Saturday, June 16, 2018

SPEAK/TALK: DON'T SPEAK IN ENGLISH



There are a number of songs that, if it's the right word, celebrate FLLD, foreign language learning disability. At least I think that is what doughty old ex-pro gambler Chip is singing, at first to and then with winsome fiddler Rodrigues, and going on about. Or maybe not, but there seems quite a canon of songs around the apparent, um, boost that might be given to an ad-hoc liaison if one participant, usually the woman, contrives to talk dirty in foreign. The stuff of lone men without names, stalking the windswept borderlands, seeking what solace they can, after-hours in the cantinas, with dark-eyed damsels. Usually ahead of shooting everyone to bits. Or being shot. If cinema is slower to embrace such themes these days, americana certainly ain't lagging.

Chip Taylor actually was a professional gambler, it made more money than the sweatshop songwriting he was signed up for. And he was quite successful at that too, certainly more so than his original desire, of following his dad into pro-golf. Calling himself a tune-tailor, from the late 50s to a decade or so later he wrote songs that became hits for a remarkable diversity of acts. Perhaps the best known is 'Wild Thing', originally by Jordan Christopher and the Wild Ones, but memorably later picked up by UK west country band  the Troggs, and, thence, Jimi Hendrix. But he also penned 'Angel of the Morning' and 'Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)', demonstrating his cross-genre ease between rock, country and soul. But the horses and casinos paid more, at least until he was banned. So, at age 53, he picked up his guitar again. Carrie Rodrigues, a classically trained violinist who had switched to fiddle after witnessing a Lyle Lovett soundcheck, caught his eye and they became a team, putting out 4 duet albums between 2001 and 2006, his rough hewed outlaw tones blending with her sweeter voice and stunning playing. She has since built up a strong solo repertoire, although not beyond still performing the odd new song, as penned by, she says, "one of our greatest songwriters of all  time", erstwhile sparring partner Taylor. He himself continues to perform and produce music, in 2016 being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, at the same time as running his own label, Trainwreck Records.

Here's a nice version of Taylor and Rodrigues together, playing 'Wild Thing'.


Now, before we lose entirely my indulgence around the aphrodisiacal enticements of endearments en espagnol, we shouldn't forget the disappointment when it fails to materialise, as drawn into focus by Mssrs. Sahm, Meyers, Fender and Jimenez, the estimable tex-mex supergroup, the Texas Tornadoes and their complementary paean, 'She Never Spoke Spanish to Me', actually written by erstwhile Flatlander, Butch Hancock.


Instead of pointing you towards any of the songs featured here; it's easy to find 'em, I'm going to direct you to a song the Taylor/Rodrigues duo slipped out a couple of years ago. The epithet remains as strong as ever: 'Who's Gonna Build That Wall?'

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Speak/Talk: Talk Dirty (To Me)



Romeo Void: Talk Dirty (To Me)
[purchase]

Romeo Void briefly shone brightly in the New Wave world with a sound that mixed punk, dance, jazz and funk, fronted by the sexy, soulful voice of Debora Iyall. And yet, after a handful of successful albums, EPs and singles, a major label contract, and packed concerts, they broke up within 5 years. Iyall has maintained that the main reason that the band gave up was because she was overweight. In an interview in 2003, she stated: "Howie [Klein] sold us from 415 [Records] to Columbia Records, and they were like 'Who's this fat chick?' They decided that was as far as it was going to get, and pulled their support." Although Iyall has subsequently backed off that claim somewhat, and there is also evidence of “health issues” and intra-band tensions that helped to break them up, I don’t think that it is inaccurate to say that the perception that it would be hard to promote a band fronted by a heavy singer contributed to the band’s failure to have a longer career. (Didn't seem to stop Meat Loaf, who released Bat Out Of Hell on another label in the Columbia family, from making it big, though. Hmmmmm.)

Founded in 1979 at the San Francisco Art Institute, when Iyall, having recently seen Patti Smith perform, got together with fellow student, bass player Frank Zincavage. They added guitarist Peter Woods and drummer Jay Derrah, and christened themselves “Romeo Void.” Saxophonist Benjamin Bossi was added shortly thereafter, and Derrah left before the band recorded their first full album, leading to an almost Spinal Tap-esque parade of drummers.

I remember hearing Romeo Void’s first album, It's A Condition, in 1981 at WPRB, and being captivated by their sound. Back in the pre-Internet, pre-MTV era [technically, MTV started in August, 1981, but I didn't see it for a couple of years, because in those days, not everyone had cable, and not every cable system had MTV.]  I don’t recall seeing any pictures of the members, and literally had no clue what Iyall looked like. And I didn’t care. It was also clear that many of the band’s songs had sexual undertones, or overtones, for that matter. One highlight from the debut was “Talk Dirty (To Me), which musically had all of the elements that made the band great, with overtly sexual, even kinky, lyrics. It foreshadowed the band’s most famous song, the Ric Ocasek-produced “Never Say Never,” released the following year, that featured the memorable chorus, “I might like you better if we slept together.”

