Friday, May 29, 2020

War/Peace: Fortunate Son

purchase [ Willy and the Poor Boys ]

War is raw. Peace maybe a little less so - unless maybe you are trying to wage it - [see Kent State]. Perhaps that's why this song reverberates for me. I can't think of a single one of CCR's songs that doesn't come across as raw. Maybe it had to do with the tonal qualities of electric guitars in those days. Maybe it was John Fogerty. Maybe it was the 70s.

Like the majority of musicians in 1970x John Fogerty had little intention of going to Vietnam (he joined the Reserves in order to get around this). Like country Joe Fish, Fogerty made his opinion verbal. Do not equate this with a lack of patriotism - quite the opposite. It is one of your rights to state your opposition (to the extent that it doesnt harm others and doesn't <break the law>). Singing about is is an even better way to be patriotic.

In the clip above, Springsteen attests to the seminal influence of John Fogerty. He's right. So so right, that some other musicians you may have heard about went off and set up a band named Willie and the Poor Boys (a direct take from the album on which this song came out) - the members include Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Andy Fairweather-Low and more. Not a bad legacy, like the "Boss" says.


The <Fortunate Son> lyrics say a lot about being a patriot, and there is a consideration of the limits:

I ain't no senator's son ( that is pretty clear  -I think we are talking bone spurs here)
But when the taxman comes to the door
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes (sounds like someone's secret tax returns)
and, he sings, he's speaking his mind (saying his peace/piece) because
I ain't no millionaire's son, no

here's a little more from <CCR> for old times' sake ...


(I've Never Known) Peace on Earth

I'm struggling with this as a theme, not for want of material on the subject, there being as many songs about War and Peace, and everything in between, as there are pages in the book by Tolstoy. No, it is the timing, in this transposition of world order around the C-19. It isn't a war, this isn't a battle, we are not fighting: all the military cliches are boiling out of the thesaurus but it really isn't the right metaphor, even if there is a right metaphor. (If a metaphor is a means of comparison, I don't think we have had yet anything fully comparable within sufficient memory to pass reference: the plague and even spanish flu are too far distant, with SARS and Ebola captured and even HIV contained.) So, with, as ever, a lightness of touch and mood, who better to cheer us than the melancholic magnitude of Jackie Leven.

I have touched on Jackie before, and make no apology for doing so again. His loss remains huge in my musical portfolio, his celtic soul a heartbeat long before the term was invented, his humanity a force of relevance in the automated and automatic inhumanity all around. Nature, often in all her cruelty is a constant in his lyrical themes. Sir Vincent Lone? A pseudonym made necessary by his polfiicism, having already exhausted his allowed contractual offerings under his own name, but unmistakeably he. Indeed, it was never hidden, other than by his sometimes having Sir Vincent as support act before a Leven 2nd set.

As the song above shows, no huge variations in stylistic palette took place, but there were instances and opportunities where he used the disguise to try out some more adventurous directions. Or at least had his ear to the streets and cultures afar from his native land. The song below has been admirably described as a blend of Dick Gaughan and Portishead.

Moscow Train

There were three Lone releases between 2006 and 2008. The two songs above come from the first, Songs For Lonely Americans, with the follow-up, When the Bridegroom Comes (Songs for Women), being perhaps more experimental again. I am torn between liking it either more or less than the first.

Graveyard Marimba

Leven then decided to kill off his alter ego, with a gloriously uneven mix of an album, Troubadour Heart, which scattershots styles and references to all four winds. The claim was that this was released posthumously, and collected songs "Lone" had written as a penniless songwriter on a caffeine fix at the Troubadour coffeee house in London. And maybe he did, but Leven was still very much alive, releasing records for another three years, ahead of his actual death. The song below, the closer, effectively returns to the expected theme for this piece, the title summing up my views around the current ongoing "battle".

Wake Me Up When It's Over

Peace be to you.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

War/Peace: War In Peace

Alexander “Skip” Spence: War In Peace

I know that many people—and not only people in the 50+ demographic—think that the best era for music was the late 1960s-late 1970s. I’m not going to debate that now, but there’s certainly an argument to be made. And I think that there are those who would argue that much of the best music from that era was created because of, or enhanced by, the use of drugs. Yet, we also know that drugs also had negative effects—think of all of the great musicians from that era who died young from overdoses, or in other ways  directly or indirectly related to their addictions.

