Tuesday, January 6, 2015

In Memoriam: Joe Cocker

This was still a shock, when, just before Christmas, the news of Joe's passing crept into the newsfeeds. Despite the well acknowledged punishments he had put himself through, he seemed always the eternal trouper, plugging away in the background, touring occasionally, with regular recording to remind of the ragged beauty of his voice, ageing but unmistakeable. Once this man was a colossus, known to all, courtesy of three days of love and peace in upperstate New York, late 60s. Featuring in most lists of best male vocalists, whether in Rolling Stone (a lowly 97/100) or elsewhere, in my list he was up there where he belonged (sic). His critics made great play of his loss of range in latter years, but I believe most singers in his idiom would be more than satisfied by even only the slightest morsels from his larynx. I was a fan and I miss you, Joe.

Born in Steeltown, UK, Sheffield that is, at the tail end of the war, he had, unsurprisingly, had the influence of Ray Charles etched upon his teenage years, as well as of Lonnie Donegan, skiffle-meister supreme. Singing from the age of 12, he started his semi-pro career as Vance Arnold in the south Yorkshire pubs around his hometown, supporting the Rolling Stones as early as 1963, from which came his first recording contract. Dropped after a year or so, he grafted away, with a few name changes ahead of meeting up with fellow sheffield muso, Chris Stainton, to form the Grease band. For someone so well known as an interpreter of songs, his first  success, albeit minor, was with his co-write, with Stainton, Marjorine , reaching 48 in the UK charts. But his Midas moment appeared shortly thereafter, electing to cover the Ringo singalong, "With a Little Help from my Friends", transforming this arguably throw-away song into a massive soul anthem. And that was Paul McCartney's opinion rather than mine. Most people would now steam straight into theWoodstcock footage, which undeniably brought him to worldwide attention, through the film, but I recently read that the field recording on the day was apparently dodgy, and that Joe had later crept into a studio and overdubbed his entire vocal, synching every moment perfectly. (On a contrary note, there is a Live at Woodstock recording that begs to differ.........) So what, maybe, but here is my Joe, and it is back to Top of the Pops, the universal portal to pop that graced the BBC for so many years. This is one where even my mother's withering words and my father's disbelief couldn't destroy my joy:
One point consistently undermentioned in most recent eulogies has been the sheer quality and class of the musicians he surrounded himself with in his early years. A glance of my copy of his first LP reveals names such as Jimmy Page, Albert Lee, Steve Winwood, B.J. Wilson, Merry Clayton, all these alongside the exemplary Greaseband. (This record, however, has possibly the worst cover picture of possibly any in my collection, and is the visage at the head of this piece.)

As the 70s opened and my mid teens beckoned, Joe could do no wrong, his Tourette inspired flailing arms and contortions denoting the template of my then dancing style. As he moved into the rock'n'roll circus of Mad Dogs and Englishman, my fantasies of life on the road became further fuelled by tales of excesses, usually holding the image of a bra-less Rita Coolidge well to the fore. Still the sidesmen and the material was exemplary, as was his voice, though perhaps the seeds of its demise were hereby being sown, alcohol getting a hold on his well-being and depression a hold on his mind. He effectively retired for two years, before returning to the live arena in 1972, the subsequent few years marred by a dalliance with heroin and further descent into alcoholism, with the full rack of onstage drunkenness, vomiting and all. To any eye he seemed close to burn and his sales were reflecting this.

In 1976 the unexpected arose and despite major debts, he became signed to a new manager, producer Michael Lang, on the condition he remained sober, getting shakily back into his stride, garnishing a Grammy nomination along the way for his work with the Crusaders. I should also mention he also gave due credit to his wife for the turnaround in lifestyle and fortune. His next stroke of luck was his involvement with Jennifer Warnes for the film soundtrack of "An Officer and a Gentleman". Most of his existing fans may disagree, let alone those of his duet partner, but this ghastly epitome of schlock, I forget it's name (ha!), was massive and catapulted him back into the recognition both of a public who had forgotten him, or had never heard of him in the first place. This time he got the Grammy. This allowed him the recognition and the kudos to keep touring and to put out regular recordings, all bolstered by a canny intuition to continue to ally himself with film soundtracks. It's true he never managed as memorable recordings as within his early years, but the choice of material always remained top-notch, mostly with an ear to the songs and the songwriters who count, making the credits always worth a good read, sometimes pointing towards their originators as much as this consummate interpreter.

