Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dr. John: Hoodoo You Love (1998)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer....)

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Considering rock 'n' roll's dual emphasis on the individual male singer, its roll call of great, instantly identifiable male voices is surprisingly short: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Robert Plant--even allowing for borderline calls like the solo Beatles, the list barely comes to a dozen. All of which puts Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, the possessor of a great, instantly identifiable rock 'n' roll voice if ever there was one, in some very select company.

Those who doubt Rebennack's qualifications need only listen to Anutha Zone, his new album for Virgin Records and the twenty-fourth official solo release (give or take a live album or compilation or two) of his long and varied career. His most commercial offering in more than a decade, Anutha Zone finds him not only giving slyly sinister voice to his trademark voodoo-inflected musings but also doing so amid some uncharacteristically hip accompaniment.

On paper, with two tracks apiece featuring the British tripsters Spiritualized ("Hello God," "John Gris"), members of Portishead and Primal Scream ("Voices in My Head," "Sweet Home New Orleans"), and Paul Weller, Jools Holland, and other assorted Britrockers ("Party Hellfire," John Martyn's "I Don't Wanna Know About Evil"), the album looks like a desperation move--the Dr. John equivalent of a Frank Sinatra-duets album. On the CD player, however, Anutha Zone cuts a warm, funky groove, the richness of which is, if anything, enhanced by the pop savvy of the Doctor's youthful collaborators.

"I was familiar with Supergrass and Primal Scream because my kids listen to their records," says Rebennack, "and I'd recorded with Jools Holland and some of the other people [he appears on Spiritualized's 1997 album, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating], but I wasn't familiar with Portishead, and I hadn't heard Ocean Colour Scene or the Beta Band. John Leckie, my producer, said, 'Well, we'll try this, and if it works, cool. If not, we'll just go do a record with your band in the States.'"

They ended up doing both. "We cut half the record at Abbey Road Studios in London. Then I had to come back to do some gigs in the States, and at the end of those, I caught the flu. So instead of going back to London, we cut tracks in New York with my band." The album's transatlantic plot thickened. "John started mixing the stuff we'd cut at Abbey Road in New York. Then, when we went back to gig in Europe, he started mixing the stuff we'd cut in New York at the Townhouse Studio in London. By using real studio tricknology he made it all sound real cohesive."

Rebennack will turn fifty-six, fifty-seven, or fifty-eight this fall (depending on whether one believes his Virgin bio, his autobiography, or The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll respectively--"I'm not too good at names, dates, and places," he chuckles), and he uses words like "tricknology" a lot. His vocabulary, like his hometown of New Orleans, bears the traces of many traditions and subcultures.

Rebennack has traveled down more back roads, dark alleys, and dead ends than most Grammy-winning legends of indeterminate age. These travels were the subject of his 1994 as-told-to autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon (St. Martin's). In it, Rebennack shared details about his New Orleans upbringing, his days in the mid-'60's as an El-Lay session musician (On Sonny Bono: "[E]very song he wrote used the same two chords over and over"; on Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound": "[I]n New Orleans we put out just as much sound with only six guys"), and his nearly life-long heroin habit, which he finally kicked in 1989.

According to Rebennack, he dictated the book to his co-author, Jack Rummel under both financial duress and the influence of "lithium poisoning." "There's a lot of confusement over things I put and didn't put in that book," he explains in typical Dr. John slang. "It was writ in the situate where I was on a drug called lithium that I didn't know I was being poisoned by at the time. If I hadn't been in the jackpot coming out of a rehab owing the IRS a whole bunch of money--I couldn't even pay the band--I probably would've waited a while to write it. But that's how life is. You do what you do when you do it, and it's done and did-with now."

One statement in the book that he still stands by is his contention that he's more of a "shucker" than a singer. "I consider Johnny Adams and Aaron Neville singers. Art Neville's a singer. Chuck Carbo's a singer. Jimmy Scott's a singer. Whatever knowledge I have of singing comes from being a songwriter and showing singers my songs from back in the game." In other words, when he worked as a studio musician, songwriter, and producer. "I wrote a lot of songs, and I could shuck my way through them enough to show somebody where I thought the melody and the groove should go. What gave me the balls to sing was hearing some early Bob Dylan records and working sessions with Sonny and Cher. When I did the first Dr. John record, I was planning to get [the New Orleans singer] Ronnie Barron to be Dr. John, but that didn't work out, so I just got an attitude and did it. I figured it'd be a one-off deal. I didn't have a clue that thirty-some years later I'd still be doing that."

About his piano playing he remains more confident. It's his piano playing, in fact, that lands him more session work than practically any other big-name musician. One recent on-line search of his in-print appearances turned up ninety-eight albums, most of them by other artists. Still, as he nears the completion of his first heroin-free decade in years, it's his own plans that occupy his time. Anutha Zone itself was a Plan B. "A couple of years ago, some people were talking to me about doing a record with Dr. Henry Butler, a great piano player from New Orleans, and a record with Little Jimmy Scott. It didn't work out, but I thought it was one of my better ideas for a production at the time, and I'd still like to do it. Nobody had told me the idea was dumped anyways by the label, but then the people that makes records is usually the last ones to know something."

That's another theme of his book that Rebennack still stands by: the perfidy of the music industry. "Since I've been away from my old lifestyle, everything's been easier because it's more pleasant, but it ain't nothing to do with the business, and it ain't nothing to do with financially. I just live different." He pauses, then adds, "It's like the music is killer, but the business really sucks a big one."

Whether or not the music business really does suck a big one, Rebennack is certainly right about one thing: His current music is killer. Here's hoping that, his restless muse to the contrary, he spends a little more time in Anutha Zone before moving on.

Kill Your Idols: Public Enemy

(This piece first appeared as a chapter in Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics [Barricade 2004].)

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Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
(Def Jam/Columbia, 1988)


Several weeks into the 2003 pro football season, the Reverend Al Sharpton and other notoriously inflammatory avatars of racial demagoguery pressured the conservative radio talk-show titan Rush Limbaugh into resigning from his guest-commentator position at ESPN. Limbaugh’s sin? Saying that the sports media, in its zeal to see a "black quarterback do well," had over-hyped the accomplishments of the Philadelphia Eagle’s Donovan McNabb. Debate over the merits of Limbaugh’s contention immediately ensued and, given the self-perpetuating nature of sports arguments, will probably continue for years. It’s too bad there’s never been—and, given our hypersensitivity to that chimera "hate speech," may never be—an equally public debate about the validity of that notoriously dimwitted genre of aural graffiti known as rap, the artistic merits of which the music media, in its zeal to see young black radicals do well, has been over-hyping for two decades now.

