Thursday, December 8, 2016

Greg Lake: An Epitaph

Greg Lake died yesterday after a long bout with cancer. He was 69 years old.

I hate everything about that sentence. So dry and perfunctory, yet devastating, and all too common this year. 2016 has gotten me really tired of writing about death. Unfortunately, the artistry of so many of the people who have passed this year had such an impact on me during my youth that I couldn't not explore my thoughts in writing.

Just a few months ago, I wrote a tribute to Keith Emerson, the legendary progressive rock keyboardist, who took his own life in March. Today, I find myself weighing in on his old bandmate, Greg Lake, bassist, guitarist, singer, and songwriter in the supergroup, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

A seminal figure in progressive rock, both he, and arguably the genre itself, emerged onto the scene with King Crimson's 1969 album, In the Court of the Crimson King. The album was a milestone, influencing all so-called progressive music that came after. In a thrilling fashion, it combined rock, jazz, classical, experimental styles, with even a substantial helping of heavy metal aggression on its opening track, "21st Century Schizoid Man." As such, Lake's singing was notable for its versatility, from the brutal attack of "Schizoid Man," to the delicate lamentation of "Epitaph."

Lake (second from right) with King Crimson, 1969
It was his voice that made Keith Emerson desire to form a group with him in 1970. Emerson, who felt that his own band, The Nice, was unable to explore more nuanced, dynamic music, had been drawn to Lake's vocal abilities and capacity for lyricism. Lake left King Crimson and the two recruited Atomic Rooster drummer, Carl Palmer, to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They soon gained the attention of the world after their grand performance, their second ever as a group, at the Isle of Wight Festival that year.

Greg Lake first came to my attention in what I think was the most appropriate way: A friend playing me ELP albums while sitting on a dorm room floor smoking something other than cigarettes. It was the mid 90s, and I was a college freshman year acting major who had dipped, a bit too heavily, perhaps, into musical theatre music when I was in high school. By the time of that evening, however, I had been subsisting on a steady diet of The Who, Frank Zappa, The Police, and Cream, with a little Sublime thrown in just to seem current (they were actually still a functioning band at that time). My friend was a pianist and played me pieces like "Karn Evil 9" and "Take a Pebble" to illustrate Keith Emerson's prowess on keys. I was dazzled and it led to my journey into prog rock that continues to this day.

I can't overstate the importance of that moment. Getting into prog rock opened my eyes to possibilities in music and art. And though I recognize now that prog is pretty grandiose and pompous, so was I at time (who wasn't at 18?), and don't we always hold onto the music that we cherished in childhood?

I wish I could say that I was immediately wowed by Greg, but I wasn't. While I was intrigued by Keith Emerson's strumming of the piano keys on "Take a Pebble," I didn't know that Greg had written this ethereal piece that gave Emerson his place to explore. I wasn't even that knocked out by his voice just yet. I discovered the extent of his vocal chops later when I heard tracks from Tarkus and Trilogy, such as "Time and a Place" and "Living Sin," that showed his aggression and wide vocal range, while songs like "From the Beginning" showed his softer, nuanced, and emotional touch. Though it was perhaps to Keith's resentment, it was, in fact, Greg's ballads that provided the group's greatest chart successes.

Lake with Keith Emerson, who died this past March
Though I knew he was a great singer, it was only as I got older that truly recognized how expertly and uniquely Greg filled his role in the band. Both Emerson and Palmer were classically trained musicians, both with dazzling technique. Greg's bass playing, on the other hand, was agile, but consciously avoided the pyrotechnics that were a hallmark of many of his colleagues. It would be a cliché and uncomplimentary to say that his playing "grounded" the trio, and moreover it would be inaccurate. Though on some of the faster pieces his bass lines could be a tad simplistic, his playing was, more often than not, elegant and melodic, and instrumentally added the same lyricism that his voice provided. (The fact that he was recruited to play bass on "Real Good Looking Boy," the first single by The Who after the death of John Entwistle is no small praise.)

Still, I believe it will always come back to his songwriting and his voice. Working within a genre known for its high-mindedness and bombast, he provided the delicate touches that gave the music its dynamics. While prog rock was known as music of the head, he wrote the melodies and words that kept the feeling of the music from moving too far from the heart. Moreover, as producer of all of ELP's albums during their 1970s heyday (and, it has been said, handling the majority of the work on the group-produced debut by King Crimson), he showed a talent for creating albums that balanced all of the band's disparate elements. In a group that was pulling in more directions than it had members, it seemed that, for a time, he could find the balance in imbalance.

A couple years after that night on the door room floor, that same friend and I went to see ELP at the Harbor Lights Pavilion in Boston. The show was delayed by what seemed like hours, and a wiring malfunction caused a small fire onstage (actually in the Hammond organ that Keith was going to use for the finale) resulting in an interruption of the show right in the middle of "Tarkus." However, the band was so well oiled and powerful that, in spite of these things, we did not leave disappointed. Greg's voice had lowered by this time into a deeper baritone sound, that was so expressive and rich, that his high notes were not missed. The band seemed to have plenty of life still in them.

It was not be, of course. They band broke up again the following year, only to reunite for a one-off festival performance in 2010. Because of this, I am glad for that night in the dormitory when my friend pulled out his book of CDs and indoctrinated me with his favorite music. If I had gotten into ELP a couple of years later, I probably never would have seen them perform. So while I am sad, I have nothing to regret.

So once again I'm dwelling on how 2016 has done a hell of a job of taking away pieces of my childhood. Greg's death came as quite a shock, as I had no idea he ill. The fact that he was a part of so much of the music that made up my late adolescence and still listen to today makes his passing stand out for me even among the so many others that have passed this year. So in spite of the fact that 2016 has been a confusing  year, hopefully artistry and lyricism will be Greg Lake's epitaph.

(The prog rock geeks will get that last reference.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ever Since the World Ended: Missing Mose Allison

is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I've been in real funk for the past week (no real reason, nothing worth discussing), and I found myself doing what I frequently do when I am overcome with depression, when I lose faith in humanity, and generally begin to view the world as one big, unfunny joke: I pulled out my Mose Allison records.

I've been collecting Mose Allison's records since college. A legendary jazz pianist, singer and songwriter, his blues-influenced compositions also inspired many rock musicians in the 60s. I knew his name years earlier because of covers of his songs done by the Who and other bands, but it was only in college that I started to seek out the original versions. In the ensuing years, though, I discovered that Mose's best material was rarely, if ever, covered by other artists. The songs were too subtle, to snidely nuanced, too... Mose. He could be misanthropic without being pessimistic, sardonic without being mean. This was a guy who proclaimed: "I don't worry about a thing because I know nothing's going to be alright," a whole fifteen years before Bob Marley proposed the opposite. There was just something about his cool cynicism, his dark, ironic turns of phrase delivered with a smooth, ultra hip delivery that always brought a smile to my face, cooled my nerves, and made the cosmic joke seem funny again.

