Archive for the ‘Reading Table’ Category

‘Travels Through The 20th Century’

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 23, 2008

Every once in a while, I come across a book that I just have to tell people about.

(And it’s a good thing I have outlets with which to do so – this blog and my monthly meeting of Bookcrossing – or I fear I’d be out on the streets, gripping folks by the elbow, showing them a book: “Have you read this? You need to read this! It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.” It would not take long before I’d either be warned by the police to quit or else taken away for some observation.)

Anyway, during my regular stop at the public library last weekend, I spotted a book on the new reading shelf that looked interesting enough to take a chance on: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Max. I sifted the pages quickly, and got the impression that it was a collection of travel pieces from through the years. It sounded interesting enough, so I dropped it in the book bag and brought it home.

I’ve shared a few books here over the past year and a half, and always with the note that the book in question is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Not wanting that claim to be diluted, I should note that I read – at a guess – six to ten books a month. I’m a rapid reader, and even with the blog and my other writing and my househusband duties, I have a good chunk of time every day for reading. So in the past year and a half, let’s say I’ve read eight books a month; that comes out to 144 books.

Some of those were just okay, a couple I recall as actually very bad. Most were good, and there were a very few that were superior. In Europe is one of them. It turned out to be something far more interesting than an anthology of travel journalism.

In 1999, Max – a writer for the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handlesblad – was assigned to travel Europe for a year, researching and writing pieces on the history of the Twentieth Century on the continent. The book is arranged in chronological order, beginning with his January 1999 travels, during which he covered the years from 1900 to 1914. For that segment of the century, Max traveled to Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna, the four main capitals of Europe during the time when the stage was being prepared for World War I.

Using diaries, histories and publications from the time, and combining those accounts with his observations of the current state of the various locales, Max (aided, no doubt, by what appears to be a remarkable job by translator Sam Garrett) weaves a readable and fascinating history of Europe in the last century. His February travels shift from Vienna and focus on Belgium and northern France, as he chronicles the lives and deaths of millions of young men in the carnage that was the deadlocked Western Front during World War I.

And as he tours a Belgian war cemetery at Houthulst, he brings that long-gone war back to the present:

“I hear a dull thud. A blue mist comes floating across the frosty fields. In the field behind the cemetery, the DOVO, the Belgian War Munition Demolition Service, has blown up another heap of First World War ammunition. They do it twice a day, one and a half tons a year. When the farmers find grenades they leave them at the base of the utility masts, and the miners collect them. And so it goes on here. Generation after generation, this soil continues to vomit up grenades, buttons, buckles, knives, skulls, bottles, rifles, sometimes even a whole tank. The Great War never ends.”

I am tempted every day to rush through my obligations – or to ignore them – so I can that much sooner pick up Max’s book and continue my explorations through the history he found on his travels.

As I read his account of World War I, I thought – as a writer tends to do – about the only time I ever wrote about that first great war. It was in 1978, a piece timed for November 11, Veterans Day, which would be the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended the brutal battle of attrition in France. Still rather new to Monticello, I asked around a bit and found a veteran of World War I who was still alert and was willing to talk about his experience in France.

Frankie was never at the front, but he said he saw enough of the work of the battlefront as wounded and dead soldiers came back through the rear echelons. I took notes and reported his words, our photographer got a picture of Frankie and his wife, Marie, and we borrowed a 1918 picture of Frankie looking every inch the doughboy in his uniform. But I could not find a way as deadline approached that week to describe the look in Frankie’s eyes as he cast himself sixty years back and recalled for me the dirt, the fear, the noise, the blood, the horrible waste that he saw from the edges of the war.

Some things are too profound for words. In In Europe, I think, Max uses his finely chiseled prose and his eye for fine detail to come closer than most can to finding a way around that barrier.

As sometimes happens here, there’s no graceful way to move to the music. Here’s a generally random selection from the year when I wrote about World War I:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1978, Vol. 2
“Do You Wanna Dance” by Janis Ian from Janis Ian

“Heavy Horses” by Jethro Tull from Heavy Horses

“Lookin’ For A Place” by Chilliwack from Lights From The Valley

“Don’t Look Back” by Boston from Don’t Look Back

“Shattered” by the Rolling Stones from Some Girls

“Is This Love” by Bob Marley & the Wailers from Kaya

“Lotta Love” by Neil Young from Comes A Time

“You Belong To Me” by Carly Simon, Elektra single 45477

“The Darker Side” by the Lamont Cranston Band from El Cee Notes

“Here Goes” by the Bliss Band from Dinner With Raoul

“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town

“Never Make A Move Too Soon” by B.B. King, ABC single 12380

“Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads from More Songs About Buildings and Food

A few notes:

I have a soft spot for Janis Ian. Anyone who can chronicle high school desperation the way she did in 1975’s “At Seventeen” deserves a pass now and then. Her 1978 self-titled album, though it had its moments, generally deserved that pass, as it was her third album in three years that didn’t come up to the quality of 1975’s Between the Lines. On the other hand, not many albums from anyone else can meet that standard, either. Luckily, “Do You Wanna Dance” is one of the better songs on the 1978 album.

Heavy Horses saw Jethro Tull continuing the back-to-the-roots shift that the band had started with 1977’s Songs From the Wood, with both albums celebrating English folk. Horses, as All-Music Guide notes, is “chock-full of gorgeous melodies, briskly played acoustic guitars and mandolins, and Ian Anderson’s flute lilting in the background, backed by the group in top form.” That’s not to say the album is lightweight, just noting where its inspirations came from.

In the two years since the release of its self-titled debut, Boston hadn’t changed much. “Don’t Look Back” is a decent song, but it – and any of the other seven songs on the album Don’t Look Back – has the same sound as the debut album. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but I kind of wonder why the group bothered.

