Musings On Music

Reflections

Who The Fuck Are The Stone Roses???

This is a question I never, ever expected to hear, in all of my life, much less one I had to answer…repeatedly, for the few days since they were announced as the headliners for the first day of Coachella 2013. I do notice that since the initial announcement the poster has switched Blur’s position with The Stone Roses, which is funny, because if Blur (the band that eventually replaced the Roses as my BritPop fave) hadn’t played Coachella, I was firmly settled on heading to Barcelona in May for them alone. Nevertheless, when someone asked me why I was so excited about the line up, all I could say, was “Really? The Stone Roses? Blur? Hell, the only topper would be if Ride reunited,” and to that declaration, I got more blank stares. The friend to whom I was speaking didn’t know who Ride was either. Normally, this would make me feel old, but in this case I feel a bit more defensive about the legacy of The Stone Roses (and for that matter Ride) in perspective of modern music history. The only reason I can argue that they knew who Blur was is because they’ve had a much longer career and continued to put new music out on this side of the century–though, I’m not sure they were as influential as either The Stone  Roses or Ride, I’m also not entirely sure that Blur would have ever occurred had it not been for The Stone Roses and several other bands hands that exploded from the “Madchester Scene” that exploded out of Northern Britain in 1989-1991. Honestly, The Stone Roses did it with one and only one album, their flawless debut (in whatever form you have it, it’s many permutations range from 11-13 tracks) and the slew of singles that occurred in the wake of that album (eight singles all together and the many much hunted, at the time, b-sides of said singles). With this bevy of releases between 1989-1992 The Stone Roses created a road map for everything that would pretty much define British guitar rock for the next decade and beyond. This is not hyperbole, this is not exaggeration.

I suppose this also needs some historical perspective placed upon it. You see, the 1980s were kind of a dark time–and up until 1989, it seemed like there was no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The music was dark, depressing, angry, forlorn, melancholic–this was the decade that defined Goth rock, mope rock, sad music for sad people during sad times–Reagan and Thatcher were in power, in short, there simply appeared to be no hope. We didn’t even have a name for the music we listened to, “Alternative Music” hadn’t quite become a term yet, it was “post punk” or “progressive” or “post-modern”, the term alternative hadn’t quite caught on. Not only that, Goths were called Mods as they were seen as an extension of a Mod revival long past, we all wore makeup, used too much hairspray, listened to a lot of Cure, Bauhaus/Love & Rockets, Jesus & Mary Chain, Joy Division/New Order and at that point in  the decade, we were seriously mourning the break-up of both The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen. Then something happened. For one thing, that was the year the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War seemingly ended (which seemed like a great idea at the time), but suddenly, some of us and a few bands decided simply not to be so fucking sad anymore. I know that sounds slightly insane or improbable, but after the suffocation of the previous years, it was necessary–for me it began the day I heard “She Bangs The Drums” by The Stone Roses.

For me, the 1990s officially began in 1989, because on both sides of the pond, shit got great really quick that year. Sure, one can argue it had been building for a while, The Stone Roses had put out their first single in 1987, things had been brewing in Seattle for just as long, but it was 1989 where it seemed musicians in both the UK and the States decided it was time for a radical change. In the US, the roster of SubPop records and their associates revived rock’n'roll through a fine blend of punk, metal and classic sensibilities. In the  UK it seemed that almost overnight, the oppressive suppression of the 1980s was done and that, quite frankly, it was time to reintroduce the holy trinity of drugs, sex and rock’n'roll to the all but willing, starving masses. As an interesting exercise, look at British album covers before that year, often black and white or monochromatic renderings of black and white photos, or simply dark, dark album covers, enshrouded with more darkness. Enter the “Madchester” bands, grinning wildly out of their head on E’s and Whizz, pupils dilated with brilliantly wild beautiful album covers, like The Stone Roses’ Jackson Pollock inspired cover, or Happy Monday cover for Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches or even Inspiral Carpets cover for Life or the Cool As Fuck ep…the artwork alone signalled that the ’80s as England knew it was over–this was followed by at least a decade of colourful, brilliant album artwork designed to marvel your eyes whether under the influence or not.

We were not used to music that made us happy or truly rocked and on account of those two factors, Madchester and Seattle changed our worlds completely in the span of about one years time. It permeated every layer of our lives–now, I agree, this is something that happens easily at a certain age, and I was indeed at that age, but it actually became a fashion revolution as well. The 1980s as I said before, were an oppressive time–our jeans were never tight enough, we even pegged them to make sure of this, we dressed in emulation of our well dressed heroes–with enough gel, hairspray and very expensive clothing we could model ourselves after Morrissey, Robert Smith, Andre Eldritch, Ian McCulloch or any number of well dressed, make-up wearing dandies that appealed to our own imagination. 1989 and beyond seemed to rush in the world of the ultra-casual, it gave birth to indie  rock and suddenly our hair got shaggy, we remembered clothes could be comfortable, boot cut jeans and bell bottoms were rebellious, after an age of AIDS we realized sex was great and that, unlike the gospel of Nancy Reagan preached so hard, we could say no to just saying no. It was freedom. We watched how great The Stone Roses looked in their 60s drag, how comfortable The Pixies looked in clothing that looked like shit your Dad or at best, your cool Uncle wore and eventually, we discovered the joy of flannel, or as my friend Kyle termed it, “the cloth of kings.” It was as though overnight we stopped pegging our pants, spending a half hour on our hair, applying eyeliner, shopping at Banana Republic or gave a fuck about anything other than clothes that were purely comfortable to dance without inhibition in, clothes that were, admittedly easy to remove and a look that simply said, we’re just here to have fun, listen to music and get our groove on. After years of oppression, an age of nouveau hedonism had suddenly begun–after all, we saw them tear down the wall, we saw that things were changing and The Stone Roses were at the start of it all, for those of us that were there.

Another thing, I suppose, that must be explained is the cyclic nature of what will now be described, in revisionist history terms, as the history of alternative music, is the progression of music on both sides of the pond. Though I’ve espoused and/or mentioned it during my entire writing career, I have never like the term “Alternative Music” because I don’t see it as that, I just see it as the progression in the natural course of music…rock, which led to glam, which led to punk, which led to new wave after it mixed with disco and then became goth and then…well, you get it, I see the thought train from the start. So in the states, you had The Pixies who served as the connective tissue between Husker Du and Nirvana–The Pixies formed through an ad in a Boston paper from Black Frances who wanted a band where Husker Du and Peter, Paul and  Mary met in the middle, eventually, Kurt Cobain wanted a band that evoked The Pixies with touches of Meat Puppets and The Vaselines…all the rest is history. In the UK, you had The Stone Roses who claimed that  The Smiths were their greatest influence, were then declared as the greatest thing to happen to British music since The Smiths, but in the end as history would have it, served as the connective tissue between The Smiths and the dual monsters of BritPop, Oasis and Blur, and eventually, the ironically most successful (in everywhere but the States) in retrospect, The Manic Street Preachers (the band that eventually replace Blur as my BritPop fave, who had replace the Roses). Convoluted enough for you? This is how the history of music works. Keep in mind The Pixies were T0p 40 artists in Europe pretty much from the start, but not until the end of their career in the US, if at all.

It wasn’t all fashion and lifestyle though, that changed in 1989. Those were just the side effects. It was the fucking music. You must understand, it was liking nothing we had heard for the last decade–it somehow combined all the best we loved from the psychedelic 60s, with an astute pop sensibility and a bitter lyrical wit that appealed to all the nihilism we had learned from our favorite bands. It was just one of those bizarre chemical reactions and they had nailed it, in much the same way The Pixies had nailed it for disenfranchised American youth–the right amount of psychedelia combined with weirdness and a natural ability to make your hips come to life while making you feel absolutely ALIVE! It was as though the world had shifted from Black & White to Color in a summer. Because it had. Until, that point, bands had stuck to the sound of the times, there seemed to be a certain range in which they operated and everyone was a bit too scared to color outside of the lines. While The Stone Roses first single “Sally Cinnamon” didn’t quite break from that mold too much, the cover of their third single, “Elephant Stone” sure as shit sent a message to the world–a bloody colourful Pollock tribute courtesy of guitarist John Squire that announced their emergence into themselves. The song itself was as colourful as the cover and its impression was even larger, more grandiose than the revivalist abstract expressionism could convey.

If you are reading  this, primarily out of curiosity abut who the fuck The Stone Roses are indeed, I hope it’s clear how in 1989 they appeared to be the greatest band in the world, only because they were talented enough, strange beyond compare and contained the exact vision needed so that everyone could fall down the rabbit hole afterward and for those who came to late to the show, well I guess they never realized that they woke up in indie rock wonderland, largely due to the influence and design of The Stone Roses. I have included my favorite version of the debut album below through YouTube–ironically, it’s an American release that includes both the pre-album single “Elephant Stone” and the immediate post album track “Fool’s Gold,” but it sums up the explosion that was The Stone Roses at the time, better than any other version I know of, because it includes all of their facets. There’s not a bad track on the album, everything is constructed perfectly and this hadn’t honestly happened since The Smiths released The Queen Is Dead in 1986. It is one of those rare, all too rare, perfect albums and I could give it no less than five stars, ever and forever. From the roaring indescribable start of the fey, beautiful, hippy-dippy swirl of “I Wanna Be Adored” starting the whole event off, with a thumping drum that alerts you to the fact that this is not typical revivalist tripe, to the breathy vocals, the spiral guitar work–this is something different from that age and unlike anything else and by the time if finishes, it is a roaring tidal wave of self-aggrandizing guitar driven bliss, rather than self-deprecating, sullen mopiness. “She Bangs The Drums” is simply an explosion in prime 60s psychedelic joy, brought through a lyrical blend of which only the 1980s could wrought, but yet, suddenly, this is sexy–not cold or aloof as the words we lived by had been for so long. “Elephant Stone” was a brilliant placement on the late American release for the third track–it sometimes maintains the undeniable energy better than the original UK release and the lyrical finale describes it best of the feeling at the time, “Seems like there’s a hole, in my dreams, Or so it seems, Yet nothing means anything anymore.”

“Waterfall” follows and it is a trippy ballad if there ever was one, but a brilliant mover nonetheless–which was an amazing touch of The Stone Roses, they could make their sweetest songs swing just as hard as the others and it was deemed so good, that it became a post album single with remixes by a then emerging Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne. It is brilliant in every way and by the end, what started seemingly as a filler track is a mindblower. More mindblowing though is “Don’t Stop” which is essentially “Waterfall” literally in reverse, with abstract tracks, backmasking and forward lyrics places over top–this is where the old era ended and the new world began in one moment–”Don’t stop, isn’t it funny how you shine?” the lyrics ask but not with the bitter retort of the times, “Oh, won’t you just ask me, you’re an imbecile.” It’s brilliant and clear why it was chosen as a post album remix single. What follows is the greatest song on the album that was, for some unexplainable reason, never made into a single, perhaps because “Bye Bye Badman” is the most bitter, vengeful song on the album, but also, simply one of the best. “I’m throwing stones at you man, I want you black and blue and I’m gonna make you bleed, Gonna bring you down to your knees…I’ve got bad intentions, I intend to knock you down, These stones I throw are lethal kisses, Are the only way I’ve found…” A beautiful song about terrible things, which seems to do them right.