The first thing I did last Wednesday was to pull out his 1987 album, Ever Since the World Ended, and go straight for the title track. "Ever since the world ended," he sings in his inimitable style, "I don't go out as much," snarkily belittling the apocalypse by dwelling on how it affected his social life, only before declaring: "It's just as well the world ended-- It wasn't working anyway."

The song cut to the quick of what I was feeling. And yet Mose was never one to deliver bad news without a smirk, or even (gasp!) provide a glimmer of hope. As the song goes on to illustrate a new world devoid of the problems that presumably brought about the old one's demise, he ends by proclaiming: "Ever since the world ended, I face the future with a smile."

It was just what I needed to hear. While several of his other records hit my turntable last week, it was only that one that received numerous spins.

Mose Allison died yesterday, four days after his 89th birthday.

And so here I am again, going through my collection yet another time (as I type these words, I have side 2 of his 1966 live album, Mose Alive, on my record player), and in deep thought.

Hearing that news yesterday was just too much to take. I knew he was old, and his passing was inevitable, but finding out about it just after his music had barely gotten me through a wretched week, it was just plain horrible timing.

Of all the musical luminaries that passed in the last week, most notably Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, Mose was the one to whom I had the most exposure and the greatest affinity. Also, not coincidentally, he was the only one of those three that I ever got to see live (I did have the pleasure of seeing the bass virtuoso Victor Bailey, whose death last week largely went unheralded, but that's another story).

In 2003, I attended Mose's late set at The Iridium in New York. I went with a friend who had no idea what or who she was about to see, but I promised her it would something special. (I had just happened to run into her when she was waiting in line to get into the free concert that the Dave Matthews Band was giving in Central Park, which was nearly over by that point. I convinced her that seeing a jazz legend would be better than seeing the last ten minutes of a band she had already seen.)

We arrived at The Iridium just as the set was starting. Mose was cool as ever. The hipness and humor that characterized his songs and delivery was augmented with a world-weary wisdom. As far as I know, he had been referred to as "the Sage of Tippo" since at least the 1960s, but it seemed more appropriate now. Though his piano playing didn't have quite the dexterity that it once did, his voice was only richer. He played and sang like he was he was conveying a lifetime's worth of experiences, but not getting too hung up if we couldn't dig what he had to lay on us. Needless to say we all did.

After Mose finished his set, I caught him as he was leaving the stage. While I generally think it to be in poor taste to accost artists in this way, I extended my hand and said: "Hey Mose, great set!"

He shook my hand while the casual raise of his brow said to me that he was neither too impressed nor too offended by the gesture and moved on. But hey, at least his didn't leave me hanging.

So at least I have that. I'm glad I got to see him when I did. I got to see him face to face and hear him in the moment, delivering the songs that fit so closely with my sense of humor and the world, and made my own cynicism a little easier to handle.

And so now Mose is gone. I've still got his records. They got me through last week, and hopefully they should get me through the next one.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Les Brers: A Band of Brothers Back in New York

Les Brers at Brooklyn Bowl 10/12/2016

When I was telling people that I was going to see Les Brers at Brooklyn Bowl last Wednesday, I found it a little tricky to briefly describe the act I was going to see. Are they an Allman Brothers spin-off? Are they a tribute act? Are they a continuation? All of the above?

Les Brers, named after the Eat a Peach instrumental, "Les Brers in A Minor," and which is apparently a French/Cajun/Southern mutant translation of "The Brothers," was founded last year by Butch Trucks, drummer and founding member of the Allman Brothers, who invited some other Brothers and extended "family" (both literally and figuratively) to perform music from that band's original line-up. Obviously, this is no "tribute act." The fact that Les Brers includes more than half of the final line-up of the Allman Brothers, including two founding members, should put that notion to bed immediately.

Still, though I was outwardly excited for the show, inside I was only cautiously optimistic. The Allman Brothers Band broke up in 2014 after guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew) announced their intentions to leave the band. The final line-up of the Allman Brothers Band was its most stable, with no changes since Haynes rejoined the band in 2001 following founding member Dickey Betts' departure. In that decade, the band had reestablished themselves with classic rock fans, while finding a new fan base with younger music aficionados in the improvisational (or "jam band") rock scene. Meanwhile, Haynes and the younger Trucks also established themselves as bona fide "guitar gods." So how would this new band fare?

Quite well, in fact. Or to put it in other words, risking sounding like a sycophantic Peach-Head (the designated term for hard-core Allman Brothers fans, of which I am one), Les Brers kicked some serious ass.

As soon as the band kicked into Hot 'Lanta, their Fillmore East era barn-burner, it became clear that this band was a formidable beast. The thundering rhythm section of original Allman Brothers drummers Jaimoe and Trucks along with longtime percussionist Marc Quiñones and bassist Oteil Burbridge immediately displayed that propulsive, muscular drive that has been the backbone of the band for decades. The fact that they were seasoned and well oiled came as no surprise, given that this rhythm section has remained unchanged since Oteil joined the Allmans in 1997.

The band powered through a set of Allman Brothers classics the way the old band did for decades: With reverence for the past, but keeping the music fresh through intense, in -the-moment playing, with all band members in deep communication.

Pearson and Williams
Early on in the set, guitarist Jack Pearson established himself as the focal point of the band, playing a blistering solo on the old Dickey Betts composition, "Blue Sky." Pearson's unique style and use of harmonics added a new dimension to the music. An obvious choice for the gig, Pearson was member of the Allmans from 1997 to 1999 and would frequently play with Gregg Allman's solo band. Indeed, In his memoir, My Cross to Bear, Gregg wrote that "Jack Pearson is tops--he can do it all. There's no question that he's one of the most accomplished cats I've ever played with[.]" That says a lot, but not nearly as much as Pearson said with his tasty, imaginative, and virtuosic playing.

Pearson was joined on guitar and harmonica by Nashville session man Pat Bergeson. While he never really stole the spotlight from Pearson, he nailed his parts like a true pro, and the two guitarists expertly matched each other to execute the dazzling guitar harmony lines that were the Allmans' trademark.

Playing Gregg Allman's keyboard parts was Bruce Katz, sideman for such performers as John P. Hammond and Delbert McClinton. With more finely honed chops, and greater capacity for improvisation (Gregg Allman himself confessed that he was the least accomplished instrumentalist in the ABB, unless you counted his voice as an instrument), Katz' playing was the one aspect of the show that actually surpassed the original band.

Gregg's vocal parts were handled by Lamar Williams Jr. The son of Lamar Williams, the bass player for the Allman Brothers between 1972 and 1976 (the peak years in terms of the band's popularity) and ABB spin-off Sea Level, Williams had a tough role to fill. Allman had always been possession of one of the finest, blues/soul voices, and even in his advanced age, when his higher range diminished in favor of a deeper growl, his voice always had a breadth and richness that was mournfully expressive, while cutting through the arrangement perfectly. For his part, Williams did an admirable job throwing himself into the music and doing the songs his own way. While his singing didn't have the same weight to it, he displayed an easy charisma and had a fine voice for the material, shining most on the soulful ballad "Please Call Home."