If I had to go through my 1978 collection and rank the albums, I think that every time, I’d come up with Neil Young’s Comes A Time in the top spot. Far more country-ish than most of his other albums, it’s also the one that Young seems most relaxed with. It sounds like he had fun making the record, and I rarely get that sense about his music.

When I did my long post for last year’s Vinyl Record Day, I wrote “the Bliss Band sounds to me a bit like Pablo Cruise or the Little River Band, both of which were hitting the charts about the time Dinner With Raoul was recorded. There’s a touch of Steely Dan in there, too.” I stand by that, but it’s a sound that’s grown on me in the past eleven months. (A note: This year’s blogswarm for Vinyl Record Day, August 12, is once again being organized by JB the DJ at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.)

“The Promised Land” is one of my favorite Springsteen tracks of all time. (I suppose I should do an all-Springsteen post someday, listing my favorite thirteen.) He’s done some that are a little better, but what makes “The Promised Land” work is its setting: It’s an anthem that carries at least some hope amid the desperation and drear of the rest of Darkness at the Edge of Town.

Some Tales From Abbey Road

June 29, 2011

Originally posted May 28, 2008

It’s been a while since I read a book about the Beatles.

And it’s been a long while since anything about the Beatles interested and intrigued me as much as my current reading has. It’s the 2006 memoir of Geoff Emerick, the engineer whose work helped shape much of the Beatles’ catalog. Co-written with Howard Massey, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, is a fascinating account of the years during which the Beatles were doing something new almost every time they stepped into the studios.

Emerick was 15 when he was hired by EMI, the British company that owned, among other things, some record labels and a recording studio complex on London’s Abbey Road. Not long after his hiring, EMI’s Parlophone label signed the Beatles, and by the time the group was recording Revolver in 1966, Emerick was pretty much their full-time recording engineer (although he worked other artists’ sessions, too). In 1969, Emerick left EMI in 1969 to join the Beatles at Apple.

I’m don’t know yet how that move came about. I’m currently reading about early 1968 and the unhappy sessions for The Beatles (generally known as The White Album). As grim as those sessions were for the Beatles, for producer George Martin and for Emerick and his fellow engineers, there is a fascination there, an awareness of the train wreck about to happen. But the book also holds my interest in Emerick’s tales of how the Beatles’ records were created: When they needed a certain sound, a certain effect, from Revolver on, it was Emerick’s job to create it. For example, when John Lennon said he wanted his vocal for “Tomorrow Never Knows” to sound “like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountain top,” Emerick found the electronic formula to create the effect.

And he was mighty good at it. Emerick notes in the book that he was disappointed when he wasn’t credited for his work on the jacket of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but he adds that his work was noticed by his peers: He was awarded a Grammy for 1967 for the Best Engineered Album.

Along with the tales of how the sounds of the Beatles’ records were accomplished, Emerick gives his readers vivid and sometimes new sketches of the characters of the four Beatles. Maybe tales of the high-jinks and the nitty-gritty of who played what part on what song have already been told – it’s been a long time since I read anything about the Beatles, and there have been books in that interim that I have missed – but as well as having a good ear, Emerick seems to have a good eye. He noticed who was pleased or displeased by the way a session went, and he could tell which Beatles were truly engaged in a project and has some good ideas why or why not.

It’s a quick read but an interesting one, and I’d wager that anyone interested in the Beatles – that might include most music fans, I’d guess – would find a few hours spent with the book to be a good investment.

Delaney & Bonnie – D&B Together
As I was reading about early 1968 last evening, reflecting on the imminent break-up of the Beatles, a song from Delaney & Bonnie’s 1972 album D&B Together popped up on the player. “Ah,” I thought, “another partnership in the process of dissolving.”

D&B Together was the sixth or seventh album the duo made with their collection of friends. (Genesis, listed on All-Music Guide as a 1971 album, is – I believe – a collection of outtakes from very early sessions, so I discount that as an album. But AMG lists an album titled Country Life on Atco in 1972, and I know nothing about that album. Anyone out there?) But regardless of whether it was Number Six or Number Seven, it was the last. The partnership of the two singers – musical and marital – was coming to an end.

For the most part, that last album is a good collection of country-rock with the gospel and R&B inflections that charged the duo’s best albums. For me, the question always arises: How much of the credit for their good and great albums belongs to Delaney & Bonnie, and how much should go to their famous friends? I’m not sure how one would divide the credit, but as good as Delaney and Bonnie were, the quality of their records was at least in part due to their ability to attract superlative musicians into the studio. On the other hand, Delaney was a very good producer. And all of those factors were assets on D&B Together.

Here’s some information from the notes to the 2003 CD reissue of the album (a reissue that seems to be difficult to find, if not out of print):

On “Only You Know And I Know,” guitar work comes from Dave Mason and Eric Clapton.

Tina Turner joins the duo on “Sound Of The City.”

“Comin’ Home” features work once more by Clapton and Mason, and Clapton also joins in on “Groupie (Superstar),” the Bonnie Bramlett/Leon Russell composition that was a hit for the Carpenters in a slightly bowdlerized version.

A quote from Delaney is a little unclear, but if I read it correctly, Duane Allman – in what had to be one of his last bits of session work – added guitar on “A Good Thing (I’m On Fire)”.

The next-to-last track on the album “I Know Something Good About You,” has a pretty good cast, too: King Curtis (in what must have been one of his final sessions, as well), Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Venetta Fields, Clydie King, Wilson Pickett and a singer Delaney identifies in the comments about the track as Aretha. (Franklin? She’s not mentioned in the long list of general credits, but neither is any other Aretha. And at the end of the list – compiled in 2002 – Delaney writes: “If I left anybody out, I’m sorry, I’m old.”)

Other musicians of note mentioned in that long list were Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Jim Price, Bobby Keys, Larry Knechtel, Bobby Whitlock, Steve Cropper, James Jamerson and Merry Clayton. (Somewhere in the notes, I also saw a mention of drummer Jim Keltner but I don’t see his name on the list.)