The short, sweet rendition of the  traditional “Elizabeth My Dear,” seems to simply be a brilliant stop gap that somehow becomes sinister in their hands, strikingly different than what Simon & Garfunkel did with it, but reclaiming it all the same. “Sugar Spun Sister” returns us to the territory found on “She Bangs the Drums,” and it vies for another single slot that never happened. It is pure Beatlesque pop and perhaps, for that reason alone, it was never released as such and considering all that would follow in it’s wake on the album, it seems as the title suggests, syrupy sweet–but purposefully so. “Made Of Stone” was actually the single between “Elephant Stone” and “She Bangs The Drums,” and it may well be the most trippy of their singles. It is the perfect transition between hits of the day like Echo’s “Lips Like Sugar” and what was to come, it has a sound that recalls, the movement The Stone Roses emerged from, while pre-saging all they were defining. Again, what  would follow, what would seem like a low key filler track, would show more influence than  some of the singles and their flare for pure style and brilliance–”Shoot You Down” was another seeming low-key track that was just as essential to the construction to the album as all the rest and calmly resolute in its violence, “You show it and the time has come, to shoot you down, What a sound, When the day is done and it all works out I’d love to do it and you know you’ve always had it coming.” It  is a perfect mix of the complexity in sexual politics, a blend of vicious intent, revenge and desire. “This Is The One” describes perfectly, in on uncertain terms, the relationship you find, that first relationship you find that absolutely, beyond doubt, sets you on complete fire. You know it will destroy you, you know it is the one that will literally burn you to the ground, completely level you and reduce you to ash–but you’re going there anyway, because  you have to, you have no choice and the experience is much needed.

The original  album ends with the absolutely epic, “I Am The Resurrection” a song that could never be a single, due to length alone. At just over eight minutes, this song was difficult to reckon with, not merely because it was so goddamned brilliant, but because for the time it was so excessively long–but the lyrics, once more vicious, brilliant and describing the true emotions of youth. It was almost too horrible and wonderful to face at once. If anything it plays as though the protagonist inviting trouble to his bed in “This Is The One” is no confessing the result of his brave face toward all the trouble he initially envisioned. “Down down, you bring me down, I hear you knocking at my door and I can’t sleep at night, Your face, it has no place, No room for you inside my house I need to be alone, Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you, I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do…” and later, “Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you, I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do, I am the resurrection and I am the light, I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like…” While the self-aggrandizement continues from the start to finish, the song is a telling result of the previous songs sojourn, but after the lyrics are over, it turns into four minutes of psychedelic guitar bliss that blows everything that came before it completely away–and that may very well include the forays into indulgence the very influences this song includes.

As if that could not be topped, the American release and all other eventual releases include and even more epic song as the finale. “Fool’s Gold” was a post album single, eventually added to the album in various regions of its release and it is probably the most brilliant alchemical fruition of how The Stone Roses ultimately mixed the joys of psychedelic rock, power pop and house music–the latter of which was pretty important at the time. Like most dance music of that era, the lyrics are virtually meaningless, missing the edge the album contained, but the song does not suffer in the least–this is ten minutes of the most amazing groove ever found, and while there is a hint of something sinister, in all reality this is purely something for dancing and fucking–it was embedded with the spirit of the times and every second of it is brilliant. This means something, because I love short songs and somehow, all ten minutes of “Fool’s Gold” keeps me entranced, every time I play it.

So, that’s the first and most important album by The Stone Roses, it’s the album that set a thousand ships asail and like others of their ilk (The Velvet Underground, Big Star, Nick Drake, etal.) the remainder of their career was a nightmare of legal, label and otherwise bizarre happenings that impeded their complete dominance of a scene they created. It’s an amazingly crazy story actually, but it’s not one for me tell. It’s about why The Stone Roses next album would not be released for five years, why no one except the most fervent cared at that point, why The Stone Roses destroyed an entire studio by painting it in a Jackson Pollock collage as they had their singles and albums, how they faced constant court dates, how they found themselves in trial after trial–how they became rock stars and lost it all because the world wasn’t ready for that yet. It appears that now, the world is ready and they may finally be what  the world is waiting for…again…for the first time. That’s who the fuck The Stones Roses are and that’s why I will be at Coachella 2013. It is a beautiful artifact of when time didn’t seem to matter, when music was reinvented and when both groove and rock’n'roll were restored to music, when a sudden sense that living dangerously was okay for the first time in ages, The Stone Roses, in a sense, said the rest of my life was okay. The Stone Roses said, in a sense, though the innocence was lost, that all was alright, we shall begin to explore the poetry of life.

Share

Reflections On Gram Parsons

Prologue

So, I had been in need of a solo roadtrip, a rock’n'roll roadtrip…some kind of pilgrimage…well one week in August 2006 I was driving past Joshua Tree National Park and realized…hey that’s where Gram Parsons died nearly 33 years ago…I happened to have the Reprise Sessions with me and discovered it was on the 18th/19th, and it clicked…I had Mondays off and I needed to take a holiday next week, so that Tuesday became it.

I had really gotten into Gram Parsons that summer, really into the whole “Cosmic American Music” that he produced, the country rock that he invented, the legacy he left behind with his solo albums, his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, and the International Submarine Band, even his hanging around the Rolling Stones (debate what you will about his influence)…which is really what started this, it’s just an extension of my Stones obsession to some degree. Well, that and his music is just completely amazing, some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve ever heard. I also realized I never would have been able to thoroughly dig into his music if I hadn’t completely immersed myself in Ryan Adams’ Jacksonville City Nights.

I figured I would just drive out to the park, visit the Cap Rock where he and Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would hang out and sing songs wasted…there’s a plaque there and a bit of monument…then I wondered about the hotel he actually died in…turns out they are totally into the Gram Parsons history of their little lodge…he died in room 8, overdosed on morphine and tequila. I made the reservations he day I returned, I would be sitting in the room in which he crossed over 33 years later to the moment (technically he was declared dead at a nearby hospital on 9/19/73 at 12:30 in the morning, but he had stopped breathing by 10:30 on the 18th)…I would take pen, paper, tequila, maybe some whiskey, a couple packs of smokes, a camera and a digital voice recorder for thoughts, poems, etc. and…his entire catalog of music of course.

Tuesday morning, I planned to head out to the Cap Rock and pay my respects at the monument. It seemed all somehow fitting to end that summer that way, it had definitely been a great one that had completely expanded my musical horizons.
The room had been kept nearly the same and most of the furniture, etc. are still intact. I was oddly psyched to stare into the last mirror he ever looked in which still hangs on the wall. This was one of the weirdest things I’ve done, I must admit–I couldn’t hardly wait.

 The Great Gram Parsons Pilgrimage

On September 18th of 2006 I went in search of a ghost, in fact I drove 366 miles across the Sonoran and Mojave deserts to seek out the Fallen Angel, the Grievous Angel, the soul called Gram Parsons that lost his life 33 years ago that evening, in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, only 16 miles from where his body was haphazardly cremated at Cap Rock in ritual only by a friend trying to make good on a promise, only three days later. During the five hour trip, I listened to the music of this man, this artist, this beautiful maniac who only lived 26 years and, in his own way, changed the world of music, if not the world itself and silently sits from the grave, smiling, rarely taking any of the credit.

I listened to his catalog in chronological order, starting with his earliest recordings in the Shilos and solo, barren with only voice and guitar starting with an early rendition of his later masterpiece, “Brass Buttons”, or covering “Codine”, followed by the International Submarine Bands “Safe At Home” album—considered by many to be the first country rock album (which is odd because I thought that was Elvis Presley’s debut album), followed by both discs of the legacy edition of the Byrds “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” with tons of Gram material, then through the entire Flying Burrito Brothers catalog. It was the latter groups work that really stuck to me this time, perhaps because I had watched some performances of the Burritos since hearing this previously, but suddenly it hit me that this was truly the pinnacle of rock meeting country music…those first two Burrito albums are amazing.

I was panicking because everything said “get there by 8pm”, office closes at 8, etc…well, I was cutting it close and so I stopped at a gas station at the exit before the one to Joshua Tree and called the Inn…told them I would be a bit late and he told me not to worry, he’d stick around…I shouldn’t rush, etc. I was reassured that all was well and that I wouldn’t lose the room. I panicked again on the way into Joshua Tree that it would be in the middle of nowhere and so I whipped a 180 at the first liquor store and paid way too much for a bottle of tequila, some margarita mix and a couple of limes….ten miles down the road there was a grocery store and a small town that would have done and I would have paid a lot less, but I was on a mission.

Finally, nearly 30 miles after getting off the highway I, I …I drove right past it. Saw this immediately and turned right around in the middle of the road and pulled hastily into the dirt lot in front of a dimly lit motor inn with a neon OPEN sign still on….the front door was locked…the side door was locked and then I found the back door wide open…I breathed my last sigh of relief for the evening and walked in, heart finally starting to slow down, my soul relaxing just a touch…the songs of Gram literally ringing in my head, I had made it, alive and in one piece…this was actually happening.

Evo, the owner met me with a big smile and I checked in, properly and paid and then he said, “You know tonight’s a special night.” I smiled and said, “Yeah, I know, I’m kind of surprised I could get the reservation.” He gave me the key and there it was room eight…wow…he showed me where it was but stepped away (later he told me, he lets everyone walk in alone to experience whatever they might on their own)…so I made my way to room 8, put the key in the lock and held my breath, I opened the door and the first thing I saw was the mirror shaking on the wall…turned on the light and was greeted by such a warm and peaceful feeling it was a bit overwhelming. Perhaps it was finally getting over the rush of the road, perhaps it was the relief in arriving at my destination…but in all seriousness, the atmosphere of the room just seemed to hug me when I walked in, I felt immediately at ease and was brought to a smile.

Me In Gram Parsons Mirror

I unpacked everything, then noticed a stereo in the corner, a burned cd with a picture of Gram on the case and on the disc it said “Gram Parsons Room 8″…on the table next to it was a leather bound diary of visitors from the last couple years…I was going to set up the stereo, but the AC adapter was missing, I went and got Evo and he was baffled, so we looked and then he went to get one for me and handed me a laminated obituary from Rolling Stone in the issue that came out the week Gram died….I asked about food and he gave me a bunch of locations but cautioned they all closed at nine…well, I was on a tight budget so I went to the supermarket back up the road and got some ice and two hoagies, figuring that and a soda would tide me over….I returned to the room and ate my hoagie, read the article and Evo came in with the AC adapter…he saw, I think, all of the Gram Parsons albums scattered across the bed and realized that I was very into this…he left for a while and after I finished my sub, I set up some candles I brought with me in the room, put on the GP album and opened the door, took a big swig of tequila and cheered to Gram, mixed a margarita and lit a smoke outside, then I noticed that the SAFE AT HOME plaque was right in front of my freaking room…with a light over it, candles, I grabbed some candles I brought and lit some of the incense there…after finishing my smoke, I went back inside had some more tequila and took some pictures. I went back out shortly and noticed that there were more candles, and mine had gone out…I rearranged them and Evo appeared once more…

He had lit the other candles and now there was a picture of Gram there as well, I lit the candles at the table outside the room that were there when I arrived and Evo…said, “you know there’s only three of us here tonight that know about Gram.” I said “Really?” He said “Yeah, have you met Anders from Sweden? A really nice guy, just stopped in today, wanted room 8, but you had it so he’s right down the way.” “Does he want to see the room or want a margarita?” “Hang on, I’ll go ask him.” And so that’s how a three man party to celebrate the life and music of Gram Parson’s began…

Evo turned to me in the room and said, “you know it was actually tonight…everyone thinks it’s the 19th, because he died just after midnight, but…” and I finiished, “Yeah, he was dead by about 10:30, 33 years ago tonight” We listened for a moment as the spirit and music of Gram filled the room…”I’ve got a candle, a woman named Peggy gave me a few years ago and I’ve never burned it, but I think tonight is the right night to finally light it, I’ll go get it” He went and got the candle, it was beautiful and blue with a picture of Gram on it in his nudie suit with rhinestones glued on it, we lit it and smiled.” It was around 9:30…”We’re getting close,” Evo said. “Let me go get Anders, he’s right over there.” “Yeah, tell him to come on in, we’ll have a celebration, I’ve got margaritas flowing.” “I’m gonna grab a beer,” he said.

