Friday, March 23, 2007
As we continute to mourn the passing of Larry “Bud” Melman, this week marks another Late Night with David Letterman milestone: the 23rd anniversary of one of television history’s most bizzare talk-show lineups. On March 22, 1984, Dave’s guests were Bob Dylan and Liberace. Together, they make three of the most unique products of American dream.
Dylan was enjoying perhaps the third of his many “comebacks.” His new album Infidels was being hailed as his strongest since Blood on the Tracks. Indeed, Infidels featured some of Dylan’s strongest material in years: “Jokerman,” “License to Kill,” “Neighborhood Bully,” “Sweetheart Like You.” But more remarkable was what Dylan left off the record: “Foot of Pride,” “Need a Woman” and the song routinely — and deservedly — described as his best of the 80s, “Blind Willie McTell.” Reportedly, producer Mark Knopfler was so frustrated by Dylan’s refusal to release these tracks that he vowed never to work with him again. They were finally released in 1991 in the first edition of the Bootleg Series.
Infidels boasted the type of band that only Dylan could put together. Sharing axe duties with Knopfler was former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. And the rhythm section was the famed reggae duo Sly & Robbie.
But rather than bring his band of legends for his high-profile TV appearance, he got the LA Latino punk band The Plugz, who had also been known as the Cruzados, to back him up. They played three tracks. The first, a blazing cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking,” wasn’t even on Infidels. And “Jokerman” received an aggressive attack that bore little resemblance to the studio versions. "License to Kill" was a little closer to the album version, but rawer. In some ways these versions were actually superior to the Knopfler-produced versions, which have that slightly sterile “80s sound” that has aged about as gracefully as David Lee Roth. (YouTube also has rare footage of Dylan & his band's rehearsals for the show which also include a run-through of "My Guy.")
Sadly, Dylan and Liberace did not take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to duet. In fact, Liberace baked a casserole. Alas, one can only fantasize about what a Dylan-Liberace medley of “Chopsticks” into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” would sound like.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Calvert DeForest, aka Larry “Bud” Melman, passed away this week at the age of 85. If you came of age during the early years of Late Night with David Letterman, it is time to pause and reflect.
Rotund, jowly, graying, with huge glasses, a Willy Loman suit and ridiculous speaking voice, DeForest was completely unqualified to be on television. In short, just what Letterman needed for his genre-reinventing new show. In 1982, after seeing him in a writer’s NYU student film, Dave hired Calvert away from his filing job at a drug rehab facility and renamed him Larry “Bud” Melman.
Dave put Larry “Bud” to work handing out hot towels to tourists at the Empire State Building and the Port Authority. Asking for change while wearing a bear suit. Singing “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” Enjoying some delicious Toast on a Stick. Shopping for a car that matched his bumper sticker. Melman could barely read a cue card and couldn’t handle a microphone. Yet he forged ahead with aplomb. Any segment with Larry “Bud” was sure to run off the rails, and we were all the better for it.
I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Melman on May 5, 1983. For my high school newspaper, I interviewed an alum who was a writer for Late Night. I watched that evening’s broadcast in the guest’s “green room.” On that night were George Burns and Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. But for me, Larry “Bud” was the biggest star in the room.
While George Burns smoked his trademark cigar and spun tales from the vaudeville era (I still have his cigar butt), and Bench sat rather quietly and arrogantly, Larry “Bud” lit up the room with his warmth and complete lack of ego or pretension. In fact, when I asked him for his autograph, he thanked me repeatedly. No Larry “Bud.” Thank you. May a hot towel be waiting for you as you pass through the pearly gates.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Live at Massey Hall 1971
If you’re walking down the street and see someone pinching himself, there’s an above-average chance he or she is a Neil Young fan. That’s because the maverick Canadian has finally opened his legendary Archives. And the first two releases — one electric, the other acoustic — perfectly illustrate the yin and yang of Young. And prove that no one gets yinnier or yangier.
Live at the Fillmore East, a blazing 1970 set with Crazy Horse, was released in November. Now comes a solo acoustic show from a year later, Live at Massey Hall 1971. For most artists, the format of just a man, his Martin and a baby grand would make them more mellow. But in Neil’s case, the intimacy just makes him more intense.
