on stage

jc: The last time we spoke it was probably the day after or two days after Robin Williams committed suicide and then I think that when we first spoke about Somewhere Under Wonderland, Lou Reed had passed while you guys were recording it. And since then David Bowie and now Prince have passed. I’m just wondering if you had some thoughts about Bowie’s passing and certainly Prince’s, who is a little bit closer to our generation.

AD: Well, Bowie was really big for me, because I came to Lou Reed probably through Bowie. I think I got to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and all that music through the experience of Bowie, to Transformer and then backwards to the Velvets, probably with a big dose of R.E.M. covering Velvet songs to push me into that too. I mean, I had probably heard “Walk on The Wild Side” when I was a kid, but I don’t think I really understood Lou Reed until I had really gotten into Bowie. He is really the thing that draws all that together; what a song like “Palisades Park” is especially rooted in. It comes from Bowie and Mick Ronson. I obsessed over Bowie bootlegs when I was younger.

That was hard. That was really weird and upsetting. It seemed so sudden too. You’re not part of their lives, so you don’t realize that they’re sick or something. You don’t really know about it. So it seems like there’s someone you have been with your whole life, and then all of a sudden, it’s just on the news that they’re dead and that’s it. It’s hard to digest that in that way because you don’t really get prepared for it. It’s almost like when people die in accidents. It just happens very suddenly and there’s no prep for it because even though this isn’t that, weren’t not living with the lives of our idols, no matter who they are we don’t really know them that well, so when they do pass away it’s, for us at least, without warning, which is strange.

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jc: When Hunter Thompson died or Kurt Vonnegut died, I looked at it in terms of how many more years do I have left to ply my craft? It put my own mortality into perspective. I don’t know if the same happens to you when an influential musician dies.

AD: The interesting thing for me with Prince, because, you know, when I was a little kid my first concert was Jackson 5, and soul music was a huge part of the American rock and roll experience for white and black people. There was no real division there. But sometime in the ‘70s, and especially in the early ‘80s, it separated again. It was like there was R&B music that black people listened to and some white people, and then there was rock and roll that white people listened to and it wasn’t like when there were bands like Sly and the Family Stone or the Jackson 5 or whoever, where there were just black people who played rock and roll and it was funky and it was still rock and roll. There seemed to be a real racial divide in music. The only person crossing over it was when Michael Jackson put out Thriller, but even that was a little later. I really remember pretty vividly Dirty Mind. The first thing I heard about him was that the Stones were going on a tour and this guy Prince was opening for them.

jc: They threw shit at him and booed him off the stage.

AD: Yeah. That’s what I mean about there being a real separation between white and black music. He got booed off the stage! But I remember hearing “When You Were Mine” and some of the other stuff on Dirty Mind, and thinking, “No man, this is the Ramones. This is like punk music. It’s new wave music.” In the same way in the midst of all the dinosaur progressive rock music that people were playing in the 70s’ the Ramones came along and just put guitars and basses on and played very simple chord patterns and melodies. “When You Were Mine” is just like that. It’s a little cleaner, but it’s just a black guy playing a very melodic rock and roll guitar to a very straight drumbeat and a great melody. That could be a Motown song. It could be a Ramones’ song.

And I remember hearing the rest of the album and how vulgar some of it was and thinking it was kind of cool. I didn’t really start to love him until the next record Controversy, which is way funkier than Dirty Mind. Controversy’s got all these long funky jams on it and it really reminded me of like some of the Earth Wind and Fire, Commodores stuff when I was younger, but with this whole other edge to it, and also was still the new wave stuff like “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.” And I remember thinking at the time, “This guy is Sly Stone. There is no color here. He is a black guy playing music for everybody that draws from everything and he is really different.”

jc: You’ve been off the road for a few months now. How are you feeling about getting back out there again?

