Sunday, January 27, 2008

12 Angry Men; An Ongoing Discussion

When I saw "Twelve Angry Men" in the theater today again it struck me how timeless this movie is. A classic in every sense of the word. Although not a drop of blood is spilled in the movie it is a gripping thriller that works on many levels. Even though the film doesn't accurately depict a jury and its working, it worked at the time and still does as very compelling social commentary on many levels while at the same time it is filled with psychological suspense. The plot and the setting was simple, a jury of twelve men needs to decide whether they find the accused guilty of murder. If they do, the judge stresses at the beginning of the film, the capital sentence is mandatory. The 18 year old boy on trial will be send to his death. On a hot and damp summer day twelve men, all with their personal backgrounds and hang ups, are confined in a locked small room. The case seems clear cut yet one man has doubts and votes not guilty. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) isn't so sure he feels sympathy for the kid and thinks his lawyer did a poor job in his defense, he is filled with questions he wants an answer to. This leads into an exhausting dialog with the eleven other jurors who were initially hoping to be done quickly in the suffocating heat of their small quarters. Director Sidney Lumet filmed the movie on the small budget, even for 1957, of $350.000 dollars, with the lion share of the scenes in one room, yet managed to instill it with a suspense that leaves you on the edge of your seat.

In the US of 1957 the capital punishment was still common ground, it's ramifications much less discussed as they are today. "12 Angry Men" does an excellent job of explaining why the death penalty should have no place in any legal system. With states like Texas still executing convicts thats is one of the reasons why this movie still bears a strong social relevance. The boy on trial in the movie is of poor backgrounds, born and raised in the ghetto of the city. In a clever casting move by Lumet, it is unclear whether this boy is from Latin, Polish or Italian descent. But it does become clear that his social economical background plays and important part in the film. Besides the explicit bigotry from juror #10, there seems to be an initial carelessness about this boys life, juror #7 has more important things on his mind, his baseball game and #12, who works in the advertising business, is caught up in his commercial slogans. The jury at first shows the same disregard as the boy's lawyer who bungled the case and failed to instill the jury with the reasonable doubt that was obviously there as would become clear at the end of the movie. "12 Angry Men" serves as a classic dramatized example of how class justice works. Although the innocence of the accused is never proved in the film, the risk is implied that the legal system can send an innocent to the chair. This so it seems is the main theme of the movie.

But there's more than meets the eye. Timeless as the movie may be it is obviously set in the fifties. Clothing styles and ashtrays around the room with nearly every juror smoking place the movie firmly in that time frame. Yet when juror #10 falls into another of his bigot "us" and "them" rants there is a frightening actuality to the film. His narrow world view is exactly what troubles discussion concerning the underprivileged today. In a key scene to the movie when juror #10 is ranting, the rest of the jurors stand up turning away from him, singling him out. Especially in the segregated America of 1957 this was an extremely power statement. But although segregation is a thing formally of the past prejudice is still very much alive today influencing society and thus the legal system.

To me one of the most interesting characters is juror #3, a self made man who runs a messenger service. Headstrong, short tempered and very butch juror #3 has become estranged from his own son, which makes this case personal for him. His reasons for wanting see this boy get the capital punishment haven't got so much to do with prejudice, they've got more to do with his own personal demons. #3 introduces most explicitly the human element in the film. He projects his own failure and feelings of betrayal on the boy on trial. He feels abandoned by his son and sees this reflected in the case where the boy murdered his father. Although highly dramatized it does an excellent job of showing how our objective judgment can be clouded and influence our decisions. #3 desperately tries to block out all doubt throughout the movie eventually coming to a spine tingling confrontation near the end of the movie whit Fonda who calls him on his personal interest.

"12 Angry Man" is brilliantly cast and watching the movie today you wonder why the film was ever redone in 1997. That later version is entertaining sure, but nowhere near as powerful and meticulously played out as the original 1957 film. Brilliantly shot and acted you forget its black and white before you're even half way through.

See also the in depth review by Tim Dicks

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Grave Digging Heavy Trash In Amsterdam

Last night the Heavy Trash played the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The first chance I got to see Jon Spencer's new outfit live. Since Blues Explosion show could sometimes be a drag, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Last time I saw Spencer perform it was with that very Blues Explosion and I walked out before the encore. Jon Spencer clearly wasn't enjoying the Blues Explosion anymore. During the endless jams on stage they were were running out of ideas. Hardly one recognizable song was played. Even though song writing was never Spencer's strongest point but dropping them all together made the show a dragging mess of half inspired blues riffs, going nowhere basically. The show started an hour and a half later because of Henry Rollins endless rambles who played the Paradiso early that night with a spoken word show. Apparently mister Rollins likes to hear himself talk because his performance stretched well beyond the planned time. Rollins was sold out, so his machismo beefed up ranting must still have an audience. The minute Jon Spencer stepped on stage it was clear tonight would be different from the Blues Explosion show I'd seen last time around. Spencer was backed by the Sadies and partner in crime Mat Verta Ray, the other half of the Heavy Trash. The Sadies had played a lukewarm twenty minutes as an opening act. Though very capable musicians the Sadies simply miss the personality to make their retro fifties act work. Personality is what Spencer has in spades. He simply needed to step on stage, looks somewhere between a young Elvis and a Johnny Cash mean, lean & strung out on pills, to give the night that extra buzz. Jon was going acoustic, while he left the electric backing to the Sadies an Verta Ray. Clearly Spencer wanted to focus on something different, explore another side of his capabilities as a performer.