So, as usual, Delaney and Bonnie drew a pretty good crowd of friends. And they did a pretty good job. I don’t know if the album is up to the standard of their earlier albums, but it’s not far off. Highlights for me are the gospelly “Wade In The River Of Jordan,” “Comin’ Home,” “Move ’Em Out” with its great sax solo (likely by Keys) and “A Good Thing (I’m On Fire).” Disappointments? Only a couple: I’m not fond of the version of “Groupie (Superstar)” and I could do without the string-laden and overly long intro to “Country Life,” a song Delaney co-wrote with Bobby Whitlock.

Track listing:
Only You Know And I Know
Wade In The River Of Jordan
Sound Of The City
Well, Well
I Know How It Feels To Be Lonely
Comin’ Home
Move ’Em Out
Big Change Comin’
A Good Thing (I’m On Fire)
Groupie (Superstar)
I Know Something Good About You
Country Life

Delaney & Bonnie – D&B Together [1972]

The History Of A Wall

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 21, 2008

As a member of the first generation that grew up with television, it would not be hard at all for me to make a long list of astounding images and events, many of them horrible and sad, that I’ve seen through the medium. For all the violence and sorrow that I’ve seen through television’s window, however, one of the images that stays in my mind the most clearly is the vision of the exultant crowd dancing atop the Berlin Wall in November 1989, on the night when the government of East Germany surrendered and opened the gates.

I’d visited some friends for dinner, and afterward, we’d listened to some music I’d brought along. About nine o’clock, as I prepared to head home, my host turned on the television and we saw the crowds celebrating the fall of the Wall. We stood in my friends’ living room, mouths agape. Even though the news in recent weeks had told of greater and greater pressure for change being placed on the East German government – one of the more repressive among the communist states in Central and Eastern Europe – the sight of Germans from East Berlin mingling freely with their brothers and sisters from the west was unexpected. And being so, it was an image that stays with me.

I recall driving home that evening – about thirty miles – shaking my head in amazement as I listened to the news. When I got home, even though I had to work early the next morning, I stayed up quite late, watching and absorbing more as Berliners celebrated into the dawn.

That evening and those images come to mind these days as I read The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 by Frederick Taylor. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book, and even though I know the wall will eventually fall, I’m angered as I read of the suffering endured for those twenty-eight years by the citizens of East Germany and East Berlin. The casual cruelty of the men who led that nation – a nation formed by default out of the tragedy of World War II – can still astound, even though so much has been revealed of their character and their conduct in the nearly twenty years since the Wall fell.

Taylor begins his book with a brief history of Berlin itself, examining how the city became the capital of first, Prussia, and then the united Germany before it was divided into occupation zones in the aftermath of World War II. He also examines the lives of those who would create the wall, chiefly Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, who were essentially the creators, respectively, of East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

And then Taylor examines in great detail how the wall, once in place, evolved over the years from simple concrete, brick and barbed wire to a complex barrier as wide as a river, intended to do nothing other than make East Germany and its capital, East Berlin, into a prison camp. My reading has gotten me to the autumn of 1961, just after the first barbed wire barrier was put into place, during the time when that first barrier was becoming the Wall. In the pages I read last evening, the East German guards for the first time shot and killed those who attempted to cross into West Berlin. Even though I know the Berlin Wall will eventually come down, Taylor’s book can be difficult reading.

But it’s a good read, too. Taylor puts the construction of the Berlin Wall in context, noting how relations between WWII’s Western Allies and the Soviet Union were not always mirrored accurately in the relations between West Germany and East Germany, chiefly because the goals and wishes of Germans on either side were quite different than the goals and wishes of the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Taylor makes clear that the Wall was the creation of the East German leadership, acceded to reluctantly and after the fact by the leaders of the USSR. And he makes clear as well that when the Wall went up, the U.S. and its allies had no intention of ever challenging its existence; to simplify a little: as long as West Berlin – still nominally occupied by the Western Allies – was safe, all was as well for the west as it could be at the time. Short of war, there was no way the west could alter the sad fate of East Germany and East Berlin.

It’s a good enough book that after I finish it, I’ll be seeking Taylor’s earlier book about the fate of another tragic German city: Dresden.

For this morning, I thought about putting together a Baker’s Dozen from either 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up, or from 1989, the year it came down, but decided that instead of a random selection of songs, an album that always provides me with solace might be a better choice.

Daniel Lanois first came to my attention when he produced Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo album and U2’s The Joshua Tree in 1987 and then Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy in 1989. Lanois released Acadie, his first album, in 1989 as well. I picked it up about a year later and immediately wished I’d done so much earlier. It’s a stunning album, musically and lyrically, one of those I like so much that I tend to lapse into blathering fandom when I talk or write about it.

Given that, I’ll just share what Paul Evans wrote about the album in the 1993 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide:

“Having lent his supple production skills to such heavyweights as Bob Dylan and U2, it’s fitting that Lanois would craft his own record, Acadie, with the care that makes it sonically gorgeous—warm, immediate, bell-like. [Brian] Eno is Lanois’ collaborator and secret weapon, the avant-garde experimentalist adding subtle effective oddities—cello sounds, whistling synthesizers—that transform the folk-based melodies into textured mood-music that’s more self-consciously distinct. New Orleans provides the spiritual home for the project: ‘O Marie’ is sung in French, ‘Jolie Louise’ has a soft, Cajun lilt. Fascinating in its mix of high technology and rootsy integrity, Acadie is artful without being precious, studied but still passionate.”

