Fab: The Intimate Life of Paul McCartney – Howard Sounes (2010)

I spent a lot of time with the songwriter, the musician, the icon that is Paul McCartney over the past year-plus whilst working on my upcoming book, Take a Sad Song… The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” and as such spent a ton of that time researching his life and times. The best of these I found is Howard Sounes’ Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. This led me to asking Mr. Sounes to chime in on my project. Crucially, he did – and my book is better for it.

Sounes is a man who knows greatness. He has written about poet Charles Bukowski and icon Bob Dylan in serious detail. In Fab he sees where that greatness lies, its origins (nature to nurture) and where that lead – the Beatles and beyond. There is something you find in Sounes’ McCartney that is mostly absent from his other biographies. Each of McCartney’s biographers have their own spin; many of them are too busy worshipping (that affliction again) and others just trying to tear him down. Sounes works both angles with precision, refusing to ignore much of what is hard to describe about someone as prolific and famous and incessantly covered over six decades as Sir Paul. McCartney is a man of many shades, and they are all explored here.

I especially love how Sounes, a Brit, digs below McCartney’s surface play (a consummate salesman) to his funnier, grittier side; the one that would entrance a surly and focused teen John Lennon. That Paul McCartney is always there. More than any of his contemporaries he knows from whence he came and stays truer to his nature, which, as Sounces points out throughout his book. It is what gives him the antennae to find those brilliant songs.

There are a lot of books on Paul McCartney – not even counting Beatles’ books – many of which I have reviewed here. But after the deluge I have worked through, while there are merits to many out there, this is the one to read if you want to get past the noise and find the signal. 

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Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector – Mick Brown (2008)

If you’ve heard the rumors about Phil Spector that range from unhinged, narcissistic controlling master artist to drug-addled, wild-eyed half-mad gun-toting murderer, then it’s time to get the stories, good or ill, from Mick Brown’s translucent Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.

This was such a fun read, made possible by my friend, singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, whom I have written about in this paper since 2006, and gave me his copy. He is not only a wonderful human being, but another complete music geek and a sucker for early 1960s pop music. Love him or hate him, all of that all starts with Phil Spector, musician, songwriter, producer, and inventor of a style of music that bridged the incredible history of rock and roll from its infancy into the early to mid 1950s to the arrival of the culture-altering Beatles. And this book covers it all, with an unblinking objectivity.

The author begins the book with an interview he conducted at Spector’s Californian mansion, just months before the alleged murder of a woman in the same room. What Spector tells him will be unfurled with each chapter, giving you direct access to the reasons for his bizarre behavior, his mind-games, his obsession with violence, and the gnawing paranoia that comes from being a relentless perfectionist.

Man, the stories in here are epic and told with such detail, adding the anecdotes and memories by those who sat beside Spector at the control board or during meetings in the halls of the biggest record companies in the world. Spector is everywhere, through the seminal moments of rock music’s infancy, and Brown takes you on that journey. The humor, madness, travails, and triumphs of a complicated character is given its due in Tearing Down the Wall of Sound.

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Hard Rain: A Bob Dylan Commentary – Tim Riley (1993)

What a wonderful read. Author Tim Riley, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director at Emerson College, who has written extensively about the Beatles and other music from the period, takes a welcomed unique slant on the Bob Dylan story in Hard Rain: A Bob Dylan Commentary. It is indeed a “commentary” from the first paragraph, methodically taking apart the accepted narrative of this mysterious icon to concentrate on what made Dylan a musical force across generations. 

Riley begins with Dylan’s genuflecting to the blues more than folk, which makes sense with the budding songsmith’s teen obsessions with Little Richard and Elvis Presley and later with his dramatic move to an electric sound. Yet this creative foundation is wholly ignored in many depictions of Dylan’s initial absorption of Woody Guthrie and his later tap into the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk movement. It is also a solid footing for how the author follows the celebrated singer-songwriter’s zigzag artistic sojourn, always on the move, always challenging both his own talents and the expectations of his audience.

It was especially intriguing to read something this close to the bone before the later waves of Dylan comebacks over the past decades – some hit or miss. I agree with almost all of Riley’s assessments of Dylan’s eighties into nineties works and performances. I endured one of those erratic shows at Radio City Hall that was just awful. I brought a young friend whom I was tutoring in the Dylan canon and found myself apologizing for it throughout. 

Also, it is ironic that right before I read this (thanks to the author for gifting me a copy, and his inclusion as a voice in my next book) when I was finishing up Sinéad O’Connor’s memoir. In the book’s epilogue, Riley rightly takes to task Dylan’s silence in the wake of a New York City crowd booing O’Connor after her infamous Saturday Night Live performance in which she ripped up a picture of the pope. The hypocritical tone-deaf idea that during a Bob Dylan tribute show, which Dylan attended, the celebration would ignore his own bravery to shake the foundations of power and take on the status quo, is articulately deconstructed.