As I pointed out in the album review, the Heavy Trash is much more song based. On "Going Way Out" jams and incoherent boasting on explosive blues licks are replaced by an original take on Rockabilly songwriting. The Heavy Trash is more R&R, less Blues, more Hillbilly music, less explosion. The tighter structure of the songs elevates Jon Spencer as a live performer. On "One Of These Days" Spencer even turns out to be a mean story teller going into some heavy heavy rapping with a hard Soul edge. By paying tribute to the Godfather of Soul, Jaaaaaaaames Brown, by playing his "I Don't Mind", Spencer made it no secret what inspired his sudden attempt at stand up preaching. The show was filled with classic R&R references like this. If Elvis, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran or Link Wray would still be alive they could sue the hell out of mister Spencer, his show is built up out of their corner stones start to finish. He has no qualms digging their graves for some nuggets. The swiping doesn't stop at licks, riffs and lines. Spencer's got the moves and the looks of a R&R renegade. The show was even spiced up with some hot sci-fi R&R honey dancers, Go-Go dancing their way from Venus to the Paradiso. Yet Spencer has this very distinct personality that ables him to get away with his pillaging of R&R past. If last night made anything clear, Spencer is the driving force behind both of his acts. But after last night I hope he will send the Explosion to its grave for good. The Heavy Trash makes good on the promise of that band in spades.

"Way Out With The Heavy Trash" is out on Yep Roc.

Live at Paradiso in available in FLAC format at the Dime or in MP3 format through Mega Upload. There's also two mediafire links for those having trouble with megaupload, disc 1 & disc 2

"I Don't Mind (live)"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Ten That Made Springsteen; 7. Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, People Get Ready

Soul music has been a constant in Springsteen's career. Maybe even more so than R&R. Albeit that the influence wasn't always as pronounced as his R&R influences. But from the very beginning Soul music was there. At first the influence might have been secondary, borrowed through the Beatles and the countless Garage acts. But soon enough Springsteen picked up on some originals and reworked them in his own fashion. Rufus Thomas' greasy Soul classic "Walking The Dog" was somewhat of a regular in the early days of the E-Street Band. Through Sancious' influence it came out decidedly jazzier than Rufus' funky original. More Funk came into the picture when Little Steven joined the band as a regular guitar player. On the "Born to Run" album Steve arranged the horns on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" almost as a carbon copy of the Stax sound. That Memphis based label had been almost as influential on the development of R&R as Elvis and the Chess studios that gave us the likes of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Bands like the Animals and the Rolling Stones looked at acts like Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas for their sound and inspiration. When the Stax revue hit Europe in '68 they were treated like major stars, where as in America they were still a few regular Joes from Memphis Tennessee. Of course this was a two way street. The British Invasion had an enormous impact on American music and soon the Soul and R&B stars from the states would be covering their British counter parts. With Springsteen's affinity for British Invasion music and Garage a dive into Soul would be inevitable.

Not only did Springsteen infuse his show with a few classics from the genre, most notably "Quarter To Three" from Gary 'US' Bonds and "Raise Your Hand" from Eddie Floyd fame, his showmanship borrowed a lot from the world of Soul. E-Street show were infused the Cropper like guitar phrasing from then 'Miami' Steve, Danny's soulful organ grinding and Clarence's wailing. Springsteen milked the Soul antiques for all they were worth, bringing down the band, slowly, softer, before taking them back into a R&R explosion that would have everybody jumping in the aisles, dancing on there seats. To top it off Springsteen stole James Brown's cape routine, where he would fall down, apparently from exhaustion, the Big Man rushing to comfort him and pick him up, leading him back stage to rest. But Springsteen would break free, bust loose, fueled as it were by the power of R&R, blazing in yet another chorus of "Quarter To Three", "Twist and Shout" or "Higher and Higher". Seemingly refusing to go home until both he and the audience were completely drained. He sometimes mockingly warned that the next tune might be bad for your health, asking those with weak hearts to step out, by the time he was through, that warning didn't sound as tongue in the cheek as it seemed at first.

But it didn't stop there. Springsteen infused his show with numerous raps. Something uncommon in R&R shows, but a custom that had a long tradition in Soul music. James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Solomon Burke and much of the Stax roster were known to rap to their audience at length. Springsteen is one of the few R&R artists I've known to do that. That isn't to say that his raps were carbon copies of the great Soul acts. Springsteen had his own original voice when he was spinning his yarns. For one thing his stories were a lot more subdued at first, though they did grow cockier when success came knocking. For fans the story telling is part of what Springsteen is about. Some of his tales are considered to be as classic as his songs. There is the story of small town resident Ducky Slattery as in the intro to Änd The Band Played" in 1973, getting the band together as in the intro to "The E-Street Shuffle" in '75, his struggles with his father as in the intro to "It's My Life" and his uneasy first steps into the world of girls leading into "Pretty Flamingo", and of course the teenage werewolf story where God personally commanded Springsteen to "Let it ROCK!!!!" in 1978. His early raps hovered somewhere between that church Soul shouting, the romantic confessions from the classic Doo Wop records and Frank Sinatra's coy stage antiques.

