TRUTH IN CHARACTER

8/6/14
Aquarian Weekly
Cover Piece

 

TRUTH IN CHARACTER
Sinead O’Connor’s Musical Catharsis: I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss

By James Campion

august-6-2014-sinead-o-connor
While visiting Dublin in early June, the wife and I came upon a mural painted on
the side of the city’s Hard Rock Café tucked within a phalanx of ancient pubs in the Temple Bar district. It was a beautiful rendering of a doe-eyed Sinead O’Connor peering from beneath a shawl, appearing as if a stricken Madonna. Above the image, damaged slightly by what looked like a heavy object having been hurled into the cement by her neck, was written; “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.”

What Sinead O’Connor may have represented or said that at first came off as “wrong” but was later seen by the artist or her fellow Irish citizens as “right” is left to the imagination. But it matters little. For Sinead O’Connor has never been timid about speaking her mind, in song or in person, embodying the deviant contrarian that many of us at first may bristle – How dare she!, but later wonder how we missed being stricken by the same passionate outrage.

Sinead O’Connor. The mere name conjures controversy. For 30 years her career as punk provocateur, spiritual radical, unflinching feminist and social marauder has set her apart; for good or ill. The siren vocalist of poignant songs that pierce through the treacle of most rock sentiments never sought refuge in art; instead she draped her music about her personal and public life as a second skin. Perhaps it was always the presentation that preceded her – defiant glare of those enormous green eyes that leap from beneath the shimmering bald scalp extenuated by a menacing scowl that occasionally gives pause for a child-like giggle, as if half the bravado is act and the other id.

This is why Sinead O’Connor is a hero of mine, for her life collides with her art; her persona a canvas. Whether emotionally charged performances or combative interviews, hers is the complete package. There is no gimmick. If it were then her enormously zealous heart-over-mind sense of expression would not have needed a painted apology nor would it have at times rendered her a pariah despite an otherwise impressive run of success on the charts and inside pop culture.

But it all pales in the wake of her incredible work, the most striking, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Yeah, the one with “Nothing Compares To U”, which is Prince’s finest song, but only a glimpse of what explodes from that record). There is not one time in a hundred spins of the gut-wrenching, “Three Babies” that chills don’t shoot through my nervous system as she clutches the high notes for “The face on you/The smell of you/ Will always be with me”. It may be the most haunting eight seconds ever recorded and only begins to lift the veil on a complicated soul.

Over the years, O’Connor has openly discussed and written extensively about the abuse she suffered as a child leading to her expression of disgust with the Catholic Church’s refusal to root out pedophiles – specifically in Ireland, which might explain the mural – which led to her infamous ripping up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in October of 1992, the first of many very sudden and very public heart-over-mind moments that has overshadowed her music.

The title of O’Connor’s new album, I Am Not Bossy, I’m The Boss says it all, well, almost. The record echoes like a clenched fist opening into a blooming flower; a return to fierce introspection; the insolent woman looking for tenderness. The first verse from the album’s opening song, “How About I Be Me” reveals a vulnerability behind being “the boss”: “Always gotta be the lioness/Taking care of everybody else/A woman like me needs love/A woman like me needs a man to be/Stronger than herself”. She sings time and again on several tracks about transcendent kisses and “making love”, as if hidden salvation.

I Am Not Bossy strips bare the public persona of the angered rebel, but not entirely. It strategically traverses the tightrope of irreverent brashness and tender yearning on twelve compelling numbers ranging from seductive ballads to confessional angst.

The great bowery poet, Charles Bukowski once wrote, “My days, my years, my life has seen up and downs, lights and darknesses. If I wrote only and continually of the “light” and never mentioned the other, then as an artist I would be a liar.” And it is in this search for the duality of truth in art that I sat down for a chat with O’Connor, some ten years in the making.

 

This is something of a Holy Grail for me, speaking with you. For some reason our planned interviews always seemed to get derailed. You’re my hero because you never dismiss the human condition in your work or philosophy, even when considering politics, religion or social issues. That is an enviable trait.

Well, thanks.

Let’s start with the record. It appears after several listens to be a combination of catharsis and introspection, much like most of your work, but this time it has an exhaling quality to it; a sense of relief – for instance many of the songs are short and sweet, barely running three minutes. They get right to the point, as if shoved out of your psyche. What was your frame of mind when you wrote and then recorded this material?

There are three songs that are personal/autobiographical; “How About I Be Me”, “Dense Water Deeper Down” and “8 Good Reasons”. The others are not my frame of mind, but the characters’. In the same way the Aretha Franklin album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You is the story of a relationship, when you listen to it in sequence, I wanted to echo that. And so there are perhaps three or four female characters on the record, but there is one that appears more often than the others. She’s the cathartic one. She’s on a journey to learn the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to discovering love, and her catharsis comes when she discovers it was herself she was longing for the whole time. The earlier songs where she is longing for this particular man are conversations between her and this guy, but she comes to the conclusion at the end of it all that it is not him she is longing for but her. (laughs) That’s a bit of a longwinded explanation, but you hit the nail on the head in terms of it being a catharsis. It’s just not mine. It’s a character that I’ve created.

She’s on a journey to learn the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to discovering love, and her catharsis comes when she discovers it was herself she was longing for the whole time.
 

You play around quite a bit with Hindu references on this record, “The Vishnu Room” being an obvious one, but I am interested in your use of Maya in “Harbour”. You sing;“And they said call it Maya/Go ahead call it Maya/But it’s not all Maya” – Maya being a Hindu word or symbol for illusion or delusion, to overcome the foolishness of posing or hiding and find the “true self”, which appears to be another central theme to these songs.

Yeah, it is the central theme. These characters…if you like, you can say represent every woman or every man, indeed, but there are a set of characters which represent the psyche of the main character, who  is the female character that turns up on “Your Green Jacket”, then “The Vishnu Room”, ‘The Voice of My Doctor”, “Harbour” and ends up with “Streetcars”. And through this song sequence there is this journey of longing for this guy whom she has projected all this stuff on and I suppose he is Maya, as he is always present, the same way the man in the Aretha Franklin record is always present throughout the album. And she has an experience with him, which leads her to understand he is not the man she thought he was, which doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, but she got a fright because he wasn’t what she had deluded herself into thinking he was. But instead of taking this as some dreadful thing, it leads her to discover that in fact it was herself she was longing for. So that description there of Maya…yeah, that’s it. That’s what the central character is going through.

The song also evokes something I know you have used your career to shed
light upon and that is child abuse, mostly institutional child abuse, and I couldn’t help thinking of that theme when listening to the lines; “Fumbling to get back what’s stolen/Thinking pain could be plastered over”.

Yeah, those conversations between characters set off something in my mind,

sineadbecause I’m what you might call a Stanislavski “method actor” singer/songwriter. What happened with the last album, some of the songs were written when people had given me movie scripts and I started then to write songs from the point of view of these characters. I enjoyed that, but I didn’t give the movie people the songs. So I created a scenario in my mind and based the character on someone I met in Holland, a young girl, and invented this story where the man on the record asks her about the marks she has on her and the song is an explanation of how she has these marks on her. It’s supposed to be left to the imagination. It’s part of her explaining to him that she is beginning to understand that she has been projecting this longing for things that she didn’t get growing up and she had perhaps projected onto men or the idea of a man who will come and rescue her and make everything wonderful. She realizes that’s not how things go, which ties up with the whole Maya thing.

Speaking of this Stanislavski “method acting” style of getting into character to sing; your voice sounds as strong and emotive as ever; it still gives me chills. There is always a moment or two or three in every record where you go to a place deep inside to get to that intense vocal expression. Where does that come from?    

It’s very hard to explain, because if you could describe music you wouldn’t need music. It’s kind of second nature, so it’s hard to describe to someone else. It’s like taking a breath. You do what you do. I’m sure every singer would tell you how much they wish they could put words on that, because there’s nothing more interesting to talk about than singing. For me, I just go into a world of my own and if you go into the Stanislavski method, as I call it, you get into the character – the who, what, where, when and why – and you forget you’re on a stage and forget there are people there and you get to who you are in the song, where you are, what is it you’re trying to say, who is it you’re trying to say it to and how you’re trying to say it. (laughs) But the big difference between this and actual method acting is you only stay in that character for three minutes, because you’ve got to sing another character in three minutes. (laughs)

 Speaking of characters, the record’s cover photo of you in the shiny black dress and the black wig evokes a visual way to depict a character or maybe it reflects your foolish side or perhaps your true self.

Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a very important aspect of it. It’s a poetic aspect, and what I mean by that is it’s a subtext, and I’ve done about 150 interviews already and you were the only one who managed to pick that up, although one person asked me if I was trying to disguise myself and I said, “Well, maybe the other has been a disguise.” (laughs)

 I have to compliment you on your confronting suicide on “8 Good Reasons”, which is such an arresting song that within it you actually question the idea of broaching it. You sing; “Don’t know if I should quite sing this song/Don’t know if it maybe might be wrong/But then again it maybe might be right/To tell you ‘bout the bullet and the red light”. It’s a beautifully harsh sentiment.

 In the case where songs are very personal it becomes subconscious when you write them. You don’t really know why you wrote it, you just had to write it. I was working with a guitar player named Graham Kearns and he wrote the music for the song and sent it to me. I don’t know…I just felt I had to write it. (chuckles) My favorite way of writing is when someone gives me a piece of music. When I hear the music I see pictures or think of things, whether they’re personal or imaginary things, and once I heard what Graham had given me I was immediately inspired by it.

When I hear the music I see pictures or think of things, whether they’re personal or imaginary things.

 

Can you reveal the 8 good reasons that are worth sticking around for?

They were my children’s eyes.

 Ha! That’s fantastic.

(laughs) Yeah.

I recently saw a television interview with you where you discussed the dangerous vagaries of the Internet, the meanness of it, the random, anonymous vitriol of it all. I wonder if that kind of bullying is something that hits home with you.IMG_5880_300

Well, Jesus, look what’s going on in Israel. It goes on in people’s sitting rooms because it goes on outside and vice versa. It’s not only on the Internet, is it? People aren’t very nice to one another.

 I saw a mural of you on the street in Temple Bar when I was in Dublin last month. On it was written, I presume by the artist, “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.” Can you shed some light on this?

I wonder who painted it! (laughs) I’ll tell you what, if John Paul II or Ratzinger (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI) did it I’d be real happy. It’s lovely. I’ve seen it. It’s very special to me. I’d really love to know who did it.

I have framed and hanging in my office the cover of the NY Daily News the day after you tore a picture of Pope John Paul II and that was, for me, a touchtone moment of speaking truth to power. And later we learned it was your vehement protest against the Church’s cover-up of decades of child abuse. I wonder if you believe this is a battle that will ever be won or will it rage on long after we’re gone.

No, I don’t think it will be a battle long after we’re gone because I believe in the Christian scriptures and it’s all written down exactly what’s going to happen. So, to put it briefly and more in a metaphorical form: Rain falls from the sky, stuff comes up from under the ground. As Jesus said; “Nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed and nothing is kept secret that won’t be made known.” I think we can all sit back and relax, because I believe in the scriptures and all will eventually be revealed.

Will you be touring the record here in the states?

Yeah, we’re coming there in October and again in November. You know – one side of the states the first time and another side the second time. (laughs)

Well, it really is a wonderful record and seems to be a creative rebirth for you; new label (Nettwerk) and all. I wonder if you feel that.

I really do. Very much so. Brilliant record company. Brilliant record. John  Reynolds being the most fantastic producer ever and I think very strong songs and a great songwriting team we have together.  It’s another beginning for me as a songwriter.

 

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BOY: TAKING THE PROCESS ON TOUR

Aquarian Weekly
10/13

BUZZ

James Campion

BOY: TAKING THE PROCESS ON TOUR
From Music Workshop to New York Stage, A Pop Duo Comes Of Age

 

Even in a cramped and steamy backstage dressing room, less than two hours before the New York City debut of their full-band show at Webster Hall, Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass still find time to be introspectively gracious and dig deeperBoy1_400x500 into this mysterious but palpable fusion of musicality that allows uniquely divided talents from disparate backgrounds to achieve Boy.

Boy is a vocal-rich, musically versatile songwriting and performing duo that formed in 2005 and released its first collection of songs, Mutual Friends in 2011. Disallowing for taste or category, Boy embodies the strength and depth of the memorable tune, the visceral progression, the tasty bridge and a considerable cross-generational adoration for pop music.

“We don’t sit in a room and jam,” Glass chuckles. The thirty-six year old German cellist/bass player is quite adamant when explaining the Boy process. “I write the songs in total, programming everything but lyrics and melody. Then I send those ideas to Valeska.”

The twenty-seven year old Swiss born vocalist, whose eerie evocation of Suzanne Vega’s reservedly sensual tones, thrives in the duo’s give-and-take. “We are real perfectionists,” Steiner beams. “Our goal is to work for as long as it takes for us to like it. And it takes awhile.”

