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 not improved a whit from the moment it emerged came 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 understand 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 1973 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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THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE ROLLING STONES

Aquarian Weekly
6/22/16

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE ROLLING STONES
In Praise of The Sun and the Moon and The Rolling Stones & A Candid Discussion with Author, Rich Cohen

There must be hundreds of books written about the Rolling Stones. Conservatively, I have read about twenty to twenty-five, half of which I would deem good, and less than a third great. Rich Cohen has managed to write a spectacular one. It is aptly titled; The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones, taken from something Keith Richards told the author in 1994 when he was covering the band for Rolling Stone. You see, like me, Cohen, and a preponderance of humans inhabiting this spinning sphere, we don’t know a world without the Stones. What we’re talking about here is the abiogenesis of rock and roll; the subatomic atoms of modern pop and rock, the DNA of global youth culture.

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Here is Cohen’s remarkable achievement; he explains this phenomenon in a most novelistic way; deconstructing the characters and framing the period dominated by the Stones with great care. His is a story of many Rolling Stones; the blues cover band, the British avant-garde, the neo-American hybrid, the faux-celebrity-junkie-chic marauders, a reinvented, reconfigured reflection of rebellion, and, of course, rock star excess. It is throughout all this explaining that Cohen dives into personal experiences with the band, as a kid, as a teen, as a reporter, as an historian. Each expression is a unique one, and some even deal in contradictions; like all great heroic literature.

It is a fascinating read; treading the difficult balance of appealing to the casual observer and a rabid fan.

How the hell did he do it?

“I had to basically pretend I was writing fifty years from now and everybody’s dead and worry about the consequences later,” Cohen explains over the phone from his Connecticut home, the enthusiasm in his voice quite evident in the pace in which he recalls the journey. “I thought, ‘It’s such a huge story and every book is right in the middle of it, but if you can sort of step back and write about it like you would write about World War II or Winston Churchill, then you can see what things meant and how things happened and see the whole picture.’”

To drive this point home, Cohen casually notes the inspiration of a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. “If you can get a lot of different angles on something you can ultimately get something that’s alive and in-depth,” he continues. “So if you can see the Rolling Stones from the point of view of a kid, from the point of view of a rock journalist, from the point of view of an older guy, and then from the points of view of Maryanne Faithfull, from the point of view of reporters covering Altamont, and you can put all that together and you can get a complete picture of them.”

The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones puts an epic into tidy perspective, another pretty impressive feat, all boiled down to the two figures at the eye of the storm, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – childhood friends, confidants, combatants, and co-conspirators; growing up together in the cauldron of infamy. “To me, what’s interesting about Jagger and Richards is that it’s the completely typical friendship we’ve all had,” says Cohen. “You have these friends when you’re young and you want to be together all the time, you live together, and then at a certain point, you grow up and you’re not together anymore. And so much of their music came from them being together; hanging out for hours and hours and coming up with these songs, and once they grow up, they’re not together any more, and the music changes.”

Cohen captures two seemingly insignificant slices of life that act as lasting portraits of the two men; Richards playfully lecturing a business man on an airplane about life and Jagger chasing corrupt manager, Allen Klein, wanting to beat him up. I wondered if he had found these characteristics – Keith, the libertine braggart, and Mick, the myopic pragmatist – prevalent when he met them in the 1990s. “Absolutely! But exaggerated,” he says. “All of the trouble that they’ve had, it’s all there from when they first meet. It’s just two completely strong personalities that are complementary, but clash. It is calculating in a good way and necessary for the survival of that band.”

Pressed further, Cohen provides deeper insight into the gears that makes the colossal machinery rumble along mostly unimpeded for five decades: “If Mick was going to go in a swimming pool, he would go look at, figure out the depth, and then take off his bathing suit and jump in. Keith would just run and jump in without looking… in all of his clothes. It’s like two totally different kinds of guys. And right at the beginning, when I first met them, Keith’s got his doctor’s bag. He’s taking whatever he’s taking. He’s playing the guitar. He’s saying crazy, cryptic things. He’s laughing. He’s smoking. And Mick is sitting in the trailer on the phone talking business. And you need that guy. That’s why the Rolling Stones are still playing. And also I don’t think Jagger gets enough credit for insisting, right from the beginning when Brian Jones only wanted to hire him, “I don’t go in without Keith.” He’s always brought Keith along in that way.”

The book’s most poignant moments centers on a uniquely Stonesian trait; the absorption of people and places to fuel their music and enhance their image before blithely casting them asunder; the cold brilliance of which cannot be ignored when discussing the band’s lasting influence on the whole of Western culture for half a century. “They have to make this decision,” he says. “What are they willing to sacrifice for what they want, which is basically wealth, fame, and to be rock stars?”

This begins, according to Cohen, when the band decides early on to jettison original member Ian Stewart on the premise that “he doesn’t fit the image’, as put down by young hipster manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. It is a ruthless moment Cohen says causes the Stones to “lose their soul”, which happens again and again with such influences as original roommate, James Phelge, Jagger’s girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, the band’s witchy matriarch, Anita Pallenberg, and the feeble but talented Graham Parsons. Eventually it would happen to Oldham, and tragically to founding member, Brian Jones, who would be kicked out of the band after years of deteriorating drug abuse and eventually drown in his pool at the age of twenty-seven.

“It’s very obvious what happened to Brian Jones,” Cohen recounts to me in a matter-of-fact tone. “He had this idea for a band and the band became more successful than he planned on and he lost control it. Not because of any evil thing, but because people identify with the singer. It’s just the way it works. You know, you go to a Frank Sinatra concert; you’re looking at Frank Sinatra. You’re not looking at the Count Basie Orchestra. So the singer becomes the star.

“Then Mick and Keith write ‘Satisfaction’ and that’s it. And Brian Jones is sort of now a second tier figure in his own band. And then you mix in all the other stuff, which are Anita Pallenberg and the LSD and his paranoia and his own probably pretty bad personality. Now you got a guy, who doesn’t actually kill himself, but he basically puts himself in a situation where he can easily die, over and over again, and then one night he does die. And what the Stones did was they realized at a certain point that they couldn’t hang onto him, they couldn’t save him, and he was just dragging them down… so they got rid of him.”

Once again, the fascinating aspect of The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones is its intriguing compartmentalizing of the Stones career through its early incarnations of blues, psychedelia, country-rock, stadium rock, and on and on, that is broken up in two stages by one tragic event; Altamont. The chapter, which the author calls the book’s anchor, is riveting, and puts in motion Cohen’s perspective style; as it gets beneath the surface of the tragedy of a myopic counterculture disaster rife with drug-addled violence that ends in the fatal stabbing of a gun-wielding kid by the Hell’s Angels.

Stirring first-hand accounts from stage manager, Sam Cutler, doctor, Robert Hyde, who carried away the mutilated body of the twenty-two year-old, Meredith Hunter, the late Albert Maysles, whose film cameras imprinted the carnage forevermore in the seminal, Gimmie Shelter, and many others provide new insights into what is arguably the mythical epoch to not only the Stones story, but that of the 1960s and the latter half of the twentieth century. “After getting all these stories you wind up with what I saw as this kind of kaleidoscopic scene at the end of the 1960s that was so intensely covered at the time, and now when it’s written about it’s either written about too closely or not at all,” Cohen reasons. “It’s like there’s no stepping back and looking at it like, ‘What really happened?’ and what it really meant without getting emotional about it.”

The book’s most poignant moments centers on a uniquely Stonesian trait; the absorption of people and places to fuel their music and enhance their image before blithely casting them asunder

Another device Cohen uses wonderfully in the storytelling is his trips to the places that “created” the Stones, like the original, putrid Edith Grove apartment, where Mick, Keith and Brian dreamed up their destinies, and most notably the infamous Villa in the South of France called Nellcôte, where Richards convened the band in tax exile to record arguably the Stone’s, and the genre’s, finest statement; Exile on Main Street. The author describes his impetuous trespassing, as he jumps the fence and sets the haunting mood of this once mystical hub of rock debauchery, camaraderie, and creative discovery. It is something Cohen believes is ingrained in the entire Stones legacy.

“One of the great things that’s key to the Rolling Stones is they have great taste,” he says. “They started out copying really good music, and that’s what they did for everything. If you look at Mick Jagger, and the art that he would have around him, in his house, its great art. Like years before you’d hear of painters, he knows this guy’s a great. That means when they would go work, they’d do it in great places.”

Cohen knows about those kinds of places, as he, Jagger, and master director, Martin Scorsese hit it out of the park with the dynamic and spot-on depiction of New York City’s smoldering hot-bed of musical reinvention for HBO’s Vinyl. Just as in the series, the characters of The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones are at once inspired and later possessed by their surroundings, coming to define them forever.

I pressed Cohen on whether he felt intimidated to give the Stones a pass on some of the wincing points of their careers, which he most certainly does not, in the glare of the friendships he had built with drummer, Charlie Watts or especially the working relationship with Jagger.

“You have to decide, are you loyal to Mick Jagger, or are you loyal to the reader?” he says. “I’m going for the big thing here. I can tell you everything I know. And the fact is if you really love these guys and love this music and get deep, deep into it, you just come across these things you have to struggle with. Not going to Brian Jones’ funeral; I just can’t understand that. Even if you hated him, how could you not go to his funeral? And there’s no way I can’t look at that and not comment on it. It’s like the Tom Wolfe line; ’A man in full.’”

This is what Rich Cohen has brought to the lexicon of the Rolling Stones; a uniquely first-hand account of fawning fandom and hard journalism, a place for the clamor to be silenced and the mass of gathered information to be digested.

“It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he tells me in conclusion. “It’s not a portrait of a saint, and they wouldn’t say they’re saints. So you got a lot of sin in there too, and if you don’t write about the sin, then it just becomes bullshit. It becomes propaganda and then it’s not good.”

The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones is not merely good; it is, again… spectacular.

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PRINCE ROGERS NELSON – 1958 – 2016

Aquarian Weekly
4/27/16

Cover Feature

James Campion

PRINCE ROGERS NELSON – 1958 – 2016

I do not want to write this shit.

Not now. Not ever.

This is personal.

But it’s either this or continue sitting around enduring this sick feeling of inertia on the edge of a loathsome face-off with mortality.

So…whew…here goes…

During the most prolific musical period of my life, my early twenties, when I wrote and played music for a living, more or less, there was only one artist that mattered; Prince Rogers Nelson.04-27_prince_cover

This was a dark time of transition for me from the late ‘70s Punk movement into New Wave and then a lot of stuff I did not relate to on any level beyond a strange imbalance of apathy and abhorrence. There was U2, the Violent Femmes, a little later, Jane’s Addiction, REM, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, but mostly, I was lost. But one thing that could always be counted on was a new Prince album that would snap me back into coherence and make me love new music again, as I did when I was a kid and wore out all my 1960s to early 1970s stuff.

From 1980 to about 1998, Prince was a motherfucker. He wrote, produced and played on more songs than any living human. Period. In a time when major artists put out an album every three to four years, Prince dropped one, and in some cases, two annually. He once released The Black Album, pulled it, and replaced with another one (Lovesexy) in two months, then leaked the former on bootleg. He bootlegged himself! The 1996 album, Emancipation had thirty-six (36!!) really good, really interesting songs on it. In ’98, Crystal Ball had fifty-one incredibly disparate and engaging tracks. On the bulk of these seemingly endless and brilliantly devised discs, the majority of which were huge hits with even bigger hit singles on them, he played every instrument, frighteningly well, and sang all of the parts; some five-part harmonies worthy of the Temptations meets Brian Wilson on a funk jag.