As his success progressed and took him into the big arenas and stadiums, the story telling gradually changed into something that was getting closer and closer to Solomon Burke and his version of store front preaching. Springsteen gradually developed a thunderous preacher shtick. The preacher bit first surfaced during the "Born in the USA" tour where the "garden of eden" bit led into "Pink Cadillac". But gradually the bit grew and took a more prominent place in the shows. With the Tunnel of Love Express tour "I'm A Coward" was a staple, a show piece that came back every show and had an important narrative function in the set. There still was the more Doo Wop based rap leading into "All That Heaven Will Allow", but they would become a thing of the past after that tour. The big arenas and stadiums begged for a more powerful and more important, louder performance. The subdued raps had people scurrying to the beer stands, the preacher shtick commanded more attention, with added audience participation the shtick was more inclusive and about as intimate as you could get before tens of thousands of people. "I'm a Coward", built around Gino Washington's "Gino's a Coward", proved to be the perfect vehicle.

When Springsteen disbanded the E-Street Band and formed another road act in '92, the Soul influence became even more pronounced when he added a gospel like background choir to some of his songs. On his records his writing became even more soulful than ever before teaming up with the legendary Sam Moore, from Sam & Dave fame, on "Soul Driver" and infusing his songs with quite a bit more Soul imagery like in "Leap of Faith". The shows might have been heavy on the guitar but it was clear that Springsteen wanted to bring this side of him more to the front. Seeing how the albums and tour turned out, one might wish he made a more fundamental choice and went all the way tour with his version of the Mar-Keys. Though Dave Marsh claims in his live overview "On Tour" that Springsteen's audience may have been too "white" to grasp the concept, and thus shunned the tour and album, I think that is hardly why it was a relative failure. Springsteen always had a strong R&B influence in his music, it has always been part of the attraction, the problem was that Springsteen still had one foot in the E-Street Band with his music and material choice. The result was more E-Street light and less the Soul revival it could have been.

In spirit Springsteen's music, especially with the E-Street Band, has always had a heart full of Soul. Not just musically but spiritually as well. Soul music, as Ray Charles designed it and Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield molded it, has always been about the sanctification of every day life. With a heavy root in church music, Soul music is very much about rising to the occasion, transcending hardship, keeping your pride in times of strife. That humanist strand infused with an almost religious fervor is very much present in Springsteen's R&R. Springsteen has often stated that he views music as a force that can change people, called his shows a revival meeting and a political rally. It is clear that Springsteen feels his music is more than just hedonistic escapism. Springsteen's R&R is less sex & drugs than most of his counter parts in the world of Rock. Songs as "Promised Land" are more indebted to a song as "People Get Ready" or "A Change Is Gonna Come" than they are to the staples of R&R. Although the first might not be the song that introduced him to the genre I do feel it captures the essence of Springsteen's approach to his music best. "People Get Ready" was, when released in 1963 one of the first civil rights songs to be recorded in the R&B and Soul industry. It is a song of tremendous promise and although its a Gospel it does have the feel of rewards to come in this world. "People Get Ready" taps into that quintessential American imagery of the train. Through the rail roads the west was won. As such trains symbolize the promise of America a century or so earlier as much as cars did when Springsteen grew up. Of course in "People Get Ready" the train also calls back to the underground railroad that helped to free slaves in the south. As such it is a song about personal freedom. "People Get Ready" acknowledges the individual but stresses that the individual is lost when he or she isn't connected to the people around him, in order to achieve something people have got to work together, get on that train together.

It's the spirit of "People Get Ready" that lead directly to one of Springsteen's most powerful recordings in the past 10 years, "Land Of Hope And Dreams". Comparing the lyrics one might even say that Springsteen was more than just a bit inspired. "People Get Ready" was often included as an apt coda to the song it borrowed so much from. The coda returned during the curring Magic tour in Europe at the tail end of "Promised Land", somehow it sounded like it had been there all along. "Land Of Hope And Dreams" debuted during the Reunion tour were Springsteen got the band back together. In the tour that followed his signature raps were gone, but he did refine his preacher shtick in a raucous version of "Light of Day". The Reunion tour was very much about the reaffirmation of Springsteen's promise, proving R&R could save, if only for those two to three hours of sweat infused performance. In his speech he captured it perfectly, "Unlike my competitors" he belted out to an enthralled audience "I cannot, I will not, I shall not, promise you life everlasting......" clinging to his mic, looking like he's going to pass out, rising up again sweat dripping from his forehead "but I can promise you life, right NOW!!!!!". What more do you need?