In time, Evo returned with Anders, from Sweden and had a beer in hand, I had the door open and GP was still playing…I invited him in and Anders was just in awe and instantly felt the warmth and wonder of the room, he couldn’t believe it…he texted a friend in his band back in Sweden and grinned sitting in the chair by the bed, I made him a margarita and we toasted to Gram…Evo even called Peggy to let her know that it was getting close to the time, she was asleep, but after Evo explained, whoever answered the phone went to wake her up and we all ended up talking to her and thanking her for the wonderful candle that she made years ago that seemed just perfect for this moment…

We sat outside and soon it was time to change the album, which we obviously went to his second and last, Grievous Angel, we sat outside and stared at the shrine, I smoked and we took pictures of each other, at about 10:15 we went back into the room and talked about how amazing it was that this one person who lived for only 26 years could touch so many lives, in very positive ways, how much he influenced all those he met, how he touched even more people in death than he had in life and how sad it was that that was so often the case with artists, never being appreciated while they were alive. We talked about Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, we talked of Brian Jones and so many tragedies of youth…and then at 10:20…out of nowhere a white cat ran into the room, it’s right eye was blue and it’s left eye was yellow, it jumped on the bed and ran a bit about…Anders and I looked at each other stunned….Evo was out answering a phone call at the time, but by 10:30 we were all inside the room…and toasted to Gram once more…we took pictures of each other, and of the mirror…we listened to his songs and we felt his presence in a VERY strong way, it was Evo that said it, “I think Gram is very pleased with us tonight…” and I said, “Yeah, but I bought the wrong brand of tequila, apparently he liked Sauza…” “I don’t think it matters,” Evo said, he was on the phone with his wife, “My wife says Gram doesn’t care either.” We laughed and smiled at this. We drank some more and talked about Gram, standing over the shrine, sitting outside, just soaking it all up–now some might call this a bit weird, a bit macabre and even a bit disrespectful to be doing this, but really, it’s just a wake that was 33 years late…and there was nothing in the spirit of that night or from the spirits of that night that suggested what we were doing anything but celebrate the life and music of a great artist…

Evo asked about the cat and we both mentioned we had seen it, it’s name was Sky and it just started showing it up a few years ago and only hangs out in room 8…we were stunned and sure that if it wasn’t the reincarnation of Gram, it sure was his little totem, there was something sweet and sad in that cat, just like Gram…Evo also talked about all the bands and artists that had hung out at the Joshua Tree Inn over the years….Gram, the Stones, the Eagles wrote a lot of the best songs there, Donovan still visits their frequently and how they all hung out at the pool…I also told Anders and Evo, the circumstances that had led to this trip and the strange series of synchronicities that had brought it about and that on top of all of that, the woman I had spent the last half of a decade with had just left me and moved out while I was at work…they were stunned by my story and thought that it was in fact quite important I was there that evening. Grievous Angel was about to end and we decided on more drinks and some time to sit by the pool and stare at the sky…( On a funny side note…when I mentioned to Evo…about how I posted my thing about coming out on the Parsons pilgrimage to the a message board, and how someone else had posted it on gramparsons.com, he said “Oh, are you Lazy Dazed Angel?…I read that!”—too weird.)

I popped in the Live 1973 album, turned the volume up, mixed some more drinks and we headed to the pool…the sky was stunning….it was the first time in a couple years that I could see the milky way and was amazed and dazed by just how many stars were in the sky, so many that the constellations were no longer apparent, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the sky as clear and deep and beautiful and dark and on fire as it was that night–we were lucky the moon was getting close to New and we wouldn’t see it until early morning, in fact WE wouldn’t see it all….we sat down and Evo went to grab another beer then we agreed that the lights around the motel were a bit much, so Evo was kind enough to turn them off and in one case he got on a step ladder I think and just took a flood light down. We all sat back in front of our field of stars stunned with the idea of all the amazing artists who had sat right there, swam in the pool and wrote songs…songs we all knew…right there…this is where Keith Richards came to chill out with Gram during the mixing of Beggars Banquet, this is where the Eagles wrote numerous hits and KNEW they were writing hits, where Donovan wrote his minstrel songs and stared at the same sky we saw that night…there was something magic, incense and candlelight behind us, the distant sounds of Gram and Emmylou calling out from the open door at room 8 and we sat there loving it all, knowing damn well that Gram was pleased, that Gram was with us and that everything was alright if even just for a night…we talked and talked and watched the Pleidaes rise above the mountains that formed a dark horizon in the distance, we talked about how Gram would come out here to look for UFOs and it was about then that Anders saw a shooting star…we all agreed that was cool…then I saw one, then we all saw one…an Owl flew by and Bat did as well…everything was magic.

I offered to make Anders another drink, but he was ready to retire, it was well after midnight and 33 years ago, Gram had been officially pronounced dead at the hospital miles away…I returned to the pool and drank another margarita and hung out with Evo, as we talked about every Cosmic American thing we could think of and it was during that time the meteor shower really kicked up…an amazing stream of shooting stars beneath the moonless night sky on a backdrop of the pure milky way was something breathtaking as the sound of Gram played from the open door of  room 8…we felt blessed for being there and sat there stunned for some time, as the universe seem to put on a special show just for us and really for Gram…soon, though it had gotten too late for both of us, Evo turned in and I added candles to the shrine, said my good night to the night sky and poured one more margarita, smoked a cigarette and felt like Gram was sitting next to me, soaking it all in…I finally decided to retire…though that’s unclear, since I had a nearly full drink…I put on the Sleepless Nights compilation and laid on the bed, stared at the ceiling and suddenly heard a beautiful, “meeeeowww” and Sky pounced on my chest and simply laid down on me, licked my face and that’s the last I remember of the evening, except occasionally waking to find this strange white cat snuggled next to me…I felt safe at home.

 

The next morning I first woke at 9:30…still fully clothed from the night before and realized that breakfast had just ended…I stared at the clock, saw the nearly full margarita next to the bed and the cat snuggled on my shoulder…I got up, slammed the margarita down and went back to bed until 11…the night before I had asked about check out time and Evo said it was 11, but that he wasn’t real strict about it and that I should really try a swim in the pool and generally I got the idea I could hang out a bit and get over the night before at my own leisure…which I did…I laid in the bed and stared at the ceiling, for nearly half an hour, dazzled by all that had occurred the night before, how present the spirit of Gram had been and I looked over to see the Gram Forever candle still burning, which pleased me greatly…I finally got up, went outside and had a smoke, Sky was still sleeping and I went to take a look at the shrine, candles burned, incense faded, it looked downright gothic…I finished my smoke and went back to the room…decided that I had to have a swim, but noticed there was still a shot of tequila in the bottle…I went outside with it, poured it around the shrine and wrote “33y” on the label…the pen died so that’s all I could get…then I went for a swim…the temperature of the pool almost stopped my heart immediately…needless to say, my swim was short and sweet, but nice nonetheless, I dried in the sun on a lounge chair and decided that I should probably take some steps toward checking out and heading on to Cap Rock at Joshua Tree National Monument.

I showered, ate the other hoagie I had on hand, slammed a cola and played the cd that was in the room when I got there…after showering and packing, I loaded the car and went back to the room, wrote a couple pages in the guest diary and finally decided it was time to leave, Sky wanted out finally as well…I went to the office but there was no one there, I eventually found the housekeeper and she said I could give her the key, I told her the Gram Candle and the Rolling Stone article were still in there and that those were Evo’s…she understood and then I asked if she could take a couple pictures of me outside the door…finally the candles outside had gone out…I gave her the key and headed on my way…

I got to the park entrance and paid my $15, then asked the very cleanut park ranger…”Hey could you tell me where Cap Rock is?”  “Uh, Cap Rock, huh? You’re here for the Gram Parson thing aren’t you”…I laughed…”Yeah, I am.” he shook his head “It’s 10.6 miles straight ahead”…First of all Joshua Tree is amazing with it’s peculiar forest of cactus trees and it’s monstrous granite outcroppings that burst out of the ground…it stuns all who travel through it and enjoy its wonder…the wind as it whips across the high country is amazing, warm and wonderful, soothing to the soul in search of a certain sense of isolation. Sure, enough in 10.6 miles I got to the familiar formation of Cap Rock, parked my car and hike around it until at last coming to the site of Gram Parsons cremation…a large cross made of stones was laid out on the ground and the rocks were covered with messages, names, lyrics and tributes to the Grievous Angel, guitar picks were everywhere, as well as a beer and a votive candle…the underside of the rock seems to still be a bit scorched and it’s color doesn’t match anything else in the Cap Rock formation…even the sand and gravel below was blackened, but I’m sure that was more from years of fires to honor Phil Kaufman’s bizarre ritual, in tribute of his friend.  I sat there for a while and lost track of space and time, a guy and his daughter showed up and hung out for a while, they took some pictures of me by the area and then left, I must have spent about another hour, just sitting in the sand, listening to the wind and silence and feeling the spirit of Gram in all of it….soon though, the sun told me it was time to go, I paid my tribute, said an old Indian prayer and left the park, satisfied.

I returned to the Joshua Tree Inn to thank Evo for everything and mentioned the people at the rock…no sooner did I mention them than they appeared…they were staying in Room 8 that night!  The dad asked me if I wanted to have a look at room 8 and I laughed, “No, thanks, I stayed there last night.” He laughed back, understanding the irony of our twin meetings.  I smiled, thanked Evo again and he in turn thanked me, he said, “It was an amazing experience, I think you were definitely the right person to have been here last night. I think Gram was very happy with it all.”  That made me feel great as I headed on my way home and I felt as though I had experienced something beyond my comprehension, Evo and Anders did as well…it was an amazing time and on the way home I listened to the Stones and yeah, some more Gram…and I felt like a little bit of that spirit rode beside me all the way…amazing times, amazing days. 

If anyone had any doubt, I can assure them that Gram Parsons is Safe At Home and Rests In Peace in Joshua Tree, California.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a strong singular spiritual presence in my life and that spirit was very pleased…I felt sad having to leave so soon, but Gram’s music has really become a part of my soul and in point of fact, a part of Gram’s spirit seems to be with me somehow… All of a sudden I can think of any song of his and just sing it, any lyric and I can place it…I think of his smile and it hugs my soul, it’s like he’s one of my angels and that’s how it was supposed to be from the start I had to find him and he had to meet me…just that I had to get to Joshua Tree, and the cosmos arranged that nicely for the both of us… And with all that’s happened to me recently, it makes more sense than it would first seem.

 Really, though, what a weird and wild rock’n’roll legend to track down…a year ago, if you had told me I’d do what I just did, and chase the ghost of Gram Parsons across the desert, I would have stared bewildered by what the hell you were talking about, and when you told me, I’d have probably laughed at you a bit…

 

Share

The Faces On My Mind

I’ve been listening to the Faces for weeks, Rod Stewart’s early albums and for the sake of clarity, this includes the first two Jeff Beck Group albums, the first five Mercury albums from Stewart, all four studio albums from the Faces, Ron Wood’s first solo album and the  monumental Faces boxset. Essentially, aurally, I’ve been existing solely on a diet of Rod, Woody, Ronnie, Kenney and Ian. This happens occasionally, usually in the springtime for some reason—I suffer from what one friend describes as Seasonal Music Affective Disorder, in which certain albums or a bands entire catalog is associated with a particular time of year. Bowie is another springtime fascination for me, but not this year, The Velvet Underground is an autumnal favorite, while some bands go year round like the Stones or The Who, so this spring it’s Rod Stewart & Faces. This may have started a month ago, when I had the desperate need to hear “Every Picture Tells A Story” and proceeded to write about 10,000 words arguing that it may be THE perfect rock song, not necessarily the best, but perfect in all its worth and brilliance for its full epic length (at the time) six minutes. I was almost afraid to throw the album Every Picture Tells A Story (the album) into my rotation, because I know what happens when I do—it leads to Never A Dull Moment, then backward to Gasoline Alley, then to An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, then I have to hear all the Faces albums, then grab the Beck albums and well, you get the idea. Despite this hesitation, I needed to hear the song which led to the album, which led me to where I am now, solidly immersed in everything Rod Stewart and Ron Wood touched or even looked at between 1967 and 1975. This is what I was trying to avoid.