For the song "Dreams" (notably, the first song that Gregg brought to the newly formed ABB in 1969) the band was joined by Scott Sharrard, guitarist for Gregg Allman and Friends, who contributed a solo that was nuanced and propulsive (though a bit low in the mix from where I was). The band then finished with a potent, albeit truncated, medley of "Mountain Jam" and "Whipping Post."

Would I have liked a longer set? Sure (it was a relatively short show by ABB standards). Did I wish that Oteil was showcased a bit more? Of course (his solos in the early 2000s were always a highlight for me). Still, I would be an ingrate to complain. Les Brers put on a great show and I would be content to see a dozen more like it. Hopefully they'll come around again. I would like to see Les Brers shows become as much a New York tradition as the Allman Brothers Beacon runs were. I would be eager to see how the band would expand its repertoire, and hear how they would  get deep into the groove that comes with time playing together. Perhaps that is a lot to hope for.

In the end, the band succeeded in making classics sound fresh and immediate in a way that I did not think I would hear again after the Allman Brothers Band disbanded. This group of expert musicians were certainly the right guys for the job. They had the chops, the passion, and the inventiveness to pull it off. They also had the pedigree and credibility. And even if there were no one named Allman on the stage, they had definitely kept the music in the family.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

AC/DC Should Break Up (and Other Stupid Comments from the Peanut Gallery)

Cliff Williams, 1981
AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams announced his retirement from the band with the conclusion of their recent Rock or Bust world tour.

And now AC/DC should break up.

Of course, they should have broken up when longtime vocalist Brian Johnson was forced to retire due to hearing problems.  Or they should have broken up when rhythm guitarist and founding member, Malcolm Young, was diagnosed with dementia. Or they should have broken up when Phil Rudd, the drummer on nearly all of their classic albums, found himself in legal hot water for drug possession and allegedly soliciting the services of a hit-man. Or maybe they should have broken up decades ago when Bon Scott, the vocalist with whom they first found success, died from asphyxiating on his own vomit after a drinking binge.

These are all things you'll hear coming from the peanut gallery.

Rock fans are an opinionated bunch, aren't we? We always have something to say about our favorite (and least favorite) bands, and we say it loudly, regardless of our degree of knowledge or insight. Because of the visceral qualities and intense impact of rock music, and the way we incorporate it into our lives, fans feel a deep connection to musicians that they have never met, and somehow feel qualified to pontificate about their art and private lives.

I am frequently guilty of this myself. However, in the back of my mind, I never really forget that I am full of crap.

Fans complain when a band breaks up, when a band doesn't break up, when their new album isn't like their last one, and when their new album is just a rehashing of their last one. Sometimes you can't win with these people.

In the case of AC/DC, we are dealing with very specific, and some quite tragic, circumstances. Just a
few years ago, what was considered the "classic" lineup of the band (unless you prefer Bon Scott) was completely intact. Now only lead guitarist Angus Young remains.

The first casualty was founding member Malcolm Young, rhythm guitarist, co-writer of most of the band's material, and brother of Angus. Since being diagnosed with dementia, he was reported as having a complete loss of short term memory and unable to communicate. This is bad thing to happen to a band mate, a worse thing to happen to a brother.

Brian Johnson's departure from the band due to hearing problems (he was apparently warned by his doctor that another tour with the band could result in total hearing loss) was another shock. Johnson had attributed his hearing problem to car racing (who knew it got so loud in there?), and not to decades of touring in a notably loud rock band. Still, the band replaced him with Guns and Roses vocalist Axl Rose for their 2016 tour. Initial statements from Johnson indicated that this was done very much against his will, and that he was disappointed to be replaced before a second medical opinion declared his hearing damage to be less severe than feared. He later made a statement thanking his bandmates for their support. Quite a change of heart.

This reminded me of how Jon Anderson was unceremoniously dismissed from Yes, the band he co-founded in 1968, while dealing with health problems that prevented him from performing. Similarly, initial statements expressed sadness, disappointment, and shock, only to be contradicted by later statements in which he gave his support and approval to the rest of the band. Was this another change of heart, or did someone get a call from the lawyers?

Perhaps this is baseless speculation (but as a rock fan, that's what I do), but I have to wonder if Anderson and Johnson were approached by management and cautioned again disparaging members of the band and damaging the brand. Rock bands are also a business, after all.

This is the weird thing about bands. A lot bands started with a bunch of kids from the neighborhood coming together, guys who knew each other since they were twelve. These are often intense, volatile, and deeply familial relationships. Bands are also a business. Even the smallest time music ensemble requires management and at least one member with some business acumen.  The biggest bands are organizations that employ dozens of people. Breaking up a band, or "dissolving the partnership," often involves liquidating assets and can even include severance packages for longtime employees. It must be weird being a top tier touring act. You go from being a bunch of kids in a garage to being an organization that is too big to fail. When fans say, "why don't they just quit?" it doesn't take into consideration the future of the guy who has been on the road crew for, say, the Rolling Stones, for the last twenty years.

The "classic" line-up in their last days
It also doesn't take into consideration the specialized skill set that these guys have. I am pretty sure that Angus doesn't have his carpentry business to go back to. If anything, his family business was rock and roll. Angus and Malcolm's older brother George was a member of the seminal Australian band the Easybeats, and co-wrote their classic hit "Friday on My Mind" before devoting his time and energy to fostering his brothers' ambitions, guiding the early career of AC/DC and producing their early albums.

Can you blame Angus if he entertains the notion of continuing the band all by himself? If you had one entity in your life which was your livelihood,  your passion, and the ultimate mechanism for preservation of your youth, wouldn't you hold onto it as long as you could? (AC/DC for all of their integrity and strengths is a band that refused to mature, just look at Angus' stage outfit. He wears the same schoolboy uniform that he did four decades ago.)

So hold off on your judgment if Angus Young doesn't immediately declare the end of AC/DC after the departure of Cliff Williams. AC/DC is his life and his legacy. And he's been through a lot in the last few years. On the other hand, it would hypocritical of me to tell legions of rock enthusiasts to hold their tongues. It's not I ever tried to. At any rate, this is just my opinion. I will probably have a completely contradictory one tomorrow.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ruminations on Jim Carroll

A week or so ago, I was going through my rather disorganized collection of old, rare (and not so rare) live "bootleg" concert recordings, and found myself compelled to dig out an old show of poet/punk musician Jim Carroll from 1980. I hadn't listened to it in years, and given the fact that I have been in a jazz/fusion and Italian prog rock kick of late, I can't really say why I felt the need to bring it out now. The fact that it was around the anniversary of his death (he was working at his desk when he died of a heart attack on September 11th, 2009) did not occur to me. I don't believe that there was any cosmic message, but it did make the timing seem appropriate.