Then, there’s the group of musicians who stayed alive, but whose careers were cut short, or hampered, by drug related mental illness (although in many cases, the causal link between the drug use and the mental illness isn’t certain).

One such musician, who has been mostly forgotten over the years, is Alexander “Skip” Spence, who was briefly a guitarist in Quicksilver Messenger Service, then became the drummer in Jefferson Airplane, departing after their first album, in part because he wasn’t a drummer, to become a founding member of Moby Grape. But by 1970, his musical career was effectively over.

By most accounts, Spence was an excellent musician (on guitar and other instruments, including the drums that he learned to join the Airplane) and songwriter (writing, among other songs “You’re My Best Friend,” which appeared on Surrealistic Pillow, released after he left the Airplane, and Moby Grape’s “Omaha,” later covered by The Golden Palominos, with Michael Stipe on vocals). If you read about Moby Grape, you’ll find quotes from contemporary critics saying that they were the best band from the San Francisco area during that era—better than the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver and the Airplane. But despite the quality of Moby Grape’s debut album, a bunch of record company missteps and a disappointing second album, among other things, led to the band never breaking through.

Among those other things was Spence’s increasingly erratic behavior. While working on the band’s second album in New York, Spence, under the influence of LSD, and maybe other substances, took a fire axe and attempted to break down the hotel room doors of band mates Don Stevenson and Jerry Miller. He then went to the studio at the CBS building, where he was disarmed and wrestled to the ground. The album’s producer, David Rubinson, pressed charges, and after a brief period in jail, Spence was sent to Bellevue Hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

During his six months in Bellevue, and despite not having access to a guitar, Spence had written a number of songs, and on his release, he was met by Rubinson (the same guy who pressed charges). Spence implored Rubinson to get him to a studio so that he could record the songs while they were still fresh in his mind. Showing how different the record business was in those days, Rubinson negotiated an advance from Columbia Records the next day, and Spence went to Nashville, on a motorcycle, to record the songs. Within six days, Spence cut nearly 30 songs, playing all of the instruments, singing all of the vocals and doing the arrangements himself. At this point, he was all of 23 years old.

Whittled down to 12 songs, the album, titled Oar, was released in May, 1969. Utterly unable to figure out what to do with its strange and eclectic music, Columbia simply ignored it, and it sold very few copies—it is often referred to as the worst selling album for the label to that point. (Hey, Richard Thompson’s first solo album, Henry The Human Fly, was considered the worst selling album at Warner Brothers Records, so that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is crap.) “When the people at Columbia heard it, Oar made no sense to them at all,” remembers Rubinson, who had sifted through the reels of tape, mixed the album and sequenced its dozen tracks. “It was so honest and real that the record company couldn’t relate to it. Neither could radio or critics. So they put it out, barely, and it sank without a trace.” To some, the album was the soundtrack to Spence’s mental illness, but to others, it was evidence of his emergence from it.

Over time, Oar gained admirers (and two reissues, with bonus tracks), including Robert Plant, Jeff Tweedy, Beck, Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, Chrissie Hynde, Mark Lanegan, and Jay Farrar (many of whom appeared on a tribute album, More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album) and it appears in a number of “Best Album” lists.

“War in Peace” isn’t the best song on Oar, or the strangest, and it is actually quite listenable, if you aren’t concerned about understanding the lyrics. There’s some good electric guitar, including a bit at the end that is generally acknowledged to be an homage to (ripoff of?) Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”  

Oar was Spence’s last album. He contributed a little to Moby Grape reunion albums and appeared sporadically at live shows both with Moby Grape and other bands, and he recorded a song (which was not used) for the X-Files soundtrack but his mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions and related physical health issues, prevented him from having any sort of a music career. At times, he was committed to mental hospitals, was homeless, and, for a time, was living in a house provided by his former Moby Grape band members, who appear to not to have held a grudge for that whole fire axe incident. Robert Plant helped with medical bills at times.

Spence died in April, 1999, of advanced lung cancer, at the age of 52. The last music he heard was a copy of the More Oar tribute album, which featured a cover of “War in Peace” by Mudhoney.