Rap can be great fun. At its early best, before it became overrun by gangstas, thugz, pimps, hoez, and other types you wouldn’t want to bring home to your grandma (or spelling teacher), rap was the closest thing to a revival of the loose goofiness of Leiber-Stoller-era Coasters that any pop-musical subculture, black or white, had generated in a quarter of a century. As such, early rap was primarily, and ideally, a singles genre, its best albums collections of greatest hits. Like many rock bands in the mid-to-late ’60s, however, rappers eventually came to be seen by major record companies as potentially huge moneymakers and, as a result, had a significance thrust upon them replete with the expectation that they would now take what they’d formerly done in fun-sized bits and expand it into full-length masterworks. As was the case with many ’60s rock bands (most notably the Beach Boys, but that’s another chapter), such fixing of what wasn’t broken was the beginning of an end.

Since then many rap albums have had their meager merits exaggerated by the press, but none more so than Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Released in 1988, it found itself atop many critics’ best-of lists at year’s end, eventually winning album-of-the-year honors in the Village Voice’s annual "Pazz and Jop" critics’ poll and establishing Chuck D, Flava Flav, and their DJ Terminator X as hip-hop alchemists who would finally bring about rap’s transformation from novelty into art. "It’s a like-it-or-not, wake-up-and-listen album," wrote Armond White in his "Pazz and Jop" comments, "like Aretha’s I Never Loved a Man or the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks." "It’s the first record in ages to rise out of the New York rap scene with enough of that confrontational attitude that alternative programmers love so much," added Scott Byron. "When I say ‘confrontational’ I’m not just referring to words but to music—[Public Enemy] test their limits at every turn." Eventually, Rolling Stone would rank Nation of Millions number twelve among the best albums of the ’80s: "Virtually every track contains repeated shrill noises that are both irritating and riveting; its agit-prop sound communicates as much rebellion as the lyrics."

In retrospect, the album did no such thing. Both its noise and its lyrics, while an innovation in rap, were hardly new to the music world at large. Non-rappers, for instance, had so established "repeated shrill noises that [were] both irritating and riveting" as sonic staples that as far back as 1981 Lester Bangs could fill a piece titled "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" with praise for music that he loved primarily for its "wretched squawl." Other than the air-raid siren on "Countdown to Armageddon" with which Nation of Millions begins, most of the album’s celebrated "noise" is the result of tightly looped samples repeated over and over. The similarities to Chinese water torture are obvious, but the approach is actually much closer, in both technique and in affect, to Philip Glass’s minimalist exercises on Einstein on the Beach and Glassworks. As such, Terminator X’s aural assault could be seen as simply the latest example of the sort of cultural cross-fertilization that had been going on between whites and blacks since Europe met Africa in jazz and the blues met country in rock and roll. Clever? Yes. But rebellious? If you really want something irritating to clear the guests out, you’d be much better served by Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or the Shaggs' Philosophy of the World, albums so rebelliously irritating that even those who love them often hate themselves for doing so. (At least one "Pazz and Jop" voter numbered Chuck D’s voice among Public Enemy’s irritating noises. "His vocals are sexless, and always do the same thing," wrote Frank Kogan. "This is boy rock, no girly mush—boys acting IMPORTANT." Kogan was right. With no variation in volume or timbre, with no perceivable vocal texture other than "hard," with absolutely no sense of play, Chuck D would be utterly unendurable were it not for the commotion going on around him and the comic relief of his foil-jester-sidekick Flava Flav, whose "Cold Lampin with Flavor" steals Nation of Millions the way his "Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man" would later steal Fear of a Black Planet.)

Equally over the top were the hosannas heaped upon Public Enemy’s "message." Compared to the Black Panther propagandists of the ’60s with whom Chuck D claimed common ground on the album’s most explicitly political track, "Party for Your Right to Fight," Public Enemy’s own pugnacious, paranoid, Afro-centric rhetoric came off both redundant and second-hand. "The community," wrote the Panther Huey Newton from prison in 1969, "is now seeing that our fight on the campuses is more than just a fight for ‘freedom of speech’ on the campus, or Blacks gaining a knowledge of our heritage;

it’s also showing the direct relationship between the reactionary government and the agencies and institutions that are only an arm of these reactionaries. Until we penetrate the community and make them aware and plant the seed of revolution, we will never have freedom at our schools. The community now is being mobilized by the Black revolutionary forces and along with them are our white revolutionary comrades.

Substitute "white rock critics" for "white revolutionary comrades," replace "penetrate the community" with "get widespread radio airplay," work in some rhymes, and add some riveting noise and a smattering of profanities, and you’d have Public Enemy nineteen years before the fact.

Of course, anyone still delivering rants such as Newton’s in 1988 would’ve probably been seen as delusional and more likely would’ve wound up as a mental patient or a tenured professor of African Studies than as a prisoner. In other words, echoing Huey Newton in 1988 required a lot less courage from Chuck D than being Huey Newton required from Huey Newton in 1969. Besides, Chuck D was rapping on a major label (Def Jam was a Columbia subsidiary at the time) and therefore making money (or at least a living) from his shtick. Yet critics insisted that in Public Enemy the world had something innovatively political and socially significant, a genuinely hegemony-threatening music if ever there’d been one. Eventually such opinions hardened into dogma, relegating comparatively lightweight rap pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and even Run DMC to the category of rap known (sometimes affectionately) as "old school" and exposing the likes of Schoolly D and 2 Live Crew for the unsavory lowlifes they were. From Nation of Millions onward, rappers who wanted to be taken seriously—who wanted to be considered authentically "black" (more on that farther down)—would need to ratchet up their anger-at-oppression quotient and, thus transported, go for the jugular of the nearest oppressor.

The problem was, Public Enemy’s oppressors turned out to be straw men, and straw men have no jugulars. For one thing, by 1988 there was no nation of millions trying to hold Public Enemy or any other rap group or black musician or athlete or film star or politician or comedian or plumber back. Even the now-ubiquitous "white fright" explicit-lyrics parental warning sticker, which many believe has ended up having the unintended effect of boosting rap sales anyway, was not yet in use. Perhaps most significantly the Aerosmith-Run DMC version of "Walk This Way" had exposed (or forged) the link between rap and metal, officially miscegenating America’s two most popular forms of rebellion-oriented youth music.

And it’s not as if the country’s more conservative citizens—the ones most likely to be rubbed the wrong way by Public Enemy—weren’t in a protesting mood. Earlier that year Martin Scorsese’s cinematic interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ had engendered numerous high-profile protests and boycotts aimed specifically at crippling its box-office success. One year later there would be headline-grabbing controversies over taxpayer-funded displays of the contemporary art of Andres Seranno (whose Piss Christ consisted of a crucifix submerged in urine) and Robert Mapplethorpe (whose graphically homoerotic S&M photography remains controversial: opponents of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 gubernatorial campaign cited Schwarzenegger’s past as a Mapplethorpe model as one proof of his unfitness for office). Simply put, Nation of Millions’ failure to rise higher than forty-two on Billboard’s Top 200 and the failure of its four singles to crack the Top Forty were not the result of censorship or of radio’s fear of controversy. A nation of millions simply liked Run DMC better.