This mood disorder in particular always makes me go a bit crazy—clearly I’m a music obsessive, but this is one of my top ten and my top ten  has been pretty solidly the same for over a decade and  eighty percent of my top ten has been the same for nearly twenty years, but it’s more than that. The Faces in particular make me a bit crazy because they only had four albums, the box set nearly doubled their output in a flash and they were, with the exception of the Replacements and a few notable exceptions, simply a band that seemed to exist for the hell of it, for the fun of it, they were there to have a real good time and it’s clear up until the end, they pretty much were. The Faces make me crazy because they only existed for six years, had few hits or huge records sales, but were recognized by nearly everyone and their brother as drunkard geniuses—loose, gutsy, slightly dangerous, but genuinely joyful, exuberant in a way few bands were at the time or have been since while still playing true, honest rock’n’roll. The Faces make me crazy. Rod Stewart makes me crazy on an entirely different level. He went from being a shy nobody, to one of the most lauded vocalists in the span of two years with the Jeff Beck Group, started a solo career at virtually the same moment he joined the Faces (and those first five albums of his have the Faces all over them literally, in some sense it’s like the Faces have nine albums in that respect) and after the breakup he had quite a few amazing albums when he and nearly everyone else relocated to America. Rod Stewart drives me crazy because after Tonight I’m Yours, I have virtually no use for him and that makes me sad, sure there are some great tracks here and there, a couple albums in the 90s that were really great, but all in all, after “Young Turks” he like many of his contemporaries just got lost in the 1980s.

So for weeks all I could think about was why the fuck there hadn’t been a Faces reunion yet, I mean a real one, not with the singer from Simple Minds, but the remaining Faces (Ronnie Lane passed in 1997), with perhaps a bass player and someone who could match Lane’s sweetness on his vocals. For the last few years the Faces and even Stewart have toyed with us, have hinted at a reunion, have teased us essentially, which led to Mick Hucknall taking over vocal duties while Stewart put out more American Songbooks and whatever else he’s covered without inspiration or much effort. Rod was never as good as he was with Ron Wood by his side or Kenney Jones pounding the skins behind him, sharing vocals with Ronnie and Ian guiding the whole deal on the keys—why in the fuck would he want to do the endless Vegas shows for a crowd that probably would still balk at the tawdry suggestions in a song like “Italian Girls” or “Stay With Me.” Money is probably the best reason and a sound one, I suppose. But it sure as shit doesn’t seem as much fun as reviving the magic madness of “Around The Plynth,” for instance.

I saw Stewart live at his “last best” as I like to call it, which is to say in the mid-90s with the fully plugged in Unplugged tour where he blew my mind racing back and forth across the stage with the vim and vigor of a performer half his age—and he ripped through the classics of the Faces and his own early catalog brilliantly for two hours straight. This is the only Rod Stewart that makes sense to me. I even wrote about it in my college newspaper, mind you liking Rod at that point, much less admitting to your absolute love for his music publicly was not a very hip thing to do and came as quite a surprise to those who thought my whole life was a take on the “cooler than thou” philosophy, which it wasn’t, but it often came across that way. It was the summer before that show that my girlfriend at the time, got me back into Rod the Mod, which was surprising since she was still in high school and I was midway through college. I already had much of his catalog and Unplugged had just come out, so there wasn’t much prodding needed. This time, though, I went deeper—way deep into really listening to the music and rediscovering the Faces again for the first time. It was splendid, eye opening and totally and completely uncool. This led directly to taking my girlfriend to see Rod on stage, getting blown away and writing at length about the whole experience. Even then, all I could think was, why the fuck won’t he reunite with the Faces?

The Replacements had been, for my generation, what the Faces were for my parents’ generation and I’m not sure anyone else has held the same fun loving, talented drunkard, lovable bastards’ aesthetic since. Unlike, the Faces, though The Replacements went about two albums too long, but went through a very similar timeline and disintegration. But the Faces were something, that while The Mats came close to it, were never really duplicated again. Part of my love for them is, admittedly, they have connections to some of my other favorite bands of all time and their family tree is an inbred British dream of who was who in the 1960s and 70s. Rising from the ashes of the Jeff Beck Group’s self-immolation and the Small Faces left utterly abandoned by their charismatic frontman, the time was right and soon enough the Faces weren’t so small anymore. From that chemistry alone, the members had tight connections to the Mod scene and the foundation of heavy metal, to the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, Humble Pie and so many amazing greats it was unfathomable, it was also little mystery why everybody loved them, especially their contemporaries. Here was a divinely talented, drunken bar band with a penchant for cocaine and good times everywhere they went, wearing smiles all the while and not striving for the radical sense of pretension, excess and theatrics that were marking most of their peers for good or ill. They were everything I love about rock’n’roll in a pure, boozy distillation and honest aesthetic.

So, at every turn that I would delve into the catalogs of Rod Stewart and the Faces and all their relations (because inevitably I end listening to the Jeff Beck Group, Ron Wood’s solo work as well as his stuff with The Birds and The Creation, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance and his album Rough Mix with Pete Townshend, then ends up into a groovy 70s Stones thing) I get deeper into it. This was greatly enhanced by the release of the boxset Five Guys Walk Into A Bar, released in 2004, which for my money may be the last great boxset ever released in true “box set” ethic (now replaced by complete catalog boxes and super deluxe editions of individual albums). So that now, when this spirit catches hold of me, it’s a huge endeavor of reveling in everything that can and should be related to the Faces and this can and will go on for months. This time around I discovered that the last time I was around this bend, I left a treasure trove of surprises for myself. It turns out that I acquired ten bootlegs of the Faces representing every phase and nearly every year of their career. So this time around, I have even more to immerse myself into. And still I’ve been thinking, why the fuck isn’t there a Faces reunion? I mean, hell, even Brian Wilson has agreed (though really, he has no need financial or otherwise to do so) to reunite with the cluster fuck that is the remaining members of that band. So, what’s the deal?

Well, as you may know, this proves that I was so deep in my head, so deep into reviewing the Faces and Rod Stewart and all involved once more that I had no actual idea of what was going on in the “real world.” I had no idea that the Faces & The Small Faces were being inducted to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, I had no idea that Stewart had been making serious threats that a reunion was on the cusp of occurring, I had no idea they had all gotten together to rehearse and check out how they sounded for their own head check/ sound check. Additionally, I was probably completely lost in rare BBC recordings or somewhere in the boxset or listening to a complete live show from 1970, that I had no idea that for the first time in 19 years, Rod Stewart would reunite with his former bandmates at the induction ceremony on April 14th. I was completely oblivious to all of this, which is something that happens to me frequently when I get a wild hare to revisit some great album or group from my collection, it often ends up that I’m just picking up the excitement of some rock’n’roll collective consciousness—like one time, I got real deep into the Stooges for the 19th time and it was announced they would reunite at the Coachella I already planned to attend or digging into Captain Beefheart’s catalog to read the announcement of his death while I was listening to him or, well, the occasions are too many to enumerate and this is not what this is about. This is about the Faces reuniting, if  only for an evening and I suspect it will be another facet of these rock’n’roll ne’er do wells that will once more drive me crazy.

The reason the Hall Of Fame reunion may drive me absolutely crazy is simple. That may be it. There may be a one off evening, where Rod gets together with his old mates, has a few to drink, blows the crowd away and then that’s it. Nothing more. There is a really good chance of that happening, more than I like to think about. This could just be a one night thing, a one night stand and after all the smoke has cleared, Woody will head back to the Stones, Kenney and Ian will go do their own thing and Rod will put out an unnecessary American Songbook Six for no apparent reason or the other three will continue the Faces with Hucknall and maybe Glenn Matlock and Rod will put out an unnecessary American Songbook Six. But what could happen instead, that’s what makes me crazy. What could happen is that Rod, Woody, Ian, Kenney and whoever is deemed to play bass with super sweet vox, decide that enough years apart have been enough and they’ve never been better than when they’re together and they head out on a global tour for a year or two—if for no other reason than nostalgia, good times and camaraderie, if nothing else for a final chapter. Also,  I might add, there’s probably a lot of money in it, probably a lot more than American Songbook Six. Seriously, Rod, think about it.

I might sound like I’m coming down hard on Rod here, but I’m not. For many years I have defended Rod Stewart and I always will, mostly because I understand the bloke, but also because even  at his worst I can pull one to two songs from each album that I love—and this is more than I can say of The Rolling Stones Dirty Work. Rod Stewart get’s a lot of blame for breaking up the Faces, but let’s face the truth on that, Ronnie Lane cleared house first even though it was really his band and Woody was sitting on a couch with Jagger when he found out that Rod beat him to the punch, so let’s face it—it was 1975 and everyone was ready to move on, Woody was clearly the choice to replace Mick Taylor in the Stones and was even their when Taylor said he was done. In fact it seemed like he was a Rolling Stone in waiting all the time, maybe since he was with The Birds and The Creation. Ronnie wanted out to explore his songwriting more and got to do so with Slim Chance and Pete Townsend. Ian has been a penultimate sideman throughout the ages and has always seemed, like, say Bobby Keyes, super adaptable to whatever situation would suit him since he replaced Jimmy Winston in The Small Faces. Kenney Jones was soon off to replace the belated Keith Moon for two wildly underrated albums by The Who and would tour with them well into the 1980s.

Then there’s Rod…well, Rod Stewart was a goddamned superstar beyond all compare. There, enough said. Well, not really, but that’s the long and short of it. Rod Stewart’s shadow by 1973 had far outreached that of his rock’n’roll band that needed a helping hand, yet he continued to tour and honor his membership in the band for two years beyond any album release or necessity really would even be sensible. Sure they had some magnificent songs after Ooh La La (“Pool Hall Richard” comes to mind) but another album would never surface, though recordings that finally came to light with the box set in 2004 would make that clear. So in 1975 calling it quits was not solely on Stewart’s mind. In a way, it may be seen as a sad story, because Ronnie felt shut out and left alone in Rod’s shadow as he felt he had more to say, but left early of his own volition. On the other hand, I’m not sure anyone I know would have done anything different in Rod’s situation. Living on a diet of champagne, cocaine and tall blonde models, living a jet set lifestyle on his own that could only be rivaled by the Stones, with records that were outselling his good time band by at least ten to one…yeah, being realistically human, I can’t blame Rod a bit for his decision to head to America, assemble a new band and evade the UK tax nightmare that was the 1970s. Besides we got at least three masterpieces out of that transition for which I will never complain. (We also got two amazing albums from Slim Chance, Face Dances, It’s Hard, Rough Mix, Black & Blue, Some Girls, Tattoo You, Emotional Rescue…well, you get the idea…)

So, no, I don’t blame Rod Stewart for breaking up the Faces. The man was a three time loser when he got to the Jeff Beck Group and was happy to catch a break there, during which in two years time he defined the entire chemistry of what a hard rock dynamic should be (charismatic extroverted frontman, a guitarist with mystique…they were the template for many bands to follow, Led Zeppelin for one). He was even happier to get a solo deal from Mercury when the Jeff Beck Group dissolved and even happier when he found a home with his mates in the Faces. Rod simply had the advantage over everyone else because he had that velvet voice of sawdust and gold, he had the looks and style of the age and more importantly, he was two things at once—he was a great songwriter (especially in the company of Wood, Lane, McLagan and Jones) and he was also a great interpreter of others songs. I think the latter part is truly important. Not only did this guy create some of the greatest rock songs with his mates, but he also had a knack for vocally and musically reinterpreting his favorite songs—namely his contemporaries at the  time, which in the  1970s was an unusual angle, especially with the high profile choices he made. There’s no better example than starting of his 1969 debut album with a searing rendition of the Stones “Street Fighting Man” which, for my money, challenges the original and this is not from an uninformed position, the Stones are my second favorite band of all time. He picked up a lot by bracing his vocals in covers with the Jeff Beck Group so by the time he was solo and with the Faces, he was ready for anything. This would end up  including amazing and sometimes the quintessential version of songs by Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, Bobby Womack, Elton John, Jimmy Hendrix, Paul McCartney and of course Sam Cooke.