Mutual Friends is a first record much like a first novel; it goes too far and chooses too many spaces to fill, yet manages quite nicely to make it sound as if the listener has found a comfortable place to land.

“Comforting” is how Glass describes the music, as Steiner is quite positive its themes, from love and loss to the joy of transition are “optimistic”.

“This is the beginning…of anything you want,” Steiner sings in the album’s opening number, and you believe it, just as you believe the alternative in the pensive “Drive Darling” when she admits, “I’m smiling on the surface,…I’m scared as hell below.” There is an enviable sincerity in these disparate emotions in which the music duly supports.

“I was glad we were able to make a record that many people come to us and say that it gives them hope somehow,’ says Steiner. “I had just moved from Zurich to Hamburg, so it was like a fresh start. And it was this very enthusiastic and hopeful feeling of looking to see what was going to come, but there are also melancholy songs of missing what you left behind.”

The delicate but brave balance of Boy is found in these young women and what they have found in each other, a similar comfort to meet the challenge of creating the kind of music which reflects their collective outlook while not trying too hard to please. It is as if the idea of a good, solid, positive song; whether treading folk or rock or soul, were inbred individually and realized jointly.

“I was looking for a band for many years and Valeska was the first one where I thought I really believed in us,” recounts Glass of their meeting in a six-week pop-music symposium at Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany, her distinct accent forcing the words deliberately, so as to not miss the significance. “Something happened when we played together that had never happened before. I somehow knew that things would work out for us.”
Steiner recalls nearly 50 musicians and vocalists convened in the “workshop”, but it took merely an initial meeting for her and Glass to be sure that theirs would be a fruitful collaboration.

“We got into the rehearsal room the second day and we really liked each other’s qualities and somehow got the feeling that we had similar tastes and that we cared about similar things in music,” says Steiner, through a lilting Swiss accent, a sweet smile creasing her slender features.  “We clicked pretty quickly.”

“There were many, many singers, but she stood out,” Glass says of Steiner. “Her voice is special and very unique and you just recognize it. She’s just…shining.”
Mutual Friends provides insights into the essence of the Steiner/Glass pairing, which becomes transparent upon meeting them; an adoring humility with an undercurrent of worldly ambition. Both women are arrestingly beautiful and soft-spoken, belying a tenacious will to produce the most memorable aural-scapes.

This intriguing duality was fully on display a few hours later as the band (a percussionist, drummer, guitarist, keyboardist and Glass on bass) took the stage on the second floor of Webster Hall before a hearty audience. Dynamics, spatial nuances and visceral lifts power an understated fury, whether a ballad, as in the haunting “July” or a simple pop song, as in the spectacularly infectious, “Little Numbers”.

It is on stage that Steiner shines as a vocalist; culling tension against an impenetrable bedrock of defiance. Her voice demands attention with a feminine mystique as she moves about the spotlight like a sparrow sure of its space but comfortable in timidity. “We really didn’t make any compromises,” she declared back in the dressing room. “We really just wanted to make our record the way we wanted to make it and we feel so lucky that people seem to like it and we’ve gotten so far and traveled so much with these songs.”

The crowd on this night ate it up; singing along and cheering the many moments of demure honesty both women offered up about their utter giddiness at playing their songs as they were intended, with a full band, in a New York City milieu.
“We are extremely happy with the live band we have,” Steiner enthuses. “They are great musicians and great people, and we’re really happy to have this group that grew together from playing so many shows.”boy

Each member of the band, which has previously played with Boy in one capacity or another over the past two and a half years, all contributed to different songs on Mutual Friends, as Steiner and Glass preferred to pick and choose the right musicians for a particular song. However, this line-up was not part of the equation when the girls first hit America in March.

“We knew we wanted to go on tour and play, but we couldn’t afford a whole band to come with us,” says Steiner. “We just knew we would have to find a way for just the two of us to play these songs in a stripped down version. So that was a challenge.”

This was especially true of Glass, who had taken it upon herself to provide nearly the entire musical accompaniment, protecting the integrity of the original arrangements. “I have to say it took me some time to get used to playing acoustic guitar live,” says Glass. “I use it when I write, of course, but it was hard for me to play this instrument and feel comfortable.”

“We had to imitate the whole band and Sonja really had a tough job,” Steiner adds, her partner effusively nodding her head beside her. “She had to jump from the acoustic guitar to the cello and then to bass.”

“For two songs we had a loop on the laptop and I had to start it,” Glass laughs. “I was kind of the band machine.”

But now, on stage, with full accompaniment and an enthusiastic crowd of fans who have embraced Boy as it was meant to look and sound, Steiner and Glass appear in their element. The German girl plucks her bass and smirks at the groove as her Swiss pal leaps joyously, smacking a tambourine into an open hand as she bends her head back to reach another note.

The future is fast becoming the now for Boy; on tour in the States with a new acoustic EP out and looking forward to completing work on a second album. It is hard not to ask if this could ever have been dreamed up or if this is all stranger than fiction.

“I think both are true,” Steiner smiles, with Glass chiming in with a whispered yeah. “On the one hand it was always this dream of being a musician; to be able to tour and be on the road with your band and, honestly, going to the States and being on tour here was one of my biggest dreams; but it always seemed so far away. When we started writing that was never our main thought, it was just really believing in what happened between us when we write and liking what comes out of that in the first place – just doing it for ourselves or for our own pleasure, because it fulfilled us. And it still does, and it’s so nice to see which way the music goes…”

“….and how it develops,” Glass concludes.

The Boy process continues.

 

 

 

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John Densmore Fights To Save The Doors Legacy

Aquarian Weekly 4/17/13 Feature

THE DOORS: IDENTITY CRISIS IN THE LAND OF $$$
Drummer, John Densmore Revives the Ghost of Jim Morrison in a Fight to Define Art, Integrity & Legacy

There is being an idealist, and then there is John Densmore. There is defining integrity, and then there is John Densmore. There is putting money, reputation and professional legacy where the mouth and the heart reside, and then there is John Densmore.

John DensmoreThe legendary drummer’s new book, The Doors Unhinged – Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial is a compelling look at defining the cost of art, integrity and legacy. Where is the line drawn between creativity and commerce? When does a band turn from a vehicle for artistic expression to a commodity, or is it always both? If so, which is more pertinent? And most importantly, what’s in a name? Is it identity? Is it purity? Or does it have many definitions? And exactly who defines it?

The Doors Unhinged is a story about longtime friends, brothers-in-arms, fighting tooth-and-nail to define their creation; The Doors – its image and rightful place as an American icon, as either a product to be re-packaged for profit or a collective with the living DNA of four unique members that ceased to be, in reality, after 1971.

Densmore’s The Doors Unhinged is less about his struggles for personal principle as it is about definitions; not only definitions put on trial between long-time colleagues, but in a court of law, where the story transforms from a passion play among members of a powerful and lucrative creative entity to a battle for survival, both professional and personal.

For 45 years, The Doors have stood as an exemplar of the late 1960s’ pioneer rock era; breaking molds, bending styles, and staking claim to an exploding culture of youth, fashion and political and social dissent. During the band’s heyday, Densmore was its quietest member. He chose, and quite enjoyed, staying in the background to drive the sound behind the flowing keyboards of Ray Manzarek and guitarist, Robby Krieger’s accenting resonance. But it was putting an exclamation to the manic poetry of the enigmatic detonation that was the late Jim Morrison that really jazzed Densmore.

To Densmore, Morrison represented the ideals of rebellion. His search for escapism and pure freedom fueled songs that topped the charts; “Light My Fire”, “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”, “Hello, I Love You”, “Touch Me”, and others that darkened the edges of the counter-culture, “When The Music’s Over”, “People Are Strange”, and “The End”. Consequently, it was Morrison’s wish that none of the fame and fortune would sever the bond of the four young men, as they explored new musical and lyrical territories without constraint. This wish was confirmed in the band’s rare commitment, never considered before in the entertainment industry, that all four members would have an equal voice to defy the rest of the outfit, as Morrison put it back in 1967, ‘if things got weird”.

In 2003, things got weird.

Densmore, who never stopped believing Morrison’s edict, was forced to stand for the principles of a man long dead and a band long gone when Manzarek and Krieger decided to promote and tour a 21st Century Doors. Despite assurances that the “tribute” would not be labeled as The Doors reunited, Densmore was forced into legal recourse to halt what he felt was misleading to the band’s fan base and an insult to both he and Morrison’s place in the original band. Desperate to keep the gravy train moving, Manzarek and Krieger counter-sued Densmore for $40 million, claiming his continued filibuster of advertising opportunities to use Doors songs to sell just about anything was ruining them financially and sequestering “the brand”.

And so The Doors Unhinged, in essence, bears witness to the purported 60s philosophies and the lingering notion that they still exist or at least it wasn’t all merely a fraudulent attempt to cash in.

The author, one of the most inventive percussionists of the rock era, took time out in early April to reflect on this painful and illuminating diary of the events that ensued.

You write so poignantly about this ugly battle between brothers-in-arms. I wonder if it was even more difficult to share your inner most fears and beliefs with the world.

It wasn’t as difficult to write it down as going through it. (laughs) The old phrase, time heals? Well, time does heal. Technically, it was hard, but I took years to do it. I worked real hard at trying to not to make it a legalese, blah-blah, boring, technical lawyer thing. So, I interspersed my emotions. I let the writing drift off when I was in the courtroom – I mean, I didn’t do that when I was actually in the court room – but I wanted the reader to get inside my mind, so I could better tell the stories of sitting in with Carlos Santana or seeing Elvin Jones. I’m real pleased it’s available for those that are interested.

It was pretty difficult as a fan of The Doors to read about how the lawyers for your friends and colleagues stooped to accusing you of being a communist or worse still, a terrorist. I’ve been covering politics for decades, and even I was appalled.

“You know, now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie.”

I know. It’s funny, because in the beginning the fans, the really hardcore ones, thought I was destroying their favorite band. But now that they can finally read the whole journey, they will hopefully get the idea that I was trying to preserve the integrity of the original group. Now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It’s healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie. In the last chapter I say, “Hey, how can I not love you guys, we created this incredible thing together.” Musically, they’re my brothers forever. They just didn’t see that The Doors got knocked off its hinges by their idea that they could play without Jim. And that’s been proven wrong.

Your signature point in the book is Morrison’s well-documented outburst against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick back in 1968. And an intriguing element of the unfolding story is in defining how a 27 year-old man, who stands for so much of the 60s’ imagery, would come across today had he lived. Yet, Morrison’s ideals are frozen in time. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for Morrison. Yet, despite Krieger and Manzarek arguing in court that over time, as he aged, Jim would have evolved in his thinking about selling out The Doors’ integrity for profit, you stood by the ghost of your friend, as if he were here today to speak for himself.

I’m very proud the first line of the book is “Fuck you!” Jim saying “Fuck you!” (laughs) If he were alive today would he okay using Doors songs to sell Cadillac? I’m not unaware of the fact that times have changed and the music business, like all the creative businesses, is really difficult, and as I write in the book; if a new band wants to use their stuff to hawk some product to pay the rent, I get that. It’s just that in our situation we’ve already done well and if a new band begins to do well maybe then they should revisit whether they should do commercials anymore, because, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve changed your lyrics to a jingle.”

Two of my great heroes, lyrically and musically, Tom Waits and Pete Townshend are quoted in your book arguing both sides of the point. Waits is vehemently against having his music used purely for commerce while Townshend states emphatically that he can do what he wants with his songs and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. And I can see both sides of it.

Yeah, yeah, it’s true. Townshend’s quote is funny; “I don’t give a fuck if you fell in love with Shirley to my song, I’ll do what I want with it.” (laughs)

But Townshend gets to speak for himself, while Morrison could not. I liken it to arguing that if Martin Luther King had been alive today he might say, “I’d like to reconsider this whole civil rights thing.” You have to go by what a person did and said during their time. That’s all you’ve got.

That’s it exactly, James. All you’ve got is what they did when they were alive. What else could you base your thoughts on?

You see, where Manzarek and Krieger lost me was when they, or their lawyers, used the 1969 Miami incident where Morrison was arrested for lewd behavior and public disturbance or whatever, to besmirch him. In all the books I’ve read on The Doors and interviews I’d heard or seen, all of you guys clearly denounced the charges against Morrison, especially for allegedly exposing himself on stage, which ostensibly finished The Doors as a touring act. Until this case, all the surviving Doors are on record as stating none of these things happened.

That’s what’s hysterical, really, because at the trial in Miami Robbie was asked, “Did Mr. Morrison simulate performing oral sex on you?” To which he said “No! Are you kidding? He gets down on his knees to look at my fingers! He’s enamored with musicians since he can’t play an instrument.” So here are his lawyers implying that it was true, as if Ray and Robbie were never there!