"Pink Cadillac (live)"
"Light of Day (live)"
"Land Of Hope And Dreams (live)"
"Gino is a Coward (aka I'm a Coward)" - Gino Washington

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Merle Haggard: An Okie Renaissance

In my mind Merle Haggard is one of the most paradoxical Country singers in the field. Merle is forever linked to the song "The Okie From Muskogee". Released at the hight of the hippie movement, "The Okie" portrayed what was then the silent majority, patriotic God fearing men and women of the mid west who wouldn't dare burn draft cards and bras, let alone the flag of the mighty US of A. Those who were taken aback by the cultural revolution of the sixties found recognition. The success of "Okie" already betrayed that times weren't changing as fast as the hippie movement thought it would be. The song represented the part of America who didn't question Vietnam, who supported old fashioned family values and saw the merit of the Christian life. Merle attracted an audience, who as a political force, would be the ones that put Nixon and Reagan in office and would ultimately be the moving force behind the Bush dynasty.

But Merle was hardly the fine upstanding citizen that came to be so enamored by "Okie". When the single was released the Hag had by then spent more time in jail than out. Haggard had in fact grown so accustomed to jail that he had trouble feeling at ease when he was out. Ever since his father died when he was young Haggard had spend his life rebelling. At the age of 9 the Hag was sent to a correctional facility for the first time. It only seemed to strengthen his resolve or need to be at odds with society. If it wasn't for his music the Hag would be back there today. Legend has it that Merle Haggard's life turned around when he saw Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin during his incarceration in the second half of the fifties. "I certainly enjoyed your show at San Quentin" Merle would later tell Cash."Merle, I don't remember you bein' in that show" Cash responded bewildered, probably wondering if his pill addiction got the best of him, "Johnny, I wasn't in that show, I was in the audience." Cash's music must have resonated with the outlaw, the Man in Black's songs about the hard life reflected much of Merle's own. Seeing Cash was the last push Merle needed to give up his outlaw life and give himself to music. Soon after the show Merle got a chance to escape, he declined.

Though Cash tipped Merle over, the seeds were sown earlier. In the early fifties Merle got the chance to perform with Honky Tonk legend Lefty Frizzle. When later developing his own style Lefty was arguably a bigger influence on Haggard than Cash. With his recent album "The Blue Grass Sessions", though not exactly Blue Grass in the strictest way, Hag harks back to the great early Country superstars such as Lefty, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. The "Blue Grass Sessions" is a testimony that the creative renaissance of Merle's career isn't over yet. Ever since the turn of the century Merle has seemed very comfortable far away from the main stream of Country to which he once belonged. Merle has been shying away from the bright lights of the big cities like Nashville. His albums from "If Only I Could Fly " and on have had this constant feel like they were recorded on his back porch. Though not exactly rough and raggedy, Merle does seem to strip his material from excess, going straight to the core of a song. This becomes most strikingly apparent when comparing the re-recording of "Big City" with the original version. The defiant Country ballad gains a more reflective mood that seems to fit the twilight of Merle's years here on earth like a charm.

Merle is one of those artists that is like a fine wine, just getting better with age. "Sessions" once again finds Haggard on an independent label after his short stint on EMI records where he incidentally recorded the negative of "Okie", the indictment of the Bush administration and American culture "That's The News". But mostly Merle stays away from social commentary in the shadow of his life. "Sessions" once again finds him looking back on his life in full appreciation of the peace he seems to have found. Like only Country music seems to be able to do Haggard takes you through the full human experience. Haggard is feeling mischievous on the sexy "Runaway Momma," a song that seems to reflect that the years that landed him in jail weren't filled with regrets only. Even though he counts his blessings in "Pray" Merle does seem to have this melancholic streak when he looks back on his straying years. In "What Happened" it is astute social reflection again. "How did we ever go so wrong, did we get too high, did we sleep too long" Merle asks himself while reflecting on the unreliable politicians, lost American industries, looking at Americans struggle to get by, being able to pay their taxes but not their rent. But the most stand out tracks are not those who reflect on society but on the very human struggles that are so common to all of us. "Holding Things Together" is a spine tingling lament of a father needing to care for his children alone after his wife left him with the children. In three minutes Hag gets to the core of that experience in a few well chosen scenes. It is in those songs that Merle proves to be one of America's greatest song writers.

"What Happened"
"Holding Things Together"
"Big City"

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Platters That Matter: Hymn No. 5

The Mighty Hannibal is one of those Soul artists that is wrongfully obscure. The world of popular music is filled with myth building, myths sometimes becoming truth, facts obscured. A handful of people these days remember Hannibal. The kind of people who like to hang out in dusty record shops, swap endless amounts of stories and usually useless little facts about obscure and forgotten Soul singers that are God's gift only in our minds. I'm one of those people. I'm a Soul addict. But truth is, a lot of the singers I admirer are obscure for a reason. In the enormous flood of 45s between '54 and '64 there were just too many singles better than the ones my heroes churned out. The trouble is more I heard those classic singles just one to many times, so I spend my time digging through the obscure. Hannibal's "Hymn No. 5" is in my opinion an exception. It is one of those few obscure Soul records that should be saved from forgetfulness. "Hymn No. 5" is both a record of rare beauty and relevance. For a long time Hannibal was just a singer hanging out in Cali, getting friendly with Johnny Otis and Taylor, and getting into mischief with Little Richard or Larry Williams. Occasionally he would churn out an amusing and pleasant R&B single, all of who failed to make any real impact. Something that changed when he donned his trademark turban and added mighty to Hannibal somewhere around 1964. Armed with a new image, James T. Shaw by birth, penned the explicit (anti) Vietnam song that is subject of this little Blog post today, "Hymn No. 5". In my mind one of the most moving songs written about the subject.