I was not a fan of Jim Carroll growing up. Like many my age, my first awareness of him was tied to the film version of his teenage memoir, The Basketball Diaries, not that I ever saw it. In fact, I had no desire to. I think my perception of Leo DiCaprio at the time as being just some pretty boy had something to do with it. I also recall that the movie came out five months after the death of one of classmates from a heroin overdose, and I remember saying that I thought that the movie was probably just a bunch of heroin chic bullshit, and the fact that the kid in this movie was a junky didn't make him an artist. Apparently, the eighteen year old version of me thought he was qualify to make these statements without seeing the movie or reading any of the works by the real life artist. In retrospect, and this is harder to admit, I think that as a depressed and angst ridden adolescent, I probably didn't want to be shown up in that department. What's more, I was probably envious of the gritty, urban experience that I was denied by growing up in a small college town. In the end, I didn't see the movie simply because everyone else was, and I never bothered to read his books or poetry.

For all of these reasons, I was not thrilled when he took the stage at the Bottom Line in New York in January of 2002. I had gone to see Ray Manzarek, for whom he was opening, and in spite of my unjustified antipathy to Carroll, I had arrived early enough so that I would see his opening set from its start.

He took to the stage with a languid stroll that seemed like the caricature of the aging street poet, but was natural and unapologetic in his bearing, as if he knew no other way to move. He apologized for seeming lethargic, claiming that he was sick and had taken some cold medicine before the show (something I was not sure I believed). I don't remember what he said next, but I remember that my first thought was that he was not as pretentious as I imagined he would be. I wasn't quite in his corner yet, though.

That would take an additional ninety seconds.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of hyperbole. However, the turnaround happened quickly enough that I remember being surprised with myself, being aware even at that moment that my opinion went from active and deliberate aversion to pure engagement and admiration in a bizarrely short period of time.

He launched into a performance that causally blended reminiscences with distillations of short stories and articles that he had been commissioned to write over the years, with the occasional poem sprinkled in. The delicately jagged urban romance of his poetry presented a stark contrast to his humorous, sagacious, and slightly self-effacing storytelling. His tales expressed a persona that was sensitive, but tough; streetwise and resilient, but painfully aware of the ridiculousness of modern life.

Telling the story of waking up to the sound of an intruder in his apartment, and his measures to protect himself and his girlfriend, he recalled a moment of petrified recognition of his situation, standing buck naked in the middle of a dark room with a knife in his hand thinking, "but what if he has a gun?" We laughed along with him as he described his chivalry withering with his sudden attack of self-awareness.

He related how he was approached by some periodical or another for a story about a "first time," and how they didn't like the story that he proposed: The first time he watched a friend receive a high colonic. The fact that he clearly was not above scatological humor endeared me to him even more.
He launched into a story about how he accompanied a friend, who apparently either lost a bet or couldn't resist a dare, to a clinic to undergo a colon cleansing. "They take this shit really seriously," he said apologetically.

He spared no details as he described the bucket of soldiers figurine that his friend that his friend had swallowed as a child and emerged in pristine condition from his bowels. "It was the machine gunner. That one was my favorite," he said, lying down on the stage, getting into the gunner's position, just in case we didn't know which one he was talking about.

Apparently that story didn't go over well with the periodical in question.

The story they accepted was "the first time I killed a deer." I cringed. I don't know why, but in spite of everything I had heard over the past hour, I was anticipating some trite kind of coming of age hunting story or some circle of life bullshit diatribe infused with machismo. Instead he told the story of a weekend in the country with friends, with him as the fish-out-of-water city boy, in the middle of the night unable to sleep because of the oppressive sounds of nature, when he became overwhelmed by a blood curdling bleating sound coming from the yard. As he and his friends eventually all got out of their beds to investigate, they were horrified to find a family of deer gathered around one of their young, impaled on the picket fence. Apparently, they had all leapt the fence, and the baby fawn didn't clear it. It's cries of agony ripped into the air and burrowed into the minds of all of the weekend guests. Carroll related how it somehow fell to him to do what was decided must be done, to relieve the baby deer of his misery, how he was furnished with a revolver, how he stroked by the fawn's head and cradled his chin in his hands before pulling the trigger.

The room was silent. Clearly the rest of the audience was as moved as I was.  I sat there imagining what he felt, the confusion of reconciling a violent act, willfully committed lovingly, and feeling shame and guilt for doing the right thing. By this time, any preconceived notions I had harbored about this artist had been utterly obliterated.

He concluded his set with a recitation of a few more poems, now joined on stage by Manzarek  accompanying him on piano. I was never one for poetry readings, but I listened intensely, now caring deeply about what he had to say.

After that Manzarek took the stage for his "set" which consisted of him playing solo piano versions of Doors songs interspersed with reading passages from his new novel, The Poet in Exile. The book told the story of musician named “Roy,” who had played keyboards in a seminal 60s rock band, and embarks on a journey to seek “The Poet,” his former lead singer, who had seemingly died decades before but was in fact living on an island somewhere. It was too sad to watch. My friend and I left during one of the musical interludes. (I wrote more in detail about that experience here.)

Carroll in his early 80s punk rock heyday
So basically, I went to see Manzarek, and by accident I discovered Jim Carroll, who I was predisposed to dislike. It was a beautiful bit of serendipity and those little confluences are the things I love about living in New York City (and one of the reasons I miss The Bottom Line, a truly unique place, but that's another story). And although I never did go out and read The Basketball Diaries, that evening proved to be a very special one for me, and I feel fortunate that happenstance put me in the room with a great American artist. I am glad that in spite of my preconceptions, I was able to have an open mind and appreciate that moment. And now, seven years after his death, I think how lucky I was to have my mind changed while he was still alive, and I was able to experience his artistry in person.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

You Tried the Rest, Now Rediscover Brand X

Left to Right: Scott Weinberger, John Goodsall, Percy Jones,
Kenwood Dennard, Chris Clark
The 70s English jazz/fusion band Brand X will be making their long awaited return this fall, reuniting for a handful of dates this October. Though there were rumors of a reunion in 2012, they never came to fruition, much to the frustration of fans of the band, which has not played regularly since 1999.

This time it's real. The band is in rehearsals and tickets are on sale (I got mine). The band, helmed by guitarist John Goodsall and bassist Percy Jones (the band's only consistent members since their founding in 1975) will include drummer Kenwood Dennard, who toured with the band  in the late 70s, and new additions Chris Clark on keyboards, and Scott Weinberger on percussion. The upcoming tour is set to feature work from the bands first three albums:  Unorthodox Behaviour (1976), Moroccan Roll (1977), and their live album Livestock (1977), the last of which featuring Dennard, then recently off his stint with guitarist Pat Martino.