Romeo Void’s biggest hit “A Girl In Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing),” came from their last album, 1984's more mainstream sounding Instincts, so it really seems that Columbia Records’ weight shaming based lack of support might have cost them a successful band.

Iyall ended up leaving the music business for years, teaching art and engaging in projects to work with and train fellow Native Americans, although she has, recently, dipped her toe back into recording and performing. I don’t believe that any of the other members of the band had much of a musical career outside of Romeo Void.

They were an excellent live band, too—here’s a clip of “Talk Dirty (To Me)” from a show in 1981, and you can see what I am talking about. No one seemed to care that the lead singer wasn’t a stick figure. It was about this time that I interviewed the band, something that I alluded to in another column, before they performed at Trenton’s City Gardens. Having done a bit more research into the club’s calendar, I believe that the interview was in March, 1982, when they played there, with local heroes Regressive Aid opening. There’s a reference in the City Gardens’ oral history book, No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, to the band coming to WPRB for an interview drunk in July, 1981, when school was out and I was in Europe, so I think that Randy Now, City Garden’s leader, has mixed up the two dates.

As I have mentioned, during the interview, Iyall acted really annoyingly, blurting out profanities and doodling penises on scrap paper, so if she was drunk, that makes some sense. In any event, she has noted in another interview, "I do like to be provocative, and I definitely have access to my sexuality, and as a topic I find it ripe.” She did, however, agree to do a station ID, which you can find here, along with probably way more than you ever want to know about my time at WPRB. 

In my early days on Facebook, I found that Iyall and I had a mutual friend, who herself is a sexually provocative performance artist, so it didn’t surprise me. Now, both of them block access to their friend lists, so I can’t see if that relationship has continued, but there are times that I want to reach out to Iyall and ask her if she remembers the interview, which all of us at WPRB involved in the event have not forgotten.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Gems & Stones: Gary Lewis - This Diamond Ring




purchase [This Diamond Ring]


Most 60s music doesn't light my fire - except in that it is seminal. Some of the best of today's musicians were starting out then, so their early material is potentially of interest.

Gary Lewis (and his band, the Playboys) fall into that category - if you had been around then and listening to (AM) radio, you would have heard their "hits":
Everybody Loves a Clown
Save Your Love for Me
and of course, This Diamond Ring


As is often the case, when I set out to write something here, I end up learning some new things:
Gary Lewis is the son of Jerry Lewis and singer Patti Palmer.
This Diamond Ring, while making it into the "Top" lists in 1965 under the Gary Lewis name, was actually written by another musician whose name has always sort of bubbled under the surface - Al Kooper.

Al Kooper is a gem of sorts in his own right: 70+ years playing with and writing for most anyone who's anyone. Prolific to say the least, Kooper's done it all. His Wikipedia entry says "Kooper has played on hundreds of records." Hundreds, including Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Lynryd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, he formed Blood Sweat & Tears.

As for the Playboys' rendition of the song he sold for $300, Kooper doesn't have a lot of compliments, writing in his "Backstage Passes .." book that he and the song's other writers were "revolted: at how they had made a "teenage [turkey] milkshake" out of a song that had a lot more soul in it. Hmmm. Maybe that why - besides the outdated 60s sound, I cant say I chose this one for love of it - more for the curiosities I came across in checking into its history.

Of further interest, Leon Russell was the arranger. Snuff Garrett, the producer is credited with doing a pretty amazing job not only with pushing Lewis's development as a musician but also with some excellent timing of their hits so that they didn't coincide with the Beatles' output, which was otherwise dominating the chart.

Lewis took a long break from music but has returned to performing - cruise ships, casinos, corporate events ...

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

GEMS & STONES: AMETHYST/LOW



Well, my tried and tested has again come up trumps, the old my i-tunes library search model. This at least has the advantage of knowing the songs shown, rather than a pretence based on some song that just happens to have amethyst otherwise mentioned, culled from '100 Best Songs with Gemstones in Their Title', those lists forever propagated in the once venerable Rolling Stone magazine. OK, I had a false start with Jade: Wayne Shorter being perhaps too old school for this site, and Opal: Bicep, which is maybe too new. And Lapis Lazuli brought nothing forth, even though I swear it is in a lyric I can't quite grasp right now, perhaps a Jim Morrison. (Answers to me in comments, please, it is too hot a day for me to be researching.)

I really rather like Low, the husband and wife team from Duluth, famously Mormons. Although they have been around for yonks, it is probably only within the last 5 - 10 years I have become aware of them, in part through the promotion given them through the patronage of others. (Robert Plant is a prominent fan, including 2 of their songs on his 2010 album, 'Band of Joy', saying, at the time of this, possibly, given his back catalogue, unusual choice:

"It's great music; it's always been in the house playing away beside Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf, 
you know. There's room for everything." 