Along with the tracks that Evans mentions, I’d tag “Still Water” and “Where the Hawkwind Kills” as standout tracks. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

Tracks:
Still Water
The Maker
O Marie
Jolie Louise
Fisherman’s Daughter
White Mustang II
Under A Stormy Sky
Where The Hawkwind Kills
Silium’s Hill
Ice
St. Ann’s Gold
Amazing Grace

Daniel Lanois – Acadie [1989]

A Baker’s Dozen From 1974, Vol. 3

June 20, 2011

Originally posted March 24, 2008

I tend to read more than one book at a time. No, I don’t have two books in two hands and flip my head back and forth from volume to volume. I mean that I almost always have more than one book in progress and move back and forth between those books, depending on mood and circumstance. Along with The Shield of Time (mentioned the other day), I’m currently reading biographies of Roberto Clemente and Richie Havens and a book titled The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder, an account of how a New York murder in 1841 became a public sensation from which – evidently – follow all of the public sensations created by the crimes that fascinate us. Daniel Stashower’s thesis seems to be – I’ve not read far into the book – that the furor and frenzy in Manhattan following the murder of Mary Rogers is the civic predecessor of modern-day public reaction to all the so-called “crimes of the century,” over which our culture hovers like some bloated, moralizing and baleful vulture (my words, not Stashower’s).

As fascinating as that is, the book I’m moving through quicker than any other right now is Boom!, the look back at the Sixties written by former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw. Somewhere along the line, I said that the cultural whirlwind that we call the Sixties began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Brokaw considers the Sixties closed with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, which is a reasonable stopping place. And his thesis, like that of many who have written before him, is that the Sixties are not really finished; they echo in today’s events and attitudes. (Though Brokaw’s thesis is not new, his book shines as a result of his clear and concise prose as well as the access he had to so many of the participants in the events under consideration.)

Indeed, if one wanted a confirmation that the events of the cultural era we call the Sixties have not gone away, all one needed to do was look at the front page of the Minneapolis StarTribune Saturday and today. The first of those stories noted that Sara Jane Olson of St. Paul had been released from a California prison after serving about six years for crimes committed in 1975 – a bank robbery that included a murder, and an attempt to bomb two police cars. The second story – today’s – reported that California authorities discovered that they had calculated Olson’s sentence incorrectly and she still has about a year to serve.

The link back to the Sixties, of course, is that in those days, Sara Jane Olson was known as Kathleen Soliah and was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the radical group that abducted heiress Patty Hearst in February of 1974 and committed other crimes both before and after most of its membership was killed when the house in which they took refuge burned down during a shoot-out with the Los Angeles Police Department in May 1974.

After the shootout/fire, Soliah, like Hearst and other members of the group, went back to the San Francisco area for some time. Soliah eventually moved to Minnesota, changed her name, married a doctor and raised a family under the name Sara Jane Olson.

When her identity was discovered as a result of a television show in 1999, I was working for a collection agency and was three years removed from reporting. Still, I was fascinated as I saw television coverage and read newspaper reports about the one-time radical turned doctor’s wife who’d hidden in St. Paul – right across the Mississippi River from my Minneapolis neighborhood – for more than twenty years. The reaction then to her arrest and now to her evidently mistaken and brief release make it clear that the Sixties – at least the Sixties of the SLA – are still with us, proving Brokaw’s thesis to be true in this case and, I am certain, in many more.

When the Symbionese Liberation Army brought itself into the news with its abduction of Patty Hearst, I was in Denmark. As with almost all things that took place in the U.S. during those nine months, it seemed as if I were seeing the kidnapping and all the rest of the news about the SLA through the wrong end of a telescope. Those of us in Fredericia knew things were happening – from the International Herald Tribune, from shared copies of the slender and expensive European editions of Time and Newsweek, and from conversation with our Danish friends, who translated coverage of events from Danish media. But out information was frequently old and sketchy.

By the time we students left Denmark on May 21, we knew there had been a shootout four days earlier but nothing more than that. I don’t think it was one of my first questions, but sometime during the forty-minute drive from the airport to my sister’s home the day I came home, I asked if Patty Hearst had been killed in the shootout. No, I was told. I nodded and went on to think of other things.

And as we think of other things, every once in a while the Sixties pop out of the box in which we try to store them neatly, and we’re reminded that the past is never really gone.

Here are some songs from the year the SLA burst into the headlines for the first time.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1974, Vol. 3
“It’s Out Of My Hands” by the Soul Children from Friction

“Willie & The Hand Jive” by Eric Clapton from 461 Ocean Boulevard

“Another Park, Another Sunday” by the Doobie Brothers, Warner Bros. single 7795

“When It’s Over” by Cold Blood from Lydia

“I’d Be So Happy” by Three Dog Night from Hard Labor

“Even A Fool Would Let Go” by Gayle McCormick from One More Hour

“Just Like This Train” by Joni Mitchell from Court & Spark

“Everything Good To Ya (Ain’t Always Good For Ya)” by B.T. Express from Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied)

“Lady Marmalade” by Labelle from Nightbirds

“Keep the Faith” by Mel & Tim from Mel & Tim

“Take Me To The River” by Al Green from Al Green Explores Your Mind

“Faithless Love” by Linda Ronstadt from Heart Like A Wheel

“Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan & The Band from Before the Flood

A few notes:

461 Ocean Boulevard is regarded, I think, as one of Clapton’s great albums, coming after his drug-wracked retreat following 1970’s Layla. It’s a good album, but I hesitate to say it’s a great album, as there are just a few too many hollow spots. I love “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Please Be With Me” and “Let It Grow,” to name three. Unfortunately, the randomizer selected “Willie & The Hand Jive,” which to me is one of the album’s hollow spots.

Cold Blood, a great late Sixties group from the San Francisco area, was struggling by 1974 – as many acts were – to hold its audience, which to be unhappily honest, had never been that large to begin with. It titled its 1974 album after its lead singer, the attractive Lydia Pense, and then changed its name to Lydia Pense & Cold Blood by 1976. The move didn’t work, and the group faded into obscurity, remembered only by fans and collectors of Bay Area groups until the CD boom in the 1990s. The music’s still good.

Hard Labor was the last Three Dog Night album to reach the Top 20, and is better remembered as the source of two pretty good singles “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here” and “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)”. Overall, the band – especially the singers who had given Three Dog Night its character and identity – sounded tired.