While their sound is most identifiably rooted in jazz/fusion, the band's fan base largely consists of fans of English progressive and experimental  rock, largely due to the founding members'  work in the genres. Goodsall had been a member of the prog rock band Atomic Rooster, while Percy Jones would also come to be known for his work with Brian Eno and Soft Machine. Phil Collins' notable contributions to the band's 70s output also raised awareness of the band for some. In fact, to this day, hipsters everywhere play old recordings of Brand X to their unsuspecting friends to show the extent of his drumming chops. The downside to this is that, for some, Brand X came to be referred to as "Phil Collins's other band," which clearly does a disservice to the band and ignores the extent of their prowess and significance. The fact that the Brand X roster, particularly in their original heyday between 1976 and 1979, featured a rotating cast of some the best players within progressive rock and jazz/fusion genres is often unfairly overlooked because of this. During this period the band would feature musicians such as the percussionist/composer Morris Pert, drummer Chuck Burgi (presently in Billy Joel's band), keyboardist Peter Robinson (formerly of the woefully underrated progressive rock trio, Quatermass, and later the composer of the score for the movie Return of the Living Dead, Part 2... seriously, no joke), and former Headhunters drummer Mike Clark.

Also, while most fusion bands of the early 70s were based around a definite bandleader who dictated
Brand X, circa 1977.
Morris Pert, Phil Collins, Goodsall, Robin Lumley, Jones
the style and whose instrumental leads were more prominently featured, Brand X seemed more democratic. On the first several albums, no particular composer dominated, and the sound favored no instrumentalist. While at times, this could lead to some amorphous improvisations, usually the sound was alternately ethereal and powerful, with solid hooks, driving rhythms and a healthy injection of funk. There was a sharply honed musical communication and sense of exploration and mischief (also, their album's liner notes are some of the funniest of the era). Also, unlike some of the most indulgent examples of fusion, even at their most virtuosic, they never let instrumental pyrotechnics overshadow the groove.

In spite of this, however, it has proven to be difficult to find Brand X's place in the musical canon, and theirs has long been a cult following. Similarly to Jeff Beck's mid 70s fusion experiments (did I say experiments? I meant masterpieces), the musicians in Brand X had too much of a background in rock to be accepted whole -heartedly by the jazz community (many of whom only grudgingly accepted jazz legends Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock's forays into rock and funk, if they indeed accepted them at all). On the other hand, their improvisation-heavy instrumental music was simply not going to put them on the pop charts. (In 1979, during the final recording sessions of the band's initial incarnation, they tried their hand at a couple of actual pop/rock songs, with actual lyrics, sung by their drummer, Phil, who was actually becoming a rock star by that time. It resulted in no major hits and merely watered down their sound.)

Today, it seems that Brand X fans are generally people with decidedly elastic musical tastes, and choose to find the similarities between genres rather than the differences. These are people who like Phish and Umphrey's Mcgee on one hand, Genesis and Yes on another, and Weather Report and Return to Forever on their third hand (and yes, all Brand X fans have three hands. It's a strange phenomenon). These are people who value good music, made my good musicians on real instruments, while possessing a deep  musical curiosity and longer attention spans than most. They're out there; I've met them.

Playing a handful of dates in intimate venues, this tour seems very much to be a gift for their old fans. The band has not yet made it clear whether this is a warm up for a larger scale comeback, which perhaps would be accompanied by development of new material and a more extensive drawing from their back catalog. I certainly hope that this will be the case. I would like to see this line-up gel and continue to explore new music, but with the same spirit as their classic incarnations, and find itself with an all new fan base. In any event, this short tour will give people a chance to rediscover what made Brand X great in the first place.

Brand X will be playing at Iridium in New York City on October 27th and 28th. For more information and tickets visit

For information about other dates check Brand X's officialFacebook page.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bootleggers or Dicks?

Or: Put Down Your Freakin' Phones!

As a longtime fan of both the bands Genesis and The Police, I have been eagerly seeking any available nuggets of information and anecdotes about the co-headlining tour of those band's respective former front-men, Peter Gabriel and Sting. From everything that I was able to glean from press releases and social media, this was not merely to be an instance of two well known artists doing supporting sets for each other in order to further increase their drawing power; This was to be a unique collaboration in which they would be sharing the stage, adding their voices (literally) to each other's songs in a celebration  of each others' catalogs.

Now this sounds like it could be either a revelation or merely a novelty.

Fortunately, reports have been promising. In a Columbus Dispatch review of the first concert last night at the Nationwide Arena in that city, Curtis Schieber, wrote that, in spite of the fact that there were some kinks to work out, the show was "a memorable combination of major talents, a marriage made of uncommon respect and enthusiasm."

Schieber noted that one of the evening's highlights was when Sting began his performance of the Police classic, "Message in a Bottle," by singing the opening lines of Genesis' "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight:"

"Can you tell me where my country lies?"
Said the unifaun to his true love's eyes
"It lies with me", cried the Queen of Maybe
For her merchandise, he traded in his prize
"Paper late", cried a voice in the crowd
"Old man dies" the note he left was signed 'Old Father Thames'
It seems he's drowned
Selling England by the pound

Schieber writes that the "magical imagery and hook line" added to the performance “Message in a Bottle, "broadening the song’s personal loneliness into a plea for international sanity."

I really wanted to hear this.

Doing so ended up virtually being easier done than said. A link to a video made by a member of the audience appeared in my Facebook feed. I clicked on the link, and even with the relatively poor, distant video and audio, I found myself getting chills from Sting's voice, singing these familiar lyrics but enriching them with a different sound and different intentions. Scheiber was right, I could feel the words hovering still after Sting began playing "Message in a Bottle."

I was glad to see the video, but not pleased as much with why I was able to.

I don't know who uploaded the video, so I can't speak to what his or her motives were, but it has become all too common to see a large percentage of a concert audience as being more inclined to view the show through their camera than experiencing it in the moment. Frankly, it is an incredibly infuriating phenomenon. Whether they are capturing the show as a personal memento, for bragging rights, or simply because they don't believe that an experience is real or valid unless it is captured and placed on social media, it is irritating to other audience members and disrespectful to the artists.

I have had numerous concert experiences at which my enjoyment was considerably compromised due to my view being blocked by a sea of iPhones raised up, and most of the shows I go to are older bands. I was at a Who concert where I could barely see the stage because of these people, and we are talking about an audience that was almost exclusively baby-boomers. I can't imagine what a concert is like when  it is populated entirely by millennials, who apparently simply know of no other way to experience a show. (I mean really, why can't they experience a show the way we used to do it when I was younger? Under the influence of mind altering drugs.)

Fortunately, apparently, other people are as pissed off about this as I am.

A recent article in the Washington Post discussed artists' dissatisfaction with this current state of affairs, and new approaches to rein in such behaviors. Of course, these approaches involve a product, a lock-able neoprene pouch created by a company called Yondr, which concertgoers would be compelled to use. The pouch allows them to carry their phones, but not allow them to access them unless the pouch is unlocked by the doorman outside of the venue. These have been adopted by a number of artists from musicians Alicia Keys and Guns and Roses to comics Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. Personally, I think it's a great idea, but at the same time, I believe it only deals with the symptom, and not the disease, namely the narcissistic sense of entitlement which allows a person to use their toys to declare: "Look at me! Look where I am! And fuck everyone who gets in the way of me saying 'look me and look where I am!'" This is vanity, not fandom.