Hard Rain: A Bob Dylan Commentary is a must read for any Dylan fan not mired in rock star worship, something the artist would likely abhor.

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The White Label Promo Preservation Society: 100 Flop Albums You Ought to Know – Sal Maída, Mitchell Cohen & Friends (2021)

Full disclosure: I was gifted this book whilst in Austin, Texas in late summer by one of its contributors, Mr. David Immerglück, a multi-instrumentalist for Counting Crows, the Monks of Doom, and other musical projects. A fellow lunatic music geek, it makes sense that the man we all affectionately call Immer would be included here with his essay about the obscurity of what he dubs “Welsh hippy rockers,” MAN, and their 1974 musical manifesto, Rhinos, Winos & Lunatics. But Immer is but one voice, and the MAN record, which I was gladly introduced to in this volume, is only the tip of the geek-dom iceberg. After just a few of these entrees, you will become a full-fledged member of The White Label Promo Preservation Society.

For newbies to this affliction, a “white label promo” is the vinyl hound’s most cherished find. Back in the day, these were unreleased-to-the-wider-public versions of records that would be shared only with reviewers and radio stations. I have more than a few in my humble collection, but it is only a wink and a nod to the converted, because this compendium casts a wider net. We are introduced by decades to dozens of hidden gems, lost classics, and otherwise bizarre oddities – all of which deserve the attention paid here. Thanks to the efforts of Sal Maída and Mitchell Cohen, who curated the book – as well as added their own essays – there is a place for forgotten worthiness to shine.

It is not just selections from fringe artists like Ars Nova, Zal Yanosky, Bunky & Jake, The Remains, and Milk ‘N’ Cookies, but significant names that released dismissed or plain missed classics; T Rex, The Drifters, Todd Rundgren, The Kinks, Fairport Convention, and much more. The care, excitement, and incredible research done on each and every album is beyond impressive. And now with streaming services and YouTube, readers can quickly try out these records and then join the fray in tracking them down on their original labels. The White Label Promo Preservation Society: 100 Flop Albums You Ought to Know is a record-lovers paradise, but also a lost period of pop music during its heyday that needs to be revisited and enjoyed by those who were not around to hear these “flops.”

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Shades of Springsteen: Politics, Love, Sports, and Masculinity – John Massaro (2021)

John Massaro is not a contemporary of Bruce Springsteen, nor one of those starry-eyed true believers that oft times slather on the worship sauce normally associated with the famed singer-songwriter’s career and exploits. In fact, although a fan and one that sees a reflection of his own biography in Springsteen, the octogenarian author of Shades of Springsteen, a professor at SUNY Potsdam College in New York, was only introduced to his Jersey brethren’s work in the mid-1980s, when the Boss was already seated atop the music world. Recovering from clinical depression, as is Springsteen, the author was whisked away on The Boss’ musical tales of escape, evolution, and redemption. This book is a tribute to all of that. 

Massaro’s thesis of connective tissue in the themes of the book’s subtitle Politics, Love, Sports and Masculinity that he artfully argues drive Springsteen’s canon and best explains the songwriter’s ability to overcome his own issues of depression, is solid. He digs deep, but with an entertaining flair, explaining how all of these themes comes through in nearly every stanza of Springsteen’s songs.

There is a fine needle Massaro threads here, but he does it with great care through stories of his own experiences in many of the places around New Jersey, specifically the Shore, of which Springsteen built into iconic symbols of the region. Despite being a generation removed from the songwriter, Massaro explored many of the same archetypes, long held by those from N.J. that Springsteen mined decades later. 

Although, I do enjoy most of Springsteen’s music and have different periods and songs I cherish more than others, it is my experience growing up in Freehold, New Jersey during the early to late 1970s in the shadow of his immense influence of our burgeoning culture that resonates with me. I am further along the line of generations to Massaro, but feel, as he does through Springsteen’s lyrics, that the connective tissue of lasting art is what makes us want to listen to these songs over and over and take the time to read about them too.  

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Rememberings – Sinéad O’Connor (2021)

This could have gone badly. As much as I adore and respect Sinéad O’Connor for her music, her socio-political stands, her commitment to her art and her causes, both real and imagined, she has been anything but a focused voice on any of them. Having battled mental and emotional illness most of her life while also displaying in her public persona a head-spinning level of mercurial behavior, when I heard she was penning a memoir I was as dubious as when Bob Dylan released what turned out to be a mostly fantasy-addled effort. However, my trepidations were happily proved unfounded. Unlike Dylan’s 2004 uneven Chronicles Vol 1, Rememberings is a brutally honest, and most importantly, consistent work. It reads like the imprint of a cruel world on the soul of a sensitive artist with just enough self-examination and personal epiphanies to induce awe.