Or, to put it another way, while Nation of Millions made itself felt in big East Coast cities (wrote the Providence, Rhode Island Pazz-and-Jopster Jim MacNie, "You couldn’t buy ice cream, shoot hoops, or have sex without Terminator X’s distillation of racial tension ... reverberating down the street"), it barely registered in a whole lot of flyover country. The multi-racial, rock-and-rap-loving Louisiana junior-high-school students to whom I taught English in those days, for instance, who did as much as the radio and MTV to keep me musically well informed, had hardly even heard of the group. "Are they the ones with that guy who wears a big clock around his neck?" one girl responded when I asked her what she thought of them. She had, it turns out, seen pictures of Flava Flav in a magazine and remembered his image. But of his group’s music she hadn’t heard so much as a beat and was in no hurry to. She was a big Tone Loc fan, and the notion that there could be any rap better than "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina" struck her as preposterous.

Living in Louisiana, my interest in Public Enemy was not entirely musical. By 1988 the former Ku Klux Klansman and then-Louisiana resident David Duke had exchanged his Grand Wizard’s robe and hood for the conservative attire of a serious politician and—first as a Democrat, then as a Republican—begun gaining support among white Louisiana voters. (He was eventually elected as a member of the state legislature and in 1991 ran an impressive but ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign.) I was convinced that racial conflicts were about to play a larger role in American society than they had at any time in my twenty-six years and that an understanding of the complexities involved would be necessary for me to think and act wisely should the need to do so arise. (Public Enemy would later single Duke out as a special nemesis as well, caricaturing him on the cover of their 1994 album Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age; ironically, by that time Duke himself was a straw man, having already ridden out a wave of public support that ended up vanishing almost as quickly as it had appeared. Both he and the man to whom he lost the governorship, Edwin Edwards, are currently in federal prisons.) In retrospect my crash-course in racism awareness was na├»ve, as if merely by reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, John Howard Griffin’s Black like Me, and William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy I could develop heroically virtuous sympathies overnight. But I was sincere and open-minded both, and it was in this spirit that I read the aforementioned glowing reviews, bought the hype and Nation of Millions, put the record on, and awaited revelation.

What I got instead was David Duke in blackface. Not only was there anti-Semitism once removed in the form of endorsements for the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan ("Don’t tell me that you understand / until you hear the man" [...] "Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to / what he can say to you"), but there was also a crackpot theory of racial superiority, only this time it was blacks who were the Master Race. And "[t]o those that disagree," rapped Chuck D in "Party for Your Right to Fight,"

it causes static
For the original Black Asiatic man
Cream of the earth
And was here first
And some devils prevent this from being known
But you check out the books they own
Even Masons they know it
But refuse to show it—Yo
But it’s proven and fact....


I don’t know whether liberal sports writers exaggerate Donovan McNabb’s athletic accomplishments because he’s black or not. But I do know that music critics exaggerate Public Enemy’s intelligence. Surely many of these critics know that the "original Black Asiatic Man" theory to which Chuck D was alluding in "Party" is the repugnant and explicitly racist Nation of Islam teaching that a wicked black scientist named Yacub created the white race through biological experimentation that left the newly created "white devils" without pigment and soul. Would the same critics who treated these ideas as harmless eccentricities when coming from Chuck D. have shrugged off equally explicit white racism from a white act? If not, then the toleration of such notions from Chuck D. amounts to nothing more than patronization, a patronization that is itself a form of racism in that its tolerance stems from the assumption that the black man in question is too unsophisticated or downright foolish to know any better. So while it might be stretching things to say that it took the patronization of millions to put Chuck D forth as an icon of enlightenment, the patronization of a few hundred music critics certainly didn’t hurt.

An interesting footnote: In what was almost certainly its version of what’s known in sports as the "make-up call," Public Enemy eventually dismissed its most outspokenly Yacubian (and anti-Semitic) theorist, its "Minister of Information" Professor Griff, shortly before the release of Fear of a Black Planet, their 1990 follow-up to Nation of Millions. (Griff had told the Washington Post in 1989 that Jews were responsible for "the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe.") That Griff was dismissed in the face of pressure resulting in part from the group’s increased visibility suggests not so much a change in Public Enemy’s attitude toward white people as its fear of a white boycott. An even more interesting footnote: Griff rejoined Public Enemy in 1997. The group’s official website currently describes him as "[n]otorious for his uncompromising stances that the media finds offensive." The implication: there’s nothing wrong with his manifestly false, unspeakably hateful, and laughably stupid ideas—how can there be, when they’re ours and Farrakhan’s as well? It’s the media that has the problem. Hey, maybe Rush Limbaugh was right about the media after all! Besides, wasn’t it T.S. Eliot who once said "humankind cannot bear very much reality"? And wasn’t Eliot himself a little, you know, suspicious of Jews...?

Besides smuggling the Nation of Islam’s harebrained racism into the hip-hop mainstream, Nation of Millions brought into the open a topic that, admittedly, lay just beneath the surface whenever discussions of popular black-identified music styles arose—namely, what does "being black" really mean? Or, perhaps more accurately, in what does genuine "blackness" inhere? The blackness of tormented jazz geniuses such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, for example, was never in question. Neither was the blackness of such archetypal bluesmen as Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. Viscerally affecting soul singers like Otis Redding and James Brown were definitely black, and so for that matter were their refined stylistic opposites at Motown and anyone connected with the Harlem Renaissance (i.e., Duke Ellington). Eventually the concept would be stretched to include the likes of Ella Fitzgerald (jazz), Lou Rawls (nightclub), Mahalia Jackson (gospel), Paul Robeson (Negro spirituals and Broadway), the Fifth Dimension (AM ’60s), and Earth, Wind and Fire (all things to all people) (Dyke and the Blazers’ 1969 hit "We Got More Soul" stretched it to include Nancy Wilson), leaving blackness far too large and plastic a concept to be useful in any seriously political sense.

Practically speaking, by the time Nation of Millions came out, pop music was arguably more integrated—racially, culturally, stylistically—than it had ever been. Of the twenty-six performers who scored number-one singles in 1988, only five (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Billy Ocean, Terence Trent D’Arby, and Bobby McFerrin) were black, but in comprising nearly twenty percent of the number-one-hitmaker crowd they were almost twice as significant, demographically speaking, as blacks were in the population at large. "Blackness" began to appear even more influential if one took into account such unmistakenly black-influenced chart-topping songs as UB40’s "Red Red Wine" (Neil Diamond done reggae), George Harrison’s "Got My Mind Set on You" (Rudy Clark done Wilbury-style), and Steve Winwood’s "Roll with It" (blue-eyed soul, yes, but soul all the same). The year’s album chart looked similar. Two of the ten number one LPs (twenty percent) were by black musicians (Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut, Anita Baker’s Giving You the Best That I Got), and another, U2’s Rattle and Hum, featured high-profile cameos by B.B. King and the New Voices of Freedom as well as songs honoring Billie Holliday ("Angel of Harlem"), Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Pride [In the Name of Love]"), and the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa ("Silver and Gold"). Even MTV, which prior to Michael Jackson’s Jackie Robinson-like breakthrough had been accused of deliberately "bleaching" its playlists, was scrambling to make room in its heavy rotations for black acts old (Tina Turner), new (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), borrowed (Milli Vanilli), and blue (Robert Cray).

