Saturday, July 31, 2021

Posthumous: Remembering Chris LeDoux


The late country singer and rodeo rider Chris LeDoux spent the last few weeks back in the saddle as his name was honored on two fronts. The singer, who passed away in 2005, had a bronze statue dedicated to his memory in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Country superstar Garth Brooks, one of LeDoux’s biggest champions in life, attended the dedication ceremony. Meanwhile, his record label released a new greatest hits compilation aptly titled Wyoming Cowboy.  

LeDoux was a rarity in country music. He did not just play a cowboy in concert, he actually spent several decades as a rider on the rodeo circuit, winning a world championship for bareback riding in 1976. Alongside his riding, he developed his singing career, often putting on concerts at the rodeos after risking his neck in the ring. His lyrics were populated with tales of cowboys, county fairs, frontier living and his affections for the chewing tobacco brand Copenhagen.  

LeDoux’s abilities as a storyteller and his energetic live shows served as a major source of inspiration for Brooks. On his debut album, Brooks famously mentioned LeDoux in the track “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” 

The burst of publicity from this lyrical homage helped LeDoux secure a major label record deal in the early ‘90s. Over the next 15 years he released multiple studio albums, compilations and a live album. He recorded a duet with Brooks, “Whatcha Gonna Do with a Cowboy,” which became LeDoux’s highest charting single. LeDoux later teamed up with Jon Bon Jovi to record a new version of the Jersey rocker’s solo cut “Bang a Drum.” 

Sadly, LeDoux died of cancer at the age of 56 in 2005. After his death, he was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. 

I still recall my first encounter with LeDoux’s music. It was in the spring of 1998 when the video for his live version of “This Cowboy’s Hat” became part of the rotation on Country Music Television (aka CMT), back when it still regularly showed videos. The song tells the story of a cowboy at a roadside diner who encounters a group of bikers who begin mocking him for his hat. He responds with a series of stories about the hat’s history, emphasizing why they’d be better not to mess with it. The tune features some guitar picking, a power chord crescendo and a thunderous guitar solo. 

The video itself is prototypical ‘90s country pizzazz, like an update of an ‘80s hair metal video. It featured slow-motion images from a live show, complete with pyrotechnics, tight jeans, big belt buckles, beautiful women and cowboy hats. I found it so engaging that I went out and found a used copy of LeDoux’s live album, which had the unremarkable title Live. Talking to another country fan, he said “It’s probably worth buying the album just for that tune.” And it was. 

In honor of LeDoux’s life and music, check out “This Cowboy’s Hat” and bask in the ‘90s country glory. 

If you’re still intrigued, watch the video he made with Jon Bon Jovi for “Bang a Drum.” 

Thursday, July 29, 2021


A little over two years ago I wrote this, about the band New Order, proclaiming little love for their earlier incarnation as Joy Division, feeling unable to accommodate the spiky rhythms, spikier vocals and, spikiest of all, the odd St Vitus dance habitus of their late vocalist, Ian Curtis. (It is that easy, in my house, to build a prejudice: watch a couple of dodgy you-tubes and, pshh, gone from my life. Often forever.) Thankfully, I was taken to task for my self-imposed blanket ban on this much mythologised band, the mythology being there for good reason. A sound ticking off was administered, and I was sent to bed with copies of Unknown Pleasures and Closer to listen to, until I saw my senses. 

Of course, I had been earlier aware, and liked, the featured song. How could I be unfamiliar with it? I may not have necessarily heard the original, but the song had swiftly become a covers staple, a song reproduced across innumerable genres and by artists good, bad and indifferent. And, back when I did first hear the original, it seemed a poor relation, with too much treble and a droning monotone of a vocal, sung in a basement grumble. My poor cloth ears couldn't accommodate it, and it is only since that damascene night that have I been able to find the context to put it into a truer perspective.