AD: I think it will be good to get back on the road. I think this much time at home isn’t really all that healthy for me, honestly. It took me about three or four months to realize I was just sitting around. Not talking to people. Not seeing people. I was so relieved to get home in a way that all I did was sit here in my room. Then I started going to the gym again, started working out, and started talking to people and getting out of the house. But I get in such bad habits when I get home after awhile. I’ve been trying to like cure myself of them recently, but it will be good to be on the road again. Not so much for the touring but just because it’s a real community. It’s a family. You’re forced to be social every day, because you’re simply around people every day and that’s good for me.

jc: So you’re going to Europe first and then you come back here?

AD: Yeah. Between the European tours last year I went over to Europe with our tour manager and our manager and I called up a bunch of promoters and we asked to meet with promoters in different countries and apparently no one had ever done this with them before, because the agent comes and talks to them and people talk to their agents, but no one had ever traveled around talking to different promoters. I went to all these promoters in all these different countries and I said, “Look. I really like coming here and I understand that you only get us like once in a while and it’s kind of like whenever we’re coming, and so it may or may not be a good time for you, but do we build Counting Crows in Italy or how do we build Counting Crows in Holland? I really liked Claudio, the promoter over in Italy. He was talking and said, “I’ve got some ideas for gigs, but would also be good is you should open for Springsteen.” And I said, “Well, Claudio, Springsteen doesn’t have openers.” He goes, “I know, but he did it for me once over here. I think he would do it for me again for you.” I was like, “Okay, well…whatever; that doesn’t sound like the most promising idea I’ve ever heard.” But then Claudio called and he said, “I got Springsteen touring in Italy this summer. I want you to play with him at the Circus Maximus.” You know, the big Ben-Hur arena in Rome?

jc: Sure.

AD: So we got a gig with Springsteen in Rome. So we put some other gigs around it, but that’s what happened. Claudio came through.

jc: First time you’re playing with him?

AD: Yeah. At a Springsteen show. I never even heard of him having an opener before quite honestly. It should be cool.

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WHY NOT ALICE?

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Cover Feature
9/21/16

James Campion

WHY NOT ALICE?
As Chaos Reigns: The Coop Launches Late Run for the Presidency

“A Troubled Man for Troubled Times!” reads the banner unfurled on main streets and town squares everywhere across the fruited plains. A rendering of a recognizable face adorned in disturbing deep-black eye make-up grins like the Cheshire Cat beneath the quaint tip of a top hat – his long, ebony locks drape the shoulders of his alabaster tuxedo. He is impish and defiant, a past filled with triumphs, resurrections, and a whole lot of rocking.

Alice Cooper wants your vote for president this fall.

“Do you know how un-political I am?” he chuckles down a phone-line from Nashville, Tennessee, somewhere along the campaign trail. “I can’t imagine why anybody would want to be president!” A welcomed sentiment for an electorate whose majority not only sees corruption and failure in government, but a foul distaste for the current front-running candidates from both major parties.

Why not the Coop? Why not now?

“Yeah…why not me?” he exclaims with the strident glow of a contender. “I have tee shirts to sell!”

The man who defined shock rock, parody, satire, and non-de-plume celebrity has been married to the same woman for 40 years, stone-cold sober for over 30, and still humbly travels with his beloved pet snakes. Hell, he plays more golf than Barack Obama, and that’s saying something.

After a stilted but lucrative run back in 1972 (If we elect Alice, no Watergate, right?) on the fuel of the raucous, campaign-ready release of the iconic single, “Elected”, which was noteworthy for being the most expensive single in Warner Bros storied history ($10,000 – about 57 grand today), for reaching #26 on the U.S. Billboard charts and #4 in the UK, and later to be included in the international #1 album, Billion Dollar Babies, he is once again primed and ready to go.

“The kids need a savior, they don’t need a fake!” he shouts above the din of raunchy electric guitars and the pounding of tribal drums, as salient an observation today as ever.