None of this "blackness," however, meant anything to Public Enemy. "I declared war on black radio," rapped Chuck D in "Caught, Can I Get a Witness!" "You singers are spineless / as you sing senseless songs to the mindless. / Your general subject, love, is minimal. / It’s sex for profit." Leaving aside Chuck D’s anachronistically puritanical attack on sex-commodifying music (cf. Elvis Presley circa 1955 and The Copulatin’ Blues, circa 1929-1940), what’s really mystifying about these lines is that the man calling others "mindless" is the same man who believes that white people are descended from evil mutants created by Yacub and is willing to proclaim as much from the housetops.

Worse yet (far worse yet), by insisting throughout Nation of Millions that "blackness" is a quantifiable reality, Chuck D kept alive the very possibility of the racism against which he had allegedly declared war. For only when something undesirable—the apparently disproportionate propensity of the young black male, say, to join gangs and commit drive-by shootings—only when an undesirable characteristic can be identified as an ineradicable component of a minority people is it possible to mobilize a nation of millions against them. Convince people, on the other hand, that a black male can become as decent, educated, virtuous, and loving as anyone else, perhaps even more so, and—well, let’s just say it’s then and only then that hate crimes like "strange fruit" lynchings and James Byrd dragging deaths begin to appear every bit as stupid as hate rhymes like Chuck D’s.


(Stanley Crouch on the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2010/07/19/2010-07-19_is_naacp_blind_to_farrakhan__co.html)



David Ball: Mental As Anything (1996)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer....)
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Fans of rock 'n' roll often fail to notice country music until a novelty song like "Elvira" or "Achy Breaky Heart" crosses over and becomes a major annoyance. That, however, says more about the myopia of rock 'n' rollers than it does about country music, which for decades now has been the one tributary of American popular music guaranteed to float the boat of those who feel, for whatever reason, that the mainstream has left them high and dry.

Two years ago, David Ball found himself atop the crest of country's current wave with a chart-topping single ("Thinkin' Problem") and a platinum album. On the cover, his Johnny West face looked out from beneath a Stetson hat with an expression that said, "You don't know me, but admit it, I look the part. Tell you what, how 'bout you give this album a listen and tell me if I don't sound the part, as well?"

Those who took Ball up on the offer found him to be more than a role player. After all, not only did he sing in a piercing tenor voice that had folks wondering what he could do with the Nashville phone book, but he also wrote or co-wrote nine of the album's ten songs. He looked and sounded, in other words, like the total country package, an impression that the success of Thinkin' Problem's first three singles confirmed.

Then, all of a sudden, there followed what Ball calls "a six-month period where there was no David Ball music out there." "We had success with the first three songs," he recalls. "Then we released a couple that we didn't have any success with. We put out one called 'What Do You Want With His Love'--one of my favorite tunes on the album--and it did really well in certain parts of the country. But then other parts of the country wouldn't touch it. I don't know why. I think a lot of it was that Garth Brooks had just released--" Ball catches himself in mid-complaint, aware of how fast blaming one's woes on the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music can become a knee-jerk excuse.

"Then after 'What Do You Want With His Love,' " he continues, "we had another single that we didn't get anything with. Then another couple of months passed until Starlite Lounge came out. So actually it's been like a seven or eight-month period not to have anything on the radio. That's a long time."

It is, but as he says, Starlite Lounge, his new album, has come out, and although it has yet to yield a "Thinkin' Problem"-level smash, it's a better album than its predecessor. For one thing, Ed Seay and Steve Buckingham, the album's producers, assembled a team of studio pros capable of deepening and widening Ball's neo-honky-tonk sound without overapplying the shellac. For another, in contrast to the first album, which was consumed with the memory of love gone bad, Starlite Lounge features songs like "Hangin' In and Hangin' On," "Circle of Friends," and "Bad Day for the Blues," songs that celebrate love gone good or at least love not gone bad yet. And one of the two drinking songs ("The Bottle That Pours the Wine") isn't even a drinking song at all but a metaphorical tribute to the mysterious craft of songwriting.

"As a writer," Ball explains, "you learn what's true. It doesn't have to be about something that happened to you exactly, but you have to be able to recognize the truth--what's real and what is not. When you're writing, you're in a different world, but it's definitely a very real place."

Ball knows that place well. Between 1989 and 1994, when he wasn't "going down to Austin and gettin' with [his] buddies and playin' clubs," he wrote songs--lots of them. "I'd signed with a publishing company, and they gave me the opportunity to come off the road, and I got to write songs every day. It was about, oh, a little over a year of nothing but writing. That's when I wrote all the stuff that was on Thinkin' Problem."

Like the songs on Thinkin' Problem, the songs on Starlite Lounge find Ball writing in collaboration with the likes of Tommy Polk and Billy Spencer and, more often than not, striking a near-perfect balance between playful punning and poignant concision. Couplets like "I'm just a square in her circle of friends, / but when we're all alone, Lord, I fit right in" and "If you want someone who'll leave you, / you'd better look to someone else" capture Ball's knack for packing multiple meanings into plain language. Any more embroidery--in the lyrics, the phrasing, or the playing--and the album would lurch toward smarm.

Ironically, Ball had no hand in writing "Hangin' In and Hangin' On," his new single and arguably Starlite Lounge's strongest song. A husband's plea for his wife not to throw in the towel on their troubled romance, it sets the album's tone. Almost every other song seems to serve as a vignette within the "Hangin' In and Hangin' On" scenario.

"I thought that if I was gonna try and do another 'Thinkin' Problem,' that song would be it," Ball admits. "The first time I heard it, I thought it was really different. It's unusual. I hadn't heard anything like it, and I think that's important in country music. I think the complaint that everything sounds alike in country music comes from the fact that, musically, there's no newness. At the same time, people are sayin', 'There's too much pop influence.' Well, here's 'Hangin' In and Hangin' On,' which is new country music but which is not influenced by cheesy '70s pop. It's rooted in traditional music, but it's brand new. It's like Hank Williams meets the '90s."