For example, one kid, a 24 year old named  Gerard Little (The Washington Post didn't feel the need to protect his identity, so why should I?) said: “In this day and age, my phone is how I keep my memory... Chris Brown. Jason Derulo. I have their footage on my phone. If you don’t want your music heard, then don’t perform it.”

(Aside to Gerard:) Now, I don't know you Gerard, but if your true feelings are expressed in these statements, I would have to say that you are a little asshole admitting that your brain is shrinking too much to actually store a real experience. Also, you have no respect for artists and their ability to decide how to release their work. Lastly, since you apparently go to Chris Brown shows, you support beating the shit out of women. You are the poster child for shitty millennials. (Aside over.)

Marky Ramone, the drummer for, well, you know... The Ramones, once proposed another device to discourage such behavior, but instead of a pouch, it was a Ramones 45 taped to a stick which would be used to knock people's cameras and phones out of their hands when they were being dicks. I kind of like that better in some ways, but what I would really like would be if people could have some sense of propriety and consideration, even in a party atmosphere.

But I know that it is too much to ask.

"But Roger," you may say, "don't you think you're being a hypocrite? You used to collect bootlegs. What's the difference between the tapers of yesteryear (and today) and people capturing the show on their phones? In fact, aren't the people capturing the shows on their phones better than the bootleggers who attempt to profit off of other people's material? And surely a phone in the air is better than a couple of microphones on poles?"

Those are good questions, and for which I think I have good answers.

1. Tapers were about capturing the music. Was there vanity involved? Yes, but it was about pride in getting the best gear and getting the best recording. They got far better results with their equipment, and it was mean to be good enough to be enjoyed by others. They were about capturing the music, not some "I was there" postcard.

2. Contrary to popular belief, bootleggers did not get rich. In the days of actual manufacturing of bootleg albums, there was so much risk, so much potential lost product, and so little actual profit, that it was stupid for anyone to get into the business unless they actually cared about getting deeper into the music than the regular commercial recordings offered. Furthermore, people who bought bootleg recordings did so in addition to commercial releases, hardly ever as an alternative to them. (For more on this, check out Clinton Heylin's book, Bootleg! The Rise and Fall of the Secret Recording Industry.)

3. Microphones on poles are only to be found in designated "tapers' sections" by bands that encourage it. These sections were frequently found at Grateful Dead shows and still are found at shows by the legions of "jam bands" they inspired. In the past, at shows by "non-taper friendly" bands, tapers were forced to come up with other "stealth" methods including microphones hidden in eyeglass frames, hats, and other ways of getting high quality recording that were not only unnoticeable by other audience members, but also by security personnel on the lookout. Was this disrespectful to the bands? Certainly. But in spite of the fact that they ignored the bands' wishes to not be taped, they never wanted to undermine the quality of music with a poor recording or to disrupt the show itself.

I am aware that I am speaking in generalizations, and there are probably a bunch of tapers out there with shitty gear and worse etiquette. I also know that I am opening myself to being criticized for trash talking millennials while trying to defend the behavior of bootleggers, who were deliberately anti-authoritarian. And you would be right, but I am mature enough to admit that I know that I am doing so.

I am not even sure where I am going with this anymore. I guess I just have two points coming out of this. Firstly,  I really want to see Sting and Peter Gabriel when they come to the New York City area. Secondly, the difference between a millennial with a cell phone and a bootlegger is that bootleggers are more considerate and discreet.

And bootleggers love music more than they love themselves.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tricky Fingers in the 90s: Finessing the Jewel Case Top Wrap-Around Label Sticker

For those who need a visual aid
I spent at least ten minutes searching on Google trying to find out what that sticker is actually called (and ten minutes in internet time, is at least a decade in old-school library card catalog time), but people who actually still buy CDs and DVDs (or did at any point) know what I'm talking about. It's that stupid sticker with the artist's name and album title (and bar code) that wraps over the top edge of CD jewel cases and generally make it a pain in the dick to open and always seem to rip into dozens of tiny sticky pieces and leave tacky gunk on the case. You know those horrible little things. If anyone knows if there is official name for these things, let me know.

I recently rediscovered these delightful nuisances. Like an increasing number of music enthusiasts, most of my music purchases over the past several years have been on vinyl. CDs have not been by regularly purchased format since the late 90s. Unfortunately, recently I have had some problems with my receiver which has made me unable to play records, and as the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony (and surrounding controversies) set me off of a Deep Purple listening binge, I decided to order a bunch of CDs from Amazon. (Those who would be quick to admonish me for not supporting independent record stores should know that I did look in numerous shops for all of the albums before resorting to online purchases.)

Why I did this instead of just listening to them on Spotify or YouTube (or, in this case, in addition to doing so) has more to do with old habits and principles than anything practical. Not to dwell too much on a point on which I have pontificated so often before, the fact is that when I was growing up you bought music. Sure, on occasion, a friend would dub an album onto a cassette for you, but by and large, music was a physical artifact that you bought, you listened to, and you treasured. Collections were usually on display, showing off your investment (emotional and financial), as well as giving the curious and analytically minded guest an insight into your personality through your choices.

So at any rate, in the last few days, I have been getting packages from Amazon full of CDs, and I have now found myself trying to utilize that skill that I have not practiced regularly in at least fifteen years: Getting those fucking labels off, and doing it in style.

I know this sounds trivial, but I put to you that this was a way of showing commitment.

When I was in college in the mid 90s, one of my roommates (we'll call him Tom O to avoid protecting his identity) used to cover the inside door of his wardrobe with top label stickers of discs that he had bought and which he had managed to remove in one piece. The dexterous removal of these stickers was a sign of investment and engagement with music. It showed that you cared. Much like the ability to handle records properly, or to wind a reel to reel tape, the ability to deftly remove these horrible little things demonstrated a tactile skill that came with a serious dedication to listening to and engaging with music. It was a skill that developed through practice, from buying a lot of CDs and caring intensely about the tangible and fragile artifact that carried the music.

Oh yeah.
I feel like millennials will not understand this. They don't buy CDs anyway (to be fair, most people don't anymore). Also, looking back, I remember looking at the modest collections of my baby-boomer parents and their friends, full of cracked jewel cases and ripped stickers, evidence that they couldn't be bothered to show their commitment to music through manual dexterity on such an obsessive compulsive level.

Maybe this was only a Gen X thing. Or maybe it was just a little part of Gen X. Or, who knows?
Maybe it was just me and my roommate, Tom O. At any rate, now I have found myself having to try my hand at it again, finessing that little piece of plastic, trying to get it off in one piece. I gotta tell you, I still got it.