So, in the end, you have a rock’n’roll powerhouse in the lungs and rough hewn throat of Rod Stewart who was destined for greatness. You had a different rock’n’roll powerhouse that was Ron Wood who was able to return to playing his chosen instrument of guitar in the Faces, after vacationing on bass with Jeff Beck and would obviously move on in time. The three original Small Faces would move on to greatness as well, if not in the way their guests who weren’t small would come to dominate rock and pop charts across the globe. All in all it seemed inevitable, but perhaps not at the time. The point is, I don’t blame Rod, Woody or Ronnie for their decisions, and I might feel a bit bad for Ian and Kenney if they hadn’t done so well themselves. But I have digressed, excessively to explain where I stand. That too, is not the point in any capacity. The point is the impending Faces reunion at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the potential for some last laughs and good times, the possibility that the party may, with any hope, spill beyond Cleveland to points across America, Europe and everywhere else. If all four of the remaining five guys who walked into the bar had enough sense and friendship still left between them, the tour would be on, ready, steady, go.

In an ideal world that is what should happen. Unlike the Velvet Underground reunion, now nearly twenty years past, I would firmly commit to catching a Faces show with Rod at the helm so that I did not spend the rest of my life with regret of not seeing them live and rocking one last time. When the VU reunited, I was sure that a tour of the States was in tow and didn’t bother to fly to Europe for the various dates—this is something I will probably never forgive myself for as long as I live. This time, I’m ready. If the Faces return to the stage with Rod fronting the show, I will sell a kidney to be there and don’t think I haven’t pondered this type of sacrifice to have a seat in Cleveland on April 14th. The question is though, “Will it happen?” Honestly, I’m not sure any of them need the money, the work, the effort or the time, for no other reason than just making their lifelong fans happy. I’m not in that position, I couldn’t make that decision, I only know where the fans stand. Fuck, if you want more bang for the buck, call up Jeff Beck, see what the hell he’s doing and go for it.

Yes, I suppose this is a bit of rock’n’roll fantasy. Or is it? I’ve seen crazier shit in my time, I’ve seen Brian Wilson come out of schizophrenic shock to produce some of the finest music of my life and finish the greatest unreleased album of the last 40 years, I’ve seen Big Star finally achieve the success they always deserved long after their time was due, I’ve seen the Stooges finally get their due, I’ve seen so many things that make just as much sense as the Faces reuniting that this can really go either way. I can’t understand any reason why this wouldn’t be a great investment in all their energy and time, but I’m not them and I don’t know. But what I do know is that it would be great. I hear Woody on the last Stones album and he stuns me, I hear Ian and Kenney on studio work and it blows my mind, and I hear Rod as much as I disapprove of his current direction, his voice is still top notch and where it needs to be. But these blokes need to be together. If they can’t be, if  they absolutely can’t stand to do it, if they walk away from the Hall Of Fame Induction realizing that they must part ways once more, I get that, but if that’s all they need, then I’ve got another plan, I call it a conciliatory fan plan, because that’s maybe all we need.

See, here’s the thing, the Faces were only half presented on their studio releases and only more slightly represented on the box set. The true power of the Faces were in their live performances. There was a live album put out in 1974 that was a complete disaster, recorded after Ronnie had left (replaced by Free’s Tetsu Yamauchi) and consisting mostly of Rod’s material and if that isn’t enough, the sound quality is pretty horrific as well—it paid them no honor or glory. What is amazing though is the vast amount of live material out there, even shows that came from the same tour as Coast To Coast: Overtures And Beginners sound spectacular. With the exception of the tracks that showed up on the box set, most of this has gone unheard, except by madmen like me that will track these shows down, then apparently not even listen to them in order to save them for my future self so that I can rediscover them now. For some of the sets where the recording is clearly straight from the soundboard—the performances simply put the albums to shame. The Faces get called sloppy a lot and that’s the last thing I hear on these recordings—I hear the start of punk rock, I hear a band that can be mind-bendingly out of their heads on booze and cocaine and still hold it together perfectly, every note. They even had a bar on stage and in the studio at all times—consummate professionals in all regards.

It’s also well known that the Faces put on a hell of a lot of shows for the BBC. My suggestion is simple, someone at Warner Bros. or better yet, Rhino…or even better, Rhino Handmade should get their shit together—wade through the licensing nightmare, coordinate with the BBC, maybe pitch a pinch at charity, since Ronnie is no longer with us, I’m certain his estate would appreciate some money going toward MS research and finally release a true, gritty and perfect portrayal of how the Faces set everyone on fire at their shows, repeatedly.  If this is too much to ask, perhaps a re-mastered, re-release of all four albums with a disc or two of live shows from each one, since the industry is all about immersion sets these days. One of the greatest shows I have in my stack is an October 1970 show at the Fillmore West, both the early and the late show and the emcee announces them as The Small Faces, since their debut in America was released under that moniker. No song is repeated, no energy abated, filled chock full of First Step material and rarities galore.  Over 110 minutes of rock bliss that blows the Stones clear away. It was while I was listening to this show that made me imagine a box of live Faces that would seal the deal on their legacy as one of the greats from an era gone by. The set that night is an amazing blend of Faces material, some of Rod’s material from his first two albums, a Jeff Beck cut and an amazing medley that must have popped everyone’s tops live: “Around The Plynth/ Honky Tonk Woman/ Gasoline Alley/ Around The Plynth (Reprise).” The performances are simply searing and that’s only the beginning.

It seems amazing to me that this hasn’t been released, that a set dedicating ten discs (at least) to the complete Faces live experience from beginning to end has not been released, talked about or suggested. And maybe it has. Again, the licensing between the Mercury material of Rod and the Warner’s material of the Faces and the BBC recordings—well, that may be a nightmare, but I’ve seen the industry move bigger mountains for less. Shows from the Long Player and A Nod Is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse era get even better and rowdier, honestly a better balance is achieved between the Faces material and Rod’s solo  work—but all get the Faces treatment. It’s great to hear a medley of “You Wear It Well/Maggie May” or “True Blue” in their purest rock hard delivery possible. For the purist in me, I would even want the  later shows including the material from early shows in ‘73 before Ronnie left the band and  the material afterward, right up to the end where it was very clearly the Rod Stewart show with more guts than his actual solo outings offered, at which point he has made radical changes to arrangements of “Memphis” and other once familiar covers that they are almost unrecognizable, plus you get to hear early stabs at the likes of “Three Time Loser” and the material that would come once he crossed to Atlantic.

There is so much of this material that sounds so good, I’m not sure why there hasn’t been a cash-in on this before. Much of what I have is clearly soundboard recordings and the few that aren’t, are still passable by bootleg standards (far beyond, say, Max’s Kansas City quality for sure). There are also exciting moments in some BBC recordings where you can pretty much hear John Peel lose his mind and very nearly say as much at the end of the concert. All together, it seems like a fitting document and documentary (turns out I have another ten hours of video footage I haven’t even gotten to, aside from the obvious BBC shows that you can check out on YouTube if you’re so inclined, you can also watch a complete show from 1972 below) that all of it could be wrapped up in a nice little bundle, though probably a pricey little bundle—but one worth every penny. It’s not only a document of one of the greatest rock bands of all time, it’s probably a nice testament to Rod Stewart himself (come on, who the hell else had a full time gig with a great rock’n’roll band AND a thriving solo career during that era, or any other?), but it’s also a document of a pure rock aesthetic that seems to have been abandoned in recent decades and perhaps, needs a little nudge to reawaken once more.

That’s all I need. I’ll take either or both. Give me the Faces live or give me the Faces LIVE! Either way, I’m interested to see the outcome when the Hall of Fame inducts the Faces and The Small Faces, as well (another love of mine, a pure Mod love). Maybe it will be only one evening thoroughly documented as a last dying spark of  something great, or maybe it will lead to a tour that will make us all smile for a while, or a box set we can hold dear for years. Maybe it will just be that the Faces and The Small Faces finally get their due for who they were and what they meant to so many. It’s difficult to say as the days count down, but if Rod wants to return to tribute albums and re-rendering oldies after an electric night with his mates, may I suggest Mr. Stewart your next venture in that direction be a “Cooke-book”, for as you once said, without Sam Cooke, there would have never been a Rod Stewart—so it’s something to think about. And if, you’ve stuck around for these five thousand words and you’re still lost in the passion of what I mean, “have a quick listen kid, maybe that’s all you need.”

The Faces Live From the BBC Crown Jewels 04/01/1972

Share

Brushstrokes Of Mortality: Self Portrait Inside Of An Obituary

Brushstrokes Of Mortality: Self Portrait Inside Of An Obituary
(or Fast ‘n’ Bulbous, Tight Also: The Magic Of Captain Beefheart)
by Mitchell L. Hillman

(Editor’s Note: This was originally written in the weeks following Captain Beefheart’s death December 17th, 2010. It will be included in an upcoming novel called The Recursive Turnstile.)

1.

I had been listening to Captain Beefheart for over a month, and by listening, I mean non-stop listening, playing Safe As Milk, Strictly Personal, Mirror Man and Trout Mask Replica over and over again. A friend had reminded me of the good Captain and so had a few choice covers of his music by the Black Keys. I hadn’t listened to Beefheart in ages. It was good to get back to music so strange it rearranges your brain. I had been listening to a lot of Stooges as well, mostly FunHouse era recordings. I was already in a weird time—aurally speaking. It was that kind of season. Sometimes, for whatever reason I need to fill my head with records that some people find unsettling at best, unlistenable noise at the very worst.  I’m not sure what accounts for it, but I love stuff like that. Some people don’t get Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, some people can’t stomach the Stooges, some folks are offended by Frank Zappa, some people can’t handle the early Velvet Underground or most of Sonic Youth’s career. Most people don’t get Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. For some reason all of the above music soothes me in some strange sense and what’s more, and something I can’t account for, is that it makes sense to me. Maybe it’s all the drugs I took in my youth, maybe it’s all the brain damage I’ve accrued, maybe it’s some disease I have that is slowly destroying my central nervous system, maybe it’s that, but whatever it is, albums like Funhouse, White Light/White Heat, Freak Out!, A Love Supreme, Confusion Is Sex and Trout Mask Replica make my brain feel better and decompress my soul slightly.

I first heard of Captain Beefheart when I was in high school. Two things led directly to me hearing Trout Mask Replica for the first time. The first was that Rolling Stone included it in one of its Top however many albums of all time issue which we drooled over like craven school children looking at porn. Secondly, a tribute record called Fast’n’Bulbous came out on Imaginary Records which featured Sonic Youth covering “Electricity,” XTC covering “Ella Guru,” That Petrol Emotion doing “Hot Head” and The Mock Turtles version of “Big Eyed Beans From Venus.” It was only a matter of time before we were sitting in front of the turntable ready to spins some records from the Captain. I clearly remember “getting “ Safe As Milk, I liked it, it was fun and filled with Delta Blues, filled with dangerous vibrations and a fair amount of noise, that seemed keen on my ears—this didn’t seem to weird to me at all, or surprising that it was from 1967. Then we played Trout Mask Replica. It was like nothing I had ever heard and truth be told, I didn’t get it, I hated it—it was almost the same visceral reaction I had when I first heard Confusion Is Sex or The Smiths or any number of albums and artists I recoiled from in horror only later to adopt as my favorites.