Firstly, O’Connor is no writer, per sé. (To be fair, many of these rock and roll memoirs are hardly nods to literary devotion.) Still, there is a writer’s alacrity in the way O’Connor tells her story, bridging the gap between having spent decades burying the horrors of her childhood and her exploitation as a young singer-songwriter, and later MTV superstar in an age of shifting genres and interests, and her artistic integrity. All this transpired in a male-dominated industry that kicked her around for nothing more than its own willful ignorance and insecure self-preservation. O’Connor faces her demons and bravely shares the experience.

Parts of Rememberings is as poetic as its un-grammatical title. O’Connor uses her words and phrases to dig deeper into her psyche, allowing the reader a ringside seat. This is a frightening but rewarding endeavor that helps us understand that a portrait of a true artist is no walk in the park. Much of the myths and well-worn stories of her time under the looming control of her mentally ill mother or the nunnery for which she learned to use music to connect spiritually and psychologically with the world all the way to her weirdly framed wars with the Catholic Church, the U.S. government, and the music business are busted wide open.

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CHARLES ROBERT WATTS – 1941 – 2021

Aquarian Weekly
9/1/21
 
Reality Check
 

James Campion
 
 
CHARLES ROBERT WATTS – 1941 – 2021
 
There is a magical few seconds that transpires in the 1969 Rolling Stones track, “Monkey Man” in which the band falls out and it’s just guitarist Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts that, for me, defines the essence of rock and roll. It has the requisite infectious rhythm, boy does it ever, the raunch, the sexual fury, the defiant bloodletting, and funky groove dynamic that would come to underscore what the Stones meant to the genre. There are hundreds of examples from hundreds of songs that might get you there, but that few seconds, from 1:48 to about 2:08, when Charlie pulls you back into the song by laying into one of his signature rolls that is epic Stones. In fact, screw it, listen to the song from 1:48 until Mick Jagger starts yelping like a maniac and marvel at Charlie’s incredible accents and fills from there on out and you’ll be just fine. It is why those who love this music, dance to it, fuck to it, imbibe to it, drive to it, and study it, always come back to it and the Stones again and again.

Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones during rehearsal, New York, May 1978. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

I use the word magical here because what happens with the Stones truly is. There is no viable explanation for Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, two disparate personalities inexorably linked – a perfectly balanced but oddly contorted element of what the right musicians can do when serendipitously tossed together in youth and purpose. A lot has been celebrated over the years about Mick and Keith. Rightly so. Songwriters. Icons. Pioneers. Sure. But for me, the Stones start with Keith and Charlie. I thought of Keith first when I heard Charlie died this week. Keith, of course, is the core of the Rolling Stones’ soundbeyond what the great and powerful, and dashing and famous – and honestly underrated – Mick Jagger could muster within this weird and wonderful construct, but Keith always said it was he and Charlie who fueled that engine. And it was always a strange engine that began with Keith setting the mean-streets groove and Charlie bringing it home. When Ron Wood, member of other outfits long before he joined the Stones in 1975, came aboard he marveled at how the Stones fed off the tempo of its rhythm guitarist and hung together on a tightrope by its drummer’s instincts. For awhile bassist Bill Wyman – also widely underrated in the annals of this classic outfit – held down the fort too, but it was always a dangerously haphazard ride that could only have been anchored by Charles Robert Watts.

(For a proper tribute to Messrs. Wyman and Watts please dig on “Miss You.” Right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Watts did things in the Stones so miraculous that it was mostly overlooked for nearly six decades. Not overlooked as much as ignored. When he passed, the main plaudits for Charlie’s talents all over social media and in the music press centered around his steadiness, how he remained a classy lynchpin of non-showy drumming in the swirl of the Stones hurricane, how he was a metronome and a rock. And although all those things are true of Charlie Watts, they totally missed his most essential contribution to the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. The Rolling Stones only ever existed beyond hit-makers and social pirates and institutional corporate touring machinery because of the unique just-a-tad behind the beat drumming of Charlie Watts.

Trained in jazz, he never stopped loving and revering its intricacies, which made you understand that his approach to rock and roll as a pounding forcefield was never his bag. He attacked it with subtitles and accents and nuances that brought diamond/snowflake qualities to the Stones canon. Watts’s drumming had no origin or a map. Charlie does not play “Honky Tonk Women,”“Brown Sugar,” or thank goodness  “(I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” like an in-the-pocket drummer might. He re-imagines that pocket and challenges the rest of the band to stick it out on his call. Keith starts it, and Charlie wraps it up in his bow.