Taking the form of a letter to his baby "Hymn No. 5" opens with Hannibal's mighty belting voice but soon moves into the claustrophobic clunking of a tambourine complemented by a haunting organ giving the song the feel of a feverish nightmare. "Hymn No. 5" doesn't spare the listener, it pulls you into the fear and feeling of senselessness that the soldiers in Vietnam must have felt. "Tell my father" Hannibal pleads "I'm way over here in these trenches covered with blood" he moans, baring naked the horrors of war. "There's no tomorrow" continues the song in harmonic desperation taking us in to moaning that seems to be somewhere between pain and hopelessness while remembering he has a family and a home far from that godforsaken jungle in Vietnam. An unlikely song to hit the R&B charts at #21 when picked up by Josie records for national distribution, reflecting the level of identification Vietnam veterans and those left behind must have had with it. This wasn't a song you exorcised you demons in the land of a 1.000 dances, with this song you stared them straight into the eyes.

"Hymn No. 5" wasn't the first Vietnam record recorded. Two years earlier Marvin Gaye recorded "Soldier's Plea". But unlike that patriotic and romanticized 45, Hannibal confronted the horrors of war in a direct manner that was unprecedented. After becoming active at political rallies Hannibal had decided that he needed to speak out. With segregation still in a fact in the South black soldiers were supposedly dying for freedom, a freedom that was denied them at home. They were treated as second rate citizens at home, as cannon fodder in the orient. Maybe it was that Hannibal didn't really have a career to lose that he dared to speak out, he had no audience he could lose, allowing him to sing fearlessly on the subject. When the song hit it must have inspired other artists to sing out. And as the decade pushed on many more social conscious hits dealing with the bleak realities in Vietnam hit the radio waves. I believe that it was "Hymn No. 5" that got the big players to speak up, that prompted Joe Tex to record "I Believe I'm Gonna Make It". I think Bill Wither's moving "I Can't Write Left Handed" or Marvin Gaye's legendary "What's Going On" are a direct result of the doors Hannibal opened.

With the war in Iraq still taking young lives on a daily basis I feel it is important that art like this is remembered. It is through art that we understand the true atrocities of war. If we left it up to our politicians war would be narrowed down to one-liners and personal interest. The news may gives us the facts, photographers may give us the images, but art gives us the personal implications. A song like "Hymn No 5" allows us to feel what war means, allows us to forget the bullshit of the politicians, the confusing statistics scientists use, transcend the daily cold news and actually feel what war does to people. Art allows us to experience the very human consequence of war.

"Hymn No. 5"

See Also: "The Mighty Hannibal's Triumphant Return"

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Ten That Made Springsteen; 6. Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels - Devil With The Blue Dress On

"Everybody's always asking the definition of Garage Rock. Well, I'm gonna tell you right now. It's white kids trying to play black Rhythm and Blues and failing......gloriously." Little Steven van Zandt.

I picked Mitch Ryder's classic rendition of Shorty Long's "Devil With The Blue Dress On ", but I might as well have picked the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" or "Dirty Water" by the Standells, "Double Shot Of My Baby's Love" by the Swinging Medallions or "You Can't Sit Down" by the Dovels. I simply picked "Devil" because it was the template crowd pleaser "The Detroit Medley" that has been present in Springsteen's set lists since September 1975, all the way up to the Rising tour in 2003. Mitch Ryder was one of those quintessential Garage acts from the early mid to late sixties. "Devil" was one of Mitch's few hits peaking at #4 in the billboard charts. But contrary to popular believe this was not uncommon those days. Garage acts, or Frat Rock bands, though often one hit wonders, would regularly be on top of the charts. But since Garage was a factor in a time when the 45 still reigned supreme and in a time where small labels still were a force to be reckoned with, a lot of those hits became obscure nuggets when the album format took over R&R.

Garage was part of the tidal wave caused by the British Invasion, or rather the Beatles appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. Even though "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen was released in 1963, as sort of an avant garde Garage release, those appearances were what busted the band culture wide open and prompted Springsteen to pick up the guitar and join his first band the Castilles. I believe that Garage became an important part of the aesthetic, romanticism and ethics that is at the base of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band. Garage gave young kids the feeling that anybody could have that big record on the top of the charts. More than ever Garage made the dream of R&R accessible to just about anyone. By the time the Beatles hit, the first wave of R&R had perished. Radio was dominated for a while by R&R based pop, by the lavish productions of Phil Sector or Leiber & Stoller, or by the highly polished songwriting and performing of Sam Cooke and Roy Orbison. While that did give R&R more credibility and gave R&R more artistic value it also put R&R beyond the reach of many kids. The Beatles showed that you could do it yourself basically, they opened the doors to a whole new bag of R&R dreams.

