Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stage Names: Leon Redbone


A look at the thesaurus provides the scholar with variations on our theme such as appellation, sobriquet, moniker, cognomen, eponym and more, each with its own nuance to the fact that it is a name, after all (think: a rose is a rose. )

There are any number of reasons why an artist might go by a name other than that which s/he was born with: the birth certificate name may sound pretty strange or worse, the manager may have said a stage name would be better, or perhaps the artist thought the stage name would convey a deeper/different innuendo.  Some artists put a considerably greater effort into obscuring their original designation, leaving fans to discuss among themselves the whyfor and wherefore.

Born Dickran Gobalian, Leon Redbone has been entertaining audiences since the 1970s. Various sources provide differing accounts of the origins of his name. Assuming that it is in fact Gobalian, I would be inclined to side with the version that puts his family roots in the Middle East (some say Cyprus). But that is actually of little matter except in an exercise like “Stage Names”. Obviously, what matters most to us here at StarMaker is his musical output.

Whether it’s on account of his physical appearance, his demeanor or his musical style, I have to second the remark that he does in fact come across as “ so authentic you can hear the surface noise [of an old 78rpm]." The man further endears himself to me because no small number of the songs in his repertoire are songs that Ry Cooder has also performed. To wit:

 Leon Redbone: Big Bad Bill

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Eh? That's not Dylan and indeed it's not. In fact the image isn't even of John Wesley Harding, but of John Wesley Hardin, no g, 1853 - 95, outlaw gunslinger and, possibly, nemesis of "Wild" Bill Hickok, referenced within the title track of  the also otherwise stage-named Robert Zimmerman's 8th studio album. This isn't about either of them, but about a latterday minstrel from Hastings, Sussex, UK, who took on this monicker for the launch of his musical career in 1988. Quite the renaissance man, one suspects he could have made a go of nearly anything, as Wesley Stace, his real name,  has written 3 novels and has a First in English Lit from Cambridge University, as well as being responsible for upward of 17 discs. In fact, had he not been offered a record deal, whilst supporting (real name) John Hiatt, he may well have got his PhD as well.

I think it fair to say I took no great shine to his initial work, it seeming a bit sub-prime Declan McManus, perhaps hindered by the use of various "Attractions" in his studio band. Perhaps this gave him his greater edge in the states, where he is better known and has been resident since 1991. My real interest was sparked by his 1999 work, "Trad Arr. Jones", a collection of folk songs initially covered by a a fellow Brit, Nic (real name) Jones, who had been tragically injured in a near career stalling road traffic accident in 1982. (I say near,as he has, remarkably, started cautious gigging again during literally only this last year or so.) Here is a song from that record, perhaps better known in another version, as "Matty Groves", by the mercurial "Fairport Convention." This showed a voice that had now some more oblique and less affected character of it's own and a willingness to ignore fashions and conventions redolent within his earlier work. Since then there has been a number of releases, often increasingly diverse in styles and statement, demonstrating a confident eclecticism, absent in his sophomore efforts. It somehow seems entirely apt that he now finds himself on "Yep Roc" records, who seem always to specialise in individuals reluctant to embrace any great degree of  type-casting, such as label-mates Dave Alvin, Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock, all real names, amongst many others.

The song  I feature above, "Sussex Ghost Story" comes from 2004's "Adams Apple", my favourite track on my favourite LP. I would have preferred the studio version, but could not find it on youtube, but this at least has the fabulously evocative string arrangement of (Richard) Gavin Bryars. Not particularly representative even of the rest of the record, I can play it time and time again, reflecting on the bleakness and the beauty in the lyric and the melody. And in case my selections are all, as ever, a touch melancholic, here's a (slightly) more upbeat song, give or take the lyric.

Ironically, to time with the year of this posting, for his most recent record he has reverted to his own name for 2013's "Self-Titled".

Finally, for those feeling unduly deprived of the expectation offered by my title, here's the "other" JWH, the song, or, more exactly, the album, but, indulge me, not that one either. Here is  folk phenomenon, real name, Thea Gilmore, with a song  from her cover to cover of Dylans's 8th. Enjoy

Stage Names: Courtney Love

Hole: Doll Parts

Sometimes, it is harder to come up with an idea when there are so many choices out there than when the theme is narrow. When you consider the universe of performers who have used stage names, it is a bit overwhelming. Kind of like the cereal aisle at the supermarket.

Instead, I decided to work backwards. I haven’t written about that many women in the just under two years that I’ve been part of the SMM family (roughly 16 of my approximately 100 pieces have included songs with prominent female vocals—sorry, Kath), so, this is an opportunity to rectify that imbalance. Also, I’ve posted a bunch of prog rock, so I wanted to go in a different direction, and although I’ve posted a bunch of new wave and punk, I haven’t really written about anything like this song.

So I decided to write about a woman who was born in 1964 in San Francisco as Courtney Michelle Harrison (although some sources state that her birth name was “Love Michelle Harrison”). As a result of various adoptions, over the years she was also known as "Courtney Michelle Rodriguez" and "Courtney Michelle Menely". And a few years ago, it was widely reported that she wanted to be known as “Courtney Michelle,” but she shot that story down.

Love’s upbringing was unconventional. Her mother was a psychotherapist and her father was a publisher and was briefly the manager of the Grateful Dead. Her parents divorced in 1969, and her father’s custodial rights were withdrawn based on allegations that he had given young Courtney LSD. Even in San Francisco in 1969, that was not a good thing. Her mother moved the family to a commune in Oregon, where Courtney struggled in school and was diagnosed with autism.

After a brief move to New Zealand, she was returned to Oregon to live with her former stepfather and friends. In what may well be one of the great “what ifs” of all time, Courtney auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club when she was 12, but her choice of audition piece, the poem “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath, somehow didn’t get her the gig. A couple of years later, she was sent to juvie for shoplifting, then bounced in and out of foster homes before becoming emancipated at 16. She spent the next few years doing various jobs, including DJ, stripper and actress, while also taking college classes in Portland, San Francisco and at Trinity College in Ireland.

Starting in the 1980’s Courtney began performing, first with bands that she formed, then briefly in Faith No More, before leaving that band to form other bands and playing bass with Babes in Toyland. She taught herself to play guitar and moved to L.A., where she placed an ad looking to start a band—her stated influences were “Big Black, Sonic Youth and Fleetwood Mac.” That band became Hole.

“Doll Parts” was released on Hole’s second album, Live Through This, and was written about Love’s insecurity about her then new relationship with Kurt Cobain. The song’s rawness and simplicity masks its complex musings on beauty, love, fear and pain, much as Love’s unpredictable (to be charitable) behavior has often overshadowed her obvious intelligence and talent. The song starts with just Love’s gritty vocals and a guitar, and builds slowly to a climax, before ending with a pained vocal, cracking with emotion. It is a song that truly lets you into Love’s heart, and makes obvious her pain, her insecurity and her fear.

It is a damn good song, and was a big success for the band. While Love and Hole put out some more excellent music, to my mind, this album, and this song, was the best work she ever did.