Here's a selection of my favourites:

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Do I Still Figure In Your Life

My Father's Son

Sail Away

Many Rivers To Cross (live)

And yes, it is still dear old Chris Stainton playing in that last clip!

What to buy? Hell, I don't know. There are a stash of Greatest Hits collections that might suit some. Personally it would be always be this , sorry only that the full majesty of the picture really needs  gatefold vinyl

In Memoriam: Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan

[purchase New Barbarians-Buried Alive: Live in Maryland]

Unfortunately, every year, we lose legendary musicians, people whose names are instantly recognizable, and we also lose a larger number of unheralded performers. And then there are guys like the two I’m writing about—Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—who were sort of famous. If you are reading a music blog, you’ve probably heard of them, but stop someone (of a certain age) on the street, they would be more likely to have heard of, say, Joe Cocker (who died a couple of weeks later and employed both men) than either one of today’s subjects.

It is one of those strange coincidences that these two men, both of whom were associated with the Rolling Stones, died on consecutive days. Keys died on December 2, 2014 of cirrhosis and McLagan died from a stroke on December 3, 2014. And while they were both known as Stones sidemen, and performed together, their lives and careers were quite different.

Bobby Keys was the classic sideman. Born on December 18, 1943 near Slaton, Texas, Keys (which is his real last name) began touring as a sax player when he was 15, playing with, among others, another Texas boy, Buddy Holly. Keys met the Rolling Stones in 1964 and became friendly with Keith Richards, who was born on the very same day. Keys and Richards shared a love of music, mind altering substances and mischief. It was Keys and Richards who notoriously threw a television from a hotel window, and he toured with the band for years. Keys was also the best man at Mick Jagger’s wedding to Bianca. However, he was booted from the band for a while when he, supposedly, filled a bathtub with Dom Perignon, and then drained it. This was a stunt that reportedly annoyed Jagger. However, Keys was back on the team in the late 1980s, and toured with the Stones until recently.

But it was not only his partying personality that made Keys a popular sideman—he could play, adding the iconic sax solos to many tunes, notably “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” He played with innumerable other acts, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie, all of the Beatles and Yoko, Joe Cocker, Warren Zevon, Sheryl Crow, Jim Carroll, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, John Hiatt, Graham Nash, and on and on. He was part of Lennon’s “Lost Weekend,” appeared in the film Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and while he released two solo albums, he will always be best remembered as a hired gun—if one of the top guns. Unfortunately, it appears that his hard living finally did him in, and he passed away on December 2 in Franklin, Tennessee.

Ian McLagan was born on May 12, 1945, 16 years to the day before me, in Hounslow, England. A gifted keyboard player, McLagan bounced through a few bands, including one fronted by future King Crimson/Bad Company member Boz Burrell, until he was hired in 1965 for a pittance to replace the keyboard player in a band called the Small Faces. After finishing his probationary period, he joined the band, and took a pay cut. Along with Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, and Kenney Jones, McLagan created a body of music that still stands up today. And after Marriott left the band, and Rod Stewart and Ron Wood joined the reconstituted Faces, who reached further heights of popularity before breaking up. McLagan participated in various full and partial Small Faces and Faces reunions over the years. Although initially he left the songwriting chores to others, ultimately, McLagan wrote a number of classics, including “Stay With Me.”

In the mid-1970s, McLagan agreed to join Wood and record and tour with the Stones, apparently turning down the chance to join Kenney Jones in the Who. Tough choice. With the Stones, he contributed, among other things, the piano part to “Miss You.” He also appeared with or recorded with Chuck Berry, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Westerberg, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Frank Black, John Hiatt, and many others, and recently had significant involvement in Lucinda Williams’ latest album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

Unlike Keys, though, McLagan enjoyed being in or leading a band, rather than being a session musician. He formed the Bump Band, starting in the late 1970s, and he released a number of solo albums as well as recording with the Empty Hearts featuring Eliot Easton of the Cars and Clem Burke of Blondie. He was scheduled to be a part of Nick Lowe’s Quality Holiday Revue along with Los Straitjackets when he was felled by a stroke, in Austin, where he had lived for two decades, and had become an integral part of the local music scene.