Prince lived in the studio. Literally. He built the damn thing where he lived. Turns out, he died in it. He did not drink. He did not use drugs. He did not attend gala industry parties. He rarely did any interviews or appearances. Hell, he barely ate or slept. He wrote, played and recorded music. When he left the studio to tour the world, he would jam with locals and members of his band in clubs in every city. He played the bass, drums, guitar, piano, and sang back-up and lead, or whatever was needed. He played every kind of music expertly. He listened to and absorbed every kind of music copiously. He was a sponge and he was a spigot that poured forth inspiration.

Those who sessioned for him swore he would force the best from musicians, because he was better than any of them. For a mind-numbing spurt in the mid-to-late 80s, Prince wrote, performed, and produced major hits for many artists; The Time, Sheena Easton, Chaka Kahn, TLC, The Bangles, Sheila E., Stevie Nicks, to name a very few. He started “mask” bands like The Time, The Family, Mazarati, Vanity 6, so he could put out four or five albums a year. Two years running he put out jazz albums under the name Madhouse and created characters to sing and produce other works, Camille and Jamie Starr to name just two. Later he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol just so he could record anywhere and everywhere to escape the confines of a music business that could not handle him.

Every single he released during this time came with an adjoining twelve-inch extended version with completely fresh B-sides that were often superior to some of the tracks on the albums. Time and space precludes me from making a very strong argument that “Erotic City” is the best side of anything anyone put out in the 1980s, and it was the B-Side to “Let’s Go Crazy”, which is the fifth best song on his monster album/film, Purple Rain. And Purple Rain, which won Prince an Oscar, Grammy’s, et al, and has sold a stunning 22-million copies worldwide to date, is not nearly as good as 1987’s Sign ‘O’ The Times, which I still believe is by far the finest, most diverse and experimental pop record of the decade.

Here’s one for you; I maintain that the best song Prince ever wrote is one he never even recorded as Prince or the symbol-thing, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, which Sinead O’Connor’s gorgeously heartrending version turned into a smash hit. I first heard it performed by one of his aforementioned “mask” bands, The Family on its only album in 1985; no doubt with a backing-track played entirely by the composer. If there is a more painfully framed slice of love-loss than “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the backyard…all died when you went away”, I’m waiting to hear it. The thing floors me every time. Every time.

That kind of freedom is power and it led him, and us, to some pretty cool places.

Prince songs are genre-less. It was Prince – everyone else. There was rock, funk, punk, pop, jazz, fusion, reggae, ska, rap, classical and a collection of aural oddities that brought a dynamic charge to each successive listen; songs about sex and love and race and sex and God and loss and sex and power and dreams and sex and pain and joy and…yeah, sex. Sex was Prince’s gateway to the spiritual (orgasm as transmogrification), the political (seduction as liberation), the revolutionary (transgender identification), with all those substitute word/symbols thrown in to give it all a literary spark. Listening to Prince back then was a lesson; sit up, take notice, learn the craft, be the music, dig the vibe. It was the experience you looked forward to, because you would not be disappointed.

Maybe it’s because he controlled everything; his image, his fashion, and of course his music. It led to the outstanding and the outlandish. No one was there to say no to Prince, from the first album when he was barely 20 years-old and somehow convinced Warner Bros to allow him to produce his own records. There was no Quincy Jones or George Martin for Prince Rogers Nelson. He was the one who decided to pull the bass out of “When Doves Cry” or create an entire alternative-concept album around a Batman movie or direct a black-and-white French film that bombed so badly it is hard to believe he wasn’t ruined (for the record I like Under a Cherry Moon better than Purple Rain, so there), and certainly no one counseled him to demand everyone stop calling him Prince and release instrumental jazz-rock fusion records after multi-artist compilations and then shun the entire record industry altogether. Nope. It was all Prince, for good or ill. That kind of freedom is power and it led him, and us, to some pretty cool places.

My favorite Prince musical memories, beyond the dozen or so times I saw him play live with some of the best musicians I have ever heard/seen anywhere, is all that wonderful first-time stuff. You know, first time I heard “Purple Rain” at three in the morning driving home from some gig; letting the opening chords and the first verse sink in, then turn it up a little for the second, and by the third, where he shreds his vocal chords and the goddamn fret board, let it blast away. The first time I cracked open the shipping box for Around The World In A Day, still sort of my favorite Prince album, two days before it was to be put on the shelf (I was working at Record World in Westchester at the time), and running home to play it; the weird Indian raga and the screeching wail of a guitar into vocal, then all that stuff afterwards that runs into “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life”, and that weird shit at the end where he is fucking and talking to God or whatever the hell is going on there. Hearing “Kiss’ for the first time; the bare, stark, air-sucking naked compression of everything that thump-kicks you in the face and the gut and the balls; ushering in that pinch-chirping falsetto; “You don’t hafta be beautiful…” My first listen to Sign ‘O’ The Times; his masterpiece; his Exile on Main St., his White Album, his Blonde on Blonde – Fuck it; go listen to Sign … right now…do it!

I remember the friends and lovers too. We were the special ones, the ones who dug Prince before he was the shit and after he stopped being the shit when the shit came down on him. You know who you are, but I have a special place in my soul for my dear friend and drummer, Anthony Misuraca. Shit, Anthony and I would listen to Prince everywhere; the car, the house, the studio, the roof, the basement, the street; morning, noon, night. We’d pick out chords and riffs and lilts in his voice; You hear that? No? Listen to this…man! We drove from Raleigh, North Carolina to Madison Square Garden on August 2, 1986 to see The Revolution ply its trade. I remember it because it’s my brother’s birthday, and because we did it. It was my first Prince gig. I chased down Prince concerts after that; every single one better than the next – although for my money the Lovesexy Tour 1988 beats all-hell; in the round, a tour de force. I caught it three times.

That was the thing about Prince; it was personal for those of us who dug him. We got our copy of Uptown magazine every month at Revolver Records on West 8th Street and argued about the alternative mixes and studio outtake/live bootlegs and after-hour show tapes and how each song referenced the other song and it coalesced into this other thing entirely. It was a 70s kid thing for a lot of us, who grew up, like Prince, on imagination, amalgamation, and organic clout in our music. We understood when Prince released a B-Side at 45 rpm, but if you slowed it down to 33 rpm it is a tribute to the third track on the fourth Sly and the Family Stone album. We knew when he referenced James Brown in “Get Off”; “Some like ‘em fat…” or rolled into Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” in the bridge of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” or that odd Stones riff he hides in “Ronnie Talk To Russia” or the Hendrix feed-drenched guitar-screams in “All The Critics Love You In New York” or the Black Sabbath-esque foreboding intro to “1999”, or the blatantly obvious Marvin Gaye homage suite in “Do Me Baby”. We got it, man. We loved it. He understood what made us tick. He gave us a soundtrack to our soundtrack.

For the longest time, there was a Prince album and Woody Allen film every year. Like clockwork. And they were always challenging and engaging and inspiring. This was what I counted on. Like Christmas or birthdays for others. The other day I thought about a time when the 80 year-old Allen would no longer be able to tell his celluloid stories. This I get. It’s going to suck, but I get that. But Prince? He is 57. I am 53. We hail from the same post-Boomer/pre-X generation that produced a shitload of really cynical, wise-ass jerk-offs, who cannot believe there are still illogical, racist, sexually-repressed assholes running around using the same tired bullshit to tell us what we can listen to or eat or fuck or wear; that we thought we had somehow changed things by merely living on and making it to the future; it is what Prince meant when he wrote in the liner notes of every record, “May U Live To See The Dawn”.

Suddenly you wake up and the future is the past and your present is the dumb shit your parents and their parents had to deal with. You sleepwalked through all this proposed revolution. You expected something new and vibrant, because you imagined it. Maybe it was all just marketing. But you come to accept it. It’s fine. It’s life. And then with no warning and no reason Prince up and dies and dredges it all up. A wild, eccentric crazy man, whose art was life, is gone – who wore nothing but garters, silk-stockings and panties on stage and ass-less pants on Arsenio Hall and stuck the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of a funk song about interracial homosexuality and turned songs about Armageddon into a party-pop hit you could roll out on MTV with his interracial, cross-gender rock/funk/pop band, conflating images of Jesus, smack, slavery and cunninlingus into a song about flowers.

I was reminded today of that little nugget from Toure’s 2013 treatise on Prince, I Would Die For You – Why Prince Became An Icon, which I reviewed for this paper and truth be told, inspired my own foray into such an investigation on KISS in my last book, Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. “Toure writes of “emerging adulthood” this way: “Sociologists say people fifteen to twenty-five are in active identity formulation mode, as opposed to thirty-somethings…part of why we like certain artists is that we like the other people who like them, we enjoy being associated with or attached to those people, we want to be in a tribe with them. After thirty that social transaction is less valuable.”

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Today, as I write this, those words ring true. I already knew all this, it’s obvious, but when that touchstone, the focal point of a tribe long gone dies, it can unsettle the odd illusion. I have to admit, it triggered something deeper in me than mere fandom. My friend, Anthony must have felt it too. I had not heard from him in about five or six years, yet he emailed me within minutes of the news of Prince dying. He just wrote, “Wow.” Yeah, wow. It is, I think, a real sense of something else dying; the youthful exuberance of discovery and a revolutionary spirit that always seems to be fading.

But that’s the nut. You see, Prince stopped becoming that interesting to me by the turn of the century. There were moments when I was pulled back by a random album or single, and I caught most of his tours through here, although I sadly missed the last one. It’s as though, over this past decade and a half, I’d been already mourning his passing as an influential artist in my life, but really that passing was that of time, this period of life when music could shift my entire being for more than an afternoon or evening, where it took me places, redefined me, set another course, a more dangerous one. It fueled me. It scared me. It soothed me.

Ahhh, but once that’s awakened in you, then you look for it everywhere. It’s a curse. And I think what became glaringly apparent with the passing of Prince is the curse can’t be lifted. Nope. It’s there. Always. And because Prince was visual and theatrical and worked on many thematic levels and played with perceptions and got Tipper Gore all hot and heavy over Darling Nikki “masturbating with a magazine”, it reminded me of it. It’s humor. It’s sedition. It’s exuberance to test parameters unseen. It reminded me that it makes all the rest of it worthwhile. I need to be reminded. We need to be reminded.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…”

Preach it, brutha

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SIR GEORGE HENRY MARTIN – 1926 -2016

Aquarian Weekly
3/16/16

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

SIR GEORGE HENRY MARTIN – 1926 -2016

The Beatles: the cultural axis for a generation, whose music, style, language, and political impact was seismic, fueled by a hypnotic influence unrivaled in the pantheon of art. The Beatles invented a paradigm and then shifted it, over and over and over again. It is impossible to imagine there being a thing called rock and roll, arguably the most lasting global movement of the twentieth century, without it. Beside the four men who made up The Beatles; John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, there stand two others most responsible for this; Brain Epstein and George Martin. As manager and mentor, Epstein created the visual revolution that charmed a planet while Martin, as producer and creative Sherpa, did the heaviest lifting of all; he cajoled, conducted, re-imagined and realized the music that shook the very foundation of human spirit. He made songs, glorious songs; perhaps the best and most revered music of the modern age.

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You want to begin to comprehend George Martin’s genius and immense contribution too all this? Simply listen to the music. Do it now. Go ahead. You have heard it a million times, but do it with fresh ears and a pure heart. Deny it is not nostalgic and fresh, bold and endearing, an eruption of joy. I dare you. It is Mozart meets Chuck Berry meets Jackson Pollack meets Abby Hoffman meets vaudeville, theater, sock-hop and cathedral.