This is where I was on board with your rather lofty goal of “honoring your ancestor”. In essence, you stood by a lost member of the band, who could no longer defend his fourth voice in the collective, his equal vote to stop the band from selling out. It really is an honorable gesture to uphold the legacy and wishes of Morrison and saying, “Jim still gets a vote here.” That is The Doors.

I agree. And since the trial, Jim’s dad has passed, and his mom too, so now they’re ancestors as well. We’re standing on all their shoulders. It was so touching to me; you know, I had never met Jim’s dad. I had met his mom, but I hadn’t met his dad until this trial. And here I initiate this horrible struggle and this great gift of hanging with his dad comes along; how he turned the past around and supported his son’s legacy even while we had written songs against the Viet Nam War as he was over there fighting it! So, what a great healing of the 60s’ in a way.

The Door UnhingedWhat hit home for me as I was reading your account is vividly recalling when I was younger and wanting to be a writer and dabbling in poetry and all that stuff you do when you’re trying to find your identity or your voice, how much An American Prayer was so influential and inspiring to me. I have many literary heroes and influences, and consider Jim Morrison as one. And I’ve had my arguments over the years with those who dismiss Morrison as a poser or a hack because of his affiliation as a pop star. There’s a legitimacy factor that I’ve always embraced with Morrison and The Doors, so to read how you stood by that hit home for me. I found myself rooting you on as I read it.

Well, thanks. Yeah, we really enjoyed doing American Prayer. You know, Jim was really over the top in some of his lyrics and behavior, so people wrote him off. In fact, you gave me an idea, I usually read a little excerpt from American Prayer while playing a hand drum. I think I’ll do that at the Vintage Vinyl signing. I’ll dedicate it to you.

Cool. I’ve got to be there then. Getting back to your trial and this battle to maintain the integrity of The Doors – now that this is all settled, and we’ll let people decide by reading your book how it all comes out and what they believe was the right angle; what are your thoughts on the line drawn between art and commodity? Does it move from when you’re struggling to put food on the plate to when you’re a rock star? Is it tangible?

You know, I quote Lewis Hyde, who wrote a book called The Gift, which really nails it for me. He says there is a gift exchanged between the artist and the receiver and it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for an opera ticket or a concert ticket or whatever, it’s still this gift. But if you change the work of art entirely into a commodity, you’re going to lose the gift. I like that very much. It’s kind of what I’m saying, whether it’s a painting or music or whatever the hell it is, it’s an expression of the artist in trying to share what it’s like being human. There’s a sacred something exchanged there. And, you know, if you make it be about a new deodorant I think you’ve lost the gift.

But I can also see the other point about creativity being your trade. I’m not sure how you feel about what Pink Floyd went through with Roger Waters or what KISS goes through when they tour with two new guys in the make-up of the original guys and selling it as KISS, and I’ve had Alice Cooper tell me in interviews that he created this character and if someone wanted to carry on as Alice Cooper after he was gone that would be all right with him. This is really about definitions; how The Doors are ultimately defined, and in this book you define it as a singular entity, almost sacred. There are some things that are not for sale.

Well, I’m so grateful for something Tom Waits said, and I put it on the back of the book; “John Densmore is not for sale and that’s his gift to us.” But, you know, Alice Cooper, that’s his name, where this is The Doors, and that’s not Jim’s name. It reminds me of this moment when we were on stage and were introduced as “Jim Morrison and The Doors” and Jim dragged the promoter back out and made him re-introduce us as The Doors. So, behind closed doors – sorry about that – we were four equal parts. Even L.A. Woman was a good, strong album, and Jim was clearly an alcoholic by then. When we were alone, the four of us, the muse still blessed us. And so I feel okay. I feel the beginning of a healing with Ray and Robbie, because something bigger than us helped us make our music.

Ultimately, did you see those guys touring as the 21st Century Doors, and more or less promoting it as The Doors, as identity theft?

Yes. That’s pretty good. I know I did say, “The Doors died in a bathtub in Paris in ’71”, but you know, Jim’s such an icon that he lives on in everyone’s mind. Of course, I was just trying to make it clear that The Doors were Jim, Ray, Robbie and John – John, Paul, George, Ringo – it’s not Ray, Robbie, Ian (Astbury – The Cult, new singer), Stuart (Copeland – former Police drummer), Fred and Tom. The Stones without Mick? The Police without Sting? No, come on. The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years due to this idea, but they’re back on their hinges now. Thank God.

I always say I’d trade all the shows I saw in my lifetime for one evening watching you guys ply your trade, because as I understand it, a Doors show was literally an organic experience, no matter how bad it got or how brilliant it got, no one could predict what the hell would happen. So, I ask you; someone who played that music and performed those shows; how did you feel when you came on stage with The Doors? As the lights went down and the crowd was cheering and you guys were about to crash into the first song; did you have that same feeling of, here we go, let’s see what goes down now?

“Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? “

(laughs) It’s funny. Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? It was sort of crazy, but also magical. A lot of the time it was magic, until his self destruction increased and then I was lobbying for us to stop playing live. And it took me a year to convince Ray and Robbie of this, because I missed the magic. It was so good in the beginning. It was, you know, goose bumps…pin-drop time. Usually we’d play “Light My Fire” and everybody would be on their feet dancing and then we’d play “The End” as an encore and people would file out…quietly. (chuckles) Like they were gonna take it home and chew on it.

Maybe my favorite piece of video of you guys, and it might have been in Europe, is The Doors playing live on a television show and doing “The End”, which in and of itself is gutsy – here you are probably expected to do the hit, to play “Light My Fire” on a pop television show, and you’re playing this eleven-minute opus with bizarre poetic references and Oedipal overtones and this is not a theater or a rock club. The studio lights are up and you can see the audience and these people are between awe and shock. That’s pretty profound, man. And I think unique to The Doors.

(laughs) It reminds me of a gig in Mexico City. We were promised to play in the bull ring for the people who had just a few pesos in exchange for playing a ritzy supper club. And we went down there and there was some riot in the bull ring a few weeks before and they ended up cancelling us playing there. We were so depressed. So here we were playing for these people eating supper in a real ritzy club and we were playing “The End” and they were trying to cut their steaks… (laughs) …with mouthfuls of food. (laughs)

That kind of story reminds me of how you really just loved the whole thing; not just being in The Doors, but, like I said before, the whole sacred thing about those four guys. In fact, you were the last person in the inner sanctum to speak with Morrison before he died. Could you take a minute and recount that conversation. Did you get an eerie feeling that maybe it might be the last time you spoke to Morrison?

Oh, boy. (sighs) Well, I could tell he was still drinking, so that was disturbing, but no…I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d talk to him. But I appreciated his enthusiasm for hearing how well L.A. Woman was doing, because we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer in our rehearsal room, and we had more control. So, it was fun to do. And Jim said, “Oh, man, I’ll come back. We’ll make another one!”

Which is a cool story, because in most books I’ve read on The Doors or on Morrison, it always depicts him as wanting to shed The Doors and become a legitimate poet and leave all that rock god stuff behind. But when you tell it, it sounds like he still held his place in The Doors in high regard.

Yes.

Greil Marcus’ new book on The Doors, The Doors – Five Mean Years, argues for the relevance of The Doors today. I loved the story about when he was visiting his dad, who was in a hospital at the time a few years back, driving across the Bay Bridge from Oakland or Berkley to San Francisco and listening to several rock/pop radio stations for weeks on end – every day – and in that hour or so drive there and back almost inevitably with all the new stuff like Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake or whatever, there would be a Doors song and how more than any band from the past, The Doors still seemed to have a resonance among this generation, how the band transcended its time so well. It’s not like you guys are stuck in that time. The Doors are still relevant. And this speaks to your battle to protect that, not just for nostalgic purposes, but for now, for today and for all time.

Well, I don’t know why it’s lasted so long. It must be the drumming. (laughs)

That segues into a final question I have for you: What do you hope people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robbie and Ray and the court case and everything you describe take away from your book?

Well, at the risk of being on a soapbox and sounding like Mister PC, there’s an underlying theme in this book…money. And as I quote Michael Mead, a mythologist friend of mine; “Currency comes from the word ‘current’, and it’s supposed to flow like a river. So if the corporate leaders horde everything – the billionaires damn it all up – money becomes like fertilizer; when horded it stinks and when spread around things grow, I’m kind of arrogantly implying that my personal struggles with my band might be metaphoric for bigger issues. That make sense?

It does.

I guess I’m talking about integrity or whatever the hell.

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John Densmore Interview (2013)

TRANSCRIPT 4/9/13

JOHN DENSMORE INTERVIEW
Unedited Transcript

James?

Yes.

John Densmore.

John , how are you, sir?

John DensmoreI’m good, thanks. How are you?

I’m well. Big fan here, so this is a big deal for me. So thank you very much for the time.

Oh, you bet.

Not only a big fan of your work as a musician over the years, but I really enjoyed your two books, this latest one we’ll talk about and your first one, Riders on the Storm.

Well, I appreciate that, James.

I cranked through this book in about two days nearly a month ago, so before we spoke I wanted to revisit some key parts, and was even more impressed by how poignantly you write about how difficult it was to be in this ugly battle against your brothers-in-arms. And it got me wondering how hard was it to get it down in print, to physically express it, and know that your inner most fears and anxieties and beliefs would be on record in this account?

(laughs) Wow. It wasn’t as difficult to write it down as going through it. (laughs) The old phrase, time heals; time does heal. And I worked real hard at trying to not to make it a legalese, blah-blah, boring, technical lawyer thing. So, I interspersed my emotions. I drift off when I was in the court room, I mean, when writing this, I didn’t necessarily do that when I was actually in the court room, but I wanted the reader to get inside my mind, so I could better tell some stories about whatever – sitting in with Carlos Santana or seeing Elvin Jones. So, technically, it was hard, but I took years to do it. Writing takes forever. Well, you know how it is. I’m real pleased it’s available for those that are interested.

It was pretty difficult as a fan of The Doors to read about how the lawyers for your friends and colleagues stooped to accusing you of being a communist or worse still, unbelievably, a terrorist. I’m 50, and have been covering politics for decades, but even I was appalled.

I know. It’s funny, because in the beginning the fans, the really hardcore ones, thought I was destroying their favorite band. But now that they can finally read the whole journey they will hopefully get the idea that I was trying to preserve the integrity of the original group. You know, (sighs) now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie. In the last chapter I say, “Hey, how can I not love you guys, we created this incredible thing together.” And, you know, musically, they’re my brothers forever. They just didn’t see… The Doors…they got knocked off their hinges by their idea that they could play without Jim. And that’s been (chuckles) proven wrong.

Sure, in many ways. I was immediately taken by your signature point in the book being Morrison’s well-documented derision against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick in 1968 as the basis for your protecting the brand. And an intriguing element of your story is this defining of what a 27 year-old man, who stands for so much of the 60s’ imagery, would come across today had he lived. Yet, Morrison is frozen in time with his ideals. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for Morrison. Despite Krieger and Manzarick arguing in court that Jim would have evolved in his thinking about selling out The Doors integrity for profit, you stood by the ghost of your friend as if he were here today to speak out for himself.

“You know, now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie.”

I’m very proud the first line of the book is “Fuck you!” (laughs) Jim saying “Fuck you!” (laughs) You know, if he were alive today would he okay using Doors songs to sell Cadillac? I’m not unaware of the fact that times have changed and the music business, like all the creative businesses, is really difficult, and as I write in the book; if a new band wants to use their stuff to hawk some product to pay the rent, I get that. It’s just that in our situation we’ve already done well and if a new band begins to do well maybe then they should revisit whether they should do commercials anymore, because, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve changed your lyrics to a jingle.”

I love the fact that two of my great heroes, lyrically and musically, Tom Waits and Pete Townshend are quoted in your book arguing both sides of the point. Waits is vehemently against having his music used purely for commerce while Townshend states emphatically that he can do what he wants with his songs and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. And I can see both sides of it.

Yeah, yeah, it’s true. Townshend’s quote is funny; “I don’t give a fuck if you fell in love with Shirley to my song, I’ll do what I want with it.” (laughs)

(laughs) But Townshend gets to speak for himself, while Morrison could not. I liken it to arguing that if Martin Luther King had been alive today he might say, “I’d like to reconsider this whole civil rights thing.” You have to go by what a person did and said during their time. That’s all you’ve got.

That’s it exactly, James. All you’ve got is what they did when they were alive. What else could you base your thoughts on?

You see, where Manzerick and Krieger lost me was when they, or their lawyers, used the 1969 Miami incident where Morrison was arrested for lewd behavior and public disturbance or whatever, to besmirch him. In all the books I’ve read on The Doors and interviews I’d heard or seen, all of you guys clearly denounced the charges against Morrison, especially for allegedly exposing himself on stage, which ostensibly finished The Doors as a touring act. Until this case, all the surviving Doors are on record as stating none of these things happened.