To better prepare his fans for this "new" music, Ball has spent the past couple of months on the road opening for his Warner-Reprise labelmate, Dwight Yoakam. With almost every stop on the tour a stadium, amphitheater, or pavilion gig, Ball finds himself performing in environs quite different from the central-Texas dancehalls in which he paid his dues.

"When I was in high school," he says, recalling his South Carolina youth, "I played string bass in a folk band, and that band moved out to Texas. We went out and played a couple of folk festivals in Texas, and I just fell into that scene out there in Austin. George Strait was out there playin', and, of course, [Asleep at] the Wheel. Even the old guys. Some of the original [Bob Wills] Playboys were playin' in dancehalls. I loved it. I've always been a fan of the older stuff."

Because Ball isn't afraid to let his affection for the "older stuff" show in his music, the best parts of Starlite Lounge sound both timely and timeless, and because he isn't afraid to let his brain in on what he's singing, his "thinkin' " problems seem like a thing of the past.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs (2008)

A version of this review appeared in WORLD magazine in November 2008. This version is better.
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Two different portraits of Bob Dylan have emerged from the series of Dylan “bootleg” recordings released by Columbia Records during the last seventeen years. One is a confident live performer for whom the stage is the ideal setting for raising his incendiary blend of folk, blues, and rock and roll to a fever pitch. The other is the man behind the curtain, a studio-ensconced singer-songwriter who frequently struggles to capture on tape what he hears in his head.

It’s the latter Dylan who emerges from the twenty-seven tracks comprising the just-released Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. Consisting mainly of trial-run versions of songs intended for the albums Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, Tell Tale Signs calls to mind something that Dylan himself once sang: “What looks large from a distance / close up ain’t never that big.”

He has, in other words, gotten by with a little--and in some cases a lot--of help from his friends. The skeletal versions of “Most of the Time,” “Dignity,” “Can’t Wait,” “Everything Is Broken,” and “Series of Dreams” included on Tell Tale Signs’ standard two-disc edition reveal how large a role the producer Daniel Lanois played in turning those songs into haunting and powerful highlights of Dylan’s latter-day canon. And Don and David Was, whom many (Dylan included) have disparaged for their production on Under the Red Sky, would seem to deserve praise as well. Both “Born in Time” and “God Knows” sounded richer after the Wases got through with them. Then there are the filmmakers whose requests for a soundtrack song have spurred Dylan to creativity. Curtis Hanson, Ronald F. Maxwell, and Niki Caro elicited from him “Huck’s Tune” (Lucky You), “’Cross the Green Mountain” (Gods and Generals), and “Tell Ol’ Bill” (North Country) respectively, each of which Tell Tale Signs includes in its original or alternate rendition.

Perhaps foreshadowing future Bootleg Series volumes, there is one song apiece--“Miss the
Missippi” and a live “Ring Them Bells”--from two completed but never-released Dylan projects: an album of standards recorded with the producer David Bromberg in 1992 and a series of concerts taped at New York’s Supper Club in 1993. Ironically, the “finished” quality of these songs points up both the unfinished quality of many of the others herein and the extent to which Tell Tale Signs’ appeal will probably be limited to hardcore, arcana-mongering Dylan enthusiasts.

At least one Time Out of Mind outtake, however, “Red River Shore,” seems as finished as any of that album’s intakes. A moving, country-folk recollection of lost love, it was probably disqualified because at nearly eight minutes it wouldn’t have fit on what was already a seventy-three-minute album. Then again, maybe the faith and hope implicit in its last verse simply seemed out of place among what Dylan has called the “skepticism” and concern with “dread realities” conjured by the other songs. “Now, I’ve heard of a guy who lived a long time ago,” he sings, “a man full of sorrow and strife. Then if someone around him died and was dead, / he knew how to bring ’em back to life.”

For a songwriter whose “gospel phase” had supposedly ended over a decade earlier, those lines may be the most tell-tale sign of all.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jucifer: Amber Waves of Grain! (2002)

This show preview appeared in the Times of Acadiana in March 2002. I don't know what has become of Jucifer, but I hope it's been something good. Interviewing Amber Valentine was great fun. (The serial killer referred to near the end of the piece, by the way, has been caught.)
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Jucifer with the Party of Helicopters
Friday, March 14
The Spanish Moon
1109 Highland Road, Baton Rouge


Meet Amber Valentine, the blond, mysterious, electric-guitar-playing half of the heavy-metal punk duo Jucifer. She’d be the undisputed Ice Queen of loud-slow rools if “loud” came near to capturing the sonic onslaught that emerges from the 4,500 pounds of amplification that she and her bandmate/soulmate Ed Livengood lug around in their V-10-powered RV. “Fire and brimstone” describes their sound more accurately, as one might guess from Jucifer song titles such as “Amplifier,” “Vulture Story,” “Gunsick,” “Surface Tension,” “Dissolver,” “Model Year Blowout,” and “Torch.” It’s the audio equivalent of a tantrum thrown by Hephaestus in the heart of his forge. You’ve heard of hardcore? Jucifer is molten-lavacore. Those who can’t stand the heat should get out of the volcano.

Those who can stand it should make the trip to Baton Rouge’s Spanish Moon this Friday night, where, following the opening set of their Velocette Records labelmates the Party of Helicopters, Jucifer will deliver a non-stop, sixty-minute set in support of its latest album, I Name You Destroyer. “We don’t want to do more than an hour,” says Valentine. “Any band, even the greatest band in the world, becomes not as exciting after a certain period of time, and both Ed and I think that somewhere around thirty to forty minutes is the peak set time for any group.” Besides, the time Livengood actually tried going past an hour proved less than felicitous. “We have proved,” Valentine says, “that Edgar can’t play longer than that without passing out.”

The laughter with which the Athens, GA, native punctuates this confession is typical of her downtime demeanor. Whereas onstage she often sings and plays at full linda blare, looking for all the world like Bad-Girl Barbie right down to her prominent nostril ring, offstage she’s soft-spoken and lighthearted, the epitome of Southern charm, laughing her way through a cheerful discussion of the inherent absurdities of her and Livengood’s chosen lifestyle.

On whether their pre-show physical exercise sessions are “workouts” or “warm-ups”: “It’s not so much a workout as a warm-up, because basically our show is a workout, aerobically and for our muscles (laugh).”

On why she needs to warm-up before each show: “I have to be able to scream my head off while also playing guitar and sort of thrashing around. So if I’m out of breath, I’m in trouble (laugh).”

On why she and Livengood don’t abuse substances like real rock stars: “A lot of bands can get pretty wasted and continue to fulfill their duties. But with all our equipment, we end up with about an eighteen-hour workday everyday, so we really couldn’t do what we do if we were messed up (laugh).”

On the difference between going from a whisper to a scream in the studio and doing so onstage: “It’s actually harder to record that way than to perform. When we’re playing a show, I’m very hyped up, and the screaming just flows out. It’s like if you’re really angry and you scream, it doesn’t hurt (laugh).”

