Friday, January 3, 2014

In Memoriam: Storm Thorgerson and Arturo Vega

[purchase The Gathering Storm - The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson]

[purchase the iconic Ramones T-Shirt]

They were both artists, they were both influential in the music world, and they both died in 2013. But Storm Thorgerson and Arturo Vega were also very different, in their lives, in their art and in the music that they were associated with.

Thorgerson was born in England in 1944 and was a friend of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. He was a graduate of the University of Leicester and obtained a Master of Arts degree from the Royal College of Art. In 1968, he founded Hipgnosis, a graphic arts company, and Thorgerson and the company designed many of the most iconic album covers of the 1970s and 1980s, regularly for prog rock groups. The cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, designed by Thorgerson, is often considered to be the greatest album cover of all time. Thorgerson’s work frequently was surreal, with sharply focused and well lit figures in bizarre or unexpected situations. Back when an album cover was a relatively large surface, Thorgerson’s designs were definitely a lure to record store browsers. And if you were someone who partook of psychedelic substances, they could be looked at for hours in an attempt to unlock their meaning. Or so I have been told.

It would take too long to list all of the incredible covers that Thorgerson had a role in designing and creating, but to list a few (other than most Pink Floyd covers)—Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Presence, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Yes’ Tormato and Going for the One, the first three Peter Gabriel albums, and albums by Renaissance, Brand X. 10cc and The Mars Volta. And I am probably leaving out your favorite. It was not, however, all classic rock or prog—his portfolio included covers for Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Cranberries, The Cult, Megadeth and The Offspring.

In addition to designing album covers, Thorgerson directed music videos for artists such as Yes, Robert Plant, Pink Floyd and Nik Kershaw.

Thorgerson suffered a stroke in 2003 and later battled cancer, which claimed his life in April, 2013.

Arturo Vega’s career may not have had the same broad scope as Torgerson’s, but his work, primarily for The Ramones, who rejected all of the pomp and excess of many of the bands that hired Torgerson, may well be as influential, and probably sold more t-shirts. But art isn’t a competition (unlike, apparently, cupcakes).

Vega was born in 1947 in Chihuahua, Mexico, but moved to New York in his early 20’s to try and become an artist. New York at that time was not the chain store paradise that it is today, and the early-1970’s music scene that grew out of bands like the Velvet Underground were spawned from grungy, dangerous downtown neighborhoods which are probably remembered more fondly now than they were back then.

While living in a loft in the East Village in 1973, Vega met Douglas Colvin, who complemented the music on Vega’s stereo. Colvin later morphed into Dee Dee Ramone, and Vega became known as the “Fifth Ramone.” In addition to often feeding, housing and supporting the band, Vega was what would now be called a branding consultant. He helped to develop their look, their lighting, and, most of all, designed one of the truly great rock band logos ever. The faux presidential seal, featuring an eagle holding an apple branch (to signify that The Ramones were as American as apple pie) and a baseball bat (in honor of Johnny Ramone’s favorite sport), with a “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” banner in its beak, surrounded by the names of the members, is not only instantly recognizable, it represented a subtle, if unmistakable “fuck you” to the establishment.

Vega claims to have seen all but 2 of the bands 2,200 plus live shows and sold t-shirts with that logo, which helped to support the band when they weren’t selling that many albums or tickets. He continued to sell Ramones shirts and memorabilia, and his logo became a badge of coolness, even with people who weren’t even born when The Ramones broke up. Although Vega worked with other musicians, he will always be identified with The Ramones, and without Vega, The Ramones might never have survived to become a force that changed music forever.

He died, of undisclosed causes, in June.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Memoriam: Ray Manzarek
The Doors: Light My Fire (live)

Ray Manzarek, the Doors' keyboard player passed away in  May 2013.

Granted, the Doors' lead singer- Jim Morrison - commanded top billing during their heyday; it was Morrison who drew the crowds, but, without Manzarek's keyboard, the Doors would not have been the same. At his passing, his ex-bandmates said, "... there was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison's words", and "[he was] ... totally in sync with you musically".

Krieger, Densmore and Manzarek individually rarely rank high on today's musicians' lists of <the best>. It's generally as a band that they get the credit they deserve for laying some of the paving stones of today's rock music. Morrison is remembered for his "outre" style/personality; the rest of the band .. for being members of the Doors [right place/right time].

Manzarek - along with Krieger - continued playing after The Doors disbanded. We see him touring/performing until fairly recently: into his 70s. But check out the linked video from '68, where he bangs out a major part of the song on a primitive piano [extra credit points if you can name the keyboard brand?] At this time, Morrison appears not to have not yet hit his "prime/stride" - you can see that he is almost there, but not quite yet. Ray is doing most of the work. Clearly, however, Morrison is showing his (shortlived) potential.