That’s what’s hysterical, really, because at the trial in Miami Robbie was asked, “Did Mr. Morrison perform, or simulate performing, oral sex on you?” To which he said “No! Are you kidding? (laughs) He gets down on his knees to look at my fingers! He’s enamored with musicians since he can’t play an instrument.” So here are his lawyers implying that it was true, as if Ray and Robbie were never there!

This is where I was on board with your rather lofty goal of “honoring your ancestor”. In essence, you stood by a lost member of the band, who could no longer defend his fourth voice in the collective, his equal vote to stop the band from selling out. It’s really is an honorable gesture to uphold the legacy and wishes of Morrison and saying, “Jim still gets a vote here.” That is The Doors.

Wow, James you’re smart. I hope you write this stuff down.

Well, thank you. (laughs)

I agree. And since the trial, Jim’s dad has passed, and his mom too, so now they are ancestors as well. We’re standing on all their shoulders. It was so touching to me, you know, I had never met Jim’s dad. I had met his mom, but I hadn’t met his dad until this trial. And here I initiate this horrible struggle and this great gift of hanging with his dad comes along. How he turned the past around and supported his son’s legacy even while we had written songs against the Viet Nam War as he was over there fighting it! So, what a great healing of the 60s’ in a way.

The Doors - 1967It’s true. And it comes across in the book. It really does. What hit home for me is as I was reading your account I vividly recalled when I was younger and wanting to be a writer and dabbling in poetry and all that stuff you do when you’re trying to find your identity or your voice, how much An American Prayer was so influential and inspiring to me. And although I have many literary heroes and influences, I consider Jim Morrison as one very special one. And I’ve had my arguments over the years with fellow scribes and even fellow students who dismissed Morrison as a poser or even a hack because of his affiliation as a pop star. There’s a legitimacy factor that I’ve always embraced with Morrison and The Doors, so to read how you stood by that hit home for me. I found myself rooting you on as I read it.

Well, thanks. Yeah, we really enjoyed doing American Prayer. You know, Jim was really over the top in some of his lyrics and behavior, so people wrote him off. In fact, you gave me an idea, I read a little excerpt from American Prayer while playing a hand drum. I think I’ll do that at the Vintage Vinyl signing. I’ll dedicate it to you.

(laughs) Thank you, man. Where is that? L.A.

No, wait, You’re writing this for The Aquarian, right? Isn’t that out of New Jersey?

Yup, right here in Jersey. Pop culture weekly; longest running independently-owned rock weekly in the country – our archives were recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Excellent! Well, I’m doing this reading/signing thing at Vintage Vinyl in New Jersey.

Cool. I’ve got to be there then. I’m sure the paper is plugging it. Not sure if this piece will be in by then. Getting back to your trial and this battle to maintain the integrity of The Doors – now that this is all settled, and we’ll let people decide by reading your book how it all comes out and what they believe was the right angle; what are your thoughts on the line drawn between art and commodity? Does it move from when you’re struggling to put food on the plate to when you’re a rock star? Is it tangible?

You know, I quote this writer, Lewis Hyde who wrote a book called The Gift, which really nails it for me. He says there is a gift exchanged between the artist and the receiver and it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for an opera ticket or a concert ticket or whatever, it’s still this gift. But if you change the work of art entirely into a commodity, you’re going to lose the gift. So, I like that very much. It’s kind of what I’m saying, whether its a painting or music or whatever the hell it is, it’s an expression of the artist in trying to share what it’s like being human. There’s a sacred something exchanged there. And, you know, if you make it be about a new deodorant you…gee…I think you’ve lost the gift.

But I can see the other point about this creativity being your task and trade. I’m not sure how you feel about what Pink Floyd went through with Roger Waters or what KISS goes through when they tour with two new guys in the make-up of the original guys and selling it as KISS, and I’ve had Alice Cooper tell me in interviews that he created this character and if someone, say, wanted to carry on as Alice Cooper after he was gone that would be all right with him. This is really about definitions; how The Doors are ultimately defined, and in this book you define it as a singular entity, almost sacred. There are some things that are not for sale.

Well, I’m so grateful for something Tom Waits said, and I put it on the back of the book; “John Densmore is not for sale and that’s his gift to us.” But, you know, Alice Cooper, that’s his name, where this is The Doors, and that’s not Jim’s name. It reminds me of this moment when we were on stage and were introduced as “Jim Morrison and The Doors” and Jim dragged the promoter back out and made him re-introduce us as The Doors. So, (sighs) behind closed doors – sorry about that – we were four equal parts. Even L.A. Woman was a good, strong album, and Jim was clearly an alcoholic by then. It was still…when we were alone, the four of us…the muse still blessed us. And so I feel okay. I feel the beginning of a healing with Ray and Robbie, because something bigger than us helped us make our music.

Ultimately, did you see those guys touring as the 21st Century Doors, and more or less promoting it as The Doors, as identity theft?

Yes. That’s pretty good. I know I did say The Doors died in a bathtub in Paris in ’71, but you know, he’s such an icon he lives on in everyone’s mind. Of course, I was just trying to make it clear that The Doors were Jim, Ray, Robbie and John – John, Paul, George, Ringo – it’s not Ray, Robbie, Ian (Astbury – The Cult, new singer), Stuart (Copeland – former Police drummer), Fred and Tom. The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years due to this idea (sighs)… The Stones without Mick? The Police without Sting? No, come on. But The Doors are back on their hinges. Thank God.

“Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? “

I always say I’d trade all the shows I saw in my lifetime for one evening watching you guys ply your trade, because as I understand it, a Doors show was literally an organic experience, no matter how bad it got or how brilliant it got, no one could predict what the hell would happen.

(chuckles)

So, I ask you, someone who played that music and performed those shows; how did you feel when you came on stage with The Doors? As the lights went down and the crowd was cheering and you guys were about to crash into the first song; did you have that same feeling of, here we go, let’s see what goes down now?

(laughs) It’s funny. Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? It was sort of crazy, but also magical. A lot of the time it was magic, until his self destruction increased and then I was lobbying for us to stop playing live. And it took me a year to convince Ray and Robbie of this, because I missed the magic. It was so good in the beginning. It was, you know, goose bumps…pin-drop time. Usually we’d play “Light My Fire” and everybody would be on their feet dancing and then we’d play “The End” as an encore and people would file out…quietly. (chuckles) Like they were gonna take it home and chew on it. It was so…deep…or something.

One of my favorite piece of video of you guys, and it might have been in Europe, is The Doors playing live on a television show and doing “The End”, which in and of itself is gutsy – here you are probably expected to do the hit, to play “Light My Fire” on a pop television show and you’re playing this eleven-minute opus with bizarre poetic references and Oedipal overtones and this is not a theater or a rock club. The studio lights are up and you can see the audience and these people are between awe and shock. That’s pretty profound, man. And I think unique to The Doors.

(laughs) That’s funny. It reminds me of a gig in Mexico City. We were promised to play in the bull ring for the people who had just a few pesos in exchange for playing a ritzy supper club. And we went down there and there was some riot in the bull ring a few weeks before and they ended up cancelling us playing there. We were so depressed. So here we were playing for these people eating supper in a real ritzy club and we were playing “The End” and they were trying to cut their steaks…(laughs)

(laughs)

…with mouthfuls of food having stopped being chewed. (laughs)

That kind of story reminds me of how you really just loved the whole thing; not just being in The Doors, but, like I said before, the whole sacred thing about it. And, this is something I didn’t know that is revealed in your book – first of all, I didn’t know that before he went to Paris, Jim had gotten lawyers to draw up an agreement stating officially that one dissenting voice from any member would halt any proceedings- and that final phone call that you received from Jim when he was in Paris shortly before he died. I know the account is in your first book, but I was reminded of it, and how that resonated because you were the last person in the inner sanctum to speak with him before he died. Could you take a minute and recount how that conversation affected you? Did you get this eerie feeling that maybe that it might be the last time you spoke to Morrison?

(sighs) Oh, boy. Well, I could tell he was still drinking, so that was disturbing, but no…I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d talk to him. But I appreciated his enthusiasm for hearing of how well L.A. Woman was doing, because we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer, and we had more control. So, it was fun to do. It was in our rehearsal room. And he said, “Oh, man, I’ll come back. We’ll make another one!”

The Door UnhingedWhich is a cool story, because in most books I’ve read on The Doors or on Morrison, it always depicts him as wanting to shed The Doors and become a legitimate poet and leave all that pop stardom and rock god stuff behind. But when you tell it, it sounds like he still held his place in The Doors and what you guys accomplished together in high regard.

Yeah. Yeah.

Have you read Greil Marcus’ new book on The Doors? (The Doors – Five Mean Years)

I did.

I loved the story about when he was visiting his dad, who was in a hospital at the time a few years back, driving across the Bay Bridge from Oakland or Berkley to San Francisco and listening to several rock/pop radio stations for weeks on end – every day – and in that hour or so drive there and back almost inevitably with all the new stuff like Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake or whatever, there would be a Doors song and how more than any band from the past, The Doors still seemed to have a resonance among this generation, how the band transcended its time so well. It’s not like you guys are stuck in that time, Herman’s Hermits or The Raspberries, The Doors are still a relevant brand, still something that means something currently. And this speaks to your battle to protect that, not just for nostalgic purposes, but for now, for today and for all time.

Well, I don’t know why it’s lasted so long. It must be the drumming. (laughs) Yes! Of course. I’ll tell you, speaking of that book; Greil describes in just a couple of passages what I was doing on the drums and it just astounded me! I can’t literally tell you what he was saying, but I’m reading it and I’m going, “Oh, my God, that’s what I was doing!” And I hadn’t realized it until I read Greil’s translation. It was some section on how I would kind of drive the soloist, either Ray or Robbie, and for some reason, I would kind of lead them in and out of the solos. It just evolved. It was not talked about at all. And so, when I would sense that they were done, I would do a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat and then everybody knew we were taking it down or whatever, we were taking it to the verse. Until Greil described it, it was really like, “Oh, wow! He got in my head and I didn’t even know I was thinking that!” But it’s true.

That’s the beauty of writing, if you do it right. Marcus is one of the greats. It’s an art form to describe something like music or people playing music, a visceral experience, something so hard describe in words, and hit it straight on. What you’re saying is the greatest compliment for those of us who do this thing, this trying to express the un-expressible, to share in words the feelings derived from the experience and harder still, to, as you say, get into the head of the artist. It’s a great service for another generation, who may have missed the experience. And I guess, that segues into a final question I have for you: What do you hope future generations or people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robbie and Ray and the court case and everything you describe in the book take away from your book?

Well, at the risk of being on a soapbox and sounding like Mister PC, there’s an underlying theme in this book…money. And as I quote Michael Mead, a mythologist friend of mine; “Currency comes from the word “current”, and it’s supposed to flow like a river.” So if the corporate leaders horde everything – the billionaires damn it all up -money is like fertilizer, when horded it stinks and when spread around things grow, I’m kind of arrogantly implying that my personal struggles with my band might be metaphoric for bigger issues. We live in hierarchal world, there will always be doctors and nurses, but if the doctors are little kinder and a little more generous then it will be a nicer place.

Mmmm.

That make sense?

It absolutely does. Somebody has to think it and express it, because in most cases it’s not always true. It doesn’t always play out in the literal world, but it’s still nice that there are some people who believe that and some who actually enact it.

I guess I’m talking about integrity or whatever the hell.

It’s funny, because I’m thinking of titling the piece something in the ballpark of Identity Theft in the Land of $$$ and using the dollar sign in it.

Oh, that’s a good title. (laughs) Great! Well, thank you again for the time. This really was a huge deal for me to get to speak with you. Good luck with the book. Thanks. A real pleasure, James. Thank, you John. Bye-bye Bye.

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The Iconic Art of Bob Gruen

Aquarian Weekly 7/24/12 Buzz

THROUGH THE VOLUME LENS – THE ICONIC ART OF BOB GRUEN

Eighty percent of success is just showing up. – Woody Allen

I liked being there. – Bob Gruen

If you’ve wasted just a fraction of the time I did in my youth, hell, my entire life reading rock magazines, popular music compendiums and studying the history of rock and roll with a myopic fervor usually reserved for religious vocation, then there is a better than two to one shot you’ve come across hundreds of images captured by the camera of Bob Gruen. Bob GruenFor over four decades the passionate eye of one of the world’s leading photographers has visually dissected the most important artists of the rock era; The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, KISS, Aerosmith, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen and Prince to name a few from prog rock to punk and beyond. A new documentary, Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen by Grammy Award-winning filmmaker Don Letts beautifully frames the essence of Gruen’s art and its origins.

The 66 year-old Gruen casually mentioned what was originally a four-part British television special chronicling the many arcs of his work back in June when I visited his West Village studio/apartment/archive bunker. Getting there was half the fun; a maze of long hallways and two elevator trips into the center of an artist’s complex, where nearly every inch of its cramped but charming environs is crammed with overflowing file cabinets and stacked shelves of Gruen’s work. More a portal into a life spent smack-dab in the middle of rock history than an office space, the minute you step inside it’s as if you’ve entered the rare intimacy of the performance world from spotlight to backstage to the after-hours private parties.