The video above is one of a number of crappy videos that are available on YouTube of performances from a 1979 tour by The New Barbarians, a band featuring Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Stanley Clarke on bass, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste of The Meters, Keys and McLagan. Through the fuzz, you can see both of our subjects playing their hearts out and getting a bit of the glory (while the spotlight remains mostly on Richards and Wood).

The passing of Keys and McLagan, though, raises one significant question—how the hell is Keith Richards still alive?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Holiday Blues: Let Me Sleep

Pearl Jam, "Let Me Sleep"
Purchase sorry, you gotta join the 10 Club

Christmas is over--so are the 'holidays'--which is too bad. I dig this time of year, mostly because it gives me a no-questions-asked excuse to drink it up and eat like DeNiro getting ready for "Raging Bull". What I won't miss is the music...I swear, if I have to hear David Bowie and Bing Crosby doing the "rum-pump'a pum-pum" thing one more time, I'm gonna kick an innocent bystander right in his jingle bells...

I don't hate the season, really, I promise. I just get a little weary of they way we cart out the same albums year after year, and expect that somehow,  the one millionth playing of a Christmas tune is going to somehow sprinkle us all with magic happy dust and turn in holiday seasons into a perfect, Gap-commercial-style celebration.

Uggg...I take it back: I'm glad Christmas is over. I can once again eliminate the "Christmas Tunes" playlist from my iPod that my wife insists I revive every late November, and get around to a much better tradition: making my way through all those "Best Albums of the Year" lists and hear all the stuff I ignored during the year...

Without going too deeply into my personal history of obsession, I want to present an anti-Christmas song by the greatest band ever--Pearl Jam.

Why are they great? Well...

Wait, wait: I said I wouldn't go into it...New Year's Resolution number 46: "Stop Obsessing"...

But, out of the million or so reasons why Pearl Jam is my favorite band, one of the coolest things they do is their "Christmas Singles" tradition. Like the Beatles, who made an annual Christmas single available to their fan club members, Pearl Jam has been releasing their own fan-club-only 45s since 1991, exclusively for 10 Club members.

Strange sleeve art work accompanies an often eclectic selection of two songs, and though it's deemed a Christmas single, fan club members often have to wait until spring to hear the strange little treasure the band has offered up for the faithful.  Past highlights are many, but include 2005's "Little Sister", with Robert Plant, 2010's bluesd out "No Jeremy", and 1999's cult fave "Strangest Tribe", an apt descriptor of those of us who like to say we're part of the "Jam-ily" rather than just saying we're fans.

But, perhaps the best single they released was their first, "Let Me Sleep", from 1991. It was the height of the grunge era, when Vedder made a name for the band for amongst many other reasons, penning blistering screeds told from the point of view of the abused and the outcast (Why Go, Jeremy...etc) and probably explains why so many found his voice, along with another miserable flannel-clad Seattle boy name Kurt Cobain, as the one speaking for them. Tell a sad story with some angst and a take it no more attitude, and launch a revolution.

"Let Me Sleep" is in the same lyrical tradition of much of the album "Ten", featuring a speaker lamenting a miserable station in life. "Let Me Sleep" is told from the point of view of a tortured adult looking back to his childhood and begging just to be able to sleep, because it's Christmas time, and go back to what it was like " when I was a kid" and remember  "how magic it seemed".  It was a nice departure from the sonic boom of "Ten" and, if I recall, the first acoustic song the band released, showing a side they would expand on and ultimately make an even greater reputation for themselves on "MTV Unplugged" a year later.

What else to say about the song? It's spare and sad, darkly poetic and it ranks up there with The Pogues "Fairytale of New York" as not really a Christmas song, but somehow always manages to make it into the playlist every year, just to put a little damper on all that forced Christmas cheer...Which, for those of us who don't really hate Christmas but like to pretend we do, is just the right kind of song to put the spirit in perspective. Bah humbug! Can't wait for next Christmas!