Monday, December 30, 2013

In Memoriam: Charlie Chesterman

The Law: King Size Cigarette  
Scruffy the Cat: My Baby She’s Alright
[purchase a tribute/benefit album]

2013 saw its share of famous musical deaths, with Lou Reed probably considered the most significant. I find it more interesting to highlight some of the lesser known members of the musical community who passed on, and this year, in fact, I’ve already written about two, drummer Joey Covington and singer/songwriter Jason Molina (and I wrote somewhere else about Reed). I have a few ideas, and my schedule will dictate how many of them actually get written.

But I’m going to start with someone who I may have met, who has been in bands with people I knew in college, and whose death most of you probably missed, Charlie Chesterman. Although he lacked broad, mainstream recognition, Chesterman was an influential and respected musician. His obituary in the Boston Globe stated that his “dynamic performances as a singer and guitarist with the roots-rocking Scruffy the Cat were legendary.” Chesterman was a pioneer in that amalgam of punk, garage and roots music that became known as alt-country.

Chesterman was from Iowa, and eventually became the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter for The Law, an early punk band that helped to create a central Iowa scene. I’m sure that I never would have heard of The Law, in the pre-Internet era, except for the fact that another member of the band, Kevin Hensley, was a couple of years behind me at Princeton, and was a WPRB DJ and staffer (under the name Billy Disease). Kevin brought The Law to campus to play gigs, and they were raw and fun and put on a great show. I may have met Chesterman during this period, but maybe not, but I was certainly impressed by his talents as a front man. Through Kevin, I own a copy of The Law’s “King Size Cigarette” single, and the “Instant Party” cassette. In researching this piece, I found out that Kevin works at a law firm that I have worked with as co-counsel. Small world.

I have to admit that I pretty much missed out on Chesterman’s next and most well-known band, Scruffy the Cat. At that point, I had graduated from college, and after a year as a paralegal, I went to law school, started working long hours as a Wall Street lawyer and met the woman who is now my wife. It was hard for me to keep up on music in those days in the same way that I did when I was in college. I was, I guess, tangentially aware of the existence of the band, which included two more people I knew in college, Stona Fitch (now a novelist and publisher) and Burns Stansfield (now a minister), but I can’t say I remember hearing them on the radio. But in the mid-1980s they were an integral part of the Boston music scene, and their 1986 EP, High Octane Revived, was the #4 EP in the prestigious Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. They were probably ahead of their time and never broke through to national popularity.

Following the breakup of Scruffy the Cat, Chesterman formed The Harmony Rockets and Chaz and the Legendary Motorbikes and also performed as a solo act.

Chesterman was diagnosed with cancer, and his popularity in the Boston music community was demonstrated by the way they rallied to raise money for him. There was a Scruffy the Cat reunion show, and the tribute album, which includes contributions from Letters to Cleo and the Young Fresh Fellows, that is linked to above (and which can also be downloaded here). He passed away on November 4, 2013.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Cajun Moon : J.J. Cale
Purchase hint....

I'll freely confess that I first came across ol' JJ through the works of one Clapton, E, Cocaine and After Midnight. I imagine the same would be true of most, but I was lucky enough to have schoolfriends with the pockets to pursue further to source, opening up dusty and windblown originals, exuding faded workwear and a consummate lack of fashion, meaning he was never quite in style. Or out, ploughing a timeless unchanging farrow of bluesy folky choogle over 4 decades, one I was happy to dip in and out of right up until his last release, 2009's Roll With It.

There seems some uncertainty as to even his real name, various stories existing, but it was probably John, initialised to avoid confusion with a certain welsh viola whizz.

Born in 1938, single-handedly he gifted his home town, Tulsa, with it's own identifiable style of music, the Tulsa Sound, most likely played in Tulsa Time, a laid back minimalist shuffle. Having failed to make any name for himself, he was on the verge of quitting when Clapton lifted his songs (and, arguably, one aspect of his own style) from him, on his 1970 recording of After Midnight. Compare it with the original . (Inevitably, there would come times when they would play it together , with this particular clip giving a snippet of each of their thoughts around it.)

Another artist who undoubtedly channels much of the same feel is Mark Knopfler, whom some accuse of basing his entire career on similar mumbled vocals with a singing finger and thumbpicked guitar over a railroad rhythm track. (Sorry, some of you are no doubt ahead of me here, so, for you, here's his version, again with Eric Clapton)
He died, aged 74, of heart failure. R.I. P. JJ, long may your legacy live. After midnight and into every day henceforward..

(P.S. I noticed in my youtube forays that frequent questions are raised as to who the omnipresent female guitarist in his live shows could be? Well, she is Christine Lakeland, his widow, who co-wrote many of his songs. I couldn't find a version of After Midnight by her alone, but the song highlighted in unmistakeably from the same lode.Go search, there are a couple of albums out there.)