Then do yourself a huge favor and read Martin’s 1979 memoir, All You Need Is Ears, Here, There and Everywhere by Geoff Emerick, one of his partners in studio magic, and Mark Lewisohn’s brilliant and seminal, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.

I can write ten thousand words about George Martin. I may still do it. But for now I’ve asked some very talented friends from all ends of the music business to weigh in on his passing this week. But most of all, I needed to hear their musings on his wide-ranging influence. It is in the following words that the resonance of the man remains, as in every note he arranged, produced and then captured for posterity.

George Martin is the legacy of now. His lasting gift has no time or era; it continues, and will continue, as long as people can make the music wink.

Bob Ezrin, legendary producer of Alice Cooper, KISS, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Taylor Swift, Rod Stewart, Deep Purple and much more is a direct descendent of Martin’s elaborate studio creativity. Classically trained, as was Martin, Ezrin’s “thematic” and aural storytelling continues to expand the scope of rock music’s oeuvre.

“He is the father of the entire modern recorded music industry. It is his genius and imagination that changed the recording studio from a place for the rigid and faithful reproduction of live performance to an instrument of sublime creativity and endless possibility. He saw in recording the ability to tell stories and create worlds through music and sound using techniques created for radio drama – many by him personally. He extended the “stage” of recorded music past the four walls of the studio out into a whole new universe of sonic imagery. Though it all seems almost commonplace now, this was truly revolutionary stuff in his time. And all of us who tell stories in sound and music owe our craft mostly to him and the Beatles.

At the same time, he was the archetypal refined English Gentleman; a soft and well spoken, brilliant man of profound principle and respect for the world in which he lived. He was warm, humble, impish and imposing all at the same time. And he was, above all, ethical and totally genuine in his dealings with others. He earned his title in every way and I’m sure many called him “sir” even before he was knighted.

I have a funny George Martin story. So many of us do. But right now, as I head to the studio in the same way I have for decades, I can only think of him and his wonderful story, and of my profound gratitude for his historical life and work – and for the wonderful life and career that he (and the late, great Jack Richardson) made possible for me.

And the answer to your question about the making of KISS’s Destroyer without Martin’s influence: Absolutely not. We used the studio as an instrument during the making of Destroyer, trying hard to create a ‘cinematic’ experience for each song. No one even knew that was possible before we heard Beatles records.”

Jay Messina, legendary engineer/producer of Aerosmith, Patti Smith, Miles Davis, Peter Frampton, Krishna Das, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Ravi Shankar, and more not only worked with ex-Beatles, but many of the artists directly impacted by Martin’s talents. Messina has and still works today with the bedrock laid down by the innovations of the Abby Road edict.

“I can only recall one time I had the honor to meet and work with him. It was to record Aerosmith, doing “Come Together” for the Sgt. Pepper’s movie. The thing that impressed me the most about him, besides his calm and peaceful aura, was that he really didn’t give Jack Douglas (producer/engineer of John Lennon, Aerosmith, New York Dolls, The Who, and more) or myself any particular direction other than to do what we usually do. I was impressed with the confidence he displayed, in himself, by just being able to sit back and observe the session as it unfolded. I miss him.”

Robert “Corky” Stasiak, legendary engineer/producer of Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, The Raspberries, Jim Croce, KISS, The Clash, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and more came as close as anyone to a Lennon/McCartney reunion before it was curtailed by happenstance that led to Elton John recording the #1 hit, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” for Lennon’s 1974 album, Walls and Bridges. Stasiak’s love and honor as the consummate sound engineer put to the test much of Martin’s best-loved techniques during the classic era of rock.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to George and his family. I am gutted by the news of his passing. We did three albums together (Neil Sedaka, Jimmy Webb) and I was lucky to have worked at his studio in Montserrat (Air). He was a great inspiration to me, and the music universe. It’s hard to imagine a world without this Gentleman, musical Genius among us any longer. Anyone who has ever met him knows exactly what I mean. Our loss is Heavens gain. Rest in peace, Sir George.”

“He is the father of the entire modern recorded music industry.”

David Thoener, multiple Grammy winner and legendary producer/engineer of Carlos Santana, John Mellencamp, Heart, Meatloaf, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Willie Nelson, J. Geils Band, and more works the world over continuing to spread the international musical flavor of Martin’s work with the Beatles that introduced several and varied styles to the world.

“2016 has brought us the unfortunate passing of such amazing music talent. As a Baby Boomer I guess we can expect more reading that our heroes have died, but the passing of George Martin was a tremendous loss for all of us in the music industry. His contributions have touched millions and many who don’t even know how they were indirectly affected by his genius. My direction in life changed the day I heard The Beatles “Love Me Do”. It sounded like nothing I had heard before. I was instantly not only a fan of the Beatles but was curious how they created such an amazing sound. I was 12.

Moving forward to “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” was transforming. At 15, I had decided my future; I was going to become a recording engineer and all, because George Martin changed my life forever. I had the opportunity to work with John Lennon in 1974, a memory I will never forget. 42 years later I am still making records, over 400 at this point. I have had a very satisfying journey through life and I owe it all to George Martin.
RIP, Mr. Martin.”

Rod O’Brien, engineer for Grand Funk Railroad, Edgar Winter, Blood Sweat & Tears, Talking Heads, Cindy Lauper, Patti Smith, Ozzy Osbourne has plied his trade in studios everywhere with every style of music, all of which has some connection to George Martin’s incredible body of work.

“I never met the man but like everyone in music I felt his influence and have the highest regard for all his work.”

Dan Bern, singer/songwriter/artist/author (albums include New American Language, Fleeting Days, Drifter, Breathe, among others, and books, World Cup, Quitting Science, 10,000 Crappy Songs) was and still is an avid Beatles freak. He speaks and writes adoringly about his time as a youth being awakened to the beauty and majesty of song through the recorded tapestry commandeered by George Martin. Dan’s hilarious tribute, “The Fifth Beatle” is one of his most beloved songs.

“George Martin did a great job producing Peter Sellers. And some other guys too. It’s hard to imagine The Beatles without George Martin. The Dave Clark 5 comes to mind. OK, that’s not fair. But the Beatles and George Martin went together like Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee, the Michael Jordan Bulls and Phil Jackson, Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins. OK, you get the idea. Three Beatles are gone and two are left. RIP, tall stodgy English man who talked like a schoolteacher and rocked like Amadeus.”

Eric Hutchinson, singer/songwriter/deejay (albums include Sounds Like This, Moving Up Living Down, Pure Fiction, Eric Hutchinson is Pretty Good, among others) is a songsmith and music nerd above all else. In the dozens of lunches and interviews we have had over the years not one failed to include some mention, deconstruction and celebration of Beatles music. We are still trying to formulate an increasingly difficult “Worst Beatles Songs Ever” list. How can we do it?

“Calling George Martin the 5th Beatle always felt a little too easy for me. To me, he was the father figure, the moral compass and the sophisticated class that made The Beatles come to life. Without a doubt his musical vernacular and knowledge enabled the group to grow and grow so quickly. Growing up, George Martin’s name was spoken in my house with the same reference as the president’s. He was that important.”

Nick Howard, singer/songwriter (albums include Something to Talk About, When the Lights Go Up, Stay Who You Are) and proud New Yorker by way of Britain, has carried on the Beatles tradition of pop sensibilities and a unifying message playfulness sometimes lost in today’s music environment.

“George Martin probably had a greater impact on popular music than any producer in history. Less we forget too that he SIGNED the Beatles when everyone else turned them down (something I remind myself of daily in my own quest for success)! In an age when bands and artists were signed on talent and not Instagram followers, he signed the best one of them all and allowed them to grow as men and musicians (to great effect!). To me he is a Beatle, and therefore has helped shaped my life in ways unimaginable.”

Eddie Trunk, radio and television personality, Megaforce Records executive, and author; (Trunk Nation, Sirius XM, That Metal Show, VH1 Classic – Books: Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Volumes I and II) has seen the music business from every angle and as a learned and well-traveled music historian, his voice heralds the many ages of rock music which begins in earnest with the dedication to growth exhibited by George Martin throughout his decades-long career.

“As someone who works in the world of hard rock the influence of George Martin may seem like a stretch. But consider this; almost every single rock and metal artist I’ve ever interviewed sites The Beatles as their primary influence and clearly George Martin had a huge role in that. Let’s also not forget he also produced some great albums for bands like UFO, Cheap Trick and others. The man was simply a giant in the landscape of music in so many ways.”

Scott Shannon, legendary record promoter and radio personality and member of the National Radio Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, watched the world turn upside down by the Beatles phenomenon and then turned its machinations into gold records for dozens of artists, not the least of which earning one of his own from Ringo Starr by breaking his 1974 hit, “No, No Song”.

“I really don’t have much to say that hasn’t been said by more important people than me. He was a genius and a gentleman.”

Ken Eustace, songwriter/producer; whose work with me as a recording artist lo those many years ago, had us scrambling to steal all of George Martin’s tricks with then modern equipment that dwarfed what the Beatles created masterpieces on. Hey, we tried.

“He was the context that gave meaning to Lennon/McCartney’s content.”

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MUSIC FROM THE ELDER: Explaining the KISS Album Everyone Hates

ROCK Magazine
2/18/16
James Campion

MUSIC FROM THE ELDER: Explaining the KISS Album Everyone Hates

KISS hates it. The fans hate it. The band’s late manager and its label hated it. Everyone hates Music from The Elder.

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Time, almost 34 years now, has healed some of the wounds. You can find a loyal geeky contingent online and in the darker regions of KISS-dom that sing its praises. It even received nostalgic cheers from fans a decade after its release when the band would deign to play a song or two from it at KISS Conventions. There is even a British film-maker who is attempting to decipher its concept for a movie and an upcoming book from Tim McPhate and KISS historian non-parallel, Julian Gill called Odyssey, which will dissect every corner of it. But the general consensus is that KISS’s 1981 concept album was a monumental disaster and by far the band’s worst.

Guitarist and founder, Paul Stanley has called it “the biggest misstep of our careers” while his partner Gene Simmons described it as “pompous.” Former founding member, Ace Frehley, who thought it “offensive”, once threw a tape of it out of the window of his car while speeding down the Major Deegan Expressway. “It’s an abomination,” says its producer and mastermind, Bob Ezrin.

So why did KISS conceive, record, and release an album that was originally part of a trilogy, conjure a major theatrical tour, and consider an accompanying feature film for a project almost no one had much faith in and almost immediately disowned as if the entire episode was some kind of sophistic mirage?

Many a rock act has suffered the “whoops” moment, starting with a bevy of crappy Elvis movies to the mighty Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour television show fiasco to U2’s almost inconceivable Pop Mart Tour and, of course, Madonna’s Sex book, Garth Brooks becoming someone else, and a Bob Dylan Christmas album. But none could seriously compare with the story of Music from The Elder, which confuses the hell out of just about anyone coming in contact with it to this day.

