Friday, March 30, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Springsteen/Into the Fire

purchase [The Rising]

I recently read a poignant piece about fire-fighters ( The Perfect Fire) in which stairs played a major role. Obviously, a lot of the work of firefighters involves stairs, multiple flights of stairs in dark, smokey and deathly conditions. Granted, they are trained for these conditions, but there are always surprises and the job isn't one most people would likely choose off hand.

The article covers the story a multistory fire in Worcester, MA back in '99.
In a large multistory building, it's pretty crucial that the firemen keep precise track of their location. They've got tools: GPS locators, "squawkers" that emit sounds and live wireless/walkie-talkies as well as a lot of primitive [Hagar the Horrible] tools.

But sometimes that whole collection isn't enough.
When a fireball comes at you, none of the above may suffice to save you on its own. And so, sadly, in the case of [The Perfect Fire] - a more or less abandoned warehouse.

Fire-fighters may be the epitome of the working "man" - a thankless job without which society would be more or less paralyzed - kind of like the McDonald's employee? And Springsteen has always been a man pretty much in tune with the working man. He has sung <Factory>, <Working on the Highway>, <Jack of All Trades> ...

<Into the Fire>, from Springsteen's 2002 album The Rising is an anthem about these heroes. The album has been widely ID'ed as Springsteen's "response" to 9/11, with songs titled <Empty Sky> and <City of Ruins>, the claim seems pretty obvious. But there is much more than "the people who put out fires" in his lyrics and equally in his voice:
It's a song about sacrifice.
If I am not reading too much into the song, there's also a cross-over between an actual fire and the emotional/physical fire some may feel from some kinds of love - Love can burn and empower at the same time. Although not explicitly stated in the lyrics, it seems pretty clear that the fire-fighter referenced is a woman.

He sings:
It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Gimme Three Steps

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Three Steps

A few years back, I wrote a piece for Cover Me that was timed to run on the anniversary of the plane crash that killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie Gaines, along with the pilot, co-pilot and the band’s assistant road manager. The rest of the band, manager and crew all suffered serious injuries. I melded the blog’s In Memoriam series with a Full Album treatment, focusing on the band’s debut, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd. One of the things that struck me as I was writing it was that a number of the songs were drawn from the remarkably colorful life of singer Ronnie Van Zant, including “I Ain’t The One,” meaning “the father,” "Tuesday's Gone," about the change in his life following a major label deal, and, most amusingly, “Gimme Three Steps.”

The song recounts a true incident when Van Zant used a fake ID to enter a bar in Jacksonville, Florida and made the mistake of dancing with another man’s wife or girlfriend. When the aggrieved gentleman appeared to be reaching for a gun, Van Zant told him: "If you're going to shoot me it's going to be in the ass or the elbows... just gimme a few steps and I'll be gone." He ran out of the bar and back to the truck where his bandmates Gary Rossington and Allen Collins were waiting. They reportedly wrote the song that day, possibly in the truck. It is unclear whether that bar was The West Tavern, later known as the Pastime, or another bar called The Little Brown Jug, whose name conveniently allowed them to rhyme it with “cutting the rug,” but it hardly matters. In addition to being a great tune, what makes the song a classic is Van Zant’s presence of mind to ask for a head start, then beating a hasty, panicked retreat when circumstances resulted in his getting that lead preventing him from getting shot. Because, if nothing else, if he had been killed in that bar, not only wouldn’t we have “Gimme Three Steps,” but the last song on Pronounced would never have been recorded, and concertgoers would have nothing stupid to yell out.

If you have read any of my stuff here, there, or there, you know that I’m a huge fan of the Drive-By Truckers, and the album that broke them to a wider audience, Southern Rock Opera, is filled with Skynyrd references and allusions. They’ve even been known to work a little “Gimme” into one of their songs, live. And here’s something I just found, a Village Voice article from 2002 about the Truckers, after the release of Southern Rock Opera, entitled "Gimme Three Stepsisters," which gets into some of the Skynyrd stuff. (Not a bad article, despite getting the drummer’s name wrong).

And, if you read my stuff here, there or there, you also know that I’m a big fan of Uncle Tupelo (and the bands that formed from its demise). Their last gig ever ended with a sloppy cover of “Gimme Three Steps” featuring Bottle Rockets singer (and former Uncle Tupelo roadie), Brian Henneman, on lead vocals.

Monday, March 26, 2018


Unlike esteemed colleague Darius, I have no such qualms about steps over stairs, enjoying the smorgasbord of songs available. Many refer to the concept of going forward only then to go back a greater distance. (Indeed, as I scribble I wonder as to whether any reference the opposite journey?) This is one of my favourites, which might conceivably also reference the career of it's author, the mercurial Chris Hillman.

Hillman has had a long and still unfinished career, starting off in bluegrass as a Scottsville Squirrel Barker, before being head-hunted to join the Hillmen, which featured later country star, Vern Gosdin. His instrument of choice was then mandolin, and early namechecks have him as Chris Hardin, a fiction to conceal his being to young to be in the sort of venues they made their living in. So far two steps forward, until, in 1965, a massive leap ahead into the Byrds. Now toting bass guitar, albeit probably not playing on their worldwide breakthrough smash, he was undoubtedly major league.