There is a wonderful promotional (campaign?) film from the period that depicts a visibly soused Cooper stumbling from a blood-red Rolls Royce, pompously adorned in his signature top hat and tails (sans shirt), clutching a cane and later a can of Budweiser, shaking hands and raising his arms in mock victory. He cavorts mischievously, surrounded by secret service and swooning women. Later he is joined by members of the original Alice Cooper group and a chimp in a tux smoking a cigarette while pushing a wheelbarrow full of cash, which the band tosses around like confetti.

It is hard not to see these images as nothing but prescient in these times when nothing less than a billion dollars can get you a sniff at the White House and unchecked funds pour from anonymous sources to peddle influence all over our body politic.

So this ain’t Alice’s first rodeo, as they say. In fact, it was an honor to tell him personally that in 1988, faced with a similar dilemma of rancid candidates and the restlessness of fleeting youth, I actually wrote in his name…well his given name, Vincent Damon Furnier as my candidate of choice.

Now, tanned, rested and ready – out on tour with a smoking band, a wonderfully bombastic remix of “Elected” – and a show that features a finale of fisticuffs between Madam Hillary and the Trumpster, The Coop takes time out from his busy campaign schedule to discuss his role in America’s political landscape, his bizarre but well-framed platform, an endearing friendship with Groucho Marx, the blessings of image over the banality of substance, and dining at Castle Dracula with Tim Burton.

james campion: Why Alice, and why now?

Alice Cooper: You’ve got some guy that keeps shooting himself in the foot every time he opens his mouth and then you’ve got another candidate that nobody trusts. Alice Cooper is probably more trustworthy and less chaotic than all of them. But of course I would hate the job; I couldn’t take the pay cut for one thing. Plus, I want to keep my hair dark not white. Every guy goes in with dark hair, comes out with white hair, because they’ve got the burdens of the world on their back.

There are so many people out there that want to be involved in how the political system works and how the game is played and the chess moves and this and that and to me that is the most boring thing in the world. It looks great when Kevin Spacey does it, but in reality it’s just the biggest chess game of all time and I’m much more interested in writing new songs. So to me politics is so much on the back burner that I believe I may be the most viable candidate.

jc: You’ve released a remix of the 1972 single, “Elected” to kick-start the 2016 campaign, as you did in 1972.

AC: That song is so satirical, and of course, we had such a great target for satire in ’72; Nixon. Who is more evil, Alice Cooper or Nixon? At the time that was kind of what the point of it was. Who was more absurd; myself or the President of the United States? And so now every four years it raises its politically ugly head and here we are this year in one of the most absurd elections of all times.

jc: The story behind recording the song and getting it ready for the election in the late summer of 1972 is fantastic: Produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin, your partner in crime, there are sixteen horn section overdubs on it, took you guys weeks to record it, you ended up doing the vocals in front of a mirror, as if you were giving a speech, and then you guys spent a record 80 hours mixing it. Tell me about “Elected” in 1972.

AC: The pure idea behind that song was a tribute to The Who, because it had those big Pete Townshend power chords. (sings) TA-DA! BA-DUH-DUN-DUN! DUH-DUH-DUN! We were kind of tippin’ our hat to Pete Townshend on that whole thing, and my natural way of writing songs is to tell a story. I always loved the way Chuck Berry told a story or the way Ray Davies told a story and I wanted to tell a story. Bob is the one that really turned it into the epic that it was with the (sings descending guitar riff) DUN-DUN-DUN-DUHN-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN! It sounded like an American anthem, something that should have been written by Sousa, and yeah… it was way over-produced compared to anything else we’d ever done, but it just sounded so great on the radio.