Gayle McCormick had been the lead singer for Smith, the band that reached No. 5 in 1970 with an incendiary version of Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You.” When Smith didn’t reach the charts again, McCormick recorded two pretty good solo albums right away: her self-titled debut in 1971 and Flesh & Blood in 1972. One More Hour came in 1974, and wasn’t quite to the level of the earlier records. This may be the first version of “Even A Fool Would Let Go,” a tune written by Kerry Chater and Tom Snow. All-Music Guide lists McCormick’s version as being the earliest in its database, but that’s not entirely persuasive. Even if it is first, it’s far from the best – I’d put my vote to Levon Helm’s 1982 version. Still, McCormick had a good voice, and at least battled the song to a draw, I think.

“Lady Marmalade” is an Allen Toussaint song that Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink brought back to life in the film Moulin Rogue and on the charts, reaching No. 1 for five weeks in 2001. The original version by LaBelle – Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash – came out on Nightbirds in 1974, and a single edit went to No. 1 for a week in 1975. It was so much more fun learning French from the jukebox than it had been in a third-floor classroom.

This was pretty much a random selection – I skipped stuff that had been previously posted – until the last song, when I decided to take over the universe’s work. I think I mentioned this version of “Like A Rolling Stone” when I wrote about stellar pop-rock introductions. This opener isn’t the best – I’d likely give that nod to the original “Layla” still – but it’s one of the few beginnings to a rock performance that left my jaw hanging the first time I heard it. Recorded, I believe, in Los Angeles, the performance provides an extraordinary capstone to the document of Bob Dylan and The Band on stage together.

If I Could Wander Through Time . . .

June 18, 2011

Originally posted March 21, 2008

Time travel has been on my mind for the past few days, as it sometimes is. Of all the concepts that writers of science fiction – or speculative fiction, as it might better be called – sometimes tangle with, time travel is the one that grabs hold of my imagination the hardest. I admit I have some interest in anticipating what it will be like when we are confronted with the proof that there are other civilizations, other sentient beings, somewhere else in the universe. The meeting of disparate cultures, if and when it happens (and I’m betting it will), will radically alter our ideas about the universe and our place in it.

But that’s something that I believe will someday leave the arena of science fiction and become science fact. Time travel is a less likely proposition. (I’m not going to say it won’t ever become reality; when I’m tempted to do so, I recall the correction the New York Times ran in 1969, when Apollo 11 made the first lunar landing. The Times acknowledged that had it been wrong in its insistence during the 1920s that rockets could never boost payloads into space.) And I enjoy very much wading through the thickets of fiction about time travel, some of it very good, some of it less so.

I think about it today because I completed last night a re-reading of The Time Patrol, a 1991 collection of short stories and novellas by Poul Anderson (whom I mentioned in a post earlier this week). Anderson’s structure for the collection is that there is a group of men and women who jaunt through time and space, safeguarding human history at the behest of the Danellians, a powerful culture descended from humankind millions of years in the future. When variations in history are detected – sometimes the result of accidents and sometimes the product of mischief perpetrated by criminals who have illegally gained access to time travel – the patrol goes into action to safeguard history as we know it and to ensure the time line that results in Danellian civilization.

Anderson’s work is sturdy, and his tales range from simple detective stories to longer examinations of historical cultures that are generally unwritten about (at least from where I read), like the Mediterranean culture of Tyre in 950 BCE, or the Ostrogoths in what is now Poland and Ukraine in about 300 CE. (Anderson’s long story set in the latter locale, “The Sorrow of Odin the Goth,” is the best in the book and one of the best stories I’ve ever read, speculative fiction or otherwise.) Anderson also wrote a novel, The Shield of Time. I’ve read it once, and started re-reading it last evening; its tale didn’t stick in my head from the first reading, so we’ll see how the second run-through goes.

Other authors have invested much of their writing efforts in time travel. A few come to mind quickly.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote a little bit of every kind of speculative fiction, but to me, his time travel novels and stories were his best, starting in 1973 with Time Enough For Love, subtitled “The Lives of Lazarus Long.” Time travel enters the tale in the last third or so of the volume, and for the rest of the book and for much of the remainder of Heinlein’s work, exploration of time travel, and the inherent contradictions and paradoxes, was a constant.

In addition, Jack Finney has written a three-novel series featuring a character named Simon Morley beginning with 1970’s Time and Again. Allen Appel wrote a series about the travails of Alex Balfour, whose time travels are involuntary; that series begins with 1985’s Time After Time. And Darryl Brock is the author of two novels: If I Never Get Back and Two in the Field, which feature time traveler Sam Fowler. (Brock’s first, from 1990, is likely my favorite time travel book of all; Fowler spends a good portion of the book traveling the U.S. with the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team.)

Anytime I read those books or others like it, of course, the notion runs in my head: If I could travel through time, where would I go? Well, six places/times come to mind:

1. The American Great Plains in, say, 1500. I’d love to see the buffalo in herds that stretch to the horizon.

2. The Globe Theater in Shakespeare’s London, for one of his comedies. Given changes in pronunciation, I likely wouldn’t comprehend the English, but I’d know when to laugh.

3. I’d like to go to two baseball games in Pittsburgh, one in Exposition Park in 1908 to see Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop of all time during what was likely his greatest season, and the other in Forbes Field in 1939, when Josh Gibson – probably the greatest catcher of all time – and Buck Leonard, one of the great power hitters of all time, were teammates on the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League.

4. It would be fun to be in Liverpool, England, in 1961 and stop in at the Cavern Club for a performance by the very young Beatles. They played 292 times in the club in 1961 and 1962.

5. I’d travel in 1362 to the land near Kensington, Minnesota, that would eventually be farmed by Olof Öhman, to see if a traveling group of Swedes and Norwegians actually left there the stone inscribed with runes that Öhman found in 1898. Famous in Minnesota and among archeologists on a wider scale, the Kensington Runestone is one of the great historical riddles.