That band ethic is why "Born To Run" turned out the way it did. Springsteen wanted to record his own Phil Spector album, but I believe he never even contemplated recording it with studio musicians and a proper producer. In stead he took the band in the studio trying to recreate the Spector sound with his own band, layer by layer. Spector simply had an army of musicians in the studio recording them simultaneously on a two track recorder. Although the musicians on Spector's record became known as the Wrecking Crew, they were never a band in the way the E-Street Band was. I think to Springsteen the R&R band represented the sort of mystic brotherhood busting out of class together, trying to get away from those fools. That romanticism created a different aesthetic from the producers approach Spector had, where musicians were secondary to his own genius. It was also the reason why "Born to Run" ultimately came out sounding different from Spector's ground breaking singles. Though recorded with a smaller band, the album ironically sounded a bit more cluttered and muddy than what Spector achieved with his two track. By the time "Born To Run" hit the market Spector was already far in his decline. Springsteen met him once in the studio when Phil was recording one of Bruce's idols, Dion, in '77. Spector merely turned to Springsteen and said "doesn't this make "Born To Run" suck".

Though the band ethics of Garage were important to Springsteen while recording his albums with the E-Street Band, on stage it wasn't as pronounced till Little Steven joined the band. Van Zandt has always been much more the Garage connoisseur and enthusiast. Though Springsteen tapped in to the Band ethics of the Garage movement and part of its aesthetic (taking his loud guitar sound from there), I think he himself was much more enamored with the R&R sound of the mid fifties to the early sixties. Van Zandt however was a hard core Garage fan. I think his enthusiastically running mouth is what made Springsteen realize how important the Garage sound was to the E-Street Band, often characterized as the greatest bar band of R&R. With Little Steven joining the Band the Garage classics became regulars in the set with "The Detroit Medley" turning out to be the ultimate rave up for the boys. In no other song Max's relentless pounding, Gary's throbbing base, Danny's raucous organ licks, Roy's rollicking piano or Clarence honking would come together in quite the same way building to a climax in a R&R frenzy. "The Detroit Medley" made clear we were indeed dealing with the heart stopping, pants dropping, earth shattering, hard rocking, hips shaking, earth quaking, nerve breaking, Viagra taking, history making, legendary E-Street Band.

Springsteen's Garage sensibilities would be part of his break through success as well. By the time "Born To Run" hit the market R&R was threatening to collapse under its own pretenses. The album culture and art rock had taken the fun out of R&R. In a recent interview with Boulevard Magazine Little Steven called Art Rock "the anti-Christ", while trying to make an argument that songs like "Louie Louie", with their simple effectiveness, are actually harder to write than Pink Floyd's pretentious drivel of the early seventies. The Jack Holtzman release of Nuggets in 1972, with the infamous Lenny Kaye liner notes coining the term Punk, was signifying that something was simmering beneath R&R's pretentious surface. Nuggets stood as a reminder of R&R's dream and glory. While Springsteen played in the infamous Max's Kansas City, one of the key clubs to the birth of Punk, he was never part of that scene. Springsteen is never mentioned when it comes to the significance of Max's or the birth of Punk. Even though "Please Kill Me (the oral history of Punk)" does have a chapter called "Because The Night", a Springsteen penned Patti Smith song, Springsteen is never mentioned. Although Springsteen was trying to find that three minute essence of R&R, much as Punk was, Springsteen stood outside of that movement. Maybe that's because Springsteen, although undoubtedly part of the counter wave, simply was too good a musician and songwriter to be a part of the Punk scene. Springsteen wasn't marred by the artistic pretense Punk had before the Ramones hit the scene, he wasn't NY enough, but more importantly he wasn't held back by being unable to play even the simplest chords. Springsteen became the artist who infused the album culture of Rock with the aesthetics of early R&R and Garage, bringing R&R back down to earth.

But as Don McLeese pointed out in his classic article, "Abdicating the Rock 'n' Roll Pedestal: Bruce Springsteen Gets Down", for the Chicago reader in 1980 there was a paradox to Springsteen as well, "[By] treating a Springsteen as something special, we threaten to undermine what made him special in the first place". As early as '78 Springsteen realized that when the first River songs became part of the Darkness tour. Two of them "The Ties That Bind" but especially "Sherry Darling" were much closer to the the sounds of the Garage bands that inspired Springsteen. As "Tracks" showed, Springsteen had been writing songs like that for the E-Street Band as early as 1973 with "Seaside Bar Song". It wasn't until "The River" Springsteen started to bring those Garage sounds more to the foreground. Further scaling down his songwriting Springsteen abandoned much of the grand imagery that defined "Born To Run" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". Partly produced by Little Steven, "the River" was oozing with the sweat of the garage that gave birth to Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in the first place.

"Devil With The Blue Dress On" - Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels
"Dirty Water" - The Standells
"Double Shot Of My Baby's Love" - The Swingin' Medallions
"Sherry Darling" - Bruce Springsteen (live '78)

