Tuesday, April 28, 2009


(As published in the Illinois Entertainer...)


For Boz Scaggs, September 11 was supposed to be a red-letter day. Not only was Dig, his first album of original material in seven years, due to hit the streets, but he was packed and ready to fly to Miami for a music-industry convention at which he would launch the disc with interviews and a performance. Then three hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “We were at the airport,” Scaggs recalls. “Of course, everything was cancelled.”

One can hardly imagine music less likely to serve as the soundtrack to international cataclysm than Scaggs’. For more than a quarter of a century, his songs have set standards of button-down class and urbane sophistication undreamt of in the philosophies of most other R&B-rooted rockers. Yet in retrospect several lines on Dig do seem prescient. “I rode that beast down into the ground,” Scaggs sings in “King of El Paso.” “That devil carried me. / Watch a few go down / to the fire or the rope. / You leave little to chance / and nothing to hope.” Perhaps even more to the point, and less rhetorically than one would at first suppose, “Payday” finds Scaggs asking the musical question, “Do we really need an apocalypse now?”

Chuckling, he insists that any similarities between himself and Nostradamus are purely coincidental (“You’re so overwhelmed by the real event of that day that, you know, it’s hardly worth considering”), but in a strange way the music he’s created on Dig does suit the current mood. For one thing, it’s all pensive rhythms and after-hours tempos, with singing both soulful and soul-searching. Second, it’s calming, the ideal tonic at the end of a long day crammed with wars and rumors of wars--calming, that is, in a somber sort of way.

“If there is a thread that runs through this album,” says Scaggs in an interview contained in Dig’s enhanced portion, “it’s that pretty much song-for-song you’re talking about a string of losers who’ve lost out in one way or another. From sort of a world-weary attitude of a ‘Thanks To You’ song to maybe a vet who came back from Viet Nam and never could put it together on ‘Payday,’ to ‘Desire’ to ‘I Just Go,’ they’re a series of dead-ends in some way.”

The music itself, on the other hand, feels like a through street, one that forms intersections with jazz, blues, R&B, and gospel (cf. the Staples-like “Call That Love”) and that Scaggs, now fifty-seven, can ride for another quarter of a century should he so choose. Crafted in large part by Scaggs, David Paich, and Danny Kortchmar with state-of-the-art digital technology, it boasts the deepest and warmest bottom of any Boz Scaggs album while also introducing such sparingly and sensitively deployed details as the gossamer trumpet of the up-and-coming jazz star Roy Hargrove, Jr. In short, after listening to Dig, even die-hard fans of Scaggs’ all-time best-selling LP--1976’s Silk Degrees--will have to admit that Scaggs’ current degrees are in many ways silkier.

It’s unlikely that there’s a Silk Degrees fan more die-hard than Craig Kilbourne, the late-night talk-show host on whose CBS show Scaggs appeared in early October. No sooner had Kilbourne announced Scaggs as part of the evening’s entertainment than he held up a copy of Silk Degrees and proceeded to claim that it, not Dig, was and always would be his favorite Boz LP. He had, he said, encountered the album in junior high school, and had loved it ever since. What followed was a not unfunny bit in which Kilbourne played the role of an infomercial pitchman for Silk Degrees, his every rhapsodic reminiscence followed by the uncomprehending comments of one of his youthful assistants, whose job it was to reiterate that, unlike Kilbourne, he was “too young” to know anything about the album.

The skit points up two bitterweet aspects of the Silk Degrees phenomenon. First, while it’s better to be loved for one album than not to be loved at all, it’s even nicer to be loved for more than one album. “Silk Degrees is an easy thing for people to focus on because it was so visible,” Scaggs concedes, “but it certainly gets old, and I just think it’s kind of lazy sometimes of people to just stick on one thing. Of course, in a situation like ‘The Late, Late Show,’ he genuinely knew, and knew all about, that record. He just was kind of relentless with it. Of course, you can‘t knock that kind of enthusiasm. I have the same sort of feelings myself for certain records that were really pivotal in my experience. So I can understand. But, yeah, I think I’d rather people recognize the body of work rather than one thing.”

The other point that Kilbourne’s skit makes is that there now exists an entire generation of pop-music lovers for whom the name “Boz Scaggs” and songs such as “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle,” and “What Can I Say” mean nothing. (Perhaps it was such a young person who so programmed the spell-check functions of Windows 95 word-processing programs to suggest “Booze Scabs” upon encountering the Dallas-bred musician’s moniker. By way of an upgrade, Windows 98 spell-check functions suggest “Bozo Skaggs.”)

One reason for Scaggs’ low name recognition among today’s under-thirties is that since Silk Degrees he has averaged over four years between albums, with no fewer than eight transpiring between Middle Man (1980) and Other Roads (1988) and six between Other Roads and Some Change (1994). In a 1988 interview with Rolling Stone, Scaggs attributed the first of his two hiatuses to a desire to “step outside” the demands created by one who’d had as much “fortune and fame” as he’d had, and, although he avoided specifics, many assumed that between starting and maintaining the San Francisco nightclub Slim’s and fighting his ex-wife for custody of his sons, he’d simply run out of the time and energy to tour, write, and tour.

Unfortunately, the album that was supposed to mark his return--Other Roads--ended up prompting the second hiatus, albeit inadvertently. “I started working on that album in probably ’85 or ’86,” he recalls, “and in that time period a whole new regime had come into my record company, CBS Records at the time. I didn’t know the president or the CEO. Well, I delivered my album as I always had, and then we got a reply saying, ‘There are no singles on this record. Go in and cut five or six more tracks.’ I was dumbfounded.”

Scaggs, who had never had any of his albums rejected before, was at an impasse. “Of course, the choice was either cut some more tracks or let them throw the record away. Literally, they’ll trash it. They’re big enough and powerful enough, and they’ve got other records to work. So we cut some more tracks, wrote some more stuff, and in the end we ended up using some remixes and cutting some new tracks with a new producer. Then I went back to the original producer, and we cut another track. The album ended up being just a sort of hodge-podge, and I left the label.”

Eventually, however, just as it was a record company that convinced him to resume his retirement, it was another record company that wooed him back. Since signing with Virgin Records in ’94, Scaggs has recorded Some Change and Come On Home (’97), the latter primarily a collection of the kind of blues and R&B oldies that made up the bulk of Scaggs’ live repertoire during the ’80’s. Like such pre-Silk Degrees albums as Slow Dancer and My Time, the Virgin albums featured meticulous, top-notch studio work but generated more in the way of positive reviews than they did in the way of revenue.

Still, Scaggs has nothing but praise for Virgin, who in addition to giving him free reign in the studio (“They’re probably the last label left in the world that does that,” he says) have also gotten behind the new album in a big way, releasing both a regular edition and a deluxe cloth-bound edition containing the audio disc and an image-enhanced DVD-friendly version. “To find a label,” says Scaggs, “that genuinely likes a record and believes in it and is willing to put their resources behind it makes a lot of difference.”

So does patience, or so one would think. After all, it’s not every superstar who can wait six-to-eight years between records for the sake of a principle. Surprisingly, Scaggs does not consider patience to be one of his virtues. “Patience was a good part of the process of making Dig,” he admits, “but I wouldn’t call myself a very patient person. It doesn’t come easy, or naturally, to me sometimes. I’m a perfectionist, but I like to work really fast, and I think that’s another thing that has to do with how these things come out.”

As far as Scaggs’ fans are concerned, of course, as long as “these things” keep coming out at all--and as long as they’re as good as Dig--the nomenclature can be settled later.

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