Another riddle that I ponder now and then – as does anyone who loves music – is why some performers make it big and others don’t. About a month ago, I ran across a short post from a year ago at the Illfolks blog about an early 1970s singer-songwriter named Patti Dahlstrom. The two tracks posted there – “Ollabelle and Slim” and “Rider” – intrigued me a lot. So I began to dig.

And I learned that there isn’t a lot of information out there about Patti Dahlstrom. According to Illfolks, she’s evidently in Houston, but according to a piece I saw for the online magazine Spectropop, she’s living in St. John’s Woods in London, England. So there’s very little to go on. Google provides a few links, but nothing with much hard data, not even a birth year (although I’d guess somewhere between 1948 and 1951). What remains are Patti’s four albums, all of which were fairly easy to acquire:

Patti Dahlstrom, on the Uni label, 1972

The Way I Am, on 20th Century, 1973

Your Place Or Mine, 20th Century, 1975

Livin’ It Thru, 20th Century, 1976

As I was recording Patti Dahlstrom this morning to rip the mp3s, the Texas Gal said to me, “It sounds like Carole King.”

Well, maybe. The sound of the accompaniment is akin to Tapestry, with lots of piano and acoustic sounds. Any electric instrumentation is folded into the background, and the sound of the album is homey. If I were to draw a comparison, I’d slide it in with the three albums made about the same time by Joy of Cooking.

But the voice, Patti’s voice, doesn’t slide that easily into either one of those folders. She has a twang and a drawl at times, giving her a bluesy, country feel. The blogger at Illfolks commented on “her rootsy Southern vocals,” calling them “true if not pretty.” The blogger went on to say, “Perhaps at the time (early 70’s) there was no such thing as ‘country crossover,’ so being pitched as a pop star was doing her a disservice.”

That seems about right. Patti’s voice wouldn’t have fallen neatly into a genre in an industry that seems, more often than not, to be looking for a repetition of the last big thing instead of looking for something unique. So Patti was likely too countryish for pop and far to connected to pop-rock for her records to be placed in the country bins. She recorded her four records and went on.

Today’s share is her first, Patti Dahlstrom, from 1971. I think it’s generally a good album, with Patti writing the lyrics to all ten songs and music for six of them. (Music for “Get Along, Handsome” and “I’m Letting Go” came from Severin Browne, while Robbie Leff wrote the music for “Weddin’” and “Comfortable.”) To me, the standout is the album’s opener, “Wait Like A Lady,” with “And I Never Did” and “Ollabelle and Slim” not that far behind.

That makes it sound like the other tracks on the record lack something. They don’t, but there is a sameness throughout the record that veers close to an overload of mellowness. A few things keep that from happening: One is the country feel of “Weddin’,” while another is the slow acceleration of the tempo on “Ollabelle and Slim” that pulls the record forward. The third is the sweet saxophone of Jim Horn weaving its way around the vocal on “Comfortable.”

As I noted, this is the first of four Patti Dahlstrom albums. I’ll be sharing the other three in weeks to come. I like this one a lot.

Tracks:
Wait Like A Lady
And I Never Did
Get Along, Handsome
Comfortable
This Isn’t An Ordinary Love Song
Weddin’
I’m Letting Go
What If
Ollabelle and Slim
Rider

Patti Dahlstrom – Patti Dahlstrom [1972]

Havens & Clapton On The Reading Table

June 6, 2011

Originally posted January 22, 2008

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with two autobiographies: Richie Havens’ They Can’t Hide Us Anymore (1999, written with Steve Dawidowitz) and Eric Clapton’s Clapton: The Autobiography (2007). One is pretty good and one is fascinating.

Of the two, I’ve been working on the Havens book a little longer, and it seems to be taking me a little more effort to get into it. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I’m not as familiar with the outlines of Havens’ story as I am with Clapton’s. Or maybe it’s because Havens seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on the years in the early 1960s when he was scuffling around New York City’s Greenwich Village. At times, I find that fascinating and find the book hard to put down; other times, the tales seem to drag on, and I find it hard to turn the page. It could be that the book is too much a listing of people met and events lived through and not enough an assessment of how those things affected the person in the middle. I don’t get a sense of how Richie Havens felt about the things he recalls.

That’s not the case with the Clapton: I find the pages flipping by at an amazing rate, and the overwhelming sense I get is one of melancholy. Clapton, looking back at his life, is brutally honest, and he’s careful to take responsibility for the turnings in his life, many of which were accompanied by vast quantities of drugs and alcohol. Writing from the hard-won perspective of recovery, the famed guitarist is nothing so much as saddened by the way he treated the people around him, the way he approached his music and the way he lived his life for so many years.

I’ve read about half the book so far, and one of the passages I find most affecting was when he recalled the circumstances of his participation in the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh, organized by his good friend, George Harrison. Clapton – deeply addicted to heroin at the time – agreed to come to New York to practice and play as long as a consistent supply of the drug could be secured for him.

When he arrived in New York, the drugs were waiting for him in his room. “I tried some, but nothing happened,” he writes. “It turned out that what they had scored for me was street-cut, with a very low amount of actual heroin in it and cut with something nasty, like strychnine, so that it was about a tenth as strong as what I was used to.”

The result was Clapton’s going through withdrawal and missing the rehearsals for the epic concert. Some medication at the last moment, Clapton says, allowed him to feel well enough to make the sound check. “[A]lthough I have a vague memory of this and then of playing the show, the truth is I wasn’t really there, and I feel ashamed. No matter how I’ve tried to rationalize it to myself over the years, I let a lot of people down that night, most of all myself. I’ve seen the concert only once on film, but if I ever want a reminder of what I might be missing from the ‘good old days,’ this would be the film to watch.”

