Saturday, November 4, 2017


WhaaaaatTF? Surely a serious muso (sic) site like this wouldn't mess up so big time as the above heading? Rod bloody Stewart, fer chrissake... But hang on, hold that thought for a moment. And of course I know it isn't the original, but, whisper, it's better, an unpopular viewpoint, but still mine. Plus  it came at a time when there was still, just, a smidgeon of credibility in the Stewart cache. I think it initially appeared as a new song on the 'Greatest Hits' compilation of 1989, one of the first CDs I ever bought. A massive worldwide hit as a single, it probably introduced the name of its writer, Tom Waits, to many and certainly then to me. Like many, I then sourced the original, finding Waits' voice a step too far for my sensibilities, a situation that remains to this day, no matter how hard I have tried. But Stewart glides his rasp effortlessly through the sweeping chorus, deservedly winning the Grammy for best male vocalist that year, the richly layered backing pepped by Stewart's one-time boss, in his eponymous group, Jeff Beck on slide guitar.

So what is it with Stewart, a man whose music I had earlier loved, both with the Faces and alone? If 'Greatest Hits' was one of my first CD purchases, 'Sing It Again, Rod' had been one of my first on vinyl. My generation had been endeared of his boozy and shambolic persona, with the uncanny knack of both having a way with his own words and music, and being able to pick plum covers. The rot had seemed to set in with his transatlantic crossing, SWIDT, to be with Britt Ekland. As ever is the way, the fickle british uber-fans took umbrage with his fame and fortune and left him to their wives and girlfriends to enjoy, whose patronage lingers to this day, as my elder sister can testify. The odd gem could still be cherry-picked from his catalogue: the boy could still know a good song when he heard one, although that tolerance became ever more strained by his discovery of the great american songbook. Was he the first rocker to plough this lucrative furrow? Though I doubt we would have been spared Mr Dylans's forays into similar territory, I can think of many who might not have had that thought had Stewart, or his bank-manager, not had that thought first. ( I lie awake in dread of the forthcoming Seal tux'n'tapdancing travesty 'Standards.')

So, too, what is it with Waits, a supremely talented songwriter, whose songs, when covered by other voices, I adore? Am I alone in finding his corncrake throat-clearing anaethema? I sometimes think I must be, my friends and peers all seemingly in awe of him and his deranged Charlie Chaplin meets Charles Bukowski image, with his musical arrangements more of the foundry than the footlights. Or do I troll? (No, which is why I also include, for balance, or proof as I call it, his version of 'Downtown Train' below, with a couple more to take away the taste.)

Everything But The Girl

and Mary Chapin Carpenter

Get some versions here.
Me? I'm heading back under my bridge.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Train: Somewhere Down The Crazy River

Robbie Robertson: Somewhere Down The Crazy River

Writing for three different music blogs often results in crossover posts. I wrote about The Jam here recently, and have just submitted a piece about another Jam song to Cover Me. And I recently wrote about The Last Waltz at Another Old Guy, so I guess that I have Robbie Robertson on my mind.

Strangely, though, this song popped into my head, despite the fact that its title doesn’t have the key word in it, and would seem more appropriate for a Boat theme. And yet, it works.  It took Robertson 11 years before he released his first, self-titled, solo album in 1987, and tried to stretch beyond the Americana sounds that he played for so many years with The Band. The album was produced by Daniel Lanois, who was also working with U2 and Peter Gabriel at the same time, and all of the members of U2, as well as Gabriel and members of his band all appear on the album. Lanois’ typically dreamy, atmospheric sound pervades the album.

“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is an odd song. Robertson only sang lead on two Band songs, and Levon Helm has claimed that Robertson’s mic was off during the Last Waltz concert (and the Internet rumor mill has his mic off during most Band shows), so it is not Robertson’s singing that he will be remembered for. According to Lanois, he secretly recorded Robertson telling a story about hanging out with Levon Helm in Arkansas, fishing with dynamite on hot nights. Because that’s apparently what one does. Meanwhile, Robertson was fiddling with a Suzuki Omnichord, which Lanois also recorded, and he superimposed the storytelling over that, creating the basic tracks for the song. In between the spoken word parts, which have a sort of Tom Waits feel, Robertson sings, perfectly well, I might add:

Catch the blue train
To places never been before
Look for me
Somewhere down the crazy river
Somewhere down the crazy river
Catch the blue train
All the way to Kokomo
You can find me
Somewhere down the crazy river
Somewhere down the crazy river

In each case, the second “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” is sung, somewhat distorted, by Sam Llanas of The BoDeans. Also featured on the track are fine bass playing and drumming by Tony Levin and Manu Katché, both of  Gabriel’s band (among other things). And Bono is somewhere in the mix, too. It is curiously compelling, which is a tribute to the combination of Robertson’s charismatic, deep voice, his storytelling ability, Lanois’ production and the talent of the musicians. And despite its unconventional sound, it was released as the album’s first single, and was successful.