I remember John Lennon came to our office in New York City on 13th Street and he listened to the demo tape of it like three days in a row. Finally, I passed him in the hall and he goes, (in Lennon voice) “Great record,” and I went, “Oh, thank you.” Then he took another two steps and he looked back and he goes, “Paul would have done it better.” And I went, “Well, yeah, of course he would have. He’s Paul McCartney!” But John loved that record, because it really had that power and it was satirical and it was something that he totally got. He was very cynical about politics and he understood the musical satire of it.

jc: It does sound like a big, sweeping band is ushering you on stage to make a political speech. Like everything you and Bob did, and still do, it’s very cinematic. You get the whole picture from that song. It’s brilliantly done.

AC: We always treated the studio as if it were a theater. When I sang “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, they put me in a straight jacket and put a door on top of me, so I sounded even more stressed out. We always experimented on how to make this sound real. This guy really wants to get out of there. And for “Elected”, we asked; “How do we make this sound like a political speech and really make it sound convincing and take it up a notch?” Bob was not against bringing people into the studio as an audience, because I played better in front of an audience. From my remembrance of it, it was just a matter of let’s just sell this like a Southern diplomat. I mean, let’s just make this guy sound like he’s ‘top prime cut of meat’.

“Yeah…why not me? I have tee shirts to sell!”

jc: The remix sounds even larger, if that’s possible.

AC: And for this stage show, we actually have Hillary and Trump come out, except that they look like zombies. We kind of tapped into Walking Dead and I said, “We can’t just have them come out. They’ve got to kind of look like they’ve been through hell.”

jc: Which they have.

AC: They come out and shake hands and she turns over and he can’t help himself; he pinches her on the butt and then she turns around and smacks him and then he smacks her back and then they look at each other and she falls into his arms with this gigantic kiss and the audience just dies laughing. Of course after that there’s a fist fight and I just order them off stage and I get up in the podium and point to myself like, “See?! I’m the guy!”

jc: This harkens back to when Nixon resigned and you guys did the ’74 Muscle of Love tour, and the band ended shows with you beating Nixon up on stage.

AC: Right. We beat up Nixon on stage. We beat up Santa Claus on stage. At the very end of the show anybody that should never be beaten up was beat up. The funny thing about this is, in all honesty, and like I said, I’m not politically correct, I’m politically incoherent; Nixon in 100 years will go down as one of the greatest presidents because of his foreign policy. He brought Russian and China together. He brought America into that. He was actually the best foreign policy guy I think we ever had. He wasn’t very good at home or around Watergate, but internationally the guy was pretty good at what he did. And he just happened to be involved in the Vietnam War. That was the thing where the kids were so angry with him. Our government was all wrong and everything. I think that started out as a righteous war and became an unrighteous war.

jc: I want to discuss some of your platforms that I received from the campaign. My favorites are “a snake in very pot, getting Brian Johnson back in AC/DC, adding the late Lemmy from Motorhead to Mt. Rushmore, a total ban on talking in movie theaters, mandatory cup-holders for airplane seats, and a moratorium on taking selfies, except on Designated National Selfie Day”, but the one I wish to address is putting Groucho Marx on the $50 bill. I know that you knew Groucho personally. Tell me a little bit your relationship.

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AC: A lot of people don’t realize this, but Groucho, as much as he pretty much ran the Marx Brothers and was the quickest guy ever – I mean, he couldn’t go five minutes without doing three one liners, eighty-six years-old and he was still sharp as a tack – he would actually consult Presidents of the United States. They would write to him and say, “Groucho what is your take on this guy Tito? What is your take on this guy Castro?” He was a Kissinger kind of character to presidents. He wasn’t just a humorist. He was actually a pretty good judge of character. He could be used to feel people out. I read some of the letters to Groucho from heads of state and you could tell they knew this guy’s serious.

jc: He was a brilliant man.

AC: He really was. To be a good comedian you really do have to be very bright. You can’t be a dumb comedian. I don’t think there are very many dumb comedians, because you have to get what’s going to make people laugh. You have to understand how to set people up for the laugh. I think comedians are some of your most intelligent people.

jc: Speaking of which, we’ve previously discussed the humor and subtext of Alice Cooper, but here you have Groucho, who is a comedic character using makeup hanging out with Alice, a satirical character in makeup. I think it’s fantastic. You’ve always displayed great humor behind your work, so there was always the kind of intelligence behind it you’re talking about here. You’ve always been my hero for exploiting the guise of the anti-social behavior Alice Cooper was accused of incessantly.