Often slow and sombre, with sparse and understated arrangements, they have a mesmerising vocalist in each of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Turner, otherwise guitar and drums respectively, but it is in duet harmony that the gem surely sparkles. I am sometimes minded of Richard and Linda Thompson's less cheerful moments in many of the arrangements, the voices melding both equivalently and equally melancholically. Bass duties have been provided by a variety of bassists over their 24 year recording history, but with Steve Garrington for the past 8. Keyboards, swathes of choral synthesised sound, are provided also by Garrington. As well as their own material they have also produced quite a selection of unlikely cover material, from Neil Young to the Smiths, Joy Division to the Trapp Family Singers(!). 'Amethyst' is from 2013's 'The Invisible Way', possibly my favourite of their output. Here is what UK online hipster resource, 'The Quietus' had to say about it.

I won't go on, the music says more than I possibly can. By way of a sign off, here is another song from the same album, 'Just Make It Stop', just to make me stop.


Amethyst, the song: here!




Friday, June 1, 2018

Gems & Stones: Diamonds Made From Rain



purchase [Diamonds Made From Rain]

I thought I knew a lot about Eric Clapton, so it surprised me to come upon one of his songs I don't recall having heard before.
That's one of the benefits of blogging here - digging around for gems.


Maybe if I more closely followed public media (I watch almost no TV), I would have known about the Cheryl Crowe/Clapton fling back around 1999. I guess it is public knowledge. But their relationship has little or no import on this theme or post. Except that it may have been a gem for either that neither you nor I know about, and it appears to have maybe been the spark for the song I've chosen.

A Google search for <Clapton Gems> brings up a 2017 Miami GEMS festival (with another scheduled for the Fall of 2018) - it appears to be a mix of film and music.
And considering Clapton's heavy touring schedule, it is no surprise that there seems to be no YouTube link to a 2017 GEMS festival/Miami event.

But .. Gems, Stones & Diamonds ... Stones that make you rich. Stones that you can pick up as you walk around are rarely those that turn you into a millionaire. It happens. But rarely, even if you live in Angola or Botswana.

Me, I have a collection of agates (some of them pretty decent) that I have found on the beach. But they aren't worth more than a $ or two - at most (kind of "dime a dozen" stones. But they are beautiful. And they have a different kind of value - they don't just show up without effort.
So .. the value of gems.

Agates are gems, but they aren't worth much.
But then again, diamonds are artificially over-priced stones (gems)
Good music is a gem that only you can place a value on: your wedding song, a song that brings tears to your eyes or a song you want to hear on your death-bed,
You define the value of a musical gem.

So ... here, we've got <Diamonds Made from Rain>

Clapton sings:
every stone that I have turned!
wash over me like diamonds made of rain
we can make diamonds from the rain
But the song appears to belong to Cheryl Crowe and not Clapton - apparently written about his infidelity?

And a cover -



Thursday, May 31, 2018

GEMS & STONES: RUBY, DON"T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN



Lawks, did I love this song, at least in it's Kenny Rogers edition, SWITD, both he and I being both too young to realise how utterly naff he would become as an artist. The croaky vocals, the nashville motorik shuffle of the drums, the bim bom bass and all those pauses, all absolutely terrific. (OK, I could abide without the girly chorus.) In truth, it wasn't even this version I heard first, I having been bought a curious E.P. of chart hits copied by almost soundalikes, including a shocking version of Elton's 'Your Song', all the more ironic as it was doing such work where dear old Reggie made his first steps in the biz. But, as ever, I digress, the KR version being still a song that gives me joy. I can't quite recall but have a sneaky feeling that he even sang the song sitting down, even from a wheelchair, do give the lyric that much more gravitas. Good taste was still an optional extra in those days.

The song actually has some history ahead of that. Written by Mel Tillis, it was first recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1966, and first a (country) hit for Johnny Darrell a year later. Both versions have distinctly differing arrangements from Rogers'. Clearly controversial for its day and its notoriously conservative C&W audiences, talk of 'crazy asian wars" raised eyebrows when the draft was sucking up young men for Vietnam. Those earlier versions passed me by, an ocean away, but Kenny Rogers fired straight into the UK charts and my consciousness in 1969, hitting the pole position and then staying in the top 20 for nearly half a year, selling a million copies along the way. And, although apparently a vehicle for rising star Rogers to break into the Nashville scene, for me, as a 12 year old, it was sufficiently uncountry to appeal to my youthful tastes. (It was a at least another 5 years before the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers could break me of my prejudice, country smacking then of my mother's Jim Reeves discs.)