It is also a place where Gruen has entertained the likes of John Lennon, Joe Strummer and KISS, whose leather-clad, Kabuki-faced members tried on his civvies for a CREEM magazine photo shoot that became the iconic Dressed To Kill album cover. “I took the guys in The Clash back here once, cooked them dinner and showed them my New York Dolls live tapes,” Gruen told me, as we sat on the couch where “the most important band in the world” once dined.

These and many more anecdotes, all illustrated stunningly with a parade of gorgeous rock and roll moments forever frozen in time by Gruen’s unique talents, color Letts’ film, which not only features commentary from some of his famous subjects like Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Billie Joe Armstrong, but includes Gruen’s own insights and the stories behind it all.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen is an exhaustive filmic biography. It takes us back to the burgeoning professional photographer’s early days traveling with Ike & Tina Turner (featuring Gruen’s famous picture of a gyrating Turner onstage in a multiple-exposure masterpiece of five images at once) through his years as John and Yoko’s private NYC photographer (in the studio, on stage and in their home) then onto his years trolling Manhattan’s underground punk scene from Max’s Kansas City to CBGB all the way through his travels and friendships with The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Green Day, who today have entrusted Gruen to maintain their image as standard-bearers of the genre. The main theme throughout the film, which was part of New York City’s CBGB Festival, a three-day celebration of the famous dive on the Bowery that birthed the punk movement of the late-Seventies and where Gruen spent many a night capturing the mood, sweat and ear-splitting mayhem of The Ramones, Television, Blondie, and Talking Heads, among others, centers around Gruen’s edict to immerse himself in the heart of the action.

“Some photographers are adamant about not being edited. I’m adamant about getting hired again. I was very comfortable working with a band and helping them create the image they want to create.”

“Bob always seemed to just be floating around,” Yoko Ono muses in the film. “He was never obtrusive or demanding like other photographers. He was respectful and really cared about his subjects. John and I trusted him completely.”

Or as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong puts it; “Bob’s not a pain in the ass.”

“I want my subjects to be happy with the image my photographs depict,” Gruen told me back in June. “Some photographers are adamant about not being edited. I’m adamant about getting hired again. I was very comfortable working with a band and helping them create the image they want to create.”

Seeing a Bob Gruen photograph for the first or fiftieth time speaks volumes about a man who loves the artists and wants the fans, the ultimate arbiter of the rock experience, to get closer to their heroes and to better understand by a single image what listening to the music has already awakened. Quite simply, Gruen’s artistry enhances the experience of the music. His pictures represent in a very serious way an extension of it.

Gruen rode the crest of the budding craft of rock journalism long before music videos could bring home the images of rock stars. Kids, especially the younger ones like myself in the early Seventies, who might not have had the money or access to transportation to see their favorite acts as they rumbled through town (if they ever did at all) lived vicariously through the images exploding from the pages of Creem, Circus, Rock Scene, Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. Gruen’s camera filled in the blanks, added to our imaginations of a nether world of rebellion, riches and madness.

John LennonGruen’s best work treads the thin line of that madness, especially in the salad days of rock, as many of his shots, whether live concert photos or backstage meandering, seemed to border on or be completely out of focus. Soon, as he jokes today, it would become his “soft focus” style that many have aimed to mimic.

“There are more technically proficient photographers out there,” Gruen confidently states. “But I never went for the technically perfect shot, I went for feel. I wanted the person seeing the shot to feel what the artist was feeling at that moment, whether in front of a wild crowd or alone in a studio setting.”

This was a time, Gruen reminded me, long before pre-set digital cameras, when the pro photographer had to quickly perform many key maneuvers – adjust exposures and change lens – in the virtual darkness and controlled chaos of a rock and roll show: “Shooting a live performance is a wing and a prayer. I never had any idea if anything would come out or not. You hope you’re getting something, but the lights are changing, you don’t know what the exposure is, people are running around the whole time, you don’t know where to focus. It was fun, though. A lot of it was a guessing game. If some of the pictures came out all right, you were lucky and you’d get some good ones. If you take a lot of pictures you’re bound to get a couple of good ones and if only show the good ones then people think you’re good.”

Almost all of the subjects interviewed for Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen describe Gruen’s “technique”, whether proficient or visceral, as being almost nonchalant, especially in closed quarters in the after-party clubs or crowded apartments when the cream of the rock set would let their guard down to mingle and imbibe.

The Clash “Bob would be carrying on an intense conversation with you and suddenly, whap!, he’d snap a photo of someone a few feet away and get right back to you never missing a beat,” recalls rock journalist and longtime friend, Legs McNeil. “Then you’d see the picture weeks later and it would be fantastic! How did he see that?” Gaining incredible access to a host of huge rock acts during tours, on buses, in diners and hotel rooms, Gruen got the best shots, but knew where to draw the line.

“My theory has always been if I didn’t want to be shown in that light, I wouldn’t take the picture,” Gruen told the audience in a Q & A session after the film premiered at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on East Houston Street. “A good rule to go by was when the drugs came out, the camera was put away.”

Each of Gruen’s subjects echo the same sentiment throughout Letts’ film; he always displayed a respect and restraint unfamiliar to most rock photographers or the ever-present paparazzi. “Bob never did the usual, “Hey Alice, make a scary face’ bit,” recounts Alice Cooper in the film. And it was through that trust that Gruen was on a first-name basis with scores of rock stars, who had long given up letting anyone with a notepad, let alone a camera in.

“I never looked at this job as a journalist,” Gruen insists. “I was always a part of the lifestyle. I’m not looking at these people, I am these people.”

Gruen’s ability to see into the soul of the rock performer may have been fueled at his first professional shoot, the infamous performance by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965. Gruen explains in the film; “Everyone was booing Dylan and felt he was betraying the folk scene by showing up with a rock band, but I thought it was his way of saying that rock and roll was the new folk.”

The Sex Pistols

A few years later, after establishing himself as a solid freelancer, Gruen headed up to the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem to cover an Aretha Franklin show. It was there he literally ran into John and Yoko, where several camera-ready fans and pros were frantically snapping away. Lennon, in his usual smarmy style, joked that although he’d been photographed every minute of every day he never saw a single one. Gruen, ever the opportunist, shouted, “I’ll show you my photos!” Knowing the most famous rock and roll couple of all had recently moved right around the block from him, Gruen was true to his word.

Lennon was so moved that Gruen would hand off the pictures at their apartment (more to the point to yippie madman, Jerry Rubin, who answered the door) with no hint of wanting any favors from a Beatle, the two struck up a friendship that lasted until Lennon’s tragic murder in 1980. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, still is,” Gruen solemnly exhales, the memory still etched on his face. “People die, but not everyone gets murdered for no reason.”

Gruen’s work with John and Yoko produced a chronicle of their time living in Manhattan, the best of which are available in his 2005 book, John Lennon, The New York Years. These precious slices of life include the famous shot (Gruen’s idea) of Lennon giving the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty during his fight against deportation, and perhaps his most famous image, the ubiquitous “New York City Shirt” picture, which today festoons thousands of bootleg and official tee shirts, posters, stickers, etc. Just like KISS sporting his suits on the cover of Dressed to Kill, the shirt was a gift from Gruen, and when Lennon died years later and the photographer was asked to provide the seminal Lennon image for a memorial, without hesitation he chose that one.

“If it’s a good show, I’m driven to photograph it, I need to photograph it.”

“John died in New York because he lived in New York,” Gruen told me. “He died going home. I wanted that to be his legacy, his love for the city that I also love.”

It was Gruen’s love for New York that put him in the gritty innards of the downtown scene where he became one of The New York Dolls signature photographers. A band built upon the dying glam movement that bridged the Sixties NYC decadence of the Velvet Underground to the CBGB punk movement, Gruen worked tirelessly to help them conjure a variety of images.

“I loved bands like the Dolls and Alice Cooper and KISS, because they put on a show, on stage and in front of the camera,” cites Gruen. “They understood how much image mattered. They call it show business, so I always thought there should be a show.”

Gruen’s affiliation with the New York Dolls and Malcolm McClaren, would allow him to make his mark as the godfather of punk imagery; as important a statement as the music itself. Gruen set down for posterity the short-lived and wildly outrageous career of England’s most notorious act, the Sex Pistols. Given almost unlimited access to a band that made its bones abusing the media, Gruen’s pictures of the Sex Pistols, and most notably the doomed Sid Vicious, in their infancy holds a special place in the rock pantheon. Soon Gruen would be the American liaison for The Clash when the last true punk outfit embarked on one of the seminal residencies of the era.

Today Gruen readily admits he’s slowed his 24-hour rollercoaster lifestyle, limiting his talents to special events and working with many of the friends he’s made in the music business over a lengthy and groundbreaking career. His photographs hang in museums and many galleries around the world, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a veritable who’s who of the long thread of rockers from Chuck Berry to Lady GaGa. Each one holds a special place in Bob Gruen’s lens; filled with volume, attitude and decadent glamour. Gruen says it best; “If it’s a good show, I’m driven to photograph it, I need to photograph it.”

For forty odd years, Bob Gruen showed up and took us all with him.

 

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Alice Cooper: American Treasure

Aquarian Weekly 6/20/12 Buzz

ALICE COOPER: AMERICAN TREASURE
The Coop Talks R & R Hall of Fame, Boring Bands & The Genius/Idiot Maxim

Alice Cooper is an American treasure and he knows it. Once the viscous, drunken villain of rock and roll and a threat to the very decency of our moral foundation has transformed into the clean and sober fist-pumping defiant champion of our hearts. “I’m lovable,” he says with a mischievous chuckle. But then Alice Cooper may not be in the mood to return the favor. Rebuffed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for decades, he was granted entry last year as the pioneer member of what he calls “the lunatic fringe” that will break the seal and let in all the maniacs. He’s also quite miffed at what passes for “great rock and roll bands” these days.

Alice Cooper

Currently sharing a tour with Iron Maiden, (one of the “lunatic fringe” long ignored by the elitist rock press) he is riding high after the recent popularity of his sequel to the legendary Welcome to My Nightmare (Welcome 2 My Nightmare), a title which he thinks is “so damn clever”, the soon-to-be released on DVD for the first time, “The Strange Case of Alice Cooper” and an enormous box set called “Old School”, which features a healthy sampling of the vicious, drunken villain days.

The Coop took time for our second chat in the last few years after a rigorous round of golf and a yearning to get back on the road by his lonesome later this summer into the fall.

The first question I must ask, and it has to be framed as any self-respecting Alice Cooper fan would: How important does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame feel that it now has the great Alice Cooper as one of its own?

What I think it did was open the door to acts that were probably gonna have a hard time. When you get an Alice Cooper in it kind of breaks some new ground in there for bands like KISS or Iron Maiden. Even though we sold fifty million records, I mean, we had all of the qualifications to be in; it’s just that Alice Cooper’s image was that of the outsider and I think there are a lot of bands that are outsider bands. As commercial as KISS are, they’re an outsider band. So I think us getting in opened the door for harder rock bands.

For a Seventies kid, I mean, ignoring Alice Cooper? I know you had the theatrics, which unfairly always seems to put you in danger of the novelty label, but what you guys did as a band and your solo work defined rock music for that generation, especially as innovators. It’s as if the voters feel the need to ignore the impact of that period and the bands that dominated it.

Far more important for me was the music. It’s nice to have all the trappings and we did break a lot of ground when it came to our kind of shows, I mean nobody had ever even used up-lighting or down-lighting before us. We were the first ones to use truss lighting, which is still a big influence on what’s going on today. But the fact that the songs and the albums still hold up, I think it finally proves what we said all along: We spent ninety percent of our time on the music and like ten percent of the time on the theatrics. The theatrics came easy to us. It was the music that we really had to work at and I think we’re being cited for the music as much as anything else.

The music triggered a great deal of the theatrics from the beginning. Each of your albums always appeared to have a theme and a different characterization of the Alice that would inform the shows.

“Go out as far as you can on that limb and either be a genius or an idiot. If you’re an idiot, you fall off the limb and then you climb the tree and do it again. There’s nothing that says you can’t climb the tree again. But whatever you do, don’t stay in the middle. Never stay in that gray, mediocre area. Go out and do something that’s gonna startle everybody or that’s gonna make everybody think of you when they think of that.

To me, I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but I’ve always thought of everything in concepts from the very beginning. It always seemed to me that any song is conceptual. For instance, if you come up with a title, any title at all, I don’t care what it is, it could be “Welcome to My Nightmare”, so write a show around that. “Welcome to My Nightmare”? Okay, what does it consist of? All right, we’ve got a little kid that can’t wake up from his nightmare. Okay, that’s good, now what happens to him? So for me, right there, I start writing out the whole idea of the story and then I start filling in the details as songs. So, okay, there’ll be “Cold Ethyl”. She’ll be this fantasy love character and maybe she’s dead. I don’t know; let’s make that part of the nightmare. “Only Women Bleed”? Let’s make that part of the nightmare. It was always like that for me. I can’t not think in terms of concepts. It’s automatic to me. I think every album I’ve done has been a conceptual album in my head.