This is an attempt – try and stick with me here – to explain it, not excuse or defend it, necessarily, just explain it. And for that we must go back to the final dark days of KISSmania, when the walls were closing in on our heroes…

THE END IS NIGH?KISS79b

It is March of 1981 and KISS is fading. Fast. The theatrical, image-driven, merchandising colossal band that once ruled the better part of the 1970s has endured faltering record sales, dwindling concert attendance, especially in the U.S., and depending on which party is consulted, the expulsion or defection of a founding member, drummer Peter Criss. The band’s original label, Casablanca Records, which had bet broadly and benefitted spectacularly on KISS’s success, came apart at the seams with the death of disco, a fad that it had wagered its considerable funds would last. It would be absorbed by Polygram Records, which boots its founder, Neil Bogart and negotiates a lavish contract with the band that it would hardly recoup in record sales. Aucoin Management, led by innovative marketing genius, Bill Aucoin, who guided KISS into the rock stratosphere, was also in dire straits. He had failed at every turn to duplicate his band’s once-in-a-lifetime meteoric rise with another act – he famously passed up one of the biggest bands on the planet, Van Halen for something called Piper in 1977.

Fading…

All around pop culture, signs of shifting fortunes are closing in. For perhaps the first time since the late 1960s’ hard rock is disappearing from the charts. The concussive rise of Punk, and its kinder and gentler cousin, New Wave in the late ‘70s has reset the agenda, torching the recent past. The latter is still going strong with hit albums by the Cars, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, the Pretenders, all competing mightily with the English New Romantic sound as it sweeps across America in the form of Duran Duran, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet. With the advent of MTV the following summer these acts and many more will usher in a new age.

Fading…

KISS is becoming a dinosaur; the make-up, costumes, theatrics, and the relentless merchandising that had attracted fans of all ages, now mostly children, has rendered the band somewhat of a joke. It didn’t help matters when in May of 1980 KISS releases Unmasked with its comic book self-mockery of the more infantile side of the band’s image on its cover – there is actually a frame of a kid announcing “I still say they stink!” – to its unbelievably soft single, “Shandi” accompanied by a video of what looks like a middling imposter of the once mighty KISS vamping poorly through a foggy lens.

Fading…

KISS is lost. Its image has taken all the hits it could withstand. Its music was never particularly experimental or groundbreaking, but is now failing to at least be fun. And when a band makes no bones from its outset that its only aim is fame and riches and suddenly both are rapidly going down the tubes, then what?

KISS is unsure of what that answer could be, but the band, its management and its label know one thing; this has happened before. Sort of. And when it did, in that fateful spring of 1975 with the band at a creative, financial and career-defining crossroad, KISS turned to Robert Alan Ezrin to pull them from the abyss.

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Long before selling out stadiums, seducing millions of dollars from merchandising, earning several platinum albums, and even starring in a hit television show and a popular Marvel comic book, KISS was a struggling rock oddity looking for footing in a rock world that had mostly ignored it. Paul Stanley (Star Child), Gene Simmons (Demon), Ace Frehley (Spaceman) and Peter Criss (Cat Man) had recorded three less than stellar efforts (KISS, Hotter Than Hell, Dressed To Kill) with little to no recognition or sales. The label and management were at odds on royalty payments and touring costs, and beneath a torrent of lawsuits the desperate result was to record a live album to salvage what was left of the record contract and regroup.

That regrouping included the recruiting of Bob Ezrin, who was riding high as the 26 years-old wunderkind who “created” the Alice Cooper group’s signature cinematic sound; producing, co-writing and conceiving the themes for each outlandish Cooper show and managing to also top the charts slowly but surely with Love It To Death, Killer, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies, the final one cresting at #1 in the U.S and U.K. Soon Alice would go solo and Ezrin would work his magic to unleash the innovative album, film, and tour, Welcome to My Nightmare.

Always one to grab onto talent with a definably odd charm, Ezrin was intrigued by KISS as early as 1974, something he shared with David McGee of Rolling Stone in 1976; “I could hear a rumble from the street, and I’ve always had a very good sense of that. I knew KISS was having a profound effect on people already and they weren’t even home yet. No airplay. No singles. No real big headlining tours.”

Ezrin met with the band in the spring of 1975 and broke down its issues; “I told them, ‘You’re super heroes of rock with a singular power and that’s it. There’s no depth to you!’ I just wanted there to be layers. I didn’t want to peel off the make-up and costume and find that there was nothing there.”

With the band yearning for direction and a legitimate producer, Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter willingly sublimated themselves to the will of Master Ezrin, who pushed them through a “boot camp” for weeks of music theory, song structure, signature composing, and relentless rehearsing. “We absolutely pulled out a blackboard and started introducing them to the very basics of music theory, just enough so we were speaking the same language,” recalls Ezrin.

Stanley concurs in his 2014 memoir, Face The Music, “For a bunch of guys who thought they were hot shit, it was initially jarring to go into a studio with somebody who treated us like children.”

Heading to New York City’s famed Record Plant, then the state of the art recording facility on the planet, the band spent a month cutting what would become its sonic manifesto, Destroyer, with its booming drum sounds, wall of guitars, backwards tracks, choirs, orchestra, calliope, and a one-minute and twenty-eight second radio-drama opening. It spawned one of the first ever power-ballads with the band’s biggest hit “Beth” and, with the ensuing unexpected popularity of Alive! that autumn, would catapult KISS into a world-wide phenomenon; crossing cultural and economic barriers rarely traversed by mere rock bands.

I spent hours speaking with the now legendary Bob Ezrin for my new book, Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon, and throughout our many discussions, we always returned to how much Bob had “altered” KISS’s “sound” with Destroyer. However, Bob would have none of it: “KISS have proven that there’s no such thing as a KISS sound. They’re an incredibly versatile group with a KISS attitude and a KISS style of lyric writing since the band is comprised of characters.

Ezrin never accepted KISS as being a two-dimensional act, appealing only to those “15 year-old pimply boys”, as he described them. With Destroyer, Ezrin added a pathos to the KISS ethos, and a third dimension of vulnerability, teen angst and critical character development that assisted in taking the band into new audience territories, expanding the act into something transcending rock into pop culture and transforming them into icons. This was the mission of KISS from the band’s origins, but it took a few months with Bob Ezrin to realize it five years earlier, and there appeared no better time than to hand themselves over to him once more.

Turns out when Ezrin is chosen to lead the new project, he has not seen anyone inside the KISS camp since the release of Destroyer, when Bill Aucoin, taking a lead from his panicked charges that the album was too much a departure and began hearing from the press and fans that the “experiment” had eradicated the band’s hard rock credibility, sent the young producer a letter officially stating that he had missed the mark in getting the elusive “KISS sound”. Ezrin was shocked, dismayed and pissed off, telling his protégé, Jack Douglas, whom the band had already contacted to perhaps remix Destroyer and quickly record a back-up without him, to tell everyone associated with KISS to “…go fuck themselves!”

KISS indeed would follow up Destroyer by going in the completely opposite direction and rode the crest of Destroyer’s massive success with Rock and Roll Over, Love Gun, Alive II, Double Platinum, and Dynasty without him. And even though none of them hinted at the amazing aural imagery of Destroyer or the musical vastness provided by a classical trained and professionally astute artist like Bob Ezrin, there looked to be no end to this gravy train, until, of course, there was.

The way the KISS inner sanctum figure it now there are two ways the band could go at this crucial juncture; the same old route back to the cock rock, floor-on-the-floor assault of the early days, which is quite obviously out-of-touch with a ravaged rock landscape, or completely torch the thing and pass the smoldering ruins over to Ezrin for another “experiment” that could provide the band an end-around to all of its troubles.

Music from The Elder is the result.

Released in early November of 1981, the new KISS album was not only a complete departure from whatever the band had attempted before, including Destroyer, it appeared to many in the business, and more pressingly fans, despite the recognizable KISS logo, to not even be a KISS album. There were no photos of their famous painted faces on the cover, only a single hand reaching for an ancient knocker on a giant door. The gatefold image opened to a medieval setting of candles and a long wooden table. The music was also a curious mélange that separated the band from its glorious past; Paul Stanley singing falsetto, Gene Simmons crooning, an orchestra, wonderfully overwrought as a backdrop on Destroyer, now dominated the sound. Even the album’s title whispered bewilderment; if this is music from…, then what exactly is The Elder?

LET’S GET SERIOUS568A7D0F-kiss-new-odyssey-book-to-offer-definitive-examination-of-1981s-music-from-the-elder-album-video-trailer-image

Gene Simmons, a huge fan of comic books, horror films and sci-fi, had whipped off a short story/screenplay for a concept he developed around a single line scribbled in his notebook; “When the earth was young, they were already old.” It was to be a classic tale of good versus evil told over several worlds, not unlike the wildly popular Star Wars, which had just released a box office record-smashing sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. There is a council of elders called the Order of the Rose in search of a “chosen one”, ala Luke Skywalker and the Jedi Knights, trained by a mentor, Morpheus, ala Obi Wan Kenobi, to fight the evil villain, Mr. Blackwell ala Darth Vader, evoking a medieval to futuristic mash up of myth and mystery. It was anything but fleshed out, but evokes something in the cinematically motivated Ezrin, who puts the kibosh on a series of demos KISS had recently been working on to return the band to its harder edge.

In fact, earlier in the year the KISS newsletter had informed the disillusioned fan base that the band’s new material was “hard and heavy from start to finish” with “straight ahead rock and roll that will knock your socks off.” And so they were. Demos from the period with new drummer, Eric Carr, with his massive double-bass kit and tank-division style, had begun to breathe life back into the band. Although pictured on the cover of Unmasked, original drummer, Peter Criss had not played a single lick, as he had only played on one song, his own, “Dirty Livin’” on Dynasty. Session drummers filled in, as did players for Simmons on bass and Frehley on guitar for a few songs on Unmasked, which helps to explain the record’s poor attempt at flimsy pop and New Wave rip-offs. The new KISS demos sounded more like KISS, because members of the band were actually performing them.

But manager Bill Aucoin believed strongly that doing the same old thing was no tonic to the band’s decreasing popularity and had other ideas. He told KISS biographers, David Leaf and Ken Sharp in 1996, “I had a meeting with Bob (Ezrin) and said, ‘How about some sort of album that can tell a story?’ Bob’s very bright and we got into this mythological thing and it got way out of line.”

This one statement subtly encapsulates the aura surrounding KISS that Aucoin himself had built from day-one; against all odds and against all reason, this is the biggest band in the world and it will do whatever it wants without consequence. As much as Ezrin was a strong and lasting musical influence on KISS, Aucoin was its father figure. It was he who had developed a grab-bag glam rock outfit into a roaring image and stage machine. His word was sacrosanct in the KISS inner sanctum.

This singular notion of invincibility manifested in several ways, not the least of which was the notoriously wild spending on shows and costumes, and with greater fame and fortune it expanded to cars, houses, drugs, women, and the usual rock excesses; by 1980 they were all far from dealing in anything close to reality. “We were delusional,” Paul Stanley recalls. “We were at a point, individually and as a band when we were becoming complacent and very comfortable in our success. I think we got caught up in the Emperor’s new clothes.” Gene Simmons, a man armed with a monstrous ego even when he was a pauper, had gone completely Hollywood, dating Diana Ross (after a stint with Cher on his arm), and flirting with the movie business. “I blame me,” said Simmons in the same account. “I really believed in the vision. ‘Yeah, I am great!’ I take full responsibility for pushing it (The Elder). I wanted credibility, which is really stupid if you think about it. If you’ve got everything else, who cares?” Ace Frehely, a party animal from the day he joined the band in ’73, was now a full blown addict; coke, pills, and a spectacular run of uninterrupted alcohol abuse. His only ally in the band, Peter Criss, was gone, so he was outvoted routinely by Stanley and Simmons, and although he loved Eric Carr as a drummer, he knew he was merely nothing more than a hired musician and could offer no real fulcrum against the tide of the band he now decided was losing its edge.