Joy Division had come together almost as a whim. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, childhood friends, had attended a Sex Pistols show in Manchester. Invigorated by the anyone can be a star ethos, they reflexly decided to form a band, Hook borrowing money from his mother to buy a bass guitar the following day, Sumner a guitar not long after. At that stage there were other candidates for drums and vocals, the band getting through a run of drummers. The pencilled in original singer was offered a proper job and declined, leading to the time honoured british solution, an advert in the newsagent's shop window. Read by Ian Curtis, who knew of the others, he applied and was taken on in such good faith that an audition wasn't even required. At this stage the band were called Warsaw, in homage to David Bowie's Warszawa. Drummer issues continued and again the shop window posted their requirement, again with a single applicant, a school chum of Curtis's named Steven Morris. Thankfully this line-up gelled, and they were off, with a change of name becoming necessary to avoid confusion with the similarly named Warsaw Pakt, of whom little was ever heard again.

Whilst the band have a seemingly inextricable history with Tony Wilson's Factory Records, in fact it was less straightforward, with initial forays into work with other companies, with their debut, An Ideal For Living, having to be self-released. In the meantime, Curtis had approached Wilson, a prominent Manchester mover and shaker, whose day job was as a local TV news correspondent, and near goaded him into agreeing to showcase them on his music show. When he did, fulfilling that promise on 'So It Goes', his music show, he had them then contribute to Factory's first release, an EP, A Factory Sampler, produced by Martin Hannett.

Unknown Pleasures, their first LP, came out in 1979, with Hannett again on production duties, preceded, as was their usual, by the non-album single, Atmosphere. He jettisoned the sounds that they had previously been unhappy with, in earlier recordings, and gave them their signature sound, sparse and spare, with an air of clattering menace, where the spaces between were as important as the notes and rhythms. They were off the blocks running, selling out the first pressing, playing to increasing numbers of increasingly intense young men. A second record was to follow in the following year, recorded between tours that were beginning to draw a toll on the health of Curtis. He had sustained his first epileptic fit two years earlier, after a gig, Gradually the frequency and intensity had accelerated; by the tour of schedule of 1979/1980 they were near daily and often on stage, often unrecognised by the audience, his wild and flailing stage movements blurring and blending into his seizures. That his marriage was also in trouble, and he was conducting an affair, could not have helped his mental health, itself deteriorating alongside. 

The night before the band were due to start their debut US tour, he was found alone, having hung himself. This was the 18th of May, 1980, numbing his bandmates, who had never taken seriously the threats he had earlier made. Love Will Tear Us Apart was released a month later, the second album, Closer, a month later still. Each were successful, number 13 in the UK singles chart and 6 in the album chart, seen then and subsequently as a fitting memorial to the deceased singer. Inevitably, it being the way that premature death and distress can add only lustre to the career of troubled musicians, it set the residual band on their feet, if mindful of their responsibility towards him. That much was demanded of them by his fans. Intriguingly, Steven Morris has since admitted that, had Curtis not died, then the band would not, could not have continued. In turn suggesting, therefore, that the band the trio became, along with Morris's partner then wife, Gillian Gilbert, New Order, would not have existed. And they never stopped playing it.....

Love Will Tear Us Apart was re-issued on a couple of occasions, in1983 and again in 1995. On each occasion it performed well, scraping into the top 20 on each occasion, at 19.

There are a number of longer reads, many by Curtis's bandmates. This is the best, by Morris. A film about the life of Ian Curtis is due any time soon.


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Posthumous: Redemption Song (Strummer and Cash)

Joe Strummer: Redemption Song
Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer: Redemption Song 

[purchase Streetcore]
[purchase Unearthed]

When Bob Marley wrote “Redemption Song,” one of his masterpieces which was influenced by a Marcus Garvey speech from 1937, he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life within a few years, and clearly was thinking about his own mortality. It was a rare acoustic track, and was released as a single in 1980, and on the album Uprising. Because Marley didn’t die until 1981,  the song was not released posthumously. 

However, two very fine, and related covers, of “Redemption Song” were released after the performers’ deaths, so I don’t lose any points for theme violations. (Sorry, I've been watching the Olympics.)