Massey Hall was recorded in Toronto at a time when his commercial popularity actually matched his monumental talent. These were the glory days of the singer-songwriter: Dylan of course, plus Joni, JT, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, John Denver. After the Gold Rush was high on the charts and the tunes that would become Harvest — “A Man Needs A Maid,” “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “There’s a World,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” — were pouring out of him faster than he could record them.
In fact, that’s why the Massey Hall show was taped – to get the songs down. But while on tour in Nashville, Neil hooked up with some studio cats (some of whom also played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline) and quickly recorded the classic studio album.
As one would expect from famously fastidious Neil Young, Massey Hall has pin-drop sound, some great bonuses, Grade-A material and off course, a jaw-dropping performance. His vocals on “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” echo through the hall like a hungry wolf’s howl across the Canadian tundra. It’s a gripping performance of one of his greatest songs. Equally magnificent is “Journey Through the Past” a piano song that ranks with his best but has never been on CD until now. (It was the title track for his 1973 film and appeared on the legendary live Time Fades Away. Both are out of print). Another highlight is the piano medley of “A Man Needs A Maid” into “Heart of Gold.” And he shows that “Cowgirl in the Sand” works just as well in a solo context as it does as an epic barnburner.
The deluxe edition of Massey Hall comes with a DVD of the video of most of the concert. It’s a small miracle that someone had the foresight to not only record this show, but film it as well. There’s also an early 70s interview with the real-life “Old Man,” the rancher and caretaker of Broken Arrow, Neil’s 1500-acre ranch in northern California. Turns out Neil’s a lot like he was.
Coming later this year is The Archives Vol.01, 8 CDs and 2 DVDs of unreleased studio and live tracks, photos, a 150-page book and more. And that just covers up to 1972. The trailer has some amazing footage: recording the Harvest version of “There’s a World” with a full orchestra. Doing background vocals on “Alabama” with Crosby and Stills. Re-tuning a fan’s guitar so he can play “Cinnamon Girl.” Pinch me.
Friday, March 16, 2007
On the occasion of R.E.M.’s induction into the Rock& Roll Hall of Fame, the Athens Banner Herald paper did a nice series of articles on their local heroes. Best was an amusing exchange of emails with erstwhile drummer Bill Berry.
"Except for the being famous part, pop star is a fine occupation," Berry says in the interview.
As any R.E.M. fan will tell you, Bill Berry was the band’s true secret weapon whose contributions to the band were made painfully clear by his absence. In addition to being an energetic, creative, slightly quirky drummer, he was also a gifted multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. Supposedly he had a key hand in writing some of their biggest and best tracks, including “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon,” “Perfect Circle” and “Wendell Gee.” But his love of music was dwarfed by his disdain for the trappings of rock stardom: the endless touring, the photo shoots, the repetitive interviews.
In 1997, after a near-fatal aneurysm and the release of the excellent, sprawling New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Berry left the band at the age of 39. Rather than disband, the remaining members soldiered on as what Michael Stipe called “a three-legged dog.” The quality of R.E.M.’s music took a depressing nose-dive. Up, Reveal and Around the Sun are a case study in the fragility of band chemistry.
Up is the sound of a band in turmoil, which occasionally makes for interesting listening. But Reveal and Around the Sun are duds from beginning to end, the product of three consummate pros with too much studio time on their hands.
Berry, meanwhile, lives on a farm outside Athens with his artistic integrity completely intact, entertaining his family as BOMB (“Berry’s One Man Band”) and becoming a sushi chef. Basically, all the things you and I say we would do if we didn’t need to work.
Back in the 80s, R.E.M. seemed like the last group that would fade away with such a whimper. But lately there have been signs of a possible resurgence. Monday night’s Hall of Fame set was full of their classic energy, with Berry driving the band through “Begin the Begin,” “Gardening at Night” and a version of “Man on the Moon” with inductor Eddie Vedder sharing vocals. A few months ago they did a great set at Athens’ 40 Watt Club, the college-rock equivalent of the Cavern in Liverpool.
In more promising news, all four members recorded together for the first time since Berry left for an excellent cover of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” for a Darfur benefit record. Berry's presence seems to lift the other three to rediscover their sense of urgency, giving this beauty the elusive, magical "unibrow" factor. You can get it on iTunes now.