Bob Ezrin, as is his wont, ignores the wining and over analysis and enthusiastically runs with the idea of a KISS concept album filled with fantasy. He is coming off the massive critical and commercial success of Pink Floyd’s conceptual opus, The Wall, in which he went deep into the terrifying psyche of its composer, Roger Waters; coming to grips with his past, his disassociation with stardom, and his constant battles within his band. Throughout the sessions that trudged on for months, Pink Floyd was splintering – original keyboardist Richard Wright was summarily sacked by Waters during its recording – and it is something of a miracle that such a seminal piece of rock art could emerge from this swirling turmoil. Ezrin takes charge of KISS in the same manner and forges ahead undaunted.

And so KISS, now summoned to Ezrin’s home country of Canada, abandons all of its earlier “returning to hard rock” ideas and in May of 1981 begin to embrace Simmons’s fantastical story of youth overcoming the evils of the universe one song at a time.

Well, at least half of KISS embraces it.

Ace Frehley is certain that this is not the band he signed up for and quickly rekindles his well-practiced “I’m out of here!” routine he had begun as early as 1976. As with the Destroyer sessions when he was replaced on several tunes by brilliant studio guitarist, Dick Wagner, Frehley rarely shows up. As Ezrin works out songs with Stanley in his home studio and fleshes out snippets of song ideas with Simmons, Frehley decides that he would hole up in his Connecticut home in his newly erected basement studio, Ace in the Hole, to work on his tracks separately.

For his part, Eric Carr is merely a bystander. Barely in the band a year, Carr started out powering the KISS sound back to its ‘70s rock roots, but with the fits and starts of trying to transition into the 1980s’ with struggles to keep up appearances as one of the top bands in the world, he is cast adrift in the “new concept project’ shuffle and is ordered to play in styles that he has hardly considered, much less conquered. Ezrin, who had driven former drummer, Peter Criss to near madness meticulously pushing him to play exact parts to click tracks during the making of Destroyer quickly tires of Carr’s inability to master the new material and eventually replaces him with studio drummer, Alan Schwartzberg.

Still Stanley, Simmons and Ezrin press on with vigor. It’s this triumvirate that poured their hearts and souls into Destroyer five years earlier when Frehley and Criss wilted under the pressure. Ezrin believes this was something of a cultural, almost familial connection he parlayed into this new challenge.

“You cannot diminish the kind of kindred sense of connection between Paul, Gene, had myself” Ezrin told me in 2013. “The three of us growing up in Jewish households with that same sort of Eastern European ethic of trying to push the kid to be great and putting an emphasis on education and the arts; having to take piano lessons, learn to dance, doing all this stuff we had to do as kids, we had kind of a common ground. So when we all got together we felt like long-lost cousins in a way.”

The “cousins” start the painstaking process of creating The Elder story by taking segments of songs already fleshed out, along with newly penned pieces, and attaching them to Simmons’s vague plotline. These include an old pre-KISS Gene Simmons tune from a 1970 demo tape called “Eskimo Sun”, reworked as “Only You”, a character back-story for the theme’s protagonist. A new Stanley/Ezrin composition, “Just A Boy” describes the young man’s reticence to take up the mantle of champion. Stanley’s “Every Little Bit of Your Heart” or in some bootleg circles titled “I Want You Only” slowly becomes, with embellishments from Simmons and Ezrin, the central ballad of the piece, “A World Without Heroes”, which provides the youthful hero to imagine an apathetic future with nothing to fight for and no one in which to fight.

Years later, Ezrin told reporter Chris Alexander; “At the time we were all looking for bigger and better things… we thought it would be the beginning of many projects to come out under the name Elder. Paul and Gene were very into it, and put everything in it. They both had to step out of their personas, and was really daring for them to do that. They were attracted to the classic rock, almost Beatle-esque style of the album – they were seduced by that.”

And as he did with Destroyer in January of 1976, Ezrin once again brings in outside material and writers. A key song to the plot ends up being a souring ballad called “Odyssey” written by a music-business veteran of nearly thirty years, Tony Powers. The New York based singer-songwriter-actor had pioneered the short-form video storyline later used by Michael Jackson to great effect during the height of music videos with a 1981 trilogy that included the song. It caught the eye and ear of Paul Stanley, who cornered Powers in an Upper West Side café in NYC and asked him if KISS could use it as a key theme for the piece. Another veteran of the New York music scene, Lou Reed, with whom Ezrin had worked in 1973, producing his dark concept album, Berlin, is brought in to add lyrical and theatrical flourishes (it is Reed who scribbles the title “World Without Heroes” on a pad in the studio, which prompts Simmons to move the song in that direction). These include the villain theme, “Mr. Blackwell” in which Reed wields his now famous use of tense-shifting/first-person to third-person storytelling to unveil a truly demonic presence.

However much fleshing-out the story of The Elder would thematically and musically take KISS outside its bubble, there is something strange happening that had not occurred since the Destroyer sessions of late 1975, early ’76; the members of KISS are indeed writing together. There would even be time for Eric Carr to contribute, as he did with a riff for the rocking “Under The Rose”, which introduces the listeners to the world of council and “Escape From The Island”, a thunderous instrumental conceived from a Carr/Frehley jam with Ezrin on bass, marking the first time since “Beth” that neither Stanley nor Simmons appear on a KISS track. And for the first time since Destroyer’s Stax-laden “Shout It Out Loud”, an attempt to recapture the verse-trading that worked to perfection on the band’s signature tune, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, Simmons and Stanley contributed the penultimate track of the album with “I”.

LET’S GET PRETENTIOUSelder-outtake

All of this “creative output” took an insane amount of time to get down; seven months all-told, of which most of it was to everyone’s memory spent jacking around and messing with sound effects and over-orchestrating in four different studios (Ace in The Whole, A & R, Record Plant, Ezrin Farm Studio & Sounds Interchange) in four cities and two countries, with a co-producer (Brian Christiansen) and seven documented engineers. Ezrin, the master of ceremonies, now comes clean about his serious drug problem throughout, which prevented him ceasing the over-indulgence, which pleased Simmons, since this was his story they were telling. He had designs on a feature film and a sequel to accompany the massively planned tour and all of it stemming from this simple tried-and-true idea of the power of good triumphing over evil; Biblical, Grecian, Shakespearean. But it is ultimately the power of these two men’s intimidating egos that looms large over the proceedings and lends another air of fantasy to what is being created; in their rather skewed estimation, a masterpiece.

“They wanted to make a record to combat the criticism of the last couple of records,” Ezrin recalled. “I had just done The Wall, so The Elder was a victim of The Wall and our mutual desire was to do something ‘different’.” The key ingredient to connecting the storytelling in The Wall and The Elder was a series of sessions adding extended narration to the music, furthering the album’s cinematic grandeur. “The idea of the narration was supposed to bridge some of the songs together, with some orchestral and choir underscoring,” recalled engineer Kevin Doyle to KISS FAQ’s Tim McPhate. “In keeping with the idea of The Elder as a goal of being a seamless concept idea, almost kind of like Dark Side of the Moon where side A is not really a bunch of songs, it’s one continuous play with no ending.” Canadian-based actors Robert Christie, Chris Makepeace and Antony Parr, (Makepeace and Parr having made it on the album as the final voices of the Council Elder and Morpheus) are brought in, as well as the services of the American Symphony Orchestra and the St. Roberts Choir. “It was antithetical to what KISS was about,” Ezrin continues. KISS was never pretentious or precious, and never took themselves seriously. They were always about fun, sex and power, and always were, in effect, horror cartoon characters, so to suddenly make a concept album, which had something of ‘consequence’, was an idea anti-KISS. It was a flawed concept from the beginning.”

“You should never go for respect,” Simmons told his biographers in retrospect. “On the day that critics and your mom like the same music that you do, it’s over.”

Although not a motivating factor at its origins, perhaps beyond the illusions of manager, Bill Aucoin, who is also battling his own mounting drug issues, building the mystique that Music From The Elder is a conceptual masterpiece seems to grow with the months sunken deep in the project. The band, specifically Simmons and Stanley, fueled by Ezrin’s Herculean creativity, believe that if they had lost credibility by selling out to merchandizing and appealing to children with the KISS Meets The Phantom TV movie produced by children’s cartoon mavens, Hanna-Barbara and being turned into superheroes by Marvel Comics, then it is time to seduce the critics, who had not only ignored KISS for most of its existence, but had been openly hostile.

Thus, the first ten minutes of the original track listing of Music from The Elder is filled with Broadway-style, sing-song tomfoolery and an opening instrumental, “Fanfare”, written and arranged by Ezrin and Stanley and played with medieval-period instruments, followed by the flowery falsetto of “Just a Boy” (originally adorned with Bach-style “Toccata & Fuge” organ), and the epic piano-drenched Powers’ ballad, “Odyssey”. This ethereal beginning gives way to Simmons’s psychedelic phrasing of “Only You”, the lyrical changes from the 1970 demo of “Eskimo Sun” hardly echoing hard rock or KISS, nor does “Under The Rose”, replete with Genesis-esque keyboards and a chorus of monk chants. Not until Frehley’s only full contribution at the end of side one, “Dark Light” does this represent anything close to a KISS album.

Upon hearing the mixes, which also take an extended time to complete, Polygram freaks; completely dismissing it as trippy claptrap and begins hacking up the track list with no attention paid to the oddly formed storyline, slapping “The Oath” the heaviest number by far, but the eighth in the plotline, at the beginning of the record, followed quizzically by “Fanfare”, clearly an overture, then “Just a Boy” with “Dark Light” shoved in to keep up hard-rock appearances.

None of this deters the KISS camp from bringing to Polygram the curious but intriguing gatefold cover designed by their trusty Art/Creative Director Dennis Woloch, who had put together every KISS album after and including the breakthrough, Alive!. “The whole visual concept came out of my head,” Woloch says today. “I didn’t even listen to the album to tell you the truth. I don’t know what they were singing about.”

Woloch commissions New York photographer, David Spindel to photograph a pre-teen boy reaching for the ancient knocker in the middle of a prop-door he builds, but the band rejects it. Strangely, they believe this is too eclectic and confusing. Paul Stanley volunteers his hand for a reshoot. “I hated the whole idea,” concludes Woloch. “Not a concept album, per se, this concept; it just seemed so cliché and over done; wizards and ‘seeking the truth’. But they’re still doin’ it; The Hobbit and Star Wars, all that stuff.”

To complete the transformation, all the members of KISS shear their hair and reveal new, streamlined consumes with 80s pastel colors, then appear on the ABC Saturday Night Live rip-off, Fridays to perform “World Without Heroes”, “The Oath” and “I”, but with the album getting lambasted by confused and outraged fans, summarily bag the entire thing and return to rock form the following year with Creatures of the Night. Just like that, the entire enterprise, months of work and planning, disappears without a trace. It is almost as if The Elder or for that matter, the Music from…never existed. No tour. No film. No sequel. Nothing.

A side note of some irony is that Rolling Stone magazine, which had mocked KISS for a decade, gives Music from The Elder a rousing review. Go figure.

IN RETROSPECT…download

It was the KISS album that should not have happened, well…

Looking back, Gene Simmons has said more than once that Music from The Elder is a good album, just not a good KISS album. And maybe he has a point there. Maybe after years of being KISS, the band needed to be something else – hell, the Beatles did it with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Perhaps KISS just needed to blow off steam and dive completely into the self-indulgent deep end and swim in the conceptual waters with Bob Ezrin in order to reach the other side with a renewed spirit.

