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Hangin’ down in Memphis all the while (two new books about the other music city, USA)

61VRgUNrJ+LMemphis ’68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul by Stuart Cosgrove, Polygon, 2017

The original Memphis is 15 miles south of Cairo in Egypt. It was the capital about three thousand years ago and is now a popular stop on the tourist trail. Like many ancient cities, it was filled with temples dedicated to an array of deities, some well known to this day, some obscure, and and and some whose sole memorial is a name engraved in a barely translatable language.

Its namesake in Tennessee is a site that predates European settlement by at least a millennium. The Chickasaws had been there for hundreds of years when Hernando De Soto came by in the 1500s. They were still there when Andrew Jackson founded the city and named it after the Egyptian place 300 years later. It was clearly an appealing place to settle, that famous bluff walked by Johnny Cash’s lost love, raising a few eyeballs before she continued down the Mississippi River. Like the original Memphis, its economic life was based on a large river and its fortunes have always been tied to it. In the ancient city, the number of different temples for different gods is probably explained by the proximity to the river. The population was always in flux and visitors came and went, leaving behind items of their cultural baggage.

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The Egyptian Memphis lost influence through the usual series of economic and political changes that constitute history. Memphis, Tennessee can also seem like a city of the past. The name evokes a much earlier period in American history. Riverboats, jug bands, WC Handy, Furry Lewis, Sun Records, and Otis Redding come to mind. Only New Orleans tops it as a staging ground for the old romantic America. But here’s an argument starter: In terms of diversity and influence, Memphis is by far the most important musical hub in America. Blues, RnB, Rockabilly, Soul, and Rock and Roll all thrived in this city. Try to imagine Elvis coming from any other city in the US. It’s not easy, is it?

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Old Gods at Sun Records on Union Avenue.

Stuart Cosgrove’s latest book, Memphis ’68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul documents the year from which many believe the city never fully recovered. Otis Redding’s death in December 1967 has long been acknowledged as the beginning of the end for Stax Records. The assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel four months later devastated the whole country and seemed to suck the life out of a town already reeling from the first stirrings of the globalized neo liberal economics that continue to depress the American South. Martin Luther King was in town to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. Memphis had a long history of corrupt local politics, and a longer history of racism. The term segregation only begins to describe a city so divided that each community barely realized the other was there. The sanitation workers were invisible despite providing an essential service. Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have been to the mountaintop’ speech at a rally for them the day before he died.

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Booker T, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Carla Thoma

Strangely enough, the situation in wider Memphis was not reflected within the walls of 926 East McLemore Ave. Stax Records was, briefly anyway, a complete anomaly in the city. It is one of the great ironies that the white guitarist, Steve Cropper, wrote In the Midnight Hour with Wilson Pickett in a room at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was murdered three years later.  I don’t know how many different accounts I have read of this period at Stax Records but I’m always moved by the story. There is something fairytale-like about this small space in Memphis where music was important and race wasn’t. It didn’t last, of course, but for a moment there, right under the noses of the racist power elite in Tennessee, a wonderful model for desegregation was developing.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 196

MLK in Memphis

 

Memphis ’68 is the second in a proposed trilogy that includes last year’s Detroit ’67 (reviewed here in April 2016) and next year’s Harlem ’69. Cosgrove is a great storyteller and this book is a deserving winner of the 2018 Penderyn Prize for books about music. Though it is, broadly speaking, a social history, music is at its centre. Cosgrove has a deep and longstanding love of soul music that he combines with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre’s artists, songs, and labels. Because of the dramatic nature of MLK’s assassination and the resulting riots, he faced a real challenge here telling this well-known story in a fresh way. His account of The Invaders, a Memphis version of the Black Panthers that included at least one Stax musician in their ranks, adds another layer. The month-by-month assessment of 1968 in Memphis is done through the stories of both musicians and ordinary citizens of the city. As with his Detroit book, the effect is immersive and engaging.

index1Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown by Robert Gordon

Robert Gordon is a Memphis native who was seven in 1968 and remembers seeing tanks on the streets after the assassination. His love for his hometown is well documented in books like the sensational It Came From Memphis and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. He has also made a number of films about Memphis musicians. Blues fans will be familiar with his biography of Muddy Waters, Can’t Be Satisfied. All of his books are on the syllabus. You must read them.

His latest is a collection of articles, reviews, liner notes and unpublished pieces called Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown. I read it immediately after finishing Cosgrove’s book and it makes a fine companion. If the heady tale of Memphis’ most dramatic year is dinner, this is a rich dessert followed by lovely whiskey.