For R.E.M.’s devoted fans, who still aren’t quite ready to give up on the group whose music has meant so much, this flurry of activity is intriguing indeed. R.E.M. is known to be working on a new album, which as always they promise will be looser and more spontaneous than their recent snoozefests. No one expects Berry to tour the Far East or do a press junket, but it's reasonable to believe that this most democratic of bands could record close to Athens and soak-up some of that Berry magic. Is it possible that the insurgency has begun and we missed it?
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
In the new Ladies Home Journal — never miss it — Sheryl Crow lashes out against American Idol.
“Let’s face it,” she says, “it undermines art in every way and promotes commercialism. I am sad people love it so.”
Crow is to be applauded for sending the world this urgent wake-up call. Like a lite-FM Norma Rae, she has bravely battled the evil forces of commercialism since the late 80s, when she sang backup for a little-known pedophile named Michael Jackson.
Since finding success on her own, she has truly “walked the walk,” refusing all endorsements – except for the Wall Street Journal. And American Express. Oh, and Subaru. And Dell Computers. That was it. Wait, there’s also her low-key Super Bowl commercial for Revlon “Not Fade Away” Hair Color, featuring an incredibly lame version of the Buddy Holly standard.
Ms. Crow’s hypocrisy and self-seriousness should make her a lock for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame somewhere around 2020. But that aside, how does American Idol undermine art? Is there a street-corner blues musician whose seven-figure contract was torn up to pay for Taylor Hicks? Are Fantasia’s twelve-year-old fans complaining that the art they deserve is being undermined?
Besides, American Idol has little to do with music. It’s a horse race. You pick a favorite early on and root for them to go all the way, Simon Cowell be damned.
A few years back, Sheryl Crow did a wonderful cover version of Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” on the Timeless tribute CD. She should think about undermining her current “art” and making an old-school country album someday.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
On March 12, R.E.M. will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe more or less invented and perfected “alternative” rock, wrote a string of great albums, built their audience on their own terms, had a few mammoth hits and were pretty much infallible until the departure of Bill Berry in 1997. The Hall is a ridiculous institution, but it's a well-deserved honor.
Then, in the "Undeserved" column, there’s Patti Smith. She’s pretentious, overrated, musically forgettable. But she has friends and fans (like Michael Stipe) in the right places, so she’s in. Like few others, she has been able to convince the rock intelligencia that she is Hall of Fame material, in spite of making perfectly decent but very ordinary music. In fact she could write a book called How to Get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Dummies. For those of us who don’t have time to read the entire volume, I’ll top-line it for you.
• Position yourself as a poet whose outlet just happens to be rock music
• Adopt the androgynous, unshowered hollow-cheekboned, war-baby look perfected by late-60s Mick & Keith
• Have a clear connection to the Ramones (Smith also got her start at CBGB)
• Marry a fellow critic’s darling (Her late husband was Fred “Sonic” Smith of the equally overrated proto-punk band the MC5.)
• Sport a guitarist who moonlights as a rock critic (Lenny Kaye, who also compiled the critically hallowed garage-band comp Nuggets)
• Trash a religious, political or musical idol on your first album – this will make you “important” (Horses starts with the line “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine”)
• In interviews, casually drop the “right” references: Dylan, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Mappelthorpe, Brian Jones
• At photo sessions, assume the pose of a high priestess or sha-woman rock & roll survivor (see above).
• Have one hit song, so critics can say you "briefly dabbled with mainstream success" (“Because the Night” written with Bruce Springsteen)
To her credit, Patti Smith has a nice voice and an excellent stage presence, as I saw at a Tibet House benefit in the 90s. A few years later, I saw her bring up the rear of the Greenwich Village Halloween parade by playing on the bed of a moving truck — a cool gesture and brilliant homage to the Stones. She admirably dropped out of the music biz for several years to raise her family.
But is she really any better musically than, say, the Go-Go’s? Here was a truly pioneering, all-woman rock band, playing their own instruments, having their way with male groupies, partying as hard as Van Halen, and writing instant-classic pop tunes like “Our Lips Are Sealed” that sold millions and still sound great today.