I wouldn’t hear the Captain again until college. By that time in my life, I had rearranged the wiring in my brain a bit and was really learning how to operate it for the first time. This was done with a little help from my friends and opened up my perception a bit on the world and the various sounds and visions available within it. I remember the evening, the setting, the events, but I’ll be damned if I can remember who was with me and who put that record on. It was a darkened apartment downtown, candle light only and we were all sitting in half shadows losing our minds—we were quite insane, grinning and laughing madly, there may have been three or four of us, maybe five or six, it was winter and the windows were frosted on the outside and wet with condensation inside, incense was burning, sandalwood. We were spinning all kinds of weird albums, most of it was good feeling classic rock and some low key alternative stuff we were all turned onto that worked with the groove well. At some point in the middle of the night it happened. Trout Mask Replica had only come out on CD maybe a year or two prior, it hadn’t been out long, I hadn’t thought about it since the days back in high school. Someone, some wise or perhaps mischievous compatriot had decided we were far enough gone to listen to one of the most far out records of all time…and they, whoever they were, were right. I’m not sure how long it had been on, we couldn’t have been too far into the record when the room began to spin and there were these sounds coming from the speaker—vaguely familiar sounds, terrifying sounds, but terrifying within reason, reason none of us possessed at the moment. I looked up dazed at my friends and said simply, “Wait, what is this? What’s happening?” It was Trout Mask Replica and it sealed the deal, did I like it, not exactly, but I sure as shit was fascinated by it.

Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band are a hard sell on the ears, not the early stuff—I think most who have any appreciation of the blues and certain psychedelia can meet and greet Safe As Milk or the earlier A&M recordings just fine, this might even be said of the follow ups (unintended or not), Strictly Personal and the Mirror Man Sessions. In fact later on, some of his stuff might be easier to swallow as well, Spotlight Kid, Clear Spot, Bluejeans & Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed, some of which are considered the low point of his career, others consider these albums the only moments they can listen to the Captain and his crew. It’s his true masterpieces like Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, where Captain Beefheart truly shines and it is these recordings that will send stray dogs mildly interested running. You could probably include his live document with Frank Zappa Bongo Fury, in that list as well. The Captain is not for everyone and I can respect anyone who doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to get it and looks nervously when his records are playing. I love the man’s entire catalog, from beginning to end. Sure the middle period, when he tries to be accessible may disappoint the tried and true fan, but I still see the genius at work, trying on a new suit and starring in a different play. The Captain is hard at work on all of his albums, no matter what his aim is.

The thing was, I had been listening to almost nothing but Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band for nearly a month, with a sprinkling of Stooges and it was an all around nice sort of belated Fall cleaning for my brain. I had pulled his discs out of the stacks, I was burying myself in his catalog, something I hadn’t done in a few years and it was good to come back to all those wonderfully weird sounds that make my mind sigh and ooh and ahh in the way that it does with near incomprehensible aural assaults such as that. I was listening to Safe As Milk, last Friday, writing something or other about something when an announcement came through to me. I paled immediately, my stomach heaved, I stared at the headline as if blinded by it. I couldn’t believe it and it haunted me, before I went any further, I just stared at it, stared at the headline, my head buzzing, my brain burning. It was almost funny. I had only found out or reacquainted myself with the fact that Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart had Multiple Scleroses a month or two prior, it was part of what reignited my interest in him, that and I had a ton of his music laying in wait for me, that I hadn’t listened to in years and now was the time. You see, I have MS as well, the only other person I knew of with MS, who I had met a year ago in Joshua Tree was musician Victoria Williams. I try not to think about it. I try not to admit to having it. I just hide when it hits me and I pretend it’s not there the rest of the time. I probably knew this about Captain Beefheart, but at the time I wasn’t diagnosed and so it was forgotten, but rereading things about him in October and November, I found out and it launched me into a month long Captain Beefheart listening party. The headline stunned me, my wife was not at home. The headline read: CAPTAIN BEEFHEART DIES DUE TO COMPLICATIONS FROM MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS. It sent my world spinning. It was one thing to read the obituary of a hero, I was getting used to that in this life, it was another to be enjoying his works so thoroughly when you find out about it, it was yet another level, though, to see that headline for someone like me. I try not to think about my MS, I’ve never seen a headline that mentioned anyone’s death in relation to MS, and there it was in glowing black and white on my laptop screen.

2.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know hardly anyone that listened to Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, much less knew anything about these records. Oh, sure there were a few, obviously, that I ran into, mostly Zappa fans and clearly whichever friend threw it in the CD player late that night in college—but it just wasn’t something you came across very often. There were always the various people you would run into in record stores (remember those, I still go to those things—I shirk online buying whenever possible in favor of a trek to my local indie store), or folks that somehow or other would bring up an obscure Beefheart reference and you smiled and nodded and knew, this person was all right. There were a lot of things in the early 90s that brought us back to Beefheart, the tribute album was one, the CD release of Trout Mask Replica another, the various reissues of the Zappa catalog and so on. As time rolled on, more undiscovered gems and reissues occurred, some of his albums got the remastering treatment, as all of them should and now, probably will, maybe.

Even amongst my various groups of friends Captain Beefheart was not something that came up often. I blame this mainly on what I call the “Punk Rock/Prog Rock Seventies Split” amongst my music loving friends. It’s an interesting phenomenon. See somewhere the line is drawn in the 1970s where otherwise likeminded people who enjoyed all the same sonic cosmic interests of the music that poured forth from the 1960s start to head down separate paths and never the twain shall meet until somewhere in the early 1980s. I’m not sure where the line is. We all seem to like Bowie, Roxy Music and T. Rex…so it’s not glam rock, maybe it’s The Modern Lovers or possibly Pere Ubu, it could be somewhere in there, but somewhere a line is drawn where one group will head into the hazy synthesized epic masturbation of Prog Rock and the other group will race toward the alluring, slurring danger of Punk Rock. These two groups don’t meet on music until Punk is refined and tamed into New Wave much later and by then Prog Rock is pretty much dead, or just as quaintly absorbed into New Wave as well. I notice too, that many of these friends seem to stand on a Zappa/Beefheart split as well, and those who headed toward Rick Wakemen, love their Zappa, while those who live for the snarl of Johnny Rotten had the Captain on their side.

None of this is to say that there are any exclusive right or wrong sides here, just patterns I’ve seen over time.  This is also not to say that someone can’t come to their senses years later and realize the brilliance of punk after listening to decades of Yes, but clearly from the bias in my writing, I stood with the Captain on the side of punk. There is great evidence of course that the Captain himself didn’t give fuck all about punk and nearly anything else, these are just patterns, and the Captain laid the groundwork for punk, he was one of its early architects. His music was alternative music twenty years before the term would even come to fruition. And this is nothing to reflect poorly on Frank Zappa—I have a ton of his records and I love every one, but if I had to choose between my favorite weirdo, and the choice was Zappa versus Beefheart, I’d pick the Captain every time. He’s just my kind of weirdo. In the same way Iggy Stooge is my kind of weirdo, or Alex Chilton is my kind of weirdo, or Syd Barrett is my kind of weirdo or Robyn Hitchcock is my kind of weirdo. And maybe that’s the whole deal with the “Punk Rock/Prog Rock Seventies Split”, it’s about picking your kind of weird and sticking to it. I can’t stand the likes of Rush or Yes or any of that shit, but I respect it and understand what it is about, I can only hope the prog heads feel remotely the same about punk. We picked our weird and we stayed with it. Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band is just my kind of weird, and maybe the next time it comes up, that’s how I’ll explain to whoever it is why I love that music. It’s just my kind of weird.

It seems like my generation would be the one that would have, should have, could have raised the music of Captain Beefheart to exalted heights, but sometimes genius skips a generation and escapes it. So it came as some surprise to me recently, before the departure of this great visionary, in various discussions with the next generation, mostly artists and musicians that I currently write about that Captain Beefheart is incredibly loved, not just loved, but understood. The kids today actually “GET” Captain Beefheart—it’s really the damnedest thing. They quote song lyrics, they talk about his albums casually, they know his stuff, they are well versed in his music and songs—it was as if I had stepped into some strange alien world, unexpectedly. I mentioned to a friend that I was talking to someone who was really cool, intelligent and this person actually dug Captain Beefheart, I was in awe. He stopped me and said without hesitation, “Who doesn’t love Captain Beefheart?” Ummm…98% of the fucking people I’ve known all my life? Maybe it’s the White Stripes or the Black Keys who have done this with their numerous (too numerous to mention) covers of classic Beefheart tunes, maybe it’s the other artists, or maybe, the Captain had only just come into his time, finally. Maybe it’s finally a world where something like Trout Mask Replica makes sense and people just naturally understand its brilliance. I love the idea of that.

Since the passing of Don Van Vliet, I have never met so many people in my life that love Captain Beefheart and it astounds me. Captain Beefheart has been one of those secret loves, those critically acclaimed guilty pleasures that you just assume will stay with you all of your life as something sacred you’ll take with you to your grave. You don’t expect in later life that suddenly, people will talk to earnestly about the contribution someone like Captain Beefheart has made to modern music or quote lyrics from “Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee,” make casual references to “Dropout Boogie” or indicate how much “Moonlight On Vermont” touched their lives. And still, people from my generation admit they just don’t get it, while the kids, the kids, well, the kids are alright—they swing to Lick My Decals Off, Baby and totally get Ice Cream Crow and who would have thunk it? It’s been an unexpected surprise, a nice one, a comforting one, that some forty years later, the world has finally started to catch up to Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band.

I’m interested to see if any of the Captain’s numerous record labels even realize the audience out there for the music is now ready—I can only hope that Don did. It may be a silent wake if the labels don’t know, a reissue here or there, the man has already had one very unlikely box set produced, a Rhino handmade set of a magnificent live show, an incomplete reissue campaign and countless compilations, live sets and demo collections—but what if they do know, there could be a lot of great things coming, rumors that the good Captain kept recording after his early retirement are as tantalizing as the possible unpublished manuscripts J.D. Salinger may well have died beside. If nothing else it would just be nice to have Lick My Decals Off, Baby see a remastered CD release and perhaps see the full original version of Bat Chain Puller come to light. It will be interesting to see what happens—either great treasure troves will be dumped upon us or as is most likely in the continuing story of Captain Beefheart never quite getting his due, nothing will happen at all. I’d actually be surprised if the latter was the case, but you never know. The day Don died, Amazon.com sold out of copies of Trout Mask Replica and the day after he outsold the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It’s sad to say, but for just one day, the day after Captain Beefheart died, his music reigned supreme.

3.

The magic of the Captain was strangely following me and I was thinking this was probably happening to a lot of us who were big Beefheart fans, maybe not, maybe I’m crazy, well, yes I’m crazy, but the day of December 23, was crazy and it was my last day or so I swore of Christmas shopping after some previous and horrible attempts, the Captain had been dead six days. I was planning on doing some more paintings and woke up late after staying up late listening to Shiny Beast until what hour I do not know. My MS is flaring up like a huge crazy bat in my spine and makes me spastically crazier in double time, I stayed up and drank club soda and listened to the Captain, read reviews on him, read some stuff by Lester Bangs and generally waited until I thought I might be able to sleep.  I had mapped out my day reasonably well about a hundred times so I would go in a giant spiral around town as efficiently as I could with my first stop at Hoodlums—a great independent record store. Now Hoodlums isn’t great because they have the largest selection or the best prices, Hoodlums is great because they have the best selection with fair prices. The first time I ever walked in there, I was blown away—they had amazing albums, great titles—all the titles a record store should have, whether it was The Stooges, or Sonic Youth, modern indie stuff, or classic obscure monuments. The store is small but nearly everything inside it is really great, I’ve never quite understood it, but I loved it immediately.