There is, reading the Clapton memoir, the sense of a train wreck waiting to happen, most likely because so much of his story is so well known: The virtuosity, the addictions, the romances, the tragedies. But it’s well written, and there’s a very distinct voice telling the story. One of the things that amuses me is Clapton’s occasional use of British slang without any attempt to explain it. Maybe such explanations aren’t needed; maybe there’s no mystery in those usages that catch my eye. But I chuckle when I see them, as when Clapton wrote without explanation about the workman whose culinary preference was “bangers and mash” (that’s sausages and mashed potatoes to we non-Brits).

Reading Clapton this morning got me to wondering about what cover versions of songs he might have released. There is, of course, the entire catalog of traditional blues written by others long gone, especially Robert Johnson. That’s not quite what I have in mind for cover versions, though, so I dug a little deeper into Clapton’s catalog. And in 1989, he released one of the niftier – and shorter – performances of his career on Journeyman, a brief exploration of the song “Hound Dog.” Clapton’s performance of the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition owes very little to Elvis Presley and at least a little bit (in terms of pace, not intensity) to Big Mama Thornton, whose recording (Peacock 1612) held the top spot on the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks in 1953.

As I don’t think I’ve ever shared Big Mama’s version, here it is along with Clapton’s cover.

Big Mama Thornton – “Hound Dog” [1953]

Eric Clapton – “Hound Dog” [1989]

The Power Of The Flea

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 19, 2007

I wrote briefly a while ago about the pile of books waiting on my table to be read. Well, there’s been progress: the books are no longer piled on my table. They’re now all on a shelf on the new bookcases we put together last weekend.

Now I can see the other stuff that’s piled on the table next to the computer: records to rip, magazines to recycle, photodiscs to edit and save, and a whole raft of CD’s to catalog and date. But this is progress – not that long ago, I couldn’t see the photodiscs.

The number of books waiting to be read, however, never seems to diminish. That’s fine with me; along with music, reading is one of the major joys of my life, and – just as with music – my tastes are wide-ranging. (As I write that, I nod to myself that the same is quite evidently true of Casey, the proprietor of the blog titled The College Crowd Digs Me. Readers should stop by.) And the anticipation of reading a good book can be almost as pleasurable as the reading itself.

One of the better ones I’ve read in the past few months had the odd title Justinian’s Flea. It’s the first book written by William Rosen, who was a senior executive at two major publishers for more than twenty-five years, and it’s a great read, for those who love history. The flea of the title is the insect that sparked one of the great epidemics of bubonic and pneumonic plague in the ancient world in about the year 540 of the Common Era (previously tagged A.D.). The epidemic came out of Alexandria in Egypt, crossed the Mediterranean to Constantinople – where Emperor Justinian reigned – and then swept across southern Europe. (Constantinople is now Istanbul, Turkey, and at the time was the capital of the Roman Empire.)

Rosen’s thesis, and it makes sense, is that the disruption caused by the various waves of the epidemic – which devastated the areas that are now Turkey, Greece and Italy along with the modern Middle East and Mediterranean Africa – moved the focus of the ancient world from the eastern Mediterranean west to the areas that became Italy, France and Germany. The various waves of the plague lasted more than a hundred years and were remarkably widespread; reports of the time show outbreaks in Britain in the years 664 and 684. The waves of epidemics devastated the empire; Rosen notes that in the first two years of the epidemics, four million of the twenty-six million subjects of the Roman Empire perished, about sixteen percent. Within just more than forty years, the population of the empire was down to seventeen million. (If a plague were to strike the United States and its three hundred million citizens with the same ferocity and results, forty-eight million people would die in the first two years, with another fifty-seven million perishing in the next forty or so years.)

It’s a fascinating book: Rosen examines in fine detail how Justinian rose to become emperor, how the empire itself was shrinking, having lost Gaul (modern-day France) and Britannia in recent times, how the plague bacterium found (and still finds today) its hosts and how the fleas that host the plague then infect the rats that carry the plague wherever they go, which is almost always where humans go. And he tracks the results of the epidemics of plague, putting forth the theory – a theory supported by the historical record and the inferences that can be made from those records – that modern Europe’s long-ago beginnings sprouted from the devastation of the Roman Empire by the plague.

Today’s music
I do have music to share today, and it has nothing to do with the plague or the Roman Empire or infected rats or the rise of medieval society. I doubt that I can find a smooth transition from those topics to the music, so I won’t even try.

I pulled out today one of the records that’s been sitting in my pile of things to rip to mp3s almost from the time I got my turntable last Christmas. In the early days of the blog, I shared New Routes, the 1969 album the British pop singer Lulu recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the help of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section. When I pulled New Routes out of the stacks, I also grabbed Melody Fair, another album Lulu recorded in the U.S., in 1970 at the Atlantic South-Criteria Studios in Miami. The tag from the used record store on Melody Fair said it was only in fair shape, so I’ve been reluctant to put it on the turntable and see what happened.

But I did so this morning, and I’m fairly pleased. There are a few more clicks and pops than I like, but they’re not so frequent as to make the record unlistenable. And it turns out to be a pretty good album.

Lulu had some help with it, of course. The Dixie Flyers – Jim Dickinson on piano and guitar, Charlie Freeman on guitar, Mike Utley on organ, Tommy McClure on bass and Sammy Creason on drums – provide the bulk of the backing. The full complement of the Memphis Horns came to Miami: Andrew Love and Ed Logan on tenor sax, Floyd Newman on baritone sax, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Jack Dale on trombone.

Background vocals came from the Sweet Inspirations as well as from Eddie Brigati (of the Rascals), David Brigati, Carol Kirkpatrick and Chuck Kirkpatrick.

And the whole thing was produced by Atlantic stalwarts Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin.

So what did all that come up to?

As I said, it’s a pretty good record, and there are times when it kicks into a nice southern groove, sometimes syrupy slow, sometimes more up-tempo and sometimes with a sweet gospel feel. The best of those are: “Move To My Rhythm,” “To The Other Woman,” “Sweet Memories,” “Saved” and a quirky cover of the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.”