Watching Charlie Watts was the key to appreciating this. After being a Stones fan as a teenager, my first times seeing them – 1978 and 1981 – I suddenly understood the optical illusion of Charlie Watts, that little lift the sick off the hi-hat right when the thwack of the snare came down, the stuttered kick drum, and the rest of his quirky blues-funk-muddy-water-thud-punch. Supple wrist action, military style grip, the violent use of the crash as a ride when noise is needed.

His finest work may be on the band’s finest album, Exile on Main St., “Rocks Off, Shake Your Hips,” “Lovin’ Cup” to name just three stand-outs), but it’s all there in the 1960s single phase, (“She’s a Rainbow” a particulate favorite Charlie thang for me), after the blues cover band, and Chuck Berry tribute band phase, (“Route 66” – first song on the first album… ummm… wow), the pop phase (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?”, the revolution phase (“Holy crap,, “Street Fightin’ Man,” right?) and the heroin chic fear-mongering phase (My god, when he kicks into “Sister Morphine” … fucking chills), that culminates in the greatest run of the era – Beggar’s Banquet through Exile – brutal beauty. It rattles walls and topples steeples, and Charlie is absolutely transcendent on those records and subsequent tours. Charlie may be the best thing about one of the most influential (and maybe best?) rock and roll live albums ever, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. This is why he is on the cover; alone with a donkey, leaping off the road. An inside joke, since Charlie loathed touring. Loved the gig. Loved the two hours pounding away on “Midnight Rambler” and the rest, but hated the whole thing – the press, the gladhanding, the hotels, the constant movement. He’s a sitter. Drummers sit and make their mark. The other members move all over the place and pose for posterity. Charlie was a good sitter.

The Rolling Stones only ever existed beyond hit-makers and social pirates and institutional corporate touring machinery because of the unique just-a-tad behind the beat drumming of Charlie Watts.

There is not enough space here to fully frame the man, (graphic artist, cartoonist, jazz band leader), so I concentrate on his drumming, which, again was so damn unique that when it was announced two weeks ago that the Stones were “replacing” him for an upcoming tour with an excellent drummer, Steve Jordan, I nonetheless whipped off texts to friends that it is a joke consider anyone beyond Charlie playing Stones songs. He is the soul of them, so much so that the trillions of cover versions over the years by bar bands and superstars sound like cheap imitations of imitations. No one can play Rolling Stones songs but the Rolling Stones, or (ahem), the Stones with Charlie Watts. I have written here a dozen times that there is no such thing as Gonzo Journalism beyond Hunter Thompson. People claim to practice it, but only one man did it. There was never any Minneapolis Sound, it was Pr


Stones songs only exist in the realm of the Stones. No matter how many humans attempt to get the groove on “Start Me Up,” it is not, nor will it ever actually be “Start Me Up”. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what the hell it is or what the Stones are doing on that song to make it work, never mind appear to the untrained ear to be simple, but, trust me, it is more complicated musically than anything the prog rockers or fusion bands attempted to convince us was complicated to make a point about prowess.

Of course, because Charlie took a slanted view at simplicity in his playing, we all slept on the point this week on the plain fact that the man is a creative unicorn, the way Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, his contemporizes who got more press, were, and had forged for themselves within what those bands were doing.  

“Gimmie Shelter”; the monster of all monsters in the rock realm. There is nothing that can touch it, and Watts’s drumming on that is something out of Grendel. When he slams those accents in-between verses it fells me every time. Also, less known, is the 1981 Tattoo You track “Slave,” which may be Charlie’s finest moment. I think it is the best Stones song of the last decade they truly mattered, and for most of it they didn’t even play together. But “Slave” is Charlie’s Great Gatsby, his Mona Lisa, his lasting imprint on my favorite band of all time. It is less song than Charlie being Charlie. Unlike “Gimmie Shelter” the greatness is not in its composition but its execution, where all Rolling Stones songs came to be heard, conquer, and burn an indelible mark in our collective brain.

   Pretty good work for a sitter.

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“LITTLE RICHARD” WAYNE PENNIMAN – 1932 – 2020

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

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

Little Richard was all of these.

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

“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it sounds like…

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

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ADAM SCHLESINGER – 1967-2020

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DANIEL JOHNSTON – 1961 – 2019

Aquarian Weekly
9/18/19

Reality Check

James Campion


DANIEL JOHNSTON – 1961 – 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

He died this week.

He was 58.

And he was an artist.

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