“Without all the ups and downs and following trends and taking chances, KISS would not have as interesting a career,” Michigan DJ, Steve Ponchaud told me recently. “All their albums would sound the same like AC/DC.”

Perhaps it was simply hubris that created Music from The Elder, but that would be an unfair final analysis, for wasn’t it a sense of unremitting pride that lifted KISS from queer notoriety to one of the biggest bands in the world?

“Regardless of its lack of commercial success or the artistic validation they had sought, Music from The Elder remains a critical part in the band’s recorded output and should never be shunned,” says Julian Gil. “Its failure set the stage for wholesale change and reinvention that would drive the band for the rest of the decade; and only through that abject failure could the passion continue to be discovered.”

After all, KISS survived the album everyone hates to literally reinvent itself without the iconic make-up, ingratiating its image into the 1980s hair-band craze, then later in the ‘90s when reuniting the original members and breaking concert attendance records all over the world. This “return” to the tried-and-true rock roots that bore them may have finally been the correct business, if not artistic, move, but truth be told none of it would be this interesting again.

“Believe me, I understand when it’s your career on the line and you do something very brave and very different and put your nuts on the line you hope that the world accepts and appreciates what you do,” says Bob Ezrin today about his work with KISS on both Destroyer and Music From The Elder. “But then there’s always that little voice in the back of your head that says, (sings) ‘Do you love me?’”

In the end, the album everyone hates may indeed be the last KISS album of merit.

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COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA

8/27/15

Aquarian Weekly

Buzz Feature

 

COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA

Lead singer Adam Duritz Talks Evolution of Live Performance, Spodify, Bands Assholes Like, and the Inspiration of R.E.M and RUN-D.M.C.

 

The current Counting Crows tour, which appears to move seamlessly from the last Counting Crows tour, and the one before that, has been promoting the band’s last record, the ethereal and infections, Somewhere Under Wonderland for nearly a year through Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Europe, finally beginning the leg of its U.S. jaunt late summer into autumn…and on and on. More than most, the Counting Crows is a touring band. It caravans entire families and friends across thousands of miles in order to make each night a special occasion. Its lead singer and principle songwriter, Adam Duritz calls it an economic necessity, but in the same breath believes it to be vital to the creative process. “Truthfully, I think a lot of my creativity is satisfied by playing every night,” he tells me. “I don’t necessarily feel the need to write.” With each performance, the songs take on new meaning and subtle and not so subtle changes – expressive, as well as musical.Layout 1

Back home, just beyond the literary and cultural beacon, Washington Square Park, the center of New York’s Greenwich Village, Duritz is gearing up for U.S audiences. Fresh off another successful Outlaw Road Show, this time in Nashville, a three-day, thirty-two band review in which he is co-founder and host (with friend and blogger Ryan Spalding), and gleeful front-row fan, he says without hesitation, “It’s my favorite thing I do, it’s more fun than anything else.”

Random conversations with Duritz has been one of the highlights of my career; whether discussing songwriting, performing, the struggle to achieve, as well the more challenging struggle to handle, fame or just bandying about goofy pop culture and literary minutia. He is a man of various tastes, but an admitted lunatic about music; cherishing its history, absorbed in its influences, and never daring to take for granted his place in it. Devouring any subject I throw at him, he is never guarded, and yet he chooses to share his thoughts carefully. Duritz is, after all, a word man. He provides context to the shifting moods of his band, a perfect six-piece amalgam of equally voracious music freaks that instinctually understand how to serve his songs, build upon them, and then restructure them for fun and art.

The Counting Crows may tour a lot, but they are never to be missed. Maybe that’s why they tour a lot. Performances are always a new and intriguing expression and to be there to witness it is a joy. They are the eternal live act – in and out of the studio – and Adam Duritz is their clarion.

 

When we last spoke early last August, Somewhere Under Wonderland had yet to come out, but you mentioned having played the songs live for awhile, and you were really jazzed about their reception. You’ve been touring this whole past year; Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, so how have they evolved and how do you feel about how they’re coming across on the tour?

 

They’re coming across great. The only thing that’s weird is that we still haven’t really played America yet since the record came out. We did like a week and a half in the Midwest around Christmas last year, because we had to play a couple of little festival shows… but it’s weird we’ve been touring for so long on this record, including a whole summer playing America before the record came out. It’s easy to forget because we’ve been to Europe twice, we’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, we’ve been all the way across Canada…Vancouver to Newfoundland, places I’ve never even been before in Canada… but we haven’t played America. We’re all looking forward to that.

The songs have caught on great, but we thought that when we wrote them too. We thought they’d be great live, we thought some of them were immediately great live. We played “Palisades Park” the entire summer, and it worked when nobody knew it. So it certainly started working when people did know it, it became very powerful. I had a lot of trouble over the summer with “Scarecrow”. It took me awhile to get really good at “Scarecrow”, and “Earthquake Driver”, they got really good eventually. I had trouble finding my way inside them as far as live songs, but that came eventually. It takes a little bit of figuring out how to get your head around things you’re doing live.

 

What do you mean by getting “inside a song”? 

 

Well… you want to be present while singing it… you don’t want to be doing a copy of a version you did before, you want to be singing it as you are there… and I have no problem on songs like “Palisades Park”, which theoretically could be harder, or “God of Ocean Tides, or most of the stuff on the record like “Dislocation”. I knew where to go with it.  I think because “Scarecrow” and “Earthquake Driver” were so strong melodically and rhythmically as they were written I sailed through recording them on the record. I think a lot of that was because when I was singing them on the record that’s the first time I was really singing it, and I was very present in it. When I got on the road with the songs the particular melody and rhythm is so strong in those songs…was so strong in my head…that it felt like I was covering my own song for awhile there. I couldn’t find a way to really… put myself into it, to really feel it while I was singing it. It took me awhile to find my way into those songs. I want to be present singing stuff and I want to sing it like it’s happening right now, whether it’s “Mr. Jones” or ‘Scarecrow”, and sometimes that can be harder the stronger a song is melodically, especially if it’s melody and rhythm like those two are, you get really locked into what you’re doing and it can be hard to express yourself because you get locked into singing a certain thing a certain way.  It took me awhile to open up those two songs, those were the two I had the most trouble with on the record. But they turned out great. Since then “Scarecrow” has been the second song of the set most nights.

 

Are there songs now you’re singing that you prefer the versions you’re doing now to the recorded version, they’ve become this other thing entirely?

 

Sure. Well… I mean from the first album there are certainly songs which I prefer now.  Most albums I don’t really think about preference. We were so young on that first album, there were some songs which I think are great songs that we didn’t really nail in the studio as much as I hoped. They just didn’t get a chance to grow as much. I think “Anna Begins” is better now. I think “Murder of One” is better now. I’m not really sure about that because honestly I haven’t listened to that album in so long… the version on the record is a timeless document and I really wanted it to be one and for the most part it is, which doesn’t mean I’m going to sing it the same way every night. I’m still discovering things every day.  It’s not so much that I prefer the live versions to the other versions, that’s just today’s version. I’ve learned more since then… you know? Yeah, I don’t know if I would say preference is the right word, except for some of the songs on the first album where I definitely prefer them more now.

A lot of our recording takes place live. We get in there, we’re playing in a room together. We’ll work until we kind of get the form of the song we want.  And someone will nail something. It could be a bass part, a guitar part, a drum part… and everyone will go over their parts, but often we’ll just keep a lot for what you already have. It’s not like you’re laying down a drum track and then you’re laying down a bass track, we’re playing all together. Even if the drums are the first thing to go down, it’s a drum track that was played with everyone. So largely when people go back to look at their parts they’re leaving a lot of their parts in there from what was done live. We tend to play live a lot. I think there’s all kinds of interactions going on while we’re playing on the record. We’ll go back and fix things and hone things and develop things… but sometimes the thing you did while you were all playing together is the one.

 

A lot of bands take time off, they’ll write, they’ll get together, they’ll record an album, they’ll tour the album, they’ll break, rinse and repeat.  You guys did a lot of touring even without a record, you did the covers record, you toured even more, you did the whole combination tour where you toured with other bands… then you put this record out and you’re touring it everywhere. 

 

Well… we kind of have to tour. I mean, there’s no other way to earn money. And now the only way to promote your band is tour. Radio promotion doesn’t exist half the time nowadays, so we tour. This is our job. I don’t think there is a structure to it other than make records when you want to make records, tour when you want to tour.  We’re just trying to work and survive generally.

 

I’m glad you mentioned that. I know you’ve run labels and you’ve been in bands and you’ve worked in other bands… I’m just curious what your thought is about the way music is disseminated now… forget about iTunes but even like Spotify, I know a lot of artists are against it, they don’t get compensated fairly for that. It’s very hard for an album to stick now… singles come out and you have your few moments and then another thing comes out… How do you personally feel about how music is disseminated and how it’s affected your profession?

 

Well, there wasn’t a really good mode before, and there’s not a really good mode now. It’s just a different version.  Look, the way it worked before, it was terrible for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the bands. It barely worked for anyone. The record companies were terrible and they succeeded enough to make some bands really famous, but they failed with an uncountable number of bands. Their methods were so dumb it, they just didn’t work. Most of them bribed radio stations and that worked for awhile, because there was so much money being made, but the last ten to fifteen years the income from record sales is gone, and that’s a lot of money…gone. We’re barely getting paid by Spotify. I understand why someone like Taylor Swift doesn’t want her music on there. She’s famous and she’s selling more than anybody, and she doesn’t need them on there. So she doesn’t. I get that. I don’t blame her for that at all. For us it’s probably good to be on there. I’m glad they’re paying. I don’t think we’re getting paid fairly, but whatever.

It’s not a new thing that record companies are paying bands unfairly. They’re not as concerned with paying bands as they are with getting paid. They’re overly concerned with getting paid. But there’s another side to this, which is that it used to be too expensive and nearly impossible for a band to make records, and it was incredibly impossible to distribute them. It was so expensive to get your records distributed. More than that, if you’re shipping physical CDs on trucks to record stores across America, and if you’re an unknown band, the best you can hope for is they’ll take one or two. And even if they love it, and they tell their customers to buy it, now all of their copies are gone. Now there’s this album they love, they love to sell it to people, but now they don’t have any. And that’s not good. Now it’s cheap to make records, you can do it on your computer. It’s really easy to distribute things because you just upload them onto Bandcamp. That has made a huge difference for musicians but even more-so for fans.  That enables bands to stay together without getting signed by a major label, I have friends that have made seven or eight albums and have never been signed. They’ve had time to get really good. And their bands are stunning. That would have been impossible years ago, because you couldn’t have survived together for that long. It’s still really brutal, but it is at least possible now, where it was impossible then.

So as a music fan, there is a world of great music out there you can listen to and it’s a great time to be someone who likes music. It’s not as clear what you should like, so you have to go look for it, which is hard work and it’s a lazy world… but it’s all out there. There’s so much great music being made nowadays. Like I said, for me I’ve lost seventy percent of my income. That’s brutal. But I’m not so blind that I can’t see that it’s so better for most people. It’s not better for me, but it’s better for everybody else and I’m not the only person in this world. The truth is, as well as being a musician, I am a music fan. As a music fan, it’s better because there’s so much out there that wasn’t out there before.

It’s harder to make millions and millions of dollars, almost impossible nowadays. But it is possible to make music and survive and that’s kind of cool. I don’t know if I can give you a yes or no answer whether it’s better or worse now, because it was terrible then and it’s terrible now, but it’s also better now in some ways. Like I said, not for me as a musician, but as a music fan, it is better. I don’t want to tell you that the record business is shit now, because it’s not, it’s just the record company business has kind of gone to shit.  But it was always shitty, it’s just shitty for them too as well as for musicians. It used to just be really shitty for musicians. Now it’s shitty for record companies too. Welcome to the club. I don’t have a lot of sympathy.