(Seriously, though, if anyone knows a better name than "jewel case top wrap-around label," let me know. Or even make on up. I'm open to colorful suggestions.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Deep Purple Bassist Nick Simper's Hall of Fame Snub

Trying in Vain to Find Logic in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Induction Process

Deep Purple, Mark I
Ritchie Blackmore, Rod Evans, Ian Paice, Jon Lord
and Nick Simper
This Friday, the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and this year Deep Purple, the classic English rock band that is credited with helping to lay the groundwork for heavy metal, is finally being inducted. Having been eligible since 1993, many believe that this honor is long overdue, and others feared it would never happen as more and more diverse acts meet the 25 year mark required for admittance.

As is the case with many bands, Deep Purple included many musicians over the years, which presents the problem of deciding which members are to be honored. Usually the Hall recognizes members of "classic" lineups, whatever that means. In the case of Deep Purple, there are a number of omissions for various reasons. Current members Steve Morse (who replaced the notoriously cantankerous founding guitarist Ritchie Blackmore in 1994) and Don Airey (who took over the keyboard chair from Jon Lord in 2002) are not included, in spite of their years in the band. In addition, in spite of their popularity (largely due to other projects) the one-album stints of guitarist Tommy Bolin and vocalist Joe Lynn Turner were not enough to warrant inclusion. In the end, the Hall chose to induct all of the members from the band's inception in 1968 up to the departure of Blackmore in 1975.

All except for Nick Simper, the founding bassist who played on the first three albums including the hit single, "Hush."
Nick Simper, today.

Commenting in Classic Rock magazine, Simper himself seemed to take the snub in stride and did not blame his old bandmates.  "Yes, it is a little strange that I am [the] only one from Marks I, II and III being left out, but I shan't lose any sleep over this. It's not as if I need to be given this award to know what we did in Deep Purple made an impact. And I'm sure it wasn't a decision that came from the band.”

Even considering that the band did not achieve their greatest success or even their defining sound until his departure in 1969, his exclusion is quite inexplicable. After all, vocalist Rod Evans, whose tenure with band ended at the same time as Simper's, is being honored, in spite of controversy and a lawsuit around fraudulent use of the band name.

Interviews with numerous Hall of Fame acts back up Simper's belief that the groups themselves do not necessarily choose the inductees. I have tried to find the specific rules as to who is to be included, and who makes these decisions, but in vain. Even searching for consistency in the list of members proves to be problematic. In my search for a set of criteria, I found numerous examples which simply contradict each other.

The only thing I ever found that suggested a concrete rule was in the case of Jack Sherman, erstwhile guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sherman was vocal in his disappointment at being snubbed when the band was inducted in 2012. Though the decision was ostensibly made by the Hall of Fame, Sherman believed that the decision was influenced by the band itself. Told that induction was limited to "original and current members, and those who played on multiple records," he believed that it was technicality designed to exclude him and Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, who played on the band's 1995 album One Hot Minute when long-time member John Frusciante had taken a hiatus from the band. By these criteria, Sherman, who played on the first album but was not a founding member, did not qualify. In a turn of events that must have been particularly insulting, current guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who had only a full member of the band for three years and had been all of four years old when the band was founded in 1983, did receive the honor of inclusion. This strange technicality made Klinghoffer the youngest member of the Hall of Fame.

The "original and current members, and those who played on multiple records" rule does explain many omissions, but not all. It does not explain the exclusion of Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch in 1998. Though Welch not a member of the original band or its later classic Rumours line-up, he was a pivotal member for several years and albums and was essential to saving a fracturing band while helping it make the transition from blues-infused hard rock to the pristine pop rock for which it is best known. Welsh attributed the snub to a then-recent breach of contract lawsuit between him and his former bandmates. This of course, would be a fallacious argument if the band indeed did not have some sort of say in who was inducted.

Stu doesn't need your pity.
But apparently the band may have some say. When the Rolling Stones were inducted in 1989, the band requested that founding  pianist Ian Stewart ("Stu") be inducted with them, even though he was fired from the band (or to be more specific, was demoted from band member to session musician and road manager) before their first album. This decision was made by the Stones' manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who argued that the stocky, square-jawed Stewart did not fit the image of the young rebellious band. Jagger, Richards, and company, however, held him in high esteem. Keith Richards would frequently say, even after Stu's death in 1985, "I still feel like I'm working for him. It's his band." They presented the argument to the Hall that, in spite of the fact that he had never been credited as a band member on any album, as a founder, he should be eligible. Now while he technically fits the rule that excluded Jack Sherman, as a member who was not terribly well known, it is hard to imagine that the Hall would have automatically inducted Stewart if it were not for the band's intervention.

Warren Haynes
The current member factor seems to be used quite inconsistently. When the Grateful Dead were inducted in 1994, keyboardist Vince Welnick had been in the band for less than 4 years, but was still included . Meanwhile, when the Allman Brothers Band were so honored the following year, only original members were inducted, ignoring not only members from the mid 70s, when their popularity was at its zenith, but also then-current members including Warren Haynes, who was not only instrumental in their comeback six years earlier, but would later prove to be the glue that would hold the band together over the next couple of decades.¹

Now, I do not intend to slight Klinghoffer, but personally, I believe that Haynes is far more deserving of the honor.

Which leads me back to the case of Nick Simper. Before Deep Purple, Simper had played with a number of working English bands in the early sixties. Notably, he was the last bass player for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, a hugely influential group whose single "Shakin' All Over" became a rock staple and was famously covered by The Who on their Live at Leeds album. Admittedly a late-comer to the group, Simper had the sad distinction of being present (and injured) in the car crash that killed Kidd. He would later do a stint in Screaming Lord Such and the Savages before playing in the Flower Pot Men with Jon Lord.

It was Lord who recommended Simper to fill the role as bassist in Deep Purple, a band that he was starting with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. When singer Rod Evans came to audition, he brought along his drummer Ian Paice, and the lineup of what would later be known as Deep Purple, Mark I, would be complete. That lineup, which played a blend of proto-progressive and psychedelic rock, would find modest success and tour internationally.

Simper and Evans would be fired in 1969 due to the desire of Blackmore, Lord, and Paice to take the band in a heavier direction. Simper would play with a number of bands over the ensuing decades, but would never find the same level of success. Evans would resurface in Captain Beyond, a band that included former members of Iron Butterfly and Johnny Winter's band. Not quite a "supergroup", they were at the very least a "pretty-nifty-group." They released a couple of well received, if not hot selling albums, before Evans left the music business to work as a respiratory therapist.