(Indulge me for the contrivance of a reprise of this song, used merely for the caption which calls it Mr Spaceman Quickstep. And, ha, by the Birds!)
After six albums with them, gradually introducing the country influences he had ingrained in him, magnified by the short sojourn of Gram Parsons, there came his, arguably first step back, although aficionados like me might cite the opposite. In the hiatus around a projected tour of South Africa, first Parsons and then, swiftly, Hillman peeled off into The Flying Burrito Brothers, a full blown headfirst immersion in the country music tropes the Byrds were now starting to more fully embrace. As main co-writer with Parsons, the Burritos had a golden period of doing no wrong, if earning little money or acclaim at the time.

(My somewhat contrived link here is in the lyric, as, assuming the lift is broken, how else are you going to get to the 31st floor?) Hillman was now also firmly ensconced as a reliable two-part harmony vocalist. Unfortunately the lifestyle of Parsons was getting a tad chaotic, and he had to go, Hillman now effectively band leader. The band carried on for a couple of more albums, Hillman de facto leader and main vocalist, recruiting first Rick Roberts and then, more or less, the whole of bluegrass band, Country Gazette. Then, following terrific live album, Last Of the Red Hot Burrito's, Hillman jumped ship. (And, as is always the way, it wasn't the last of them,  and a version of the band limps on, probably to this day....)

I am similarly uncertain if Hillman's next guise was a step forward or back. Recruited as right hand man to Stephen Stills in the latter's Manassas band, I am sure he welcomed the regular pay checks. 

(I guess my use of the above track, Down the Road, gives away my opinion.......) In 1973 he again moved on and, via a brief reprise of the original Byrds line-up, took a definite step back. As was compulsory, the name of his new grouping was the imaginatively titled Souther Hillman Furay band. Despite the auspices and expectations, the band never really took off and were almost clunky in their attempts to out-Eagle that nascent band.

 (On the Line can suggest he was now back where he started?) A couple of solo records and the lure of the old band again became strong, with a trio of he, (Roger) McGuinn and (Gene) Clark, ex-Byrds all, and then just he and McGuinn touring and putting out a record as the membership further tumbled. Overall still heading backward, I feel.

After further solo records, which introduced the now longstanding musical kinship with ex-Dillard Herb Pederson, before 1987 saw the definite several steps forward Desert Rose Band. Definitely now country more than country rock, let alone rock, with seven albums and a slew of singles all hitting country pay dirt. The band lasted until 1994, but has stood a reunion in 2008. Most of the intervening and subsequent years have seen Hillman take a largely quieter background role, popping up infrequently as a solo artist, in tandem with Pederson, or guesting on the albums of others. However there was still an acronym ready and waiting in the wings, the fully bluegrass Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pederson, who had some brief success.

(Again, this song title enables you to draw your own conclusions as to where on the road he now was. Actually I feel this has weathered perhaps better than the earlier DRB, on account of the clunky rhythm section production, so 80s/90s, on the latter.)

Nearly up to date, to all intents and purposes it seemed Hillman had retired. He has said as such himself. But it seemed, and I apologise, he was only Biding (his) Time, as a surprise invitation came from Tom Petty to do a record for him, duly released last year and pretty damn good it was too, a definite step forward from wherever he had been lurking. Sadly the death of Petty may have put future work out of range, but we shall see.

You can read more about Hillman's glory days in the Burrito's, if such, in this excellent book, co-written by Hillman, with John Einarson. In many ways Hillman might fill the description, apropos George Harrison's role in the Beatles, as the "quiet" Byrd. Never as much a self-publicist as others in the band he has quietly got on with letting his writing, his singing and his musicianship talk for him. Long may he step.

Way more than twelve steps here

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Room at the Top of the Stairs

Ralph Stanley: Room at the Top of the Stairs


I have to admit that the announcement of our new theme did not bring any songs immediately to mind. I was being stubborn, I suppose, wanting to focus on the “stairs” part. The word “steps” has many metaphorical meanings that have nothing to do with stairs, and therefore gives us an out for this theme. But I had to do things the hard way. So, stairs it is.

I might have known that the notion of a room at the top of the stairs would appeal to country song writers. It suggests a gloomy attic, and begs the question of why anyone would be found there. Both Eddie Rabbit and Cal Smith, in separate songs with this title, find this hidden room to be the perfect location for an affair. But Ralph Stanley has this third song with the same title, and he sees the room as a refuge from a world that has treated his heroine unkindly. I like the fact that this song depicts a pair of lovers who are at least middle aged. The young love that is the subject of so many pop and country songs is the back story here, and it did not go well. But Stanley’s narrator wants more than anything to make up for that. Being a mature love song, we do not learn if he succeeds. Stanley’s narrator wants to win this lady’s heart, but his maturity means he has the wisdom to not try to force the issue.

It does not hurt that this is a fine example of bluegrass at its best. That is just what we would expect from Ralph Stanley. This one features some fine guitar work in particular. I can’t resist closing with another version of the song. This one is from a television appearance in 1990. Stanley would have been 63 that year, and 44 years into his legendary career. Many of his bandmates in this version might not have even been born in 1946, when Stanley made his first professional appearance. So this clip was probably chosen to close the show because it shows the passing of the musical torch from one generation to the next. It is probably true that none of Stanley’s band mates seen here are as well known as he was, but they are certainly worthy heirs.