Friday, January 4, 2008

Fats Domino: Rebuilding A Home

On the 23st of August Katrina hit New Orleans with a devastating force. When the levees broke, some 80% of the city was flooded. The lower ninth ward, home to much of the cities poor, Black and disenfranchised, was completely destroyed as president "bystander" Bush shamefully looked the other way, prompting Kanye West to speak the infamous words "George Bush doesn't care about Black people". But even before the storm hit the city, and matters became federal, the sights of New Orleans were shocking. I remember seeing people trying to get out of the city by foot, because they couldn't afford to go by any other means of transportation. Katrina not only destroyed the city, it laid America's poverty bare for the world to see. When I saw the photos shot in New Orleans after the storm for the first time at the World Press Exhibit I thought I was looking at a third world country. Only when I looked closer to see the post script I realized these pictures were shot in one of the richest countries in the world. The moral and humanitarian bankruptcy of America's brand of capitalism was naked to the eye of the world. Unfortunately the outrage about those images of poverty and the mismanagement of government was quickly put to rest. Katrina failed to kick start any real discussion in society about the measures needed to confront poverty. Such a discussion simply didn't fit in the neo-conservative and intellectual barren agenda of Dubya and his. Although the Fats Domino tribute "Going Home" isn't going to chance that sad fact, I do feel releases like that are important not only as a reminder of the disaster that hit New Orleans, but of what it made clear as well. Parts of America are closer to the Third World than to the rich West.

Aside from the humanitarian disaster, Katrina was a cultural disaster as well when most of the cities instruments and musicians were lost. La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded by the French 1718 and soon became one of the main ports of the south. As such it was an important import point of African slaves. Ironically New Orleans was also a city where free slaves could co-exists with the European populous for a long time. This created an environment where cultural exchange was possible in a way that was unique in the New World. "Gens de Couleur Libres", the Free People of Color, or the Creoles as they became popularly known, infused their culture in what was the most European city of America. New Orleans essentially defined what would become the American melting pot. Starting with Creole influences in European classical music through the likes of Charles Lucien Lambert or Edmond Dédé, New Orleans would soon be giving birth to Jazz, a musical form that in my mind is as much indebted to Creole influences as European influences. In New Orleans the European marching bands and other musical forms were transformed to something that was unique to the city. New Orleans has been funky with the sweat of its musicians from day, constantly cooking and swiping each other's recipes. That Gumbo has had an impressive roster of musicians over time, ranging from Kid Ory to Louis Armstrong, from Professor Longhair to Doctor John, from the Neville Brothers to the Meters and from Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint; to name but a few.

Fats Domino is one of those quintessential New Orleans artists that was long overdue for a tribute album. The Fat Man was at the cradle of R&R when his single with the same name made a national impact on the charts. Though not as flamboyant as Little Richard, his laid back rolling piano style was as instrumental in the development of the genre as the latter. When Katrina approached the city, Fats chose to stay home. While at first he was rumored to be dead, "R.I.P. Fats, you'll be missed was written" was even spray painted on his house, Fats survived the flood, losing his house. This giant of New Orleans was as homeless. Through charity Fats was housed again in 2006, choosing to stay in his old neighborhood and city. Undoubtedly an inspiration for other artists to slowly come back. Fats had already payed his debt by donating the proceeds of his 2006 album "Alive and Kicking" to the Tipitina's Foundation. As a charity organization Tipitina's focuses on rebuilding the cultural heart of the city by supplying the musicians of the city with new instruments amongst things. Proceeds of the Fats Domino tribute album "Going Home" will go to this fine organization as well. Charities like Tipitina's are instrumental in giving the city its old glory back, that alone should be reason enough to buy the album.

"Going Home" is not only a stunning tribute to the music of Fats Domino but a startling testament of New Orleans musical heritage as well. With the city of New Orleans still struggling to get its community back together, "Going Home" is a prime example of its cultural significance. In a sense the double CD transcends being "merely" a Fats Domino tribute, its a showcase of New Orleans culture and the scope of its impact. With artists as Joss Stone and Robert Plant teaming up with New Orleans finest as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Lil' Band O' Gold, with Neil Young mumbling his way through "Walking To New Orleans" or Tom Petty's rollicking version of "I'm Going Home" and Toots and the Maytals skanking version "Let The Four Winds Blow", New Orleans' melting pot is revisited once more. Tribute albums are often tricky things, most wind up being a messy hotchpotch of tributes, but "Going Home" is a mess of the glorious kind.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Leiber & Stoller: R&R Royalty

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are to R&R what George & Ira Gershwin were to Jazz. In their prime they were genre defining authors and producers. They trumped other great R&R composers in both output and quality. Great as Carole King & Gerry Coffin were, they couldn't touch this dynamic duo, Phil Spector might have been the Tycoon of Teen, he would have been lost without their schooling and Doc Pomus doesn't nearly have as much hits that are locked in our collective memory. Leiber and Stoller were at the synthesis of R&R, helped shape it to the form Elvis Presley tapped into, and finally transformed it and gave it the sophistication it needed to become a lasting force. The funny thing is Leiber & Stoller almost never happened. When Jerry approached Mike to become his song writing partner, Mike turned him down. Stoller hated Pop with a vengeance, ironic for one of the writers responsible for transformer the field a few years down the road, so Mike turned Jerry down. Leiber turned out to be very persistent and pushed until he had the chance to show Stoller some of his songs. When Stoller realized it were R&B tunes he agreed to jump on board. It turned out to be one of R&R's most successful partnerships, both creatively and commercial.