On the free downloading of mp3s: “If bands can’t sell their music anymore, they’re going to start disappearing. Of course, nobody likes record labels aesthetically (laugh). None of us really like the idea of having this whole industry based on what most of us would rather think of as art (laugh). But at the same time if I can’t make a living doing this, I’m not going to be able to keep doing it. Maybe the whole music world is going to alter at some point to where bands are making their money only off touring and merchandise and not off records, in which case God help the record labels (laugh)!”

On whether, with two-and-a-half tons of gear, Jucifer is the “heaviest” band on the road: “Maybe (laugh)!” Not counting Emerson, Lake and Palmer, of course: “Yeah, you can’t count the people who actually have equipment trucks (laugh).”

On how Jucifer compensates for the absence of bass guitar in its music: “It’s mostly the way the guitar’s amplified. Also, I play all barre chords. That way I can keep playing the bottom string and make that bass sound (no laugh).”

On what she remembers most about the last time Jucifer played the Spanish Moon: “There was a serial killer on the loose. That was practically all we knew about Baton Rouge (laugh).”

On being reminded that the serial killer still hasn’t been caught: “Hopefully we won’t, you know, run into him” (laugh).

Valentine concedes the unlikelihood of being attacked while armed with a “modified” Fender Jaguar and having her back watched by a drummer wielding sticks at blackout-level intensity. Besides, there’ll be a phalanx of fans so devoted that they sometimes show up early and help unload the gear.

“We’re starting to have pockets of people around the country who’ll come out early and either say or ‘hi’ or help out a little, and it’s really cool when they do,” Valentine says. “But at this point we actually enjoy all the physical work related to our gear because it really does keep us fit. And when you start exercising regularly, you kind of get addicted to it, you know?”

Addiction--now that’s rock-and-roll.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ballad of a Short Man

According to a news story that hit the wire on July 5 (http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Little-People-Demand-FCC-Ban-Midget.html), an organization called the Little People of America has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to ban the use of the word midget on U.S. airwaves. The word, say the tiny folk, is as "offensive" as racial slurs.

The demand arose from the LPA's annual convention, which is being held this week in New York City and attended by approximately three thousand of the diminutive activists (or fifteen hundred in normal-sized-activist numbers).

Apparently, there are no Bob Dylan fans among the Munchkin-like. For if the FCC bows to the dwarfish ones' wishes (how low does one go when bowing to the under-sized?), the prohibition will transform Bob Dylan's 1966 song "Ballad of a Thin Man"--a song that appears in one version or another on six of Dylan's albums--from a poignant expression of existential dislocation into a vehicle for the propagation of "hate speech" and therefore subject radio stations that play it to an as-yet-unspecified penalty.

"Now you see this one-eyed midget," sings Dylan in the sixth verse, "shouting the word 'NOW'...."

As of this writing, there has been no response from America's cyclopes.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cartoon: Food As I Been to You (1994)

(Click image to enlarge.)

SMiLE: The Rest of the Jeffrey Foskett Q&A (2004)

Shortly after the release of Brian Wilson's SMiLE in 2004, I got the opportunity through WORLD magazine to interview Jeffrey Foskett, who, besides having enjoyed a long-running stint in the Beach Boys' touring band, had played a prominent role in SMiLE's recording and was serving as the musical director on Wilson's SMiLE tour.

The specific reason for the assignment was that Foskett had just released Stars in the Sand (a compilation of his best solo work featuring cameos by Marshall Crenshaw, Chicago's Robert Lamm, the Knack's Doug Fiegler, and Brian Wilson himself) on the Pop Collective label. As people could guess from Pop Collective's first release--Making God Smile, an album of Brian Wilson songs as covered (and covered well) by contemporary-Christian musicians--the label had what might be called Christian leanings. So it was that its CEO, Steve West, had contacted WORLD and that WORLD put him in touch with me.

The published Q&A of my Foskett interview concentrated on Foskett’s Christian faith and his experiences with the Beach Boys. It can be found here: http://www.worldmag.com/printer.cfm?id=10225.

What follows--aside from a little more about the Beach Boys--is what Foskett had to say about Stars in the Sand, the making of SMiLE, getting to know Marshall Crenshaw, working with Robert Lamm, and performing uncredited all over a Beach Boys-covers album I’d loved for almost twenty years but had never realized he was on.
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ORTEZA: What's the story behind Stars in the Sand?
FOSKETT: It’s my U.S. debut, but it's also kind of a compilation. I have some new songs on there that haven’t been released, and Steve [West] really liked the songs that I’d had on other CDs, and he said, rather than re-record a bunch of different things and release a new album where you are now, let's introduce people to where you’ve come from, and then our next record can be a totally new album.

ORTEZA: What other CDs of yours had he heard?
FOSKETT: I had nine discs before this one, and they were all released on New Surf, which is my own label. Steve liked a lot of those songs, and I gave him a choice of thirty, I guess. Or he gave me a choice of thirty. Then I gave him ten or twelve that I liked the most out of those, and the three guys involved in that label picked ten or twelve that they liked, and then I gave them two previously unreleased songs.

ORTEZA: Which two are those?

FOSKETT: “Living Alone” and “The Mystery of Moonlight.”

ORTEZA: The two co-written by Robert Lamm.

FOSKETT: Correct. Yeah.

ORTEZA: I'll come back to those. But first, as someone who spent a lot of time with the California “Jesus Movement” musicians in the 1970s, did you ever know Chuck Girard [the former lead singer of the Jesus-rock band Love Song and the '60s surf band the Hondells]?

FOSKETT: Oh yeah.

ORTEZA: He had some early Brian Wilson interaction, didn’t he, back when he was in the Hondells?
FOSKETT: Oh yeah. I think there was another guy’s name in front of the Hondells, like “Buddy Randall and the Hondells.” But obviously it was Chuck Girard’s band. He was the lead singer and everything. But somebody else probably had the mother who rented the equipment or something.

ORTEZA: Speaking of renting equipment, how long was it after Mike Love saw your band [the Reverie Rhythm Rockers] perform that he hired you?
FOSKETT: Two or three days. His manager called and asked our band if we wanted to go out on the road to support his solo project.

ORTEZA: Which was Looking Back with Love?

FOSKETT: Looking Back with Love and some of the Almost Summer stuff. We said, “Yeah, sure, we’d love to do it obviously.” And from there he hired me to be in the Beach Boys when Carl left to do his solo tour.

ORTEZA: So you were Carl Wilson’s official replacement?
FOSKETT: Myself and a guy named Adrian Baker, who, strangely enough, I’m still very good friends with--and in another band with.