Gordon is, by his own admission, a member of the Peter Guralnick school of music writing. His knowledge of music is deep but the musicians fascinate him too. These pieces put you at the table with the subjects. The article on Jeff Buckley’s final days is a case in point. The singer’s tragically short career has been dissected and rehashed many times but this piece is revelatory. Buckley was searching for something in Memphis and Gordon was fortunate enough to spend some time with him while he made his last recordings and absorbed some of the musical atmosphere of the city. It’s a poignant article. Honestly, while I was reading it, I felt the same way I did when I heard he had died that day in 1997. I also went running to my CD shelves to find my copy of Sketches of My Sweetheart the Drunk. You will too!

R-2022034-1427477643-9161.jpegBut most of the pieces here deal with Memphis musicians. James Carr, a soul great that has never had anywhere near the recognition he deserves, is profiled. His story is another sad one. He recorded the original, and by far the best, version of Dan Penn’s Dark End of the Street on Goldwax Records in 1967. It should have set him up for a lifetime’s career in music. Instead, he battled terrible mental health problems and substance abuse issues until his death in 2001. Gordon’s interview presents him with the almost Lear-like pathos of a delicate soul unraveling. This is something of a pattern in these essays. The brilliant Jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr suffered numerous nervous breakdowns after his initial success in the late 50s and even had his fingers broken in a bar one night. Gordon interviews his mother here and profiles his brother Calvin. Jerry McGill, a Sun Records recording artist and the subject of one of Gordon’s films, is another hard luck story albeit one with a mildly happy ending.

The spirit of Alex Chilton hangs over many of these tales and he is the subject of a long meditation towards the end of the book. Like Flies on Sherbert, an album produced by another Memphis deity, Jim Dickinson, is either a drunken mess or a sophisticated deconstruction of Memphis music, depending on your perspective. Gordon is a fan and maintained a long, though not always friendly relationship with the mercurial singer. Chilton’s sometime collaborator Tav Falco is also profiled here. Falco’s story is a reminder of the vibrant arts scene in Memphis in the 70s.

It would be tempting to finish by saying that, like Memphis in Egypt, Memphis Tennessee is now simply an open air museum that trades on past glories. While there are many temples to old gods – Graceland, Stax, Sun Records, and Beale Street, I suspect that Memphis can’t be consigned to ancient history just yet. Somewhere in those streets, the next Alex Chilton or James Carr or Steve Cropper is practicing guitar and dreaming about writing another chapter in the musical history of this remarkable city.

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“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round”

Teasers: Martin Luther King was talking to a musician just before he died. He was making a request. Find out which song in Cosgrove’s book.

 

A Childlike Vision Jumping Into View

9780735221345Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh, Penguin 2018

Where to start? How about a bit of trivia? In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was looking for a drummer. Now think for a second. Who is the most famous drummer ever from Boston? Yes! You’ve got it! Moulty, the one-handed timekeeper from The Barbarians! Moulty, who told the story of his pipe bomb mishap in an eponymous 1966 single! That guy auditioned for Van Morrison. The Irish singer was not impressed by the hook-handed drummer’s warlike style and the relationship ended there.

Or what about this one? The story of Van Morrison’s break with Bert Berns’ Bang Records is well known but I didn’t know that after Bert died suddenly in 1967, Van was at the contractual mercy of a minor gangster called Carmine ‘Wassel’ DeNoia. He might have been small time but his father was the model for Nicely Nicely in the musical, Guys and Dolls. His son, not so nicely, broke a guitar over Van’s head. It’s possible that Morrison only moved to Boston to hide from the thug. Eventually, Wassel demanded twenty big ones in unmarked bills to sever his connection with the singer. The drop had to be made in a dark underground carpark. No, really…

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Jeff Barry, Bert Berns, Van, Janet Planet, and the son of Nicely Nicely, 1967

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh is a fascinating book that places one of the most celebrated albums of all time in a particular time and space: Boston, 1968. Van Morrison’s album was, as you are no doubt thinking, recorded in New York with Jay Berliner on guitar and Richard Davis on bass, neither of whom are from Boston. But this was not Van’s band and the Belfast native was not living in New York at the time. He had spent the previous year in Massachusetts, playing gigs and writing the songs that would appear on Astral Weeks and Moondance. Walsh recreates that period in Boston and makes the case that some elements of the record’s atmosphere might have something to do with a particularly dramatic summer in that city. Walsh’s story is akin to a longform version of an episode of This American Life in its rich detail and wholehearted embrace of the uncanny.