There was a great deal of pressure on you when you went solo with the original Welcome to My Nightmare, which was a Herculean undertaking; a multi-media idea from album to concert to film, etc.

Yup. It was a giant roll of the dice. I’m telling you, if it wouldn’t have worked…and I always tell bands this, and I just told the graduating students at the Music Institute out in California, “Here’s your choices; climb out on the limb and you’re either going to be a genius or an idiot.” (laughs) You know, go out as far as you can on that limb and either be a genius or an idiot. If you’re an idiot, you fall off the limb and then you climb the tree and do it again. There’s nothing that says you can’t climb the tree again. But whatever you do, don’t stay in the middle. Never stay in that gray, mediocre area. Go out and do something that’s gonna startle everybody or that’s gonna make everybody think of you when they think of that. So Welcome to My Nightmare was one of those defining moments of “I talk the talk, am I gonna walk the walk?” And Shep Gordon (longtime manager) and I and Bob Ezrin (longtime collaborator and producer) put all of our money into that show and if it would have been a failure we would have had to start all over again.

And you know the brilliant duality of what you just said is that in that show you are both the idiot and the genius.

And you know, I always have been. I’ve always wanted Alice to be this arrogant villain that’s also vulnerable. In other words, he may be – and I always liken him to an Allan Rickman type, you know, “Cancel Christmas!” that kind of overblown villain. But you just know at some point he’s gonna slip on a banana peel. (laughs) And at that moment, how does he recover? That’s the humor of Alice right there.

Sure, and you had mentioned the last time we spoke of the two Alices; the one when you were drinking heavily, the victim, and the one now that you’re clean and sober, the fist-pumping defiant Alice.

When I look at video from back then I see him as a total victim. Even his posture was a total victim’s posture and what was he singing about? What was happening? He was the whipping boy. Everybody hated him. And a lot of kids on the outskirts really related to that.

We sure did.

They related by saying, “I’m that guy. I’m the one everybody hates. I’m the one that doesn’t fit in”, so he was sort of the poster boy for all the misfits. So when I got sober I said, “I really don’t want to be that guy anymore. Now I want to be the guy who’s the controlling villain. I want to be Moriarty now, play Alice like that, and I think because of that transformation Alice has gotten a whole new life.

How has Alice Cooper stayed in the public conscience for so long? My four year-old daughter loves Alice Cooper. He is ingrained in the fabric of our culture. Where do you think Alice fits into our collective subconscious?

Welcome 2 My NightmareI think what it is, Alice was young and dangerous and vicious, and now Alice is more of a Vincent Price. I think Alice is woven into the conscience of America. I’m sort of an American treasure now. (laughs) The same way Iggy Pop is, guys like that who survived forty-five, fifty years in the business and they’re still doing it and just keep going. I think we’re not as dangerous as we are lovable. And that’s a great thing. It’s fun for me. I don’t feel the pressure of having to outdo myself anymore. I mean, we’re clever enough to make the show clever every time, but I’m not trying to outdo Nightmare.

First of all, it’s a different world now. When you do two or three theatrical things on stage people are just wowed, because everything is so boring out there right now. It is one of the most boring periods of music I’ve ever witnessed in rock and roll. I mean, the bands that are being touted as the great bands right now are the most boring bands. They wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the Seventies. There’s just no testosterone in these bands. It’s like these young bands are afraid to be rock and roll guys. They’re timid, they’re going, (whines) I… don’t…know….”

I talk to Steven Tyler, Iggy, Ted Nugent, all the guys who were the big image guys, and they’re all looking around goin’, “What happened to rock and roll? When did we get so pabulum?” You know, there are a few; the Foo Fighters are great. The Foo Fighters would have fit right in during the Seventies. I mean, they’re a Seventies band. Jack White challenges everybody. I love that guy. But I look at the charts or the cover of these magazines and the headline is “This is the greatest new band” and I go, “There’s an accordion in this band! There’s a ukulele in this band!” What’s wrong with these people? (laughs) Honestly!

So as long as they’re gonna do that, then bands like Aerosmith, Alice, Ozzy, The Rolling Stones, whoever it is, are going to keep chewing up the landscape. ‘Cause I’m not backing down! I’m gonna do the hardest show I can do. I’m gonna do the most edgy show I can do. I give credit to Dee Snider. I give credit to Rob Zombie. Those are guys who finally got their teeth into this thing. If it’s gonna be a show, make it a show! Boy, am I disappointed when I look around at some of these new bands. Wow, do we need a shot of adrenaline.

Speaking of which, you’re on the road now with Iron Maiden. Will the Alice Cooper fans get their just deserts?

Well, actually the new show won’t start ’till October. When we’re working with Iron Maiden as the guest stars, we’re only doing an hour. We’re going to be doing some of the theatrics, but all of its going to be the biggest hits. This band I’ve got is great. Ryan Roxy is back. I’ve got Oriente, Tommy Hendrickson. So I’ve got three great guitar players right there, and I’ve got Chuck Garric on bass and Glenn (Sobel) on drums and it’s gonna be a really tough, good band, and to me that’s all I can really do on this show. We’ll do some theatrics, you know, we’ll have fun with it, of course, but when we go out in October with our own show, basically it’s going to be an entirely new show.

All right, we’ll have to talk then. You’ll have to give me all the details.

Yeah, yeah, and honestly the stuff that’s being built right now and the stuff being put together for that is really exciting. We’ve had meetings with directors and stuff like that and it will be something that will really make people smile, ’cause it’s pure Alice.

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Dan Bern – Drifter

Aquarian Weekly 6/20/12
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DAN BERN – DRIFTER
Prolific Songwriter’s Ode to Perpetual Motion

I first heard a selection of the songs that ended up on Dan Bern’s brilliant new record, Drifter in November of last year in the lobby of a refurbished theater in Beacon, New York and then the next day during a promotional live web cast for a magazine in downtown Manhattan. He played a few more at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village that night and in late-December at Mexicali’s Blues Café in Teaneck, New Jersey. Separated from the eventual collected work, which both musically and lyrically segues in and out of each song as if psychic travelogue – a yearning to discover, hide, escape and return to a home that is at once geographical and spiritual – it was as if Bern were symbolically ushering the songs through a rigorous performance trial, first solo and then with his new collaborators, the creatively versatile Common Rotation.

Drifter - Dan BernLater in the winter, as is his wont, Bern sent me a rough mix of the material he wanted to put on the eventual release. For weeks I played it in my office, in the car, and in the background during gatherings of the local tribes, but it wasn’t until late one night that it hit me; this is as close to a running commentary on the American folk ethic as could be laid down in one place; a literal ode to perpetual motion; Jay Gatsby’s ride through the valley of ashes to his unreachable green light at the end of the dock.

Drifter is a statement; Bern’s, a generation’s, a genre’s; the effects of traveling on the traveler for good or ill. It is survival. It is change. It is acceptance. Serpentine movement as philosophical, ethereal, political, nostalgic, narcotic, and introspective on tracks like “Luke the Drifter”, “Raining in Madrid” and “Haarlem”, “Carried Away”, “Home” and “Mexican Vacation”, “I’m Not From Around Here” and “Love Makes All The Other Worlds Go Round”, which is the type of denouement that eases seamlessly into the epilogue of “These Living Dreams”. Many, if not all the songs deal with a transitory experience; aging, evolving, moving along through life observationally; it is also replete with an imagining of a better “place” through vivid dreams and visions of hope.

A concept record? Nah. Bern was quick to dismiss that on a late-night phone call in March, after I sent him a manically cobbled deconstruction of the record under the influence of my sudden epiphany. Hell, who isn’t swept up in the lure of the road? And what writer (and Bern is nothing if not one) has not tackled its seduction from Homer to Joyce, Horace Greeley to Woody Guthrie, Kerouac to yours truly.

“I think subconsciously you choose what you choose to tell your stories about, but it’s not a conscious effort on my part,” Bern explained when a proper interview commenced in early June. “I’m not clever enough to make up something and realize its metaphoric significance, though I do think it’s a beautiful thing when the listener acts as my interpreter and takes the ride to that degree. That’s all I ever want from any song. It’s what any songwriter can ask; that the listener wrestles with it and lets the ideas reveal themselves. For me, it’s all the stuff of my mundane little life lifted by the power of song and maybe, subconsciously, you’ll tap into these things because similar experiences come up in all of our lives.”

Bern’s protestations to the contrary, these songs are not disparate ballads or ravers, wise-guy sing-a-longs or political harangues, the likes of which he has mastered over 16 years spanning 18 albums. “Maybe this is my swansong for that character,” Bern says. “But then again, maybe it never goes away.” Or as he sings in “Luke the Drifter” (the title a reference to country legend Hank Williams’ non-deplume); “Go or stay, one or the other.”

Drifter is a singular vision of a journey, the infinite search through snapshots and notations of every can-kicking crossroad conundrum. “Ooh, I do my share, I knock about/Is anything gonna work out”? he sings in the hauntingly beautiful “The Golden Voice of Vin Scully”; as the interior echoes of the radio wave acts as a north star in a desert-scape Californian hymn worthy of Georgia O’Keefe’s pallet.

“Ultimately this stuff is therapy, isn’t it?” Bern muses. “Any literature is interpretation, the only difference being that most of the time you’re not talking to the writer.”

Drifter‘s topographical references are vast. We visit the Milky Way, the moon, Madrid, Hollywood, New York City, Capetown, Johannesburg, North of Seattle to the Mexico line, San Bernardino, Haarlem, the black hills of Ohio/Wisconsin to the Indiana mud, the Canadian border, Philadelphia, West Virginia, and the solar system. Then there is time travel as in “Mexican Vacation”, where a train moves the narrator through the anarchic landscape of a pre-historic American construct overrun with slave-traders as he professes his love for the “runaway slave girl”.

“The truth is I worked on this record three-times longer than anything I’ve ever done,” Bern sighs when confronted with the events of the past three and a half years. “It becomes this thing that every little change that occurs in your sphere you apply it.”

A sense of travel even appears when we’re stuck in the obligatory isolation chamber of the traveling musician, the hotel room, which is wistfully depicted in “Party by Myself”. Bern’s bittersweet sampling of embraceable loneliness and mind-altering inertia is not unlike being suspended in outer space or in a capsule, which appears, as in the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey to be still but is actually moving. Most interesting is Bern’s use of the two-dimensional image of Captain Kirk flickering on the tube; another iconic character set adrift “boldly going where no man has gone before”.

Kirk appears, as do all of Bern’s pop culture/historical figure references, brimming with symbolism, not the least of which is his nod to Jonathan Swift who penned the immortal Gulliver’s Travels and for whom the poet W.P. Yeats once described in his epitaph as the “world-besotted traveler”.

“I suppose the interesting thing is that these songs were written at different times, instead of a concentrated period,” says Bern when pressed again about this coincidental subconscious spate of songs with the central theme of the passerby. “I started to write songs like ‘Raining in Madrid’ and ‘Haarlem’ in those places, while ‘Capetown’ is sort of a flight of the mind. And then, you know, LuLu came (his two-year old daughter), I moved out here (from New Mexico to Los Angeles) and, yeah, I think that kind of sparked the whole thing.”

I count Dan Bern as one of my closest colleagues and in many ways a brother-in-arms. We have tracked the bloody grounds of political and social battles and acted as sounding boards for each other’s work for close to a decade. Both of us have fathered daughters within a few years of each other and watched our generation begin to take charge of all that we railed against in our youth; the destruction of the earth, the systemic killing of innocents, the segmental repression of society, the global economic power-play, and we even managed to elect our own leader of the free world, and yet watch in horror as the madness continues unabated.

“Yeah, that’s true,” Bern chuckles, as he usually does when confronted by larger issues before whittling it down to his own corner of the world. “But what’s true at the same time is we’re getting older and we have a feeling of our own mortality; we’re not young bucks anymore.” And then he makes sure I know that he doesn’t feel particularly in charge of anything.”I’m not even in charge of my house!” he laughs.

This may well be why Drifter is filled with the temporary escape provided by chemicals and booze, which pop up as playful landmarks along the way. Senses dulled just enough to continue the search for anything; integrity, friendship, love, comfort? “Will I see you in the street tonight?” Bern sings in “Raining in Madrid”, as if drifting into random social interaction. But in “Home” his search flirts with futility; “Like a vagabond out on the lawn, I was almost gone”, but then suddenly he sings; “Find out who will stick it through thick and thin, lose or win, it’s how you get some place.”