Duritz_2015

 

Do you recall what inspired you to write songs?

 

I can very much remember my freshman fall term in college. I read Carolyn Forché’s book, The Country Between Us, which is a book of poetry. She was a huge influence on my writing. These three things happened that term in college; I remember reading that, I got my first R.E.M record, and I wrote my first song. I think that there was something about the impressionistic nature of the early R.E.M, that first EP, Chronic Town that really hit me that it was all about expressing whatever I felt like…even though I didn’t write anything like it, that it sort of made it okay to write. I remember that was sort of a big deal at the time. I was pretty hugely affected by the Run-D.M.C. records. There’s something about Run-D.M.C. and R.E.M. I’ve always loved them together in a weird way. There’s a way in which the vocals and the instruments flow in and out of each other on the R.E.M records, you don’t even need to know what words he’s singing. Run-D.M.C. is the first stuff I really remember that there could be more than one rapper in a band. They generally said their verse and it passed to the next guy. With Run-D.M.C., they were so interwoven… that was when they started doubling each-other’s words and popping in and out of each-other very quickly. The interaction was much faster the way it is in jazz or the way those R.E.M records were, it was really woven all together. I remember thinking that the DJ and the two rappers were just flying around each other on that record. It was exhilarating, the speed at which they bounced in and out… it wasn’t like “This is my verse – this is your verse…” It was like they were in and out of each-other’s sentences, finishing each other’s sentences; it really made me think about what a band is like in a way.

I know people compared us to The Band at times, but it may have been even more Run-D.M.C. than The Band that influenced me in that way; the way they aggressively moved in and out of each-other’s music. I was really blown away by that, the speed and the pace of it. For me, that translated into what a lot of people see us doing with the interaction on stage and with each other – improvisations you might associate with The Band or Van Morrison, but in my head a lot of it came from Run-D.M.C. too.

 

Your songs are very interpretive, that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to you and really enjoyed speaking to you about them, but in almost all of them there’s a connection between you and the fans that is unique. Counting Crows songs are extremely relatable on a personal level. 

 

Well, I think I had it in the beginning, and I have it now, but there are also periods in the middle where everything I did was shit on, because that’s what happens. We really do love to discover music and we love to be the ones to discover it. Especially me or you, music geeks, we love knowing music other people don’t know, and we love showing it to them. But inevitably you gamble on the success like we did, then as a fan you find yourself having to share the band you like with the dipshit across the office, who you don’t like. And he was always listening to absolute crap music, and now he’s a Counting Crows fan too. Now it’s not fun to be a Counting Crows fan anymore, because I’m not sharing them with that asshole. So for a few years everyone hates you, because that’s human nature. It just fucking happens. I’m not bitter about that, that’s life. I understand what it’s like to discover cool music and I also remember when my band got co-opted by all the dipshits across the hall, who I don’t like. So I can’t really rage too much about the fact that it happened to me. It only happened because we had so much success. It was a little brutal at times.

 

Okay, then, have you been affected, negatively or positively, by your fame? And how has that informed or detracted from your writing?

 

None of that affects how you write songs. You’re in your bedroom at one point… writing about yourself and you really wanted to open up about how you felt.  And then people listen to it. I don’t know… it doesn’t change for me what I wanted to say, I still wanted to talk about how I felt. You’re really just writing to yourself. It’s very tertiary…peripheral that everyone else listens to it. It’s great for your career and earning money, it’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with what you’re doing; especially because during the period when you’re doing it, because when you’re writing and recording, none of those people are around. There is no feedback at that time. So it seems a lot like when you were younger and no one was listening to your music. At some point you do go back to that room and write, and that’s the same as it is now.

When we went in to record our first album, before anyone had ever heard of us, you’re in there recording by yourself.  And when you record now, when everyone in the world knows who we are, you’re in there recording by yourself. The response comes so far after the fact that I can see how people do let it get in their head, but it’s easy to not let it get in your head because you’re not really facing it everyday. You’re not getting feedback as you’re writing or recording, at least outside the band. But that’s always been the same. People worry about that stuff too much. We were always really independent. We never had to bounce songs off our labels. We had that creative control from the beginning. We were always sheltered from that.

 

And you’re finally getting to play these more or less new songs for your home audience.

 

Yeah, it kind of reminds you how big the world is. People wonder why there’s time between albums for bands. It’s because it takes time to get around the world and play it for everybody. So much time, in fact, that it’s been a year and we haven’t played it at home yet. We’re getting to that now. It’s kind of nice, because you might be getting kind of burned out at this point in the record, but it’s great to be coming to America for the first time now. It’s exciting.

 

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RECALLING THE ETERNAL WAVE – A Brief Conversation with the Legendary Brian Wilson

Aquarian Weekly

7/1/15
BUZZ Feature

James Campion

 

RECALLING THE ETERNAL WAVE
A Brief Conversation with the Legendary Brian Wilson

 

You know the old showbiz axiom about luminaries needing no introduction? Okay, so here’s one of those.

There is no need for anyone to wax poetic about Brian Wilson, musician composer, arranger, producer, hit-maker, icon. For over half a century there has been Brian Wilson. In one way or the other he has influenced the cultural and artistic landscape of the American experience. He was the heart, soul and musical and philosophical engine of the Beach Boys. His songs created the great California myth of what I once called “the sun-drenched hymn to hedonism.” Pretty good resume. He has survived well-documented traumatic hardships from childhood to his years of fame and fortune and the inevitable 1960s cliché fallout of drugs and madness and break-downs, both mentally and physically.wilson_380

Much of this is covered in the new biopic about Wilson, Love & Mercy. The film features two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusak, portraying Wilson as a young man at the height of his musical powers while unraveling from mental illness, and the middle-aged overly-medicated period when he was being manipulated and exploited by the tyrannical Dr. Eugene Landy, played sinisterly by Paul Giamatti. While Wilson did add his expertise and memories to the filming, which he commented was “very factual, accurate, stimulating,” he ultimately found it hard to watch. I saw it weeks after speaking to Wilson and was very moved. The studio sequences recording his two masterpieces, Pet Sounds and Smile truly capture the mood and the significance of the times and add to Wilson’s already legendary status, while his ascent from the abyss is truly inspiration.

Seeing Love & Mercy and reading about Wilson’s harrowing but prolific journey, which takes another step with his recently released album, No Pier Pressure, it would be easy to say that Brian Wilson is the shell of the man who broke molds and conquered the zeitgeist, but that would be short-sighted. What you get from speaking with Brian Wilson today is the real guy, the guy who would never let it all crack his resolve or bend his personality into something he couldn’t recognize. He is by any credible definition of the word, a genius. He is cloaked in it like armor. It precedes him. It defines him.

He speaks in certifiable tones, but with a sweet disposition that is at first alarming and then as comforting as one of his spectacularly arranged five-part harmonies. There is no hesitation in his expression, therefore he doesn’t self-edit for effect. This is a raw psyche; the echoes of a man who brought some important stuff back from the darkness and the light and placed some high stakes in all those strikingly beautiful songs.

What follows here is about fifteen minutes over the phone from Los Angeles of the musings of a living legend, and I don’t think I’m being maudlin or coy or ironic when stating this. In the pantheon of rock and roll, especially during its most experimental, influential and lucrative period, there is Dylan, Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson. This is a person you hope to get two minutes with. I got fifteen. And so I asked him things I always wanted to ask Brian Wilson. It was rapid fire and it was thrilling His answers, although appearing in print as curt and often dismissive of detail, in person –hearing his cracked, sing-song voice coming over the phone line – are surprisingly effusive and to the point.

This is a man who has answered countless questions. How could you even begin to put a number on it? People want to know how the genius works, where it comes from, how it goes from the head and the heart to the canvas or the page or the recording. These are the things you think about when gaining access to the artist who has provided the world indisputable greatness. And this is what I think about when Brian Wilson is uttered in my presence. I put it to him and waited breathlessly for the key to the kingdom, so to speak. And I think this discussion, of which I send to press virtually word-for-word, is my few minutes getting to the bottom of genius. I hope I asked the questions you would ask of Brian Wilson. And I hope his answers are enough. They have to be.

 

Brian Wilson: Hi, James!

 

james campion: Mr. Wilson, how are you, sir?

 

BW: Very good.

 

jc: Excellent. I know we have a short amount of time, so I’ll get right to it. I know you’ve probably been asked this a billion times, but I have to do it. I’m a huge fan and you are one of the great composers of the latter half of the twentieth century, so everyone always wants to know where do the songs come from? What is your process? Take me through the Brian Wilson method of writing a song.

 

BW: Well, I go to a studio…there’s a studio I go to and there’s a piano there. I play chords on the piano, and then after awhile a melody starts to come. And after the melody is done, the lyrics start happening.

 

jc: And that’s basically it.

 

BW: Yeah. Basically, yes.

 

jc: When you first started writing songs, which I assume was when you were a teenager or even before that…

 

BW: Well, I started playing piano when I was like…I don’t know…twelve or fourteen? And when I was nineteen I wrote “Surfer Girl”, the first song I ever wrote, and then from there I was a self-taught musician.

 

jc: And do you write basically the same as you did when you were nineteen? Have you changed the process at all through the years?

 

BW: Oh, no, I changed a lot. I’ve changed the process a lot.

 

jc: How so?

 

BW: Well, I used to write more rock and roll type songs, thanks to Chuck Berry.

 

jc: (laughs) Right. You’ve often spoken in the past about capturing sounds on tape that you hear in your head; harmonies, various instrumentation, is there any song that you wrote and recorded that you think came out perfectly, that was exactly how you heard it in your head?

 

BW: Yeah, “California Girls”; some of it I heard in my head and some of it I heard in the studio.

 

jc: So when you listen to that record, even today, you say to yourself, “That is exactly how I pictured it.”

 

BW: Yeah, when it was done I said, “Hey, guys, that sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound like!”

 

jc:  And that never happened again?

 

BW: It happened again with “Good Vibrations”.

 

jc:  Those are the two, huh?

 

BW: Yes.

 

jc: Some pretty good songs, there. I know you’re a big fan of Phil Spector’s sound, and I know you were a Beatles fan, did you ever listen to a song and say, “Wow, not only do I wish I wrote that, but that is really a perfect record”?

 

BW: Yeah, “Let It Be” by Paul McCartney and The Beatles. That’s something where I said, “Boy, I wish I could have written something like that!’

 

jc: (laughs) Well you certainly did in many, many ways. Here’s something I was always interested in asking you. I think it was in your 1990 autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice; you had revealed in that book that you had discovered at some point that placing certain bass lines and notes under a specific chord or specific melodies over other chord progressions would evoke an emotion in listeners; get them to feel melancholy or feel joy or spark memories in them…

 

BW: Well, Pet Sounds was my ballad album; “Caroline No” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” were, I think, a very sweet, feminine theme to get across. Those songs were the feminine side of me.

 

jc: I remember as a kid listening to Pet Sounds and getting very emotional, and not because of the lyrics or any particular connection to the themes. I was a kid, yet, I could not escape feeling something mature when listening to that record. It was as if you got across with music these mature themes of love, loss, anxiety, nostalgia. Still, to this day it moves me. Was that something you planned or did it come together in the writing?

 

BW: It actually came together in the writing. Very fast.