The video for the song (above), was directed, like The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, whose infatuation with Robertson’s face was still in force. Robertson’s lust interest is played by Maria McKee, at the time the lead singer of the pioneering “cow-punk” band Lone Justice, who were a mid-80s “next big thing” that never happened. Which in itself was sad, since McKee’s voice is incredible (and her solo career never went anywhere, either). She sings on a different song on the album, and one can only assume that she was chosen to be in the video for her looks. When asked about her “acting skills,” McKee was quoted as saying: "... what did I do, I was just being licked by Robbie..."

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Train:Locomotive Breath

purchase [Locomotive Breath]

I confess that I was old enough to be in the demographic of those who purchased the Monkees <Last Train ...>. No excuses: that (and many others like Aretha and the Temptations and the Box Tops) was how I got into "pop". But I wasn't writing @ SMM  back in 2009 when a variation of the train theme came around once afore. There were posts galore - like pages and pages of posts!

But even back then, despite their best efforts, the SMM team couldn't exhaust the <train> theme.
Before I get to Aqualung's Locomotive Breath, it's worth pointing out that the chug-chugging locomotive motion is a staple of rock, not far removed from the "twist", that arm & leg flailing dance style that generated such fear about lost generations gyrating to evil music. It must not have been lost on Ian Anderson when he and his wife penned Locomotive Breath.
(Let's not go deeper into the Spanish etymology behind "loco")

One reviewer pointed out that there are few songs that truly capture the energy of the train: the massive engine that pulls heavy metal wagon after wagon over hill and dale (and the men that feed the beast inside a la John Henry) Louis Jordan's Choo Choo Ch'Boogie is a great song and it gets us part way there towards the train experience but it lacks the weight/heavy that Jethro Tull brings to bear.

Locomotive Breath takes it a step further. In reality, there's always Ian Anderson's style: nearly breathless chugging that emulates the true choo-choo of the locomotive the song names.

Aqualung itself is a fine album in many ways. It was the album that made Jethro Tull big, and Locomotive Breath was one of the charting hits. That's not to say that their albums Stand Up and Benefit weren't pretty good, but it was Aqualung that turned the corner for them.

There is a snippet of an interview with Ian Anderson at SongFacts' page for the song and a link to the full interview which you might read if you want to go deeper.

Whatever Anderson's original intentions for the album, and however the band finally recorded the song, the train effect is ... effective. The flute as a vehicle and in particular, Anderson's breathy flute style is well-suited to the locomotive metaphor.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Train: God’s 9:05

J Shogren: God’s 9:05


Our new theme may be deliberately ambiguous, but it gives me the perfect excuse to share a favorite train song. We have a rule here at Star Maker Machine that a song must be at least five years old. It must have stood the test of time, and shown staying power. So I could not share this one last time we looked at trains, because it was too new at the time. That is no longer the case, so here it is. J Shogren has one of the most wonderfully sly senses of humor of any songwriter I know. Here, he imagines that we all board a train to the afterlife when we die. We hand in our tickets, most of us, and the train is either an elevated train or a subway, with us having no choice in the matter, usually. But Shogren imagines such a train being boarded by two characters from legend, John Henry and Casey Jones. Such men would never be content to simply wait and see where such an important train would take them. Their training, you might say, would give them more options than that. So it’s a stretch, I admit, but there is another way the song could be said to fit our new theme.

J Shogren is an artist I discovered for my old music blog, Oliver di Place, and I am happy to say he has become a friend since. He has one of the most extraordinary bios of anyone, musician or not, that I know of, and I encourage you all to seek out that information. You may ask when you see it if it is just an elaborate tall tale, but I researched it, and it is all true. I will leave the details for you to discover, in hopes that you will also find more of his music.