The passion of the search has certainly inspired Bern’s singing. He has never sounded better or more controlled, completely at ease with these wonderfully crafted pieces; each one fastidiously pored over with absorbing precision. Here Common Rotation’s honeyed harmonies and weathered accompaniment on trumpet and banjo (Jordan Katz), harmonica and saxophone (Adam Busch) and guitar and dobro (Eric Kufs) lend the songs a weight they crave, a deserving ensemble for their poetic resonance.

“The truth is I worked on this record three-times longer than anything I’ve ever done,” Bern sighs when confronted with the events of the past three-and-a-half years. “It becomes this thing that every little change that occurs in your sphere you apply it.”

The story of the making of Drifter could well have found its way into the work, as Bern and his ensemble, absent the umbrella of a record company this time around, sold songs, studio time, played private gigs and even composed personal jingles for outgoing phone messages for a host of donors all over the country; the time, expanse, and constant dissection of the project adding to its charm.

“The biggest thing is I didn’t have a wad of record company dough to go in and just do it,” Bern explains. “This record was done on everybody’s good graces and time. Money talks. It gets things done. It books studio time, it pays for musicians, it moves things along. And in a place like L.A. there’s all the people you want, but everybody’s doing a trillion things.”

Some of those people, like film songwriting partner, Mike Viola and a stirring guest appearance by the incomparable Emmy Lou Harris on the moving, “Swing Set”, serves the travel aesthetic well. We stop off into different voices and pass through musical styles, providing a station-to-station, truck stop ambiance of the rootless existence. “There’s a line through this record, for sure,” admits Bern. “And that’s why I worked so hard to get to a sequence that works. It’s like you wouldn’t routinely skip over a scene in a movie to get to the next one. Even though there are fifteen songs here, they all play a role. Basically if something’s on there, it’s because it wouldn’t allow itself to be thrown off. It forced its way in and wouldn’t let go.”

Bern says the sequence of the songs became “like an accordion” for months upon months, jumping the total from 15 songs down to 12 and in some cases just eight and then back up again. “I finally went to Chuck Plotkin (famed producer of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, as well as Bern’s 2002 masterwork, New American Language) and sat with he and his wife for two full afternoons,” recounts Bern.

“Turns out, I had the bulk of the run down, but he made a couple of important switches, which tied everything up. For me, if Chuck says it’s okay, then it’s okay.”

“I can’t tell you how much of my energy, attention, DNA is in Drifter.”

Once given the thumbs up from his musical sherpa, Bern quickly shifted gears and recorded 18 of his baseball songs with Common Rotation. Culled from nearly thirty years of work, which spans a century of the game’s most compelling characters and stories from The Babe to Barry Bonds, Doubleheader, aptly titled due to the 18 song list – a song an inning – will be released on the heels of Drifter on July 4 when Bern plays the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “We just finished it six weeks ago,” he says excitedly, as if relieved to be free from the looming stranglehold of the Drifter marathon. “We just went in and did it all at once, boom; now all these songs I’ve been carrying around are under one roof.”

Beyond wrapping up Drifter and banging out Doubleheader, Bern hints that a third record of country songs, which he whispers may be the best of the three, is ready to go. “Probably for a good ten, fifteen years I was writing on average a song every ten days, like eighty songs a year, but now that seems paltry,” laughs Bern. “I pat myself on the back now if I can get through a tour without writing a song, allowing myself to stay present, because what writing does, as much as it’s this amazing thing that freezes moments, what you’re doing is freezing a rapidly approaching past moment. So while you’re scribbling and drawing your brain cells for a rhyme, maybe you miss that next passing cloud.”

And so here is Dan Bern, putting a ribbon on his troubadour life and turning his attention to the pastoral lore of the grand old game, which James Earl Jones so poignantly performed in Field of Dreams, a film more about the passage of time and the evolution of spirit than baseball. He could well have been reciting from Drifter. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.” Or as Bern sings in the refrain of “Luke the Drifter”; “Oh, life ain’t tragic mostly/Life is magic somely “

“I can’t tell you how much of my energy, attention, DNA is in Drifter,” concludes Bern. “But I am so personally relieved to not have to think about it anymore on a daily basis. It’s a happy, guilty, candy pleasure to talk about baseball. I guess it’s just easier to talk about baseball than myself.”

Drifting….drifting….drifting along.

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Observations of a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer

Aquarian Weekly 5/9/12 REALITY CHECK

MAKE WAY, MICK JAGGER Observations of a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer

Hello, my name is James Campion and I am a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s right. Me. Officially voted in with The Aquarian Weekly, America’s longest running music newspaper. Yes, siree. Right in there with Keith Richards, Elvis Presley and Alan Freed is jc from the Bronx, NYC.

Suck it, Lindsey Buckingham.

According to Sara Haber of The Syndicate, “With over 40 years of publishing, every issue of The Aquarian Weekly will be available at the Rock and Rolls Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives, which the company hopes to collect, preserve, and provide access to students, educators, journalists and the general public to broaden awareness and understanding of rock and roll, its roots, and its impact on our society.”

That means the entire volume of vile, radical, spastic nonsense that has emanated from the Reality Check News & Information Desk from August of 1997 to these very words (these ones too) are available in the great shrine to The Beatles, The Who, Bob Dylan, and some of the other guys.

Rock and Roll Hall of FameAlso words like “moronically feckless”, which appeared in this space on 10/6/10 to describe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will be available to peruse. And while visiting there, we hope you also see: “And let’s be honest, the entire concept of having a shrine or snobbish observance of rock & roll is antithetical to everything the damn art form stands for in the first place, and second, and most disturbing, is it confirms what purist caretaker, Lester Bangs predicted and oft-times celebrated as its demise propagated by the over-intellectualizing arrogance of the ‘rock critic elite’.”

Ah, yes. It was so long ago, I could hardly remember conjuring it, much less typing it out and sending it to press. I was obviously filled with the kind of hate and rage only my sixth gin & tonic rouses. I was not thinking clearly, quite obviously panicked from lack of sleep and a crushing deadline. I have written far worse things about people and institutions and have been awarded handsomely for it. It’s all part of the magic of “weekly music content and social issues for all its readers” that Ms. Haber rightly opines.

Eat shit, Donovan.

And so, as a card-carrying member of the Hall, I can now visit Cleveland, if I lose a bet, and saunter through the doors of the glassed museum and wave my hand blithely at the dead-eyed matron at the front desk asking me for an entrance fee and puff; “Dear madam, I am an honored member here. I shan’t be paying for anything, in fact, I expect when I enter there be a long, red carpet for me and these homeless people I met four minutes ago; you know, a plus-three scenario for museum dignitaries.”

And to think, I’ve been missing my many trips to Bank of America during the bailout demanding to see the ledgers and asking them to turn off a few of the lights to keep the monthly billing down. I was owner, after all.

But this is much, much better.

Blow me, Metallica.

I suppose congratulations are in order for this paper, mainly for printing every half-baked, off-the-wall, borderline dangerous thing that’s come out of my head these past fifteen years (some kind of Aquarian columnist record, according to one of the many editors for whom this space has toiled).

I suppose congratulations are in order for this paper, mainly for printing every half-baked, off-the-wall, borderline dangerous thing that’s come out of my head these past fifteen years (some kind of Aquarian columnist record, according to one of the many editors for whom this space has toiled). But mostly for being a damned fine, unflinching and irascible example of underground press this nation has known. The Aquarian Weekly is one of the few independently owned newspapers left. No corporate overlords to skew the measure; stronger, as Jim Morrison once sang, than dirt.

I was proud to be a part of the wonderfully laid out tribute issue last week; I suppose that 9/11 cover of my horrible prediction in 1998 will follow me to the grave. Of course I had to put it in my second book, so there you go.

Plans are already being drawn up for the evening of the induction ceremony over at the Waldorf or some other swanky New York dump. A quick word with my esteemed editor and chief, J.J. Koczan has set in motion several irritating maneuvers that involve rotten fruit, stink bombs and a FUCK JANN WENNER tee shirt.

I expect, nay insist on being the first inductee ejected from a Hall of Fame, beating O.J. Simpson by a long shot.

Koczan warns that security is tight at these things, “lest anyone should actually get a close-up look at the dudes from Def Leppard.” Ouch. I never had problems with those guys, but then I never had to cover them. I found dealing with the assholes representing Radiohead to be a far fouler assignment.

It’s important to point out to many of the readers of this space online or within my mailing list that I have produced many a music-related story of The Aquarian over the years. It’s not all anti-social quasi-political rants. And what kind of tribute would this be if I didn’t properly thank this paper for giving me the opportunity to suggest and produce several cover pieces, including features on Ralph Nader, Alice Cooper, Lucinda Williams, Counting Crows, Tori Amos and John Waters, to name just a few.

Over the years, I got to spend quality time and in some cases befriend several heroes and artists I admire greatly, including Adam Duritz, Paul Stanley, Ani DiFranco, and one the best and dearest friends I have, Dan Bern. I got to hang with Prince and Walt Clyde Frazier at press junkets. I know Clyde wasn’t a rock star, but he dressed like one. I published two volumes of my work here and added Parker Posey and Rage Against The Machine to my enemies list.

But enough about this publication; it’s time for me to ring up the Hall of Fame and get me some swag.

Spin on that, Abba.

 

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The Uncommon Bonds of Common Rotation

 

Aquarian Weekly 11/28/11
Buzz

THE UNCOMMON BONDS OF COMMON ROTATION
Discovering the Truth in Lying with a Rare Folk Trio

I am riding shotgun in a rented van crawling up Fourth Avenue with Common Rotation, a road weary L.A. folk trio who has taken a one-day respite from supporting the Indigo Girls’ American tour to back their favorite songwriter on a stopover in New York. The songwriter, Dan Bern, is not only one of the genre’s most prolific composers and thus the band’s hero and mentor, but also its neighbor – along with Bern’s fellow movie soundtrack songster, Mike Viola (Walk Hard and Get Him To The Greek), who lives a few doors down. For the moment, Bern is sprawled in the back amongst the instruments and duffel bags playing scrabble on his smart phone; a touring ritual that I discover later over Indian food has been going on for months between himself and members of CR no matter where they are or the hour of the day or night.

Common Rotation

A mere five minutes have passed since our hurried salutations in front of Joe’s Pub near Astor Place, where the band would be playing a set before joining Bern on stage later in the evening. Normally, this would not be enough time to engage in a furious deconstruction of the Woody Allen film canon; the sudden cross-dialogue of which evokes a zeal usually found in the company of old acquaintances.

Crimes & Misdemeanors is the best Woody Allen movie,” pronounces the stout 34 year-old driver, Jordan Katz, Common Rotation’s all-purpose multi-tasker. Katz’s proficiency on trumpet and banjo, something he claims he picked up when the band wouldn’t let him play bass anymore, is only outdone by his more than credible maneuvering through rush hour traffic. His bemused smile and nifty tie and vest ensemble belies an almost wicked sense that his vehement choice of Woody film is not altogether serious.

A voice from behind intones, “Adam loves Celebrity!” The Adam in question is 33 year-old Adam Busch, a slight, enigmatic soul with a penchant to appear almost cranky enough to be lovable. Later, while riding in an elevator, I proffer that if I were in a band it would be Common Rotation, he leans dramatically toward me and whispers, “Run away…fast!”

Of course Celebrity, a film lampooning the Hollywood bullshit machine made by a New York wise guy, would fit Busch’s idiom as part-time actor. When informed that he looked so familiar that I was forced to remember him from an episode of the cult TV show, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, where he played a nerd villain, (he’s also played, among others, roles in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House”) Busch sardonically replies, “Yeah, well, everyone has met someone who looks like me.”

As we quite literally run through everything Woody from Hannah and Her Sisters to Match Point, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Love & Death (Bern’s favorite) and of course Annie Hall, a nearly apologetic voice chimes in with, “C’mon, Manhattan.” And with that, the 33 year-old soft-spoken, bespectacled, Eric Kufs enters the fray.

One gets the feeling that this kind of stuff (chatting up relative strangers before donning instruments, clearing throats and whipping off a few ditties) happens routinely for CR; moving from one subject to another with the kind of ease in which they traverse the country, one town and one rented van at a time.

Kufs, guitarist and part-time handler of dobro (lap-slide) duties, and Busch, whose musical expertise ranges impressively from sax, harmonica and glockenspiel, begin engaging in a rapid-fire Woody Allen joke-off. I am, for the purpose of full disclosure, partly responsible for this mess, so I gladly join in.

This lively back and forth goes on for twenty or so blocks and a couple of avenues as Common Rotation heads up to the offices of a rock magazine to play live with Bern for a podcast. One gets the feeling that this kind of stuff (chatting up relative strangers before donning instruments, clearing throats and whipping off a few ditties) happens routinely for CR; moving from one subject to another with the kind of ease in which they traverse the country, one town and one rented van at a time.

It is how it is done the old-fashioned way; plugging a new record, as is God Keeps an Open Gallery, the band’s fourth and latest full-length offering.