 

jc:  That is generally considered your greatest work. Do you think it is?

 

BW: It has to be one of the best albums I ever produced, yeah.

 

jc:  When you heard the Smile stuff that Capitol put out a couple of years ago from the original Beach Boys sessions, much of it unfinished, do you think it captures what you were trying to do with Smile or was it your version that came out about ten years ago?
(Note: Smile was the great and mysterious unfinished opus for Wilson that eventually caused mental exhaustion and his eventual retreat from the mainstream that would cause his reduced role in the Beach Boys)

 

BW: Which version do I prefer?

 

jc: Yeah.

 

BW:  The 2004 version.

 

jc: Your version.

 

BW: Yeah.

 

jc: Did you have anything to do with Capitol’s choice of material or were you surprised that they released it?

 

BW: I was surprised they put it out, yeah.

 

jc: Were you disappointed in how it sounded?

 

BW: A little bit, yeah.

 

jc: Is it because it was unfinished business, it took you back to that time and you said, “Damn it, I wish I had the chance to finish that album the way I originally planned it!”

 

BW: Right! Right on!

 

jc: (laughs) I figured. Just from reading about you and your work on that record and how much it meant to you, the first time I saw it out, I thought, “I wonder what Brian thinks of all this?” You have a new record out, correct?

 

BW:  Yes.

 

jc: Can you tell me about the process of working with this new material and what you may have discovered when writing and recording it?

 

BW: Well, I wrote a couple of the songs back in 1998 that I use on the album and the rest I wrote in 2014.

 

jc:  So it’s been a couple of years in the making?

 

BW: Yes.

 

jc: How do you find performing now? I know that it was something you didn’t really enjoy during the Beach Boys years, but over the past two decades you seem to be playing more and more. Do you enjoy it more now?

 

BW: Some of it. I enjoy some of it, but some of it is a lot of hard work and some of it is an easy-going kind of thing, you know?

jc:  I sure do. You’re known for so many great songs. My favorite is “God Only Knows”. You mentioned that you agree that Pet Sounds is one of if not your finest collected work; do you have any fond memories of writing and recording “God Only Knows”? Do you think that’s something truly special that you nailed there?

 

BW: I worked with my friend, Tony Asher. I started writing a melody and he immediately came up with (sings) “I may not always love you…” and it was a very spontaneous writing session.

 

jc:  I bet its one of those incidents when you think, “Where the hell does this come from?”

 

BW: Right. I said, “What the fuck?”

 

jc:  (laughs)

 

BW: Yeah. Yeah.

 

jc:  That song has been used in so many films and it never fails to move people. Did you ever see it used with visuals, in whatever capacity, and agree that it works on that level?

 

BW: Most of it works, although I’m not really sure where it ended up, whether television programs or movies or whatever, but I do know that whenever they do use it I hear, “Good job.”

 

jc:  (laughs) What part of your legacy do you enjoy the most? What is the talent you are most proud of – the songwriting, the producing, arranging, your building the Beach Boys into this iconic piece of Americana? How do you want to be remembered?

 

BW: Well, to tell you the truth my singing means more to me than anything.

 

jc: Sure. I’m sorry I didn’t even bring that one up. Of course, the singing. Would you say that’s also the most fun you had working with the Beach Boys in the studio, getting all those wonderful vocal harmonies together?

 

BW: Yeah, that was the fun part! The hard part was producing. That was the hardest part of it for me. Producing was rough, but singing always came very naturally, effortlessly. You know…an artist expresses.

“Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.”

jc: And that is your most cherished expression as an artist, your singing.

 

BW: Right. Right.

 

jc: There’s a film out right now about the famed Wrecking Crew, a working studio session band that played on so many hits of the 1960s, including a lot of the Beach Boys stuff. Can you talk about working with those kind of top musicians in the field and producing the incredible records you did with them?

 

BW: I worked with some of the more well-known musicians in Los Angeles like Hal Blaine (drummer), Carol Kaye (bassist), John Randy (keyboardist), Steve Douglas (saxophonist), and so many others. They worked with other producers around L.A., but we did some great work together.

 

jc:  Is there a song you heard when you were a kid that turned you on, influenced you more than the others?

 

BW: Well, “Rhapsody in Blue” comes to mind. I think “Rhapsody in Blue”. That was the song that got to my heart the most.

 

jc:  Do you listen to any music of today that moves you, influences you? Who are the great songwriters today?

 

BW: Well, I listen to a lot of 80s music. There’s so many artists from the 80s, Rod Stewart, Billy Idol, Blondie, just a lot of groups I like. I listen to 80s music all the time.

 

jc:  In all the years you’ve collaborated with quite a few lyricists and songwriters, is there anybody that you wish you could work with that you haven’t?

 

BW: Paul McCartney.

 

jc:  I can’t believe you two guys haven’t written a song together; after all the years. You guys respected each other’s talents so much, influenced each other to greater works, the Beatles pushing the Beach Boys and vice versa. It’s hard to believe there is no Wilson/McCartney composition?

 

BW: Are you kidding? I haven’t had the chance!

 

jc:  Somebody has to get that going.

 

BW: Yuuuup.

 

jc: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson that would be something.

 

BW: That would be a trip.

 

jc: (laughs) Sure would. What is the one thing, you would say, a songwriter today needs to focus on? What is your advice for the kid now cobbling songs together and starting a band?

 

BW: I would have to say…okay…okay…I would say don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.

 

jc:  Got it.

 

BW: Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.

 

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AN OPEN LETTER TO PETE TOWNSHEND ON THE OCCASION OF HIS 70TH BIRTHDAY‏

Aquarian Weekly
5/20/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

AN OPEN LETTER TO PETE TOWNSHEND ON THE OCCASION OF HIS 70TH BIRTHDAY

Dearest Pete,

First off, happy 70th.

This must seem a surreal sentiment considering you will forever be known for having written that you hoped to die before you…well…you know. However, in a very distinct way you never really did get old, did you? I mean, of course, we’re all careening towards oblivion, but what never gets old is integrity, passion, impetuous adherence to art and an unflinching, unrepentant pursuit of truth. You know the stuff that makes us nod our collective head and go, “Yeah…yeah” – this is what has allowed you to remain true to your screed.pete-townshend

But I did not write this to belabor the obvious. Seventy years is quite a run for a 60s rock star. As you have broached eloquently in many an interview, too many of your contemporaries and half your band are no longer with us, and it is not as if you did not face the effrontery of the rock idiom with any kind of caution. If anything, it is something of a miracle that you are still with us, not as much a miracle as say Keith Richards, which is a Lourdes level of divine agency, but we both know this foray into the form was something of a gamble for all of you and it is on this occasion that I think we can comfortably state that you have come up aces.

Mostly, though, I wanted to thank you.

And I do so not just for myself, but my generation – the one at the butt end of the Boomer one or the premature birthing of X. I was born in late 1962 and was way too young for “My Generation” or Monterey or Woodstock or Viet Nam, etc. But I was also a little too cynical to be influenced by MTV or Nirvana and the spate of psychographics defined by sociologists for people selling zit cream and video games. I first heard Tommy at age nine in the attic of my friend’s grandparents’ house in the Bronx, NY. It was his older brother’s copy. I did not yet know about acid or transcendental meditation or sensory trauma or messianic delusions. I only knew I was moved. Really moved.

So I want to thank you for Tommy. Much later in life the film, a really horrible thing, but one that shook the world at my feet and changed the way I would ever view or listen to music again, ended up becoming something of a life-altering experience for a twelve year-old. I remember my parents being puzzled at my week-long trance over it. And I remember feeling good about that, even 40 years hence. It still makes my nads tingle and brings me to a place filled with youthful exuberance that is beyond mere nostalgia. No one can take that feeling away. I’ll take that one to my grave.

And I want to thank you for “Young Man Blues”. I thought I liked heavy music and distorted defiance and rebellion and neighborhood-shattering noise, but then I heard the live version of “Young Man Blues” as it was released in my junior year of high school on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack for the film that would impress me but only hold deeper meaning three years later when my beloved grandmother died; the first concussive sense of loss I endured. I spent ten straight hours playing the VHS version over and over and over until I was tired of crying. But that has nothing to do with the first time I experienced The Who’s cover of “Young Man Blues”. It rendered all other rock music to flimsy argle. Shit, man, I don’t know how one can be an adolescent and explain oneself properly without it: manic, chaotic, relentless power and volume, as if this monstrosity you unleashed had become nuclear; a weapon of mass destruction – clean, brutal, unyielding. I am blasting it right now writing this. Ouch. Goddamn it, man. What revelation you wrought.

Thanks for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which some enterprising DJ played on the final minutes of the 1970s when it was hard for me to grasp that there could be another decade and what the 1980s would do to me as a young man, and what The Who and all of your songs and records would do to influence and calm and direct me. That song resonated at two crucial points when watching you perform it. The band’s first of several “final” tours in the late-summer of 1982 at Philly’s JFK Stadium, this stone monolith packed to the rafters with sun-drenched middle-class Caucasians of all ages, and me and the friends had managed to get ourselves in the press booth and watched as the throng of some 90,000 kids clapped in unison over your legendary pre-programmed synth piece that you pained over in this little box studio in west London over a decade before. It was what it must have felt like to be part of the Roman Legion right before the plunging of a city – this insatiable hedonistic lust for dominance. Oh, and the other was when you played solo at the Beacon Theater in 1993 and you did the song as an encore and was so completely loony you hit the ground – ba-tannnng! – guitar screaming with feedback, the crowd apoplectic to get at you, intercede with whatever jolt of electricity you were channeling.

Yeah, we all knew it was electricity. It had to be. The windmill, ahhhh…the windmill; how that right arm could rise up and come whipping around and around to smack those power chords and how you couldn’t say you lived until you were in the room when that arm went up and came striking across the strings and the crowd exploded as if it was in there somehow. And we knew that soon you might splinter that thing into hundreds of tiny pieces and how A-D-E chords never sounded better – teenage wasteland and all that; those ungodly beautiful sounds that careened through my skull at the end of “Cry If You Want”. What the hell did you do to get that sound? How did you know that was the resonance of our fury, our longing, our corruption?

And I thank you for Horse’s Neck, because that book is a mutha and it is way underrated and proved your worth as a man of letters, beyond Tommy and Lifehouse (and I sure do appreciate your releasing all those demos of it in the 2000s, because that is silly good), “Slit Skirts”, and of course Quadrophenia.

Goddamn it, man. What revelation you wrought.

Oh, yes, Quadrophenia. For this one I evoke my dear college friend, Jake Genovay, for whom we would offer one sentence to those who needed Quadrophenia (and you know who you are) – “Do you know?”

It is the guiding principle of rock music, isn’t it? I know you were exorcising demons with that one, and it shows, and so it was used to exorcise a few of mine and so many of ours. It is, for my money, your manifesto and the arc of our youth – the one that got me through high school and that I quoted on beaches to dozens of girls and the ones I sang with friends after too much revelry and the ones you dragged out of mothballs in 1996 and prompted this review of mine that began “Pete is God”, ‘cause that was what we used to blurt out during “Love Reign O’er Me” when you can’t quite say what you’re thinking and fear that you might end up amounting to the hill-of-beans they all promised because the power and volume might not be enough anymore. But, hell, you made that all seem palatable. Of course it wasn’t. It was anything but okay. It was life. And life is grand and life is shit and life is the alternative to…well…you know.

I hope I die before I get old.

And that, my dear man, is what all the art and music is for, right?

Right.

Sincerely,

The Rest of Us

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