Hoodlums was on the way to the great far edge of the spiral I had designed in my mind. I had stopped there the other night, but alas it was seventeen minutes after they had closed, it was no loss because I also had to hit the coolest bookstore in town, which oddly enough to many people’s benefit I’m sure, is right next door. I imagine the people that listen to music on three dimensional formats also read real books and vica versa, I may be wrong, but I suspect I’m not.  So I promised myself I would return. Honestly this was a stop not about Christmas, it was for me, I wanted to see if they had any Beefheart discs—I had a few, some on vinyl, a couple on cassette, but CDs were just damn few and far inbetween, hard to come by if you will. I pulled up, got in and immediately walked to where the Captain should be and he was and all three album were ones I needed and I picked them up quite pleased.  Wait for it, here comes the magic of the Captain.

I was looking at tracklistings on The Mirror Man Sessions, Doc At The Radar Station and Clear Spot/The Spotlight Kid, when one of the clerks walked by me in an elf hat with elf ears and did a double take, he swung around in fact to make his way back to me.
“Um, do you know your way around that stuff?” He asked. It was funny. It was like I had just picked up something to make explosives.  It was almost cautionary, like I had picked up something very dangerous. That something might go horribly wrong if I didn’t know quite how to aurally navigate the world of Captain Beefheart.
“Yeah, I do, quite well, in fact,” I laughed. “I love this stuff”
“Alright, just wanted to makes sure,” he smiled. “I mean Mirror Man, Safe As Milk, and that stuff is pretty good, but I could never get into Trout Mask Replica.”
“I can, I can listen to it over and over again,” I smiled widely, it was true, I could and just recently I had.
“Well, then if you can do that, you’ve already reached that far edge and everything else is great,” he said and was about to walk away.
“I love how you said that,” I chuckled. “Do you know your way around this stuff.”
“Well, some people just don’t get it.”

It was true. Some people just don’t get Beefheart , some never will and some will be lucky enough to one day, but not today, maybe not even tomorrow, but a month, a year, a decade from now perhaps. I continued to browse a bit, I didn’t know why, I was done, I had what I came for, I went to look at some Zappa. Turns out Zappa is right across the aisle from where the Beefheart had been, but diagonally, you can see someone shopping for A-C while you shop W-Z, it’s an alpha omega sort of thing that seemed kind of neat to me, I was still glowing with my CDs clutched tight in my hands. I saw a man walk in and he caught my attention, I didn’t know why, I went back to browsing Zappa. He pulled diagonally across from me. 
“Didn’t you guys just have some Beefheart!?!” he exclaimed, almost out of panic it seemed.
“Uh, yeah we did,” a different clerk said, I was paying attention again.
“It was just here! You just had Doc At The Radar Station!”
“I guess someone bought it,” the clerk said and walked away. I looked at the man who seemed bewildered by what was happening in his universe. I looked at the CDs in my hand and knew what I had to do. I came in for Clear Spot/Spotlight Kid, the Mirror Man Sessions was a bonus at an amazing price, and Doc At The Radar Station was icing on the cake. I didn’t need icing. I was fine with the cake. I walked around from W-Z to A-C which is easy to do when you go the wrong way and with a smile handed him Doc At The Radar Station, because for whatever reason, he needed it more than me.
“Here you go,” I said with a smile.
“Uh, what?” he looked up bewildered.
“Here you go, it’s the disc you were looking for,” I smiled again.
“Wait…are you sure?”
“Absolutely!” I handed it to him and he took it.
“Was it for a gift, I need it for a gift,” his panic was slowly washing away.
“It was just for me, I can always get it another day and I would really like you to have it for whatever reason,” this was more conversation I thought I would have in handing over a CD, that indeed I could get later and indeed he needed more than me.
“Seriously?” he asked. “Are you sure about this?”
“Seriously, I’m sure,” I grinned, “besides, I’ve got these other two here to keep me company.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he laughed. “What are the chances that someone else would be buying Beefheart at the same time, this is a great album.”
“It is a great album,” I had actually listened to it four or five times over the past few days.
“Thank you so much,” he shook my hand, “Merry Christmas.”
“You’re welcome, Merry Christmas to you.”
The man went and stood in line and I went back to browsing mindlessly, except now I knew why I had hung out and my job was done. Awkwardly, I went to stand in line and landed right behind the man to whom I had handed the disc for his gift. He rang up the CD and pointed at me and said to the clerks behind the counter.
“This guys is the greatest!” he was smiling.
“He needed it for a gift, I’m getting a few others and I already had copies of it on vinyl,” I shrugged off the praise. “I don’t need it for a gift, that day comes sooner and I can always find another one later.”
“That was a very nice holiday thing to do,” the clerk commented.
“Do you know how the Captain is doing? How is his health?” The question was chilling, he didn’t know the good Captain had left our solid dimension.
“Um, he died last week, on the 17th,” I informed him almost apologetically.
“Oh, wow, I didn’t know.” He was shocked.
“I figured that was why you were buying it.” The clerk added.
“No, it’s just one of my favorite albums and I wanted to give it for a gift.”
“Yeah, it freaked me out, I’ve been revisiting the Captain’s stuff for the last few months, and one day I was listening to Safe As Milk and the news came across,” I explained. “I just found out he had MS, a couple months ago and I have MS, so I revisited his albums.”
Amidst the solemn news delivery he thanked me many, many, many more times and wished me many more Merry Christmas’ and then said, “Are you going to be here for a moment, I might have some CDs in my car for you.”

I had no idea what this meant, but I figure I’d hang out after checkout to see what this cat was up to. I paid for my records, waited around and he returned empty handed, which was fine, I didn’t do it for any reward. He explained he thought he had them in his car, but did not and wanted my phone number to get them to me. I gave him my number and he promised he would.  We walked to our cars and talked about the Captain and MS and few other things, before more thanking and handshaking. I was glad I could make his day. I was glad I could make his day with Captain Beefheart and one of his best albums to boot.  I felt like the Captain was there, orchestrating all of it.

I got in my jeep, lit a cigarette and pulled out, it was no sooner that I hit the main road than, what would explode from my speakers, divining  the airwaves of my favorite radio station, it was “Diddy Wah Diddy”, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s first single. I couldn’t believe it, I smiled and turned the volume up until I thought the whole damn vehicle might fall apart. It was a brilliant, blessed moment and it felt like the Captain was smiling at a deed well done, rewarding my ears for what had just transpired. There was no reality that could have created this, this was otherworldly and amazing. This was the Magic of the Captain in action.

 

4.

It’s been two weeks today that Don Van Vliet, the man better known as Captain Beefheart left this world for the next or left this world to return to this world, whatever your spiritual inclination may be. The Captain Beefheart listening party has unabated. It’s three in the morning as I read over these words, add some here and there and listen to The Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot disc I picked up for the fifteenth time. I thought my listening to Captain Beefheart non-stop was a bit obsessive before his death, but afterward, it seems with little exception, I want to listen to little else. He has enchanted me, finally, completely, with his entire catalog and his paintings as well. It’s difficult to explain.  When I read through the first three parts of this essay, I see…wait should I mention the essay I’m writing in the essay I’m writing? Either way, when I read through this, I don’t think I quite explain why all this means so much to me. I’m not sure I can, honestly. Now I know a ton of people who get Beefheart, but now I’m making them nervous with how much I proselytize his genius and the meaning of it. Maybe that’s how I keep the Captain as my own, buy taking my love for his music madness to extremes and exalting his legend above all others. But I’m talking around the talking, I’m writing around the writing, I’m not saying the truth and although all that has preceded this is true it is time to get down to the neon meat of the octafish.

The day he died scared the hell out of me. It scared me on many levels. So many that I’ve been on something of a creative mania streak. That night I painted for the first time in six or seven years, a tribute painting to him, almost cartoon like and certainly surreal which I entitled “The Captain Bids Us all Adieu.” It combined many images: his red scarf from later years, his hat from the early years, his face from 1969, his hand as he waved to the crowd on the David Letterman show. It’s not perfect, not the best, but I like it…it’s the Captain’s essence waving goodbye one last time. That day scared the hell out of me. I was painting brushstrokes of mortality. In all the time since I tested positive for MS, I had never read a headline like that—I’m not sure I had before either and I certainly had not read it about one of my musical vanguard heroes. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART DIES DUE TO COMPLICATIONS FROM MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS. He was 69. I am 38, if I’m lucky I’ve got 30 years left, over the half way point so to speak. I had only found out about his MS a short time before his passing and within a month or two of that revelation, the man had moved on. It put life into a strange perspective quickly. The disease that affects me daily is real. I can’t deny and hide from it. Eventually it will probably kill me. But then life will kill you, yeah?

I often say that timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. In this case it was all about timing. My MS flares up, at this point about twice a year and the last few weeks has been one of those times of the year—oddly when it does flare up, I want my music as weird as possible, I want the sounds pummeling my mind to be those from the thin ragged edge and this time around I was feeding it a steady diet of Stooges and Beefheart, along with a local band called Lisa Savidge, which worked really well with the other two. During these times I always want to feed my brain sounds that seem to fire off neurons that aren’t ordinarily in use, use ways of listening or interpreting sounds that you don’t normally use when, say you’re listening to “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” This is the first time I realized what I was doing, after a while and it became more clear the day Captain Beefheart died—it was aural ecstatic brain therapy. I thought about other MS flare ups over the last few years and how I was driven to music that was less than immediately accessible or music wholly unknown to me before. Nevertheless, in some way, I felt like I was abandoned in the middle of my own discovery by the man that had helped me get there.

The final illumination—other than listening to all of the records in the man’s catalog, repeatedly and noticing the poetry, the word use and the way his lyrics were formulated in ways that were often parallel with my thinking, I edit quite a bit, I think Don just let it flow and go—was in reading a tribute to the man himself written by a musician that worked with him intimately, John French AKA Drumbo, the drummer from Trout Mask Replica and a number of other records. It was probably the greatest thing I had read on the man since his passing, it was intimate, personal, beautiful, sad, angry, grief stricken and painted a portrait of a difficult artist and a rocky, but lifelong friendship. It hit me on multiple levels and once more some details of his behavior due to MS were revealed. As I said, I don’t know anyone with the disease, I’m unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies it seems to cause—and it was a bit freaky to read about these things in someone else, especially someone I respected so much.

He loved his carbonated beverages, bromo-seltzer, RC Cola and Perrier (as on his Letterman interview), this is one thing I just discovered about folks with MS—we have difficulty swallowing sometimes and the easiest “cure” for that is carbonated beverages, especially something along the lines of club soda, Perrier or cola. He smoked, I’m not sure if he smoked right up until the end, but from people I’ve talked with, though I’ve never met, a lot of people with MS have grave difficulty giving up cigarettes—we know it’s a terrible habit, but it seems even more of a binding addiction when your brain features unusual lesions. His mind would fire off randomly, whether it was manic artistic inspiration or violent mood swings—these are things I’m victim of constantly and until recently, I didn’t really know why, with MS you aren’t entirely in control of things anymore, you are a slave to what your brain demands—if it demands I have to write down a poem out of a dead sleep at 3am I do so or I’ll never sleep again. He hated schedules and rules and I think that’s connected to the previous detail, MS isn’t on a schedule and your mind works with it to buck external constrictions to extremes which almost always brings simple things to conflict. And sleep when it does come, after delaying it for all it was worth, would be the sleep of the dead, nearly impossible to wake under any circumstances.