As two young men from Jewish descent Leiber & Stoller may seem like very unlikely characters to shape R&R, especially today. But in the early thirties many of the Jewish-Americans, especially those from European descent, lived in the run down ghettos of the cities. As such Lieber grew up on the edge of Baltimore's black ghetto while Stoller got to learn how to play Booie Woogies from the Black kids at summer camp. Jerry's father had a groceries store where the radio was always playing. Leiber later confessed that "those radios were like magic boxes to me. They played music I never heard anywhere else". Those sounds on the radio would never let go again. Music ran in Stoller's family, his mother had performed on Broadway in one of Gershwin's plays while his father was an engineer. As a teen he used to sneak into Harlem's Jazz clubs. Their passion for Jazz and R&B lit a spark between the two. Their backgrounds would later make it easier to be emphatic to the Black man's trials. It was the Modern label that gave the duo their first shot at recording when they cut "That's What The Good Book Says" for the Robins.

It was with that single that Kent records started their anthology of Leiber and Stoller three years back, only to finish it just recently. Kent's anthology focused on Leiber and Stoller as writers, doing an incredible job on research and compiling material from all the different labels Leiber & Stoller wrote and produced for. The duo seemingly recorded for almost every label that meant something in R&R as well as having a label of their own. "That's What The Good Book Says" is still a pretty much straight forward R&B song, though it did all ready betray their sense of sophistication. Although things would be off to a decent start for Leiber & Stoller things really started shaking when they produced "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton. The single went number one on the R&B charts for seven straight weeks. "Hound Dog" is where the Kent anthology is starting to go wrong. Instead of Thornton's raucous and definitive version, the compilers choose to go for an alternate lesser known version by Freddie Bell & the Bell Boys. Although it is an interesting recording, compared to Big Mama's it kind of sounds flat and stale, just like Elvis' version did. Both fine performances, but they don't come close to Thornton's mighty thunderous voice.

"Hound Dog" would bust it all wide open for the duo, but it would also be their first hard lesson in the dealings of showbiz. Leiber and Stoller never received any royalties on the song. This promted the gentlemen to start their own label, Spark. Since Kent already did an anthology on the output of that label, much of the key material from Spark isn't included on this trilogy. Since the discs boast to be "the Leiber & Stoller story" I feel this is an oversight on their part. The argument Kent uses for their picks doesn't cut any real wood. Although the compilers rightfully claim that Leiber & Stoller produced to much material for an complete overview in three CDs and are troubled by not getting a license for the Elvis material, I feel the anthology turned out to be neither flesh nor fish, despite the quality material that is included. To be truly called the Leiber & Stoller story too many key tracks are missing, yet the trilogy doesn't amount to an alternative route through their career as well. It tries to be a little bit of both and fails to really hit mark because of it.

The compilation does include "There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters for example. As one of the first, if not the, R&B records to include strings it is a true essential from their catalog and rightfully included. "There Goes My Baby" was one of the first tracks where Leiber and Stoller's significance was really starting to shine. Like the Gershwin brothers before them, Leiber and Stoller managed to apply the rules of classical music on a different genre, in their case R&B. Doing so they installed R&B with a new sense of sophistication and granted it with a whole new template for telling stories. Although the lyrics of "There Goes My Baby" are upbeat and dealing with young love, the melancholic undertone betrays that not all is well. Still on the same disc the compilers include "Spanish Harlem" by Clyde McPhatter, significant because it was co-written by their then pupil Phil Spector, is chosen over the land mark hit by Ben E. King. Mohammed Ali's rendition of "Stand By Me" raises even more eyebrows. While "L'Homme A La Moto" (Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots) by Edith Piaff on the first disc had some aesthetic value, Ali's talents were clearly in the boxing ring only. An impressively running mouth doesn't make for an interesting singer, Ali's attempts as such are best forgotten. It might say something about the extent to where Leiber and Stoller's material reached, but a mention in the liner notes would have been just as effective. The same goes for other hits. While the trilogy does include the break through Pop smash "Lucky Lips" for Ruth Brown, it takes Buddy Holly's version of "Smoky Joe's Café" over the by far superior one of the Coasters.

The third installment continues in this slightly frustrating vein. Here we find Jimmy Scott's version of "On Broadway". Interesting again, but not much more. That isn't to say that the compilation isn't without merit. There are a lot of interesting inclusions and somewhat forgotten gems. "Rat Race" by the Drifters is present for example, though on the same note their version of "Only in America" was scratched when Jay & The Americans version was included. Here Kent's defense of going for rare recordings really fails to hit mark as the Drifter's version was originally shelved. Buried as an album track in '72 this fine piece of writing is much overlooked by Soul fans, even though it is one of Leiber & Stoller's best civil rights songs, talking openly about sitting in the back of the bus. A rarity in R&B in 1963. "The Leiber & Stoller Story" could have been what "Back To Mono" was to Phil Spector, even with the omission of their Elvis material. It became a slightly disappointing release instead. Though the compilation shows the full scope of talent of this brilliant duo, including gems by Johnny Cash, the Shangri-Las, The Robins, Ben E King, the Drifters and many others, displaying their prowess as both song writers and producers, omissions of some of the key classics left me with a slight dissatisfaction.

"Hound Dog" by Freddie Bell & the Bell Boys
"L'Homme A La Moto" by Edith Piaff
"Spanish Harlem" by Clyde McPhatter
"Stand By Me" by Mohammed Ali
"Only In America" Jay & The Americans