In 2002, Johnny Cash was working with producer Rick Rubin on what would become American IV: The Man Comes Around, the last album released during Cash’s life. Joe Strummer, who was on vacation in Los Angeles, decided to hang around the studio, because he was a fan of Cash—he even extended his vacation an extra day to spend time with Cash. During this time, the two men reportedly discussed a wide variety of topics—Cash’s role in the early days of rock and roll, and Strummer’s role in the early days of punk—and their love of Jamaica and its music. Strummer was, of course, a big fan of ska and reggae, and was influential in including it in The Clash’s music, and Cash owned property on the island. 

With some apparent nudging from Rubin, they decided to record a duet of “Redemption Song.” "Originally, the song was supposed to be a duet, and we recorded it as a duet. But, just in case, both Johnny and Joe sang the whole song several times," Rubin recalled. It did not, however, make it on to The Man Comes Around (which is fine, because that album is already incredible) 

In December, 2002, Strummer died due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, before he was able to complete Streetcore, his final album with The Mescaleros. The album was pieced together from early takes of songs and subsequent additions by producers Martin Slattery and Scott Shields.  Although it may not have originally been planned for the album, they included one of Strummer’s solo takes of “Redemption Song,” featuring only his vocal and guitar, additional guitar from Smokey Hormel, piano added by Rubin, and atmospheric harmonium added by Benmont Tench. It is spare, rough and affecting.

Rubin and Cash were working on compiling a box set of unreleased songs and alternative takes from Cash’s tenure at American Recordings, when Cash died on September 12, 2003 of complications from diabetes. He was only 71, which frankly shocked me. Unearthed, a five disc set, was released a little over a month later, and it included the duet with Strummer. As good as the solo Strummer version was, the duet—although similarly arranged—is better. Obviously. adding Johnny Cash to a song is likely to improve it, and his voice was filled with the gravitas that only increased as he aged. Second, there’s some great acoustic guitar from Tom Morello. Although I don’t think that this is a case of a cover improving on the original, it gives Marley a run for his money. 

I should add that in or about 2003, some friends of ours got a black dog, and named him Cash, in honor of the recently deceased Man in Black. In 2004, we got our own black dog, and named him Strummer, in honor of Joe (and my family’s love of music) (coincidentally, our Strummer died 7 years ago yesterday). The two dogs did spend time together and probably barked together, but they never figured out how to do “Redemption Song.”

Sunday, July 25, 2021

1971>POSTHUMOUS: Cry of Love


purchase [Cry of Love]

Just before Cry of Love was released in 1971, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was over, and Jimi was doing a fair amount of collaboration with an expansive cast of musicians you might not have been aware of (Stephen Stills? Steve Winwood? Chris Wood? Well, yeah. Both Wood and Winwood were together in Traffic at that time.) Sadly, when Cry of Love was released, not only was the Experience finished, but so was Hendrix's life.

One issue with a posthumous production is how close to the musician's intentions the final release is - to what extent have external influences colored the work in a way the artist might not have done? On this count, the score appears to be that Cry of Love is pretty likely close to what Hendrix would have aimed for. Band member Billy Cox points out that while Hendrix had a fair amount of leeway in the studio, the final product was ultimately not his call. Further, band member Mitch Mitchell was one of the team involved in the mixing and track selection. For that matter, the public seems to have regarded the album as an authentic Hendrix album rather than a posthumous work. I know I certainly did, and that may be partly because it came out relatively soon after his death.

So, Cry of Love doesn't end up in the official Henrix discography, but IMHO, it is the culmination of his art and style. Are You Experienced shattered my awareness of what music could be. Axis refined it. Electric Ladyland perfected it, (let's leave out Band of Gypsies). Cry of Love is Hendrix matured.

My preference is for the melodic Hendrix, as in Burning of the Midnight Lamp and 1983 ,,, A Merman I Should Turn to Be , so it fits that I also like this (the clip appears to be the only one available here that isn't a cover)

And maybe Freedom (this version from John Findlay - I did mention: the originals are nigh on inaccessible at YT)