One that comes close is “I Don’t Care Anymore,” a disquieting tale of a southern country girl’s descent into prostitution (a pretty tough topic for 1970, as I think about it). The central problem with that track – and it’s a problem that arises in bits and pieces through the album – is that Lulu’s voice doesn’t have the grit to quite pull it off. Doris Duke’s version, on her I’m A Loser, also from 1970, works much better, and I can imagine Dusty Springfield also getting to the heart of the song in a way Lulu could not. (As I did some digging, I learned that the song was written by R&B legend Jerry [Swamp Dog] Williams along with Gary Bonds and Maurice Gimbel. I wonder if Gary Bonds is the same as Gary U.S. Bonds of “Quarter to Three” fame?)

The rest of the tracks – with one exception – are good pop efforts that don’t seem to owe a lot to the pedigrees of the backing musicians or to the locale in which they were recorded. The one track that doesn’t work – to my ears – is “Vine Street,” a more-than-quirky Randy Newman tune.

Overall, Melody Fair is a pretty good album, and – as I noted above – the sound is pretty good, if not perfect.

Tracks:
Good Day Sunshine
After The Feeling Is Gone
I Don’t Care Anymore
(Don’t Go) Please Stay
Melody Fair
Take Good Care Of Yourself
Vine Street
Move To My Rhythm
To The Other Woman
Hum A Song (From Your Heart)
Sweet Memories
Saved

Lulu – Melody Fair [1970]

From The Reading Table To Johnny Rivers

May 6, 2011

Originally posted August 27, 2007

My reading pile just gets larger and larger, as does my pile of things to listen to. We’ll talk about the listening pile another day.

Strewn across my worktable at home right now are five books: A thriller called A Necessary Evil; a combined biography of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis called Three Roads To The Alamo; a Richard Bachman book titled Blaze “discovered” recently by Stephen King; a Dean Koontz novel titled By The Light Of The Moon; and Faithful, a book about the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

I enjoy baseball history almost as much as I enjoy doing popular music history, and Faithful is the book I’m spending more time with right now. It’s a pretty good read, even though I know how it turns out: The Boston Red Sox win the World Series. And that makes the book’s existence remarkable. It was a team project from writers Stewart O’Nan (a novelist whose books I have not read, an omission I will correct soon) and Stephen King (most of whose stuff I have read many times more than once).

Their idea was to write day-by-day about the 2004 Boston Red Sox season, each of them keeping a record of their thoughts and reactions to the flow of the season. Those entries are in the book, as are occasional email exchanges between the two. Underlying the project, of course, was the sad and occasionally pathetic history of the Boston Red Sox, who had not won a World Series since 1918 but had lost four of them in the intervening years, all in seven games. Only two other teams in North American professional sports had endured longer stays in the wilderness: the Chicago White Sox, whose last title at the time of the 2004 season had been in 1917, and the Chicago Cubs, who last were Series champions in 1908. (The White Sox ended their long drought in 2005, the season following the one that O’Nan and King chronicled.)

The reader of Faithful needs, obviously, to be a baseball fan: There’s a lot of game dissection, lots of sports chat. But the reader need not be a Red Sox fan to understand the point of the book, which is that a true fan supports his team in all times, not just in the good times. In other words, a true fan remains, to use O’Nan and King’s title, faithful. As I said, one need not be a Red Sox fan to understand; I am a fan of the Minnesota Vikings and thus understand all one needs to know about enduring through fallow seasons and promises unmet.

The magic of Faithful, of course, is that O’Nan and King planned to collaborate on a book about the futility of yet another season supporting a good baseball team that once again fell short. Being Red Sox fans, they could envision nothing more, even as they hoped for a different and victorious ending. Their worst fears seemed about to come true in October when the hated New York Yankees took a three games to none lead in the second round of the playoffs.

I haven’t read that far into the book yet. I’m at mid-season, so I don’t yet know how the two writers greet the impending collapse of yet another season. Nor do I know how they react when – at the last possible moment – the Red Sox salvaged their season and went on to win eight straight games and their first World Series title in eighty-eight years.

There are sometimes rewards for being faithful.

Now, all that has nothing to do with the album I’m sharing today. I’m having such a good time reading Faithful that I wanted to write about it. And I guess that provides the most tenuous link possible: I enjoy listening to Johnny Rivers and want to share one of his albums.

The album is Slim Slo Slider, a 1970 release that continued Rivers’ string of solid albums that peaked with 1968’s Realization (which I consider one of the great forgotten albums of the rock era). Recording a mix of his own material and songs from some of the great writers and performers of the era, Rivers laid down an aural canvas of life in California – and to some degree in the entire U.S. – as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. From Changes in 1966 through Rewind (1967), Realization (1968) and Slim Slo Slider (1970) and culminating in 1971’s Home Grown, Rivers kept up an astounding level of quality, and each of those albums is worth seeking out. (He continued to record, of course, but his succeeding albums were not quite as powerful.)

(I don’t have Changes, but I’ve heard it once or twice and loved it. I found Rewind and Realization on a two-fer CD that is still available. Friends have given me rips of both Slim Slo Slider and Home Grown; they were available on a two-fer CD, but that now seems to have gone out of print.)

The highlights of Slim Slo Slider are Rivers’ takes on John Fogerty’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone,” Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia,” and Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic.” Morrison also was the source for the title track, which appears as a prologue and as the album’s closer.

As always, Rivers is backed by some of the best studio musicians of the time, including James Burton on guitar and dobro, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Jim Horn on saxophone and flute and Hal Blaine on drums.

Track list
Slim Slo Slider
Wrote A Song For Everyone
Muddy River
Rainy Night In Georgia
Brass Buttons
Glory Train
Jesus Is A Soul Man
Apple Tree
Into The Mystic
Resurrection
Enemies and Friends
Slim Slo Slider

Johnny Rivers – Slim Slo Slider [1970]