ORTEZA: Were you ever in Papa Doo Ron Ron?
FOSKETT: I’m in them currently. I don’t say I’m a full-time member. The keyboard player and leader is my former brother-in-law. And as he says onstage--the way he introduces me--“Yeah, Jeffery married my sister. Then she divorced him. So we decided to remain brothers-in-law, and I no longer have a sister” (laughs). It’s kind of a cute thing. We’re very good friends, and he’s a very sweet guy. So that’s my relief and my fun. It’s what I do with them because I don’t have any responsibility in that band. I show up. I hang a guitar around my neck, and away we go, whereas in Brian’s band, you know, everything falls to me.

ORTEZA: Are you on the Papa Doo Ron Ron album that came out on Telarc in 1985?
FOSKETT: I’m credited in the “thank you”s, but I actually sing all of the voices on eight of the songs and lead on eleven of the songs.

ORTEZA: I’ve enjoyed that album for almost twenty years.
FOSKETT: “Don’t Worry Baby” and “In My Room” and “The Warmth of the Sun” were all my voices. The liner notes wouldn’t say that because they didn’t want people to think that it was anyone other than Papa Doo Ron Ron doing it.

ORTEZA: That was a tremendous record.
FOSKETT: It really was. It’s not that accurate, looking back at it, but it sure was a lot of fun.

ORTEZA: It was accurate enough.
FOSKETT: Yeah. In 1985 there was no digital recording of the Beach Boys. So, I mean, that was it.

ORTEZA: You performed with the Beach Boys for a decade. Are you still in touch with them?
FOSKETT: I’m still good friends with everyone in the Beach Boys. There are no hang-ups or animosity towards anyone or anything. I was just at LAX on Sunday and saw Al Jardine. And I’m friendly with Bruce [Johnston]. I call him a couple of times a month. And, obviously, I see Brian all the time. Michael and I don’t speak all that often, but we’re friendly when we see each other.

ORTEZA: How did you meet Marshall Crenshaw?
FOSKETT: I was in the Beach Boys, but I was still living in Santa Barbara, and when I heard his record--when I spun that thing for the first time--I was absolutely bowled over. And I was in a power-pop trio called the Pranks. The Reverie Rhythm Rockers was our club band, and the Pranks was the same personnel, but it was only original music. We tried doing it as the Reverie Rhythm Rockers, but people would yell, “Play ‘Nowhere Man’! Play ‘Twist and Shout’!” So we changed the name, and they knew it was only original music when we were the Pranks, and they knew it was only cover music when we were Reverie.

As the Pranks we were being courted by a couple of different record labels, one of them being Warner Brothers. This gal, Roberta Peterson, who was Ted Templeman’s sister, was really hot on us, but she was also really hot on another trio from the East Coast, and that happened to be Marshall Crenshaw’s band. She said, “I’m only going to sign one of you guys, so I’m bringing all the big wigs to your next concert.” Well, the big wigs didn’t even show up, so we figured that they’d signed the other band. And I’m really glad they did, because when I spun Crenshaw’s disc, man, I was flipped. I mean, that first record of his is the standard by which all power-pop records should be measured, in my opinion. And being that kind of fan, of the music and then the guy that wrote the music, I was in awe. So I read an interview with him where he said that the guitar he really wanted was an Epiphone Wilshire 12, which is a twelve-string guitar. And he said, “I saw a picture of one in a catalog, but I’m convinced Epiphone never made one because I’ve never seen one, and I’ve looked in every pawn shop and in every music store.”

Now, one strange thing was that I owned one. So what happened was, he was playing the home club that I used to play in Santa Barbara. I wasn’t in that band anymore, and they were now just having big-name acts come through and play. Crenshaw was playing, and I knew all the guys there. So I walked up onto the stage after his sound check, and I put the Epiphone Wilshire 12 on his guitar stand, and I wrote, “Merry Christmas from Jeffrey Foskett.” He didn’t know who that was, so he said, “Hey, is there a Jeffrey Foskett in the audience?” So I went up there, and I said “Yeah.” And he said, “Are you giving me this guitar?” I said, “Yeah” (laughs)!

ORTEZA: Now, that’s the way to make a good first impression.
FOSKETT: Exactly. So obviously we hit it off well, and we remain close to this day.

ORTEZA: I’m guessing that you came into contact with Robert Lamm through the Beach Boys since they and Chicago go way back?
FOSKETT: Yeah. We did a lot of “Beachago” tours, as they call them. We did several months, two or three times, with Chicago and the Beach Boys. And Robert and I, fortunately, always shared a microphone and always stood on the same spot onstage. And he loved my energy and loved the way that I sang. You know, if Jimmy Pankow didn’t write it [a Chicago song], Robert Lamm did. Pankow wrote a lot of the early stuff, and Robert’s the one that kept them going through the “lean years,” as I like to say. He’s such a talented guy, and to this day he’s just so--what’s the word I’m looking for?--so non-egotistical and so generous with letting other people sing his music. And I said, “Robert, man, you wrote seventy percent of those live songs, and the rest of the guys in your band are singing them.” And he said, “I don’t mind being the puppet master as long as we work” (laughs). And I thought, “What a cool thing!” So he was very cool. And he let me sing “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” onstage when we would do that because he liked the way I sang it, you know? That was cool, and we got along very well.

And one day--I don’t know, a couple of years ago--he called me and said, “Hey, I’m looking for some new writing partners. You know, I like to just change things and change styles and get other ideas. Are you interested?” And I said, “Of course!” He said, “Great.” Well then--I mean, this guy is no nonsense. He said, “I’m free on the thirtieth at two o’clock. I’ll be at your house.” And I said, “Great” (laughs)! So, sure enough, at 1:55 up pulls Robert Lamm, takes his keyboard out of his trunk, comes into the house, and we hammered out three or four songs.

ORTEZA: Did it break down along lyrics-music lines, or was it more of a mesh?
FOSKETT: No. It was total fifty-fifty on everything, except for “Living Alone.” What happened was, he has an entire cache of lyrics and other things. And he said, “If you want to look through these, go ahead.” It was like looking through, you know, the Holy Grail, because this is stuff that he never lets anybody see. He said, “I‘m very hesitant to show my unpublished lyrics to anybody, but I want you to look at them.” So he had this song called “Living Alone,” and I said, “This is a very interesting song. How did you write these lyrics?” And he said, “I haven’t looked at those in almost twenty-five years. I wrote those the night after Karen Lamm left me.”

ORTEZA: For one of the Beach Boys, right?
FOSKETT: Yeah, for Dennis. I said, “Do you mind if I take a shot at writing some music for that?” And he said, “No. Go ahead.” So I only changed a couple of the lyrical things. I would say it’s ninety-nine percent Robert. I think I added one line. And then I wrote most of the music, probably ninety-eight percent of the music. And he made some chord changes in there that he thought would go better than what I had.

ORTEZA: The new SMiLE album is a completely new recording, right?
FOSKETT: It’s absolutely a new recording. We cut the basic tracks in four days at Sunset Sound, and then we did the vocals, and it took about a week to do the vocals.