In preparing for this piece I discovered a couple of other facts about the song. Or rather about a couple of response records, this being very much a then vogue. So there was 'Billy, I've Got to Go to Town' and, later still, 'Ruby Dean.' The former, sung by Geraldine Stevens, showed, of course, how Ruby's husband had got it all wrong and that she was and would remain ever faithful to her damaged man. The latter, odder still, not least as it was sung by R&B man, Bobby Womack, in which the voice of Ruby and Billy's son is seemingly entreating his mother to stop seeing other men. I'm wishing now for further contemporaneous song commentary from friends and neighbours. 'They always seemed such a quiet couple, kept themselves to themselves....' Even the police could do a version, and then, in true documentary style, the viewpoints of a retired detective and a criminologist. I, to this day, uncertain as to whether he he ever did put her in the ground or turned the gun back on himself. Both, maybe? A missed opportunity for Ruby, the movie, for sure.

There have been a number of subsequent versions, from acts as diverse as the Killers, Cake and Leonard Nimoy, all, especially the last, disappointingly karaoke. However, for me, it is always Kenny and his First Edition that is the absolute gem. I'm going to go listen to it again.

Get it here

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Gems & Stones: Neil Diamond

[purchase Hot August Night]

I’m willing to bet that the first time you saw The Last Waltz, there was a moment when you shook your head, surprised at what you were seeing on the screen. After seeing The Band play, then a guest spot from the rough and tumble rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who basically gave the guys their schooling in the music business, a brief excerpt from The Canterbury Tales (OK, that was kind of a head scratcher), and then performances from Dr. John, Neil Young, and the Staple Singers, out to the stage, in all of his blow-dried, tinted aviator glasses glory, strode none other than Neil Diamond.

WTF?

In 1976, when the concert was filmed, Diamond was not really considered part of the rock world at all—his music was too theatrical and bombastic, it would have seemed, to have shared the stage with the rest of the performers that night—the royalty of what is now called Americana music—folk, blues, and rock. And yet, there he is, strumming and belting away. Apparently, his inclusion in the show was the result of the fact that he and Robbie Robertson were friends and neighbors. Robertson produced the album from whence came “Dry Your Eyes,” the song that Diamond performed (and which Robertson co-wrote).

Not surprisingly, the decision to include Diamond was as strange to the other Band members as it was to us watching, especially, of course, Levon Helm, who wrote in his autobiography, "When I heard that Neil Diamond was going to play I asked, 'What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?' Robbie called me up and said, 'Well, Neil is like Tin Pan Alley. That Fifties Brill Building scene, songwriters like Doc Pomus.'" Levon wasn't convinced. "Why don't we just get Doc Pomus?'"

The funny thing, though, is that Diamond’s performance was not bad at all.

Here’s the other thing about Neil Diamond—the guy is a hell of a songwriter and performer, whose career really did straddle the music business from the Brill Building era, through the early rock era, into the folk-rock sound before he veered completely off into the easy listening, glossy pop world of people like his former high school chorus mate, Barbra Streisand (apparently, though, they didn’t know each other all that well).

Diamond was inspired to write music by a combination of seeing Pete Seeger perform at his summer camp (!), when Diamond was 16, and the fact that girls seemed attracted to guys who could play guitar and write love songs. He also attended NYU on a fencing scholarship (!) He wrote “I’m A Believer” (among other songs) for The Monkees, He wrote songs that were recorded by Cliff Richard, Jay and the Americans, Elvis Presley and others before he really got his performing career going.

In his early performing years, he had hits with “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Holly Holy,” and “Cracklin’ Rosie,” among others. In 1971, Diamond released his album, Stones, which I am basically only mentioning because it fits the theme, although it was successful, and spawned singles “I Am….I Said” and “Crunchy Granola Suite.” And as far as I am concerned, that was pretty much the end for me, other than “Song Sung Blue” from his next album.

The real turning point for Diamond, though was the release, in 1972, of his double live album, Hot August Night, which, as Allmusic aptly states:

Captur[ed] all the kitsch and glitz of Neil Diamond, the showman. And that also means that it's not just loaded with flair, but with filler [and] attempts to write grand, sweeping epics that collapse under their own weight. Still, that's part of the charm of Diamond and while it can sound unbearable on studio albums, it makes some sense here, surrounded by his pomp and circumstance. That spectacle is the great thing about the record, since it inflates not just his great songs, it gives the weaker moments character. 

I actually remember listening to that album, often, in those days, because it was captivating. Looking back now, I think that much of the appeal was the strength of (some of) the songwriting, but also by Diamond’s utter confidence and power as a performer.

There’s a story about Diamond’s performance at the Last Waltz concert that has been denied by him, but is still pretty good, and certainly reflects Diamond’s belief in his performing prowess. Supposedly, after his one song, Diamond came off stage and said to Bob Dylan, "Follow that," to which Dylan responded, "What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?"