Yet on March 12, while the rock elite hails Smith as a poet, prophet and priestess, the Go-Go’s and other equally deserving without the right street-cred — XTC, the English Beat, The Jam, Squeeze — will huddle outside the Waldorf, sharing a smoke and a bottle of Night Train.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Rock Turtleneck Book Club
Exile in Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones
By Robert Greenfield
(Da Capo Press)
For music geeks raised on the canon of classic rock albums, it is an accepted fact that a true masterpiece must rise like a phoenix from the ashes of madness, drugs, hangers-on, too much cash or too many chicks. The Beatles' White Album, Blood on the Tracks, Rumours, Wish You Were Here, In Utero, Tonight’s the Night, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and of course, Exile on Main St. are almost as celebrated for their backstories as for their music.
Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones has all the makings of great book: It's 1971, and the Stones are at the top of their game but losing money due to England's 95% tax rate on the well-off. (As George Harrison said in “Taxman,” here’s one for you, 19 for me.) To stay afloat financially, they need to get back on the road, but first they need to make an album. (These were the days before a mega-band could routinely go three or four years between releases.) So Keith rents an old mansion in the south of France called Villa Nellcote and the Stones become rock’s first tax exiles. With nowhere to go, the Stones take their decadence to a new level: the humid basement where they head late each night to lay down their swampiest blues to date. They emerge months later with their first double LP, their fourth consecutive masterpiece and arguably their best album.
But unlike Exile on Main St., which is the ultimate elegantly wasted rock & roll statement, Exile the book is just a waste.
Instead of focusing on the music, Greenfield dishes on the never-ending parade of despicable Eurotrash that passes through Nellcote’s gates, and Keith’s various attempts to “score” or have someone score for him, and the huge, frequent cash payouts to various international authorities to keep Keith out of the clink. We also learn — make sure you’re sitting down — Mick is an aloof, two-faced jetsetter with an even more aloof bride Bianca. Charlie and Bill are quiet and punctual. And relative newcomer Mick Taylor is totally miserable. Reading this, it’s a wonder Taylor, who didn’t have the same tax issues as the rest of the band, stayed in the Stones as long as he did. (Turns out Keith was actually not a fan of the rhythm/lead dynamic between him & Taylor, and preferred the guitar mesh he perfected with Brian Jones and later with Woody.)
To spare my dear readers the chore of trudging through the manure to sniff out a Stones truffle, I’ll share the book's other worthwhile passages.
•After nodding off earlier in the evening, Keith calls producer/fellow junkie Jimmy Miller at three in the morning to drive back to the Villa so he can lay down the six-string bedrock of what will become “Rocks Off.” Miller has just gotten home from Keith’s place but turns around and is glad he did.
•Keith bangs out “Happy” when he’s feeling uh… happy.
•“Sweet Black Angel,” one of Exile’s great deep cuts, was recorded not in France but at Mick’s English countryside estate.
•Many Exile cuts actually date as far back as the 1969 Let it Bleed sessions.
Somehow, 18 songs were given lyrics and melodies and recorded in France, then mixed and mastered in L.A., and housed in one of the most memorable covers ever. Greenfield doesn’t bother to tell us how this happened, but he does mention that the Glimmer Twins had a couple of wild nights at the Playboy mansion. Even more incredibly, the book inexplicably changes direction at the end to current times to talk about Mick’s unrivaled financial acumen and the millions the band makes from sponsorship by irresponsible corporations. Yawn.
For a real look in the Exile on Main St. sessions, download the outtakes. You’ll hear “Tumbling Dice” in its raw form of “Good Time Woman.” A slowed-down seven-minute “Loving Cup.” “All Down the Line” as an acoustic demo along the lines of “Street Fighting Man.” And if you have several hundred dollars to blow, Genesis Publications has a beautiful limited edition photo book of the Exile sessions.
But really, everything you need to know about the making of Exile on Main St. – the dank basement, bottle after bottle of champagne and Jack Daniels, the overflowing ashtrays, the spirit of Gram Parsons, the beautiful tension between Mick & Keith, the "H," the hangers-on, the decaying Mediterranean mansion — has been right here all along, in the music.