Open Gallery unfurls much like my short time with the band, familiar and lively; as if you’ve discovered something new that sounds as comfortable as your most well-worn albums. There are teary ballads and gospel sirens, upbeat sing-a-longs and tender instrumentals, and across them all an enviable string of memorable melodies swept along on beds of wonderful three-part harmonies. Every note, Katz tells me, was rehearsed and recorded in the band’s living room.

“For some of the tunes, I was set up in my bedroom with the banjo, while Adam would be across the house laying down harmonica in his, and Eric was in the living room playing guitar. We’d just sort of roll out of bed, put on headphones, and start playing.”

The romantic notion of sharing suburban Los Angeles digs – Katz describes it as a sprawling California house, circa 1906, once owned by Gloria Swanson – brewing up the morning café, yawning out the cobwebs and getting down to making music together is not lost on Busch.

“Every one of our songs is basically a search for truth,” he says proudly. “I feel like you’re supposed to experience real things for people. I take it as a responsibility to share the experience with the audience. I would hope our live shows are always expressions of those little private moments that are sometimes forced to play out in public. There is nothing more fascinating than a couple breaking up at the next table or a man going through a crisis in an elevator; you’re invested in the wellness of that individual. Isn’t that where love starts, really?”

This search for truth is manifested in two of Open Gallery’s first three songs, the aptly named, “It’s a Wonderful Lie” and “A Reasonable Lie”, both written by Kufs and Busch respectfully, and stark reminders that the search could be something of a chore. This not-so coincidental reminder is on the heels of the band’s previous full-length studio recording and de facto title of its web site; Common Rotation is a Lie.

So what’s all this infatuation with the truth?

“All storytelling is a lie,” Kufs weighs in. “It’s always from one perspective. Even the most even-handed documentary is going to be in some sense coming from its own perspective. So to get to the whole truth is in itself a wonderful lie. Adam’s song deals with what we have to tell ourselves or our friends and lovers that gets us through; a reasonable lie.”

Dan Bern & Common Rotation“We all bring ideas in,” Busch adds. “Eric will come in with something and we’ll play around with it, and then Jordan might add a part, or I’ll have a lyric or musical idea. It’s a group effort, but Eric is the driving force behind Common Rotation.”

Kufs returns volley by making sure I understand that the trio’s relationship, as friends and fellow musicians, is an advantage to his compositions. “I know which of my songs will be for the band,” he states emphatically. “Because I know what everyone can bring to them and I don’t have to say much. After all this time, they know what I’m trying to achieve, what emotion, what theme.”

Open Gallery is by each member’s measure, the most complete vision of Common Rotation, yet the album is replete with guest appearances from the aforementioned Indigo Girls, which Kufs makes sure to mention are “the most supportive and giving artists and friends”. Contributions also include They Might Be Giants’ Marty Bellar and Daniel Weinkauf, neighbors, Dan Bern and Mike Viola, among others.

This atmosphere of the creative give-and-take provides the tracks of Open Gallery a sense of proper contemplation; craftsmen at work, selecting the right mood for a song, the requisite accompaniment, the singular phrasing.

“It was the economic realities of touring that brought us to this self-contained sound,” Busch admits. “We didn’t want to create something that the three of us couldn’t perform on stage. We forced ourselves to enhance what Eric was doing on guitar, whether it’s me and Jordon on trumpet and saxophone or adding the glockenspiel as an undercurrent. That’s why for the first time I think this record is a proper representation of what and who were are. I used to have to explain our records, but I just hand it to someone now and say, ‘This is us’.”

This type of “closing ranks” to produce an insular, singular sound that translates “the truth” of the band can only come from a comfort level provided by a solid background, relationships forged in youth and developed somewhere between the thick and the thin; the story of Common Rotation.

For Common Rotation, this is the place where it breathes, a true band, a gathering of talents presenting its wares; old-fashioned, uncommon, familiar.

The band originated first in friendship and then an uncommon bond in musical talent. Hailing from the same neighborhood in East Meadow, Long Island, crossing paths at Little League in middle school to sharing an admiration for Elvis Costello, especially Kufs and Busch, led to a songwriting kinship, a developed sound, and the obligatory local gigs.

Soon, Busch’s acting career led the band to relocate to California, which brought about an expansion of the act in the famed Living Room tours of its early days when CR literally played at people’s homes, captured in Peter Stass’ documentary, How To Lose, which chronicles the trio’s protest of Clear Channel’s monopoly on the musical touring market. A more old-fashioned route of record promotion is hard to duplicate, unless one mentions the ingenious concept of Union Maid, wherein the band set up a web site to post new songs for fans to download for free. This gave birth to an Internet fund-drive to help the band complete the recording of Open Gallery.

This may be why a reluctant swoon into maturity, a strange seduction with materialism and the constant specter of mortality creeps into what Common Rotation believes is its best work; close childhood friends playing, struggling, growing together as a movable feast for twenty years.

Finally arriving at the magazine on 29th street, the band uncoils like a machine; instruments out, tuning up, the voices warmed and ready. Bern counts off and it is as sudden as the Woody Allen debate in the van or the ease with which Scrabble bounces off cyberspace; four voices meshing beneath Bern’s staccato lead. “I just nod at these guys and they go,” Bern recounts when I marvel at the relative comfort in which CR melds into his back-up unit.

Much later, on stage at Joe’s Pub, the picture is complete; the rushing around, grabbing meals-on-the-run, the seat-of-the-pants Scrabble fades beneath the polished sheen of the music. They put it all on display, the “private moments” in song and dialogue; witty, wistful and harkening to the days of dust bowl troubadours or vaudeville shtick; all of it as real as any lie.

For Common Rotation, this is the place where it breathes, a true band, a gathering of talents presenting its wares; old-fashioned, uncommon, familiar.

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Eric Hutchinson: The Thin White Jukebox

Aquarian Weekly 6/20/11 Buzz

THE THIN WHITE JUKEBOX
Eric Hutchinson Hits The Throwback Road

Eric Hutchinson makes albums like guideposts, allowing him to check out where he’s been and where’s he’s going. The 31 year-old singer/songwriter has spent the last three years since his debut studio effort, Sounds Like This reflecting on his maturation as an artist and life as a rising star, and the results are found on the infectiously soulful and auspiciously titled, Moving Up/Living Down. Loaded with rock-solid melodies and rib-sticking rhythms, every track on Hutchinson’s latest tour de force is more than a collection of songs; it is quite literally a soundtrack for a high-energy stage show that is fully realized on his current 41-city American tour.

Eric Hutchinson

“I was thinking a lot about the live show when I was writing songs for this record,” Hutchinson explains from a quiet hotel room in Ames, Iowa before his show at Iowa State. “Having been on the road for a few years now and wishing I had written something to take the energy to somewhere else, it was fun to write a song like ‘The Basement’ and then see how it lets the band and the audience get there.”

Through the prism of what appears on repeated listens as a living homage to the best of the Atlantic, Stax and Motown sides of the Sixties, Moving Up/Living Down spans the rhythm and blues genre from every angle, to the rousing Isley Brothers meets Sam & Dave driving rat-ta-tat-tat of “The Basement”, which lyrically pays tribute to among others, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson in a raucous tale of heading down to where they “really wanna to rock and roll” to the bouncing vocal elasticity of “The People I Know”, which rings the Stevie Wonder bell as well as it can be rung.

“It’s always been in there,” Hutchinson says when asked about his playfully derivative approach. “I kind of describe myself as a soul singer at this point, because ‘soul singing’ is so much about having it come from inside, that gut feeling, and that’s what I’m looking for when I’m writing songs.

“A lot of what this album is for me is coming to grips with what I am rather than what I’d love to be as a singer,” cites Hutchinson. “I love The Strokes, but I’m never going to be Julian Casablancas and I’m okay with that. I’m comfortable being me, processing my influences and having it come out through my own filter.”

Hutchinson has always been a student of song styles and uses his education well on Moving Up/Living Down, as he flirts with Todd Rundgren smooth in “I’m Not Cool” and channels a 1983 version of Prince for “Living in the Afterlife”. Yet these well-crafted compositions are no mere imitations. There is something wholly original and 21st century to Hutchinson’s stripped down approach, which he honed while building his career entirely solo on piano and acoustic guitar.

It’s what Hutchinson described to me in 2006 as “acoustic soul” after I sought him out following a stirring opening stint for Joe Jackson in New York City followed by a successful residency at the Cutting Room later that year. Hutchinson, a slave to the boogie in his head, used his instruments as percussive foundations, strumming or bouncing off the keys to keep the beat and allowing his vocal arrangements to soar above it. It was a natural evolution to his throwback flirtations so prevalent on Moving Up/Living Down as well as its predecessor, Sounds Like This (2007), a truly masterful pop effort. But to his credit, Hutchinson did not merely rest on his well-earned laurels.

“The big thing for me when I was just starting out I would think; ‘If I could just get to this spot, I’ll be happy – play this venue or sell this many records’, and as things began to go well for me I realized it’s a moving target, there isn’t just ‘this place’, there is no end. You just got to keep goin’, I guess.”

Sounds Like This was written as a solo musician and I got guys to play on it,” Hutchinson recalls. “This time I knew I’d be working with a band and it changed my approach, and now I’m excited about people seeing the show. It’s really hummin’, more and more energy, and I’m especially excited for someone like yourself who saw me do the old show, ’cause I’m still trying to find ways to have that personality come through, but also make it be a rock show.”

Two weeks later at the Highline Ballroom on the south-end of Chelsea, Hutchinson and his band – Andrew Perusi on bass, drummer, Steven Robinson and Elliott Blaufuss on keyboards and guitar – proved his point; from the opening fanfare and grand entrance announcement to song after song of heavy funk, sly soul and a wry wink at several forms of reggae, accentuated at two intervals when taking turns at The Beatles, “Obla-Di, Obla-Da” and Sublime’s “Santeria”. Rather than merely performing, something he aimed for after spending his time during the writing of the album attending concerts by stalwarts, Bruce Springsteen and Prince, Hutchinson looked passionately joyful, a wide-eyed boy aghast that this was all hitting home.

As promised, along with playing every one of his most popular numbers, including the inescapably hummable, “Rock & Roll”, the head-bobbing, “OK, It’s Alright with Me”, and the cleverly structured, “All Over Now”, Hutchinson chided the audience (when a young woman shouted, “I love you!”, Hutchinson began asking her if that’s such a healthy thing to get involved with someone that he hasn’t met and already loved him; “That’s gonna be a strange first date!”) and spun touching tales about playing for change in Union Square in 2001. “Where the fuck were you guys back then?” he asked, smiling.

All the while, as I leaned against the top step of the waitress stand and glanced over the packed house of bouncing heads, I could swear, especially after a wise quip or classic “Hutch” tongue-in-cheek comment, I saw Hutchinson look over to me and smirk, as if to silently say, “I told you so.”

The audience was treated to one moment of ‘the old show’, as Hutchinson removed the veil of inspiration and went right to the source, strumming out a beautifully tapered rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”.

Moving Up/Living DownWhich brings us back to Moving Up/Living Down, which, according to random e-mail updates Hutchinson regaled me with throughout the process over the past year was not only a gradual evolution from burgeoning club act to legitimate pop star, it was a painstaking battle to find the right musical mix, something he achieved after a random encounter with an industry legend.

“I pretty much had the entire record done and then I had this chance meeting with Quincy Jones,” recalls Hutchinson. “We were at this charity event and they made him sit with me in a VIP section for a few minutes, and I couldn’t let the chance go by without asking him about all the stuff he had done, Thriller in particular, and he said, ‘When we had Thriller finished we picked the five best songs and we threw everything else out and found four more good songs.’ And I thought that was a great idea and went back and tried to dig deeper and make the songs be as good as possible, and one of those became “Watching You Watch Him”.

The first single off the record, “Watching You Watch Him” is Hutchinson at his lyrical best; playing the lovable loser in what he calls an “F’d up lover’s triangle where no one is happy.”

It was Hutchinson’s self-effacing lyrics that first drew me to his work and many of the songs on Moving Up/Living Down center on the irony of maturing or growing in a fish bowl of constant touring. “I had to get off the road and back to reality in New York where no one cares who you are,” laughs Hutchinson.

“I’m Not Cool”, “The People I Know” Best Days of Our Lives” illustrate that all this maturing and growing has him ending up in an emotion cul de sac. In the ska-fueled and strikingly honest, “Not There Yet” the message is more direct, to the point where his “I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet” refrain sounds eerily like he’s singing “not dead yet,” as if the protagonist is fighting the process.

Hutchinson concluded our conversation by slightly disagreeing with my assessment. It’s not so much fighting, as surrendering. “It’s about being infinitely more happy thinking about things circularly rather than linearly. The big thing for me when I was just starting out I would think; ‘If I could just get to this spot, I’ll be happy – play this venue or sell this many records’, and as things began to go well for me I realized it’s a moving target, there isn’t just ‘this place’, there is no end. You just got to keep goin’, I guess.”

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