ORTEZA: Was the original version anywhere close to being finished back in 1967 when Brian abandoned it?
FOSKETT: Well, as he did with “Good Vibrations,” he recorded everything in sections. So were the sections recorded and did we have a template to work from? Yes. But was it put in any kind of sensical order? No.

ORTEZA: So this sequence is the first official one?
FOSKETT: If you look at Brian’s quote-unquote handwritten sequence in a lot of the publications of what these experts think of SMiLE, first of all, it’s not Brian’s handwriting. I know that for a fact because obviously I would know. And secondly they had it ending with “Old Master Painter,” which doesn’t make any sense. “Old Master Painter” is that old folk song, you know, that is all of thirty-three seconds long or whatever it is. And obviously it’s just stuff that they had recorded at that point. It wasn’t an order. And, don’t quote me, but I think it’s Diane Rovell’s handwriting. And I think she was just writing down things that were recorded. The order makes no sense! So there was never a version cut together. And all the experts are like, “Oh, this is the definitive order! This is Brian Wilson’s handwriting!” Yeah. O.K. Whatever. No, there was never an order put together, but there were a lot of those songs, as I said, that we drew from to have our template, made and recorded already.

ORTEZA: It seems odd that this album that went unfinished for over thirty years finally came together so quickly.
FOSKETT: Well, we had been performing it live, which was a good move. We went out and took it on the road for four months before we recorded it. So we were very familiar with it. And we were able to do it almost live. As a matter of fact, we cut it section by section. We did basically the three full sections. And then, with the exception of a couple of the songs--like “Good Vibrations,” which we did as a totally separate entity.

ORTEZA: Why did he decide to go with "Good Vibrations"' alternate lyrics?
FOSKETT: Those are the original lyrics that Tony Asher wrote. Michael Love wrote the other ones because, quite frankly, he didn’t like Tony’s lyrics. And Brian always liked Tony’s lyrics better. So he wanted to use them because they were the ones that he wanted originally. Michael Love was also aware of publishing in those days, of songwriting credit and whatnot. And, quite frankly, Mike told me he wrote the lyrics on the way to the recording studio. It’s nothing that he sat down and thought about. He wanted new lyrics, and he wanted to impress Brian. So he wrote them on the way to the session. And he didn’t live that far from the studio, you know? He lived on Coldwater, and the studio was on Sunset. So it wasn’t that big of a deal.

ORTEZA: I’m guessing that serving as the musical director for the SMiLE tour must be enormously daunting.
FOSKETT: Well, actually, I really enjoyed every minute of it. When we talked about it originally, I thought, “I don’t know how we’re going to do this.” But I'll give credit where credit is due--obviously, Brian’s genius is in writing all that stuff, and then this fellow Darian [Sahanaja], who plays the keyboards in the band, deserves a lot of credit as well. He was the one that kind of put together and made sense out of all of the parts for us to learn to sing. So that was nice, because it saved me a ton of time. Darian is a very sweet guy and a very right-on musician, and he actually helped a great deal in that fashion.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince: Live

The coolest post-Creem rock magazine in the world was New Zealand's Real Groove. This review appeared in its November 1997 issue--before Prince started calling himself Prince again.
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Cajundome, Lafayette, La., August 13

Several days before playing the 14,000-plus-seating Cajundome in Lafayette, La., the former Prince Rogers Nelson granted a television interview during which he was asked the following question: Since his "name" is nothing more than an unpronounceable design, what do his employees call him when they want his attention? "Sir," he answered. Fair enough.

The pre-show signs were ominous. What sort of egomaniac plays his own music (in this case, the entire three-disc Emancipation album) over the sound system before he comes on-stage? Weirder yet, who but a televangelist subjects his faithful to endless repetitions of a pre-recorded message comprising nothing but directions for how to order his relics? Simply by calling 1-800-NEWFUNK, everything from necklaces (silver and gold), T-shirts, hockey jerseys, CDs (Crystal Ball, The Truth, Kama Sutra), "beanie hats," and--my favorite--"Mr. Happy and Emancipation Underwear" could be ours.

Call it the price of freedom. Having ended his relationship with Warner Brothers, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince now bears sole responsibility for whether or not his name--whatever it is--remains synonymous with profit. In other words, having driven the moneychangers from his temple, he now has to set up shop there himself, lest the cash flow trickle to a halt.

Sir has long appropriated religious imagery. In Lafayette he followed "The Cross," his hard-rocking orthodox gospel tune from Sign o' the Times, with "One of Us," the only hit Joan Osborne will ever have and the most provocative piece of theological inquiry to hit the pop charts since Murray Head asked Jesus Christ, Superstar, who in the world He thought He was twenty-six years ago. "Do U believe in love?" Sir asked the crowd between the songs. The sound of many thousands of voices shouting affirmatively in unison assured him that they did. Who's gonna pay sixty-five dollars per ticket not to believe in love?

Beginning promptly at 9:15 and ending promptly two hours later, Sir's "Jam of the Year Tour" lived up to its name. A bit of history puts the event in its proper context. Prince released his first album, For You, in 1978 at the age of nineteen. Bob Dylan released his first album in 1962 at twenty-one. Bruce Springsteen released his in 1973 at twenty-two. By 1982 Prince was king of the hill. All of twenty-three, his double album 1999 had yielded the hits "Little Red Corvette" (song number four in Lafayette), "Delirious" (truncated as part of a piano-only medley), and its millernarian title cut (appropriately saved for an encore), joining Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (1966) and Springsteen's The River (1980) in the great-double-album pantheon.

Dylan, however, waited nine years before delivering his next great album, Blood on the Tracks, and Springsteen waited four before delivering Born in the U.S.A. Prince delivered Purple Rain immediately, then kept on delivering. (Only 1985's Around the World in a Day has acquired a reputation as a dud). And according to a recent story in the New York Times, Sir has "one thousand or so unreleased songs" in his vaults. That's a hundred albums' worth, give or take a box set, a total that Dylan and Springsteen combined--heck, throw in Neil Young--can't touch.

And although Dylan and Springsteen were, in fact, still touring successfully in the nineteenth years of their careers, they were not filling their shows with non-stop Michael-and-Janet dancing, piano humping, costume changes (three), heavy-metal guitar solos (many), or invitations to crowd members to dance on-stage (four). And even if they had been, do you think either Dylan or Springsteen could've ever moved every man in a Louisiana sports facility to sing along both loudly and proudly to "If I Was Your Girlfriend"?

"I'd love to stay, but I ain't got no more hits," the diminutive genius joked at one point, apparently oblivious to his omission of "U Got the Look" and "The Holy River," to name just two. Then he launched into his tributes to classic rock bands, "Cream" and "Kiss," and the near sell-out crowd responded to Sir with love once more.