AC: Yeah, I think it took a while for the public to get the fact that there was sense of humor behind Alice Cooper. In the beginning, it was just all Satanic. “This is Satanic! This is Un-American!” and “Blah! Blah! Blah!” on and on. We couldn’t have been more American! Three of the guys in the band were four-year lettermen. We were jocks. We came from really good homes. We didn’t come from broken homes. We were just All American, and maybe it was from associating with Groucho and (Salvador) Dali that we leaned towards the satirical artists, and we considered how to make Alice Cooper that also. We were already judged as being something that should never have happened and yet it took a while. Maybe it took me being on Johnny Carson a couple of times before people went, “Oh, wait a minute. This guy plays Alice Cooper.” It was like playing Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It took a while for them to understand that Alice Cooper was a character that I created.

jc: Well, people naturally conflated Chaplin with the Tramp or Bela Lugosi with Dracula. Bela Lugosi couldn’t shake that throughout his life as an actor.

AC: Yup. I’m like that. I didn’t want to see William Shatner in anything except Captain Kirk.

jc: Right!

AC: You know what I mean?

jc: I sure do.

AC: I never wanted to see Errol Flynn without a sword in his hand, because they were so good at that character that you just didn’t want to see them in any other part. I’m kind of like that with the guy that plays Dexter. I don’t really want to see him in anything except Dexter.

jc: Last thing; I know that you’re in Nashville now and you’re going to be working with Bob Ezrin on new material. I worked off-and-on with Bob for a year on my last book (Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon) and I know how much he means to you. Give me a little taste of what you guys might be doing for a new record.

AC: Well, we already started. Last night was the first night that we actually talked about direction. And we’ve already come up with 25 great ideas and you know today is going to be one of those days where it’s a lot of, “Oh, that’s a great idea, but wait a minute!” That might be over the top! But there’s no such thing as ‘over the top’, ‘Oh, right!’”
This is the fun part for me, because this is the creative edge where you do a lot of laughing!

jc: Well, I know it’s going to be interesting and cinematic and all those things, because it always is. I love when you guys get together.

AC: It will be! It’s cool, because I know that we’re a hard rock band. It’s going to be a guitar-rock thing. That’s always what it’s going to be and I know what the lyrics are going to be already and I know what direction it’s taking already. Now it’s going to be fun to shape it.

jc: You said the last time we spoke that you and Bob are like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

AC: I was actually at Castle Dracula with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton this year! When the Hollywood Vampires tour had a day off we were in Romania and we had dinner at Castle Dracula.

jc: Perfect.

AC: And Tim Burton came along with us. It was the perfect threesome. We had the whole band there, but you know if you’re going to be there, be there with Tim Burton and Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp.

jc: Before we part ways, I wanted to ask you about Joe Perry, who had the medical scare during your Hollywood Vampires tour. How is he doing?

AC: Joe is great. You know, five days after this happened he was on stage with us in San Francisco and finished the tour out and I never heard him play better. I never saw him look better.

jc: That’s good.

AC: I don’t think it had anything to do with his heart. I think it was just exhaustion. You know, what we didn’t realize was I’m used to doing five shows a week, full out. I think he’s used to doing two shows a week with Aerosmith. I mean, they had a pretty hard life early on, where as I quit everything 35 years ago. I didn’t really take into consideration; this was our eighth show in 10 days in Brooklyn. He might have just been dehydrated or exhausted or whatever it was. We found out later on that it was definitely not his heart. He’s fine. I think he’s already gone to Australia or South America with Aerosmith.

jc: And you keep on running…

AC: Bye-bye!

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