Unfortunately, Evans' story took a pitiable turn in 1980, when he was recruited by a disreputable promotion company to participate what would be a Deep Purple reunion in name only, with a group of hired guns (apparently Simper was also approached, but turned down the offer). After a few warm-up gigs, the band was set to play at the 12,000 seat Long Beach Arena. On the day of the show, the managers of (the real) Deep Purple placed a half page ad in the LA Times informing audiences that no members of the band's most popular Mark II and III lineups would be performing. The show went on as scheduled, and went off poorly. Sound problems abounded, the band was below subpar, and angry fans, realizing they'd been duped, began leaving immediately, many asking for refunds. A lawsuit was brought against Evans (assumed by many to be at the behest of guitarist Ritchie Blackmore) which resulted in his loss of all future Deep Purple royalties. It is a sad and embarrassing story and one does have to wonder how Evans, who was described by his former band mate, Bobby Caldwell, as an "intellectual giant" (although, to be fair, this is by rock star standards [ducks]) would have allowed himself to be roped in to such a dubious enterprise.

When I saw that Evans was being inducted and that Simper was not, I was perplexed. I don't think that Evans should be excluded for events of over thirty years ago, but why was Simper excluded when his parallel tenure with the band was not marred with controversy? Who decided? Do the bands in question really have as little say as we are led to believe? Were there inter-band politics that we do not know about, or is it just another example of the bassist not getting any respect? This situation with Nick Simper and Deep Purple, above all others, indicates to me that there really is no rhyme or reason. Even if one argued that rules changed from year to year, this case indicates a complete lack of logic within itself.

If anyone can shed light on this, please let me know. Looking at these and other cases, it seems to me that the decisions of who gets in and stays home and bitterly watches the ceremony on TV, are taken on a case by case basis and based more on whims than specific criteria. We may never know the answer, but the case of Nick Simper once again highlights the irregularities and inconsistencies of the induction process of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I guess we really can't take it that seriously.

(¹The only reason I can imagine for this strange paradox is that Welnick joined a band that played together more or less continuously for several decades, as opposed to Haynes who joined a band that was reforming after having been broken up for several years. It's not much, but it's all I got, and it would explain the absence of Deep Purple's Steve Morse and Don Airey.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Remembering Keith Emerson (the Way We Ought To)

Shortly after the death of rock keyboardist Keith Emerson was reported as a suicide last Friday, Greg Lake, his former bandmate in the eponymously named progressive rock juggernaut, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, was quoted on the website of the U.K.'s Sunday Express that he had recognized signs of Keith's depression since the late 70's, adding that "I have to be honest and say that his death didn’t come as a shock to me."

"I think its [sic] a very difficult thing to actually describe what depression is...  He lived, in the end, this very lonely existence of someone who was deeply troubled, He loved music – that was his main purpose in life... But the music he made after ELP never bore fruit in the same way as it did in the early days."

He went on to make a plea for others who have similar feelings:  "All I would say is that if anyone does have feelings like that, of being so desperate that they think it’s better off not to wake up tomorrow, then please, go and talk to somebody - the doctor, your friend, anybody."

The statements, sometimes quite harsh even if not lacking in understanding, are in stark contrast to his terse initial statement on his website, in which he stated that "[a]s sad and tragic as Keith’s death is, I would not want this to be the lasting memory people take away with them."

A very sad facet of suicide is its ability to alter the conversation and taint our memories. Just as for many the death of Robin Williams forever painted him as the tragic sad clown figure, a sharp contrast to the lighting witted chameleon comic genius, I appreciate Lake's fear that Emerson's contributions will be colored by nature of his passing. At the same time, I also understand why he later felt the need to openly ruminate on it, and I certainly would never condemn his statement in support of psychological counseling.

But then there is also always the temptation for people who never knew Emerson beyond his work to speculate:  "Did the stigma of mental illness prevent him from getting the help he may have needed?" "What if he hadn't had a gun in the house?" Some have even suggested that internet trolling was a factor in his anxiety and subsequent suicide.

Bob Moog and Keith
I do think that all of these issues should be brought into open discussion, but I agree with Lakes' original statement that we should try to remember Keith Emerson for who he was at his best and strongest, a kick ass musician. Let's remember him as the guy who used to hold down notes on his Hammond organ with giant daggers (gifts from his roadie, Lemmy... yes that Lemmy), while also displaying dazzling, disciplined piano technique. Let's remember the guy whose use of the Moog synthesizer and collaboration with its inventor, Robert Moog, lead to significant developments in that instrument. Let his legacy include his compositional prowess, and his ability as a performer to arrange older pieces to make new statements and express new attitudes.

A lot of younger people do not know of these things (damned millennials!). Sadly, I find that many people who were not around in the 70s are unaware of a couple of things: Firstly, that Keith Emerson is largely considered to be one of the most technically proficient keyboardists ever to play rock music. Secondly, that Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the biggest bands in the world at that time. In their 1973-74 heyday, only The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were bigger concert draws.

Yes, that Lemmy
To be sure (internet trolls be damned), Emerson was no stranger to criticism; in the 70's Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were also one of the most critically reviled  bands of the time, usually blasted for being pompous, bombastic, too cerebral, and overly theatrical. Outwardly, the band brushed off, or even welcomed such criticism. This was a band that prided itself on something else, creating something bigger, something more grand, mixing elegant composition with sonic experimentation, intense volume, fiery chops, and a brash stage show. They were unapologetic. They had no time for people who would slag off their incorporation of music by established jazz musicians and classical composers into performances. If you couldn't deal Mussorgsky mixed with some Hammond organ feedback, Led Zeppelin was playing across town (and they were a "pure" rock band; they only ripped off aging blues musicians).

And while to some it seemed overly heady and considered, this was a music that the band arrived at organically, mixing the classical training that the members had in their youth with the pop sounds that were coming out in England at the time, all the while emboldened by the experimental spirit of the age. If their music didn't have a raw sound like classic American rock n' roll or blues, it wasn't supposed to. Prog rock was its own beast. It was, and remains, at its best, ethereal, powerful, and thought-provoking.

However, while immensely popular in the early to mid seventies, today prog rock is generally a cult affair. Its fans today are a smaller group, but one that is both rabid and discerning, while deliberately dismissive of concepts of cool versus uncool.  Prog rock fans are more interested in exploring vistas of sound and atmosphere, music made with skill and commitment, and less interested in musical scenes connected to social movements or attitudes. Prog rock fans do not look to music to tell them how to dress or who they should sneer at. It's all about the music.

And so it was for Keith. He was one of the titans of the genre, leading the charge for musicians of the time, and inspiring artists of the future. Needless to say, tributes poured out in the last few days. Peter Gabriel wrote that "Keith’s passion for good music, whether it was classical, jazz or rock, was in itself one of the things that led the progressive rock movement."

Adrian Belew, the former King Crimson guitarist who also worked with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads, commented on how he wanted to get sounds like Emerson's keyboards out of his guitar and went on to say that "had I never heard Keith Emerson playing I might be a different guitarist than I am today. [T]hank you Keith."

Indeed, Greg Lake did say it best in his original statement when he declared that what he "will always remember about Keith Emerson was his remarkable talent as a musician and composer and his gift and passion to entertain. Music was his life and despite some of the difficulties he encountered I am sure that the music he created will live on forever."

Hear, Hear.