Don hated heaters, loathed them, in the same way I despise them—that is what sweaters are for, temperature alterations in general stir my MS like nobody’s business and it seems to me there’s a reason he chose the temperate climates of Northern California and the extremes of the Mojave to live in for much of his later life.  The strangest detail, the one that I’ve never read about anyone doing freaked me out the most. I don’t even know why I do it and I wonder if Don knew why he did. He would often turn the faucet on hot and hold his hands underneath the cold water until it literally scalded his hands. I want to know how many people with MS do this, it’s almost a comfort thing for me, I know it sounds horrible, but for some reason it feels good to run my hands under water from cold to scalding hot. And of course allergies—allergies and MS go hand in hand and he had many as I do, including occasional embarrassing skin conditions that make you want to go into hiding until it’s cleared up. It also explains his choice of habitats, desert for relief from the allergies, temperate North Cal for the MS—when I moved to the desert most of my allergies disappeared, when I spend time with my children in coastal California, my MS very nearly disappears.

I’m nowhere near the eccentric genius that Captain Beefheart was and I would never claim to be, but still reading John French’s tribute, I was amazed at the strange habits and conditions we shared—I purposefully try not to read more about MS than I have to, I’ve tried not to seek information unless I absolutely need to and to look inside his life, his idiosyncrasies the little details one of his closest mates remembered, it was haunting.  It made me wonder if that’s in part why his music comforts me so much, why his lyrics tickle my brain with strange familiarity, why his seemingly insane orchestrations work so well inside my mind, why his paintings pleases my eyes in the same way his music helps my head decompress. I don’t know if it’s the same for other people with MS, I’m not sure if that’s why, but it’s comforting to know that this man whose music I love so much, struggled with many of the same conditions I experience everyday and did great things despite the obstacles in his way. Comfort. I keep coming back to that word and it’s a funny one to use, because most of the people for whom I have played the music of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, the word that probably best describes them is “uncomfortable”, terribly uncomfortable in fact, often physically or violently enraged, begging for me to turn it off.

Comfort. The word origin reads as this: “late 13c., from O.Fr. conforter  ”to comfort, help, strengthen,” from L.L. confortare  ”to strengthen much” (used in Vulgate), from L. com-  intens. prefix + fortis  (strong).” It’s accurate, it’s what any great music does for me, it is especially what Captain Beefheart does for me, his music helps strengthen me. I feel better after listening to Trout Mask Replica or Doc At The Radar Station, Safe As Milk or Lick My Decals Off, Baby, I feel better after any of his music, watching him in videos, the Captain somehow works his magic on me and for a moment, my soul is lifted, my spirits are brighter and I’m always left with some new insight, or an idea for a painting or a poem I must rush to write down. I think his entire body of work is pure genius and by his entire body of work I mean everything he created in his lifetime from his music to his paintings to the moments of actual magic he created with the people that surrounded him. To discover that something like Trout Mask Replica wasn’t thrown together haphazardly in a few hours of being high in the studio, but was rather carefully orchestrated, designed, rehearsed and practiced for nearly nine months before essentially entering the studio and performing it live is a revelation. To realize that what Don Van Vliet created was not simply whim or spontaneous madness recorded on the fly, that he wasn’t winging it, but that he actually thought everything through, thoroughly to an almost point of obsession—that is genius. And all of it comforts me.

I’ll miss the Captain greatly, for one thing I was in the middle of rediscovering how much I loved his music when he shed the mortal coil, but most for the reason that I believe with all of my heart and soul that the world simply needs more weirdoes like him. Don Van Vliet was simply authentically strange and he had been all of his life, which is all pretty well documented elsewhere—he wasn’t contrived or strange for strangeness sake, he was just a weird kid that cultivated the strangeness that came to him and with a childhood neighbor like Frank Zappa, how could he not have pursued his own insane vision of life and music and art. The world needs more weirdoes like these to just call shenanigans on the regular world and pursue the ultimate vision of what they could be, no matter how strange that might be like “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n’ bulbous, got me?” Yes, Captain, I got you, I totally got you, because you were just my kind of weird.

Share

Setting The Records Straight

This Sunday, January 8th, Elvis Presley would have been 77 years old. I’m not sure any of us can imagine a 77 year old Elvis, honestly, but I do wish he was still around so we could all wish him a good one.  Around this time of year and later in the year around the anniversary of his death, there is the constant chatter about the ”King Of Rock’n'Roll” and I can handle that, but sometimes it gets into talk of him  inventing rock’n'roll, or the man who put out the first rock’n'roll record, or slightly inane and factually bizarre revisionist tidbits of history are uttered by talking heads on TV and folks on the radio that should know a little bit more about the music that employs them. I have to write something that sets the records straight…not the record, but the records. Each year around this time I read a lot of articles, blurbs and various references to this idea of Elvis as the inventor of rock’n'roll and I shake, rattle and roll my head every time I see that. This also happens alot in the music media around the start of July because on July 5, 1954 a hillbilly truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi walked into Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and recorded a cover of a blues song by Arthur Crudup called “That’s All Right.” That young man had been trying for nearly a year to convince Sam Phillips to record him at Sun and finally his big break had come. After a series of stops, starts and near disasters, the inspiration during a recording break with his two sidemen, over some Cokes, came to him and a 19 year-old Elvis Presley began his triumphant and perhaps tragic 23 year recording career.

Now anyone who knows me, knows I love Elvis. And if you thought you knew me and didn’t know that, you probably don’t know me all that well. The first concert I ever saw was on May 29, 1977 at the Baltimore Civic Center and it was the King himself…it was his last tour and he was literally larger than life, bloated beyond comprehension, out of sorts and he had to leave the stage twice that evening–but even at that point, two month before his death, that hillbilly from Tupelo could sing. I remember loving the performance, not understanding why he left the stage or seemed as though he was about to pass out, I remember people shaking their heads as they left the civic arena and now it all plays out in my memory as the ominous harbinger of what was to come–the day I remember my mother answering the phone and her friend telling her Elvis was dead. As the years waxed on, I moved away from the Elvis camp, tried to forget how much I liked his music, because the ethos of punk rock was definitely not in line with the fat, jump-suited, Vegas Elvis that died on the toilet in Graceland. But in the last five years or so I’ve returned to my love of Elvis and his music. The point is, I’m an enormous Elvis fan, my first son’s middle name is Presley, after all–I don’t dress up like him or have a shrine (well, ok, it’s a small shrine)–the cat was cool for most of his time and now even the later years seem cool in a strange kitschy way. And if his early rockabilly pre-army career doesn’t strike one as consistent with all that is punk, then I’m not sure what does. But no matter how you slice it, “That’s All Right” was not the first rock’n'roll record.

“That’s Alright” was definitely a landmark in that it was Elvis’ first slab of wax, but, beyond that not much can be said–it wasn’t even a hit, except on local Memphis stations in 1954…sure it led to his RCA contract as did all of his other Sun recordings, but it really didn’t have quite the effect that revisionist historians would like to make us believe it did. No one could argue that none of the early rock records made that much of an impact on their own, but together they founded a movement–I can agree with that, but even with that in mind, I still have to say that “That’s All Right” still arrived three years after the first rock’n'roll record was released and two years after the first rock’n'roll event occurred. It may, more honestly reflect when a white guy started performing what was considered black music–and if that’s how historians are judging the history of rock, then they’ve completely missed the goddamn boat on rock’n'roll, its true roots and all that’s happened since.

If we’re judging the birth of rock’n'roll by national success…the prize still would not go to Elvis…his first Top 40 charting hit was “Heartbreak Hotel” somewhere in the early spring of 1956…over half a year after Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” had swung a number five hit and nearly a year after Bill Haley and the Comets hit number one with “Rock Around the Clock”…but again that was all in 1955, the first year that Billboard began tracking the chart success of pop and rock hits. Big Joe Turner had first released “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1954 with great success, but he was considered largely a boogie woogie or jump blues artist and white audiences completely missed the leering lyrical intent of the song. It was clear though that the sound came out of the south, the deep south where the roots of blues, country and jazz had been fermenting in the swampy soil for quite some time. It was also clear that the sound was black and in the beginning, that’s why it was considered so damn dangerous, the very term itself–rock’n'roll–was a black euphemism for getting laid. And I will admit that if it wasn’t for that white, hip swinging, mama loving hillbilly from Tupelo who could sing like a black man, rock might never have taken a foothold or it would have had to wait a year before a geeky Texan named Buddy Holly made a brief splash on the scene.


Granted there is no, absolute, one answer to who created rock’n'roll, but there is a beginning…that one record, that one day when the blues went beyond the blues and if not a record, than there was an event, one gathering that lit the torch. As rock stands today, it’s easy to see who contributed what, who laid the groundwork for all that was to come and Elvis is absolutely and obviously included in that crowd, because, after all, he was the first true rock star, superstar or whatever else you would like to call his cult of personality phenomena that bookended the Beatles career by six years in either direction. Chuck Berry was the architect; I mean what the hell would we do without the guitar intro? Elvis the star. Bo Diddley and the quintessential backbeat. Buddy Holly and the beginning of rock’s history of youthful tragedy. Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis using the piano like the others were using guitars and so on…in fact they had to get the sound from somewhere as well, those are the people everyone knows, but the true originators of rock were probably penniless poor folk somewhere in the Mississippi Delta just playing the blues and dying uncredited for their creation.


Rock’n'roll should have celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in 2001 or at the latest, 2002. In 1951 in the very same studio where Elvis would record “That’s Alright” three years later–before Sam Phillips had started the Sun label to promote black artists that were taking jump blues a bit further than most people thought proper–a group called Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded the true first rock’n'roll record with a song titled “Rocket 88″. The band itself, didn’t really exist, it was in fact Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm recording under an assumed name. Brenston was Turner’s saxophonist and is still given the songwriting credit for the tune, though everyone, most notably Sam Phillips who produced the record and Brenston himself admit that it was all Ike’s doing…but even that’s a mistruth. Sure one of the world’s most famous wife beating child haters was responsible for arranging the sound, writing the song and providing the monstrous backbeat–but,”Rocket 88″, an ode to an Oldsmobile, the first rock’n'roll record, owes much of its mystique, mystery and brilliance to an accident. You see Ike’s guitar speaker was damaged on Highway 61 on the way to Memphis and when Ike plugged in, his guitar created a distorted, fuzzy sound that had not been heard before–Sam Phillips loved it and the song became quite a hit, the rest is obscured history.

If we’re not considering the first record to be the start of rock’n'roll, what about the first rock concert? On March 21, 1952, Alan Freed–a radio disc jockey in Cleveland who was notorious for playing “race” records and coining the term “rock and roll”–booked the Cleveland arena with two partners for the Moondog Coronation Ball. Unfortunately, they sold something on the order of 25,000 tickets for a venue that could only hold 10,000 people–the show was promoted relentlessly on Freed’s Moondog show and kids were lined up around several city blocks waiting to get in. By the time the opening act, Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, played one song the arena had been torn to pieces by a crazed mob of people dancing, fighting and freaking out. If you’ve ever wondered why the rock’n'roll hall of fame is in Cleveland, this is your answer.

So there you go, pick your myth and if you want to stick with what the white folks like to believe, that “That’s All Right” is where it all began, that’s fine too. According to a recent CNN poll, 35% of those asked agree with you, the largest percentage of respondees incidentally. For me, it’s “Rocket 88″ and how an accident on Highway 61 transformed the sound of modern music, for others it’s how the first rock concert only lasted for one song…for someone else it may be the day that Big Joe Turner enlisted a young Fats Domino for his backup band in New Orleans. Perhaps the best answer to the question of when rock’n'roll began is that it never began, that it is infinite and timeless, as old as the cosmos itself…after all that supposedly began with one big bang.

Share