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Mel Lyman or ‘God’, to his pals

Let’s start with Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community. Mel was the harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, which also featured Geoff and Maria Muldaur. He appears at the beginning of Murray Lerner’s film Festival, chatting amicably with the interviewer but, from my perspective, making no sense whatsoever. Somehow, this guy became the leader of a cult that continues to this day. In 1968, the group was everywhere in Boston. They published a popular newspaper called Avatar, made films, hosted gigs, and appeared on television. Lyman made the cover of Rolling Stone and Mark Frechette, a member of the community, appeared in the film Zabriskie Point before ending up in prison for armed robbery. The Rolling Stone magazine feature tried to pin the ‘east coast Manson’ label on Lyman and hinted at dark deeds behind the walls of its properties in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city. The truth seems to be more Sponge Bob than Jim Jones. Mel’s sprees involved indulging in large quantities of chocolate fudge, which cost him his teeth. Former members have also complained that his astrological work was flawed. He moaned about being God and what a drag it was but he was no Manson, fortunately.

1860_Cottrell_Cornhill_Boston2Walsh points out that Boston already had some form in the occult game. The city had been a hotbed of spooky fun during the great age of American spiritualism in the late 19th Century. The Fox Sisters opened a branch of their New York operation there in the 1870s. According to Walsh, one of their first customers was former first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. She had already visited pioneering ‘spirit photographer’, William Mumler over on Washington Street for a photo of her with Abe’s ghost. The Boston Planchette, a prototype of the Ouija board, appeared in the 1860s. Walsh makes an interesting, if somewhat tenuous, connection between the spiritualist Edgar Cayce and the rise of the progressive ‘free form’ FM format on the legendary WCBN. Radios appear throughout Van’s lyrics and they often have a slightly mystical resonance. Watch the clip of Caravan from The Last Waltz where he begins to riff on the idea of The Band as a radio. Walsh doesn’t suggest there is a direct link – there is a significant and much earlier radio in 1967’s TB Sheets – but late night FM was an important part of Van’s life in Boston and radio seems to have been imbued with a certain spiritualist quality in that city.

But 1968 was also a key year for The Bosstown sound. The label might have been an industry driven attempt to steal some of San Francisco’s thunder but the bands were real and the music still sounds pretty good. What’s remarkable is that many of these bands have an ethereal proto prog fabric that transcends psychedelia. Ultimate Spinach, named for an acid trip mishap with a green felt tip marker, Earth Opera, who recorded on Elektra, and Chamalaeon Church, featuring a drummer called Chevy Chase. Dismissed at the time by the rock press as bubblegum, a lot of these records sound anything but, in retrospect. Peak Impressions by The Freeborne is a good example. It’s ambitious, melodic, and beautifully recorded.

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Chevy Chase staring out from 1968 (3rd from the left)

Walsh’s point is that Van arrived in Boston on the heals of his career with Them and subsequent hit single, Brown Eyed Girl. He emerged to record Astral Weeks. What was he hearing? What was happening there? How does one get from from ‘laughing and a’ running’ to ‘venturing in the slipstream’? Walsh is not suggesting that Astral Weeks should henceforth be placed in the ‘Bosstown Sound’ bin at the record fair but he does present a convincing case for the influence of those bands. A quick glance at the schedule for the legendary Boston Tea Party venue in the summer of 1968 places the ‘Van Morrison Controversy’ playing on the same stage as legendary Boston bands like Bagatelle and The Apple Brotherhood Society. Another band that Van ran into around the traps was the earliest version of the J. Geils Band – and therein hangs a tale…

61RDVfU4P6LWalsh builds his book around a search. He’d heard that Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) had a reel-to-reel tape of a performance by Van Morrison from the summer of 1968. The show was at a venue called The Catacombs and it featured Van on acoustic guitar backed by his bass player, Tom Keilbania, and John Payne who later played flute on Astral Weeks. The rumour is that the tape contained early performances of the songs on that album along with things like Moondance and Domino. The story has always been that Berliner and Davies were more or less improvising in the recording sessions for Astral Weeks. Keilbania has maintained that the ideas on the record were developed during the summer of 68 in the gigs they played in Boston. Critics are always banging on about rosetta stones in rock and roll but this would be the real deal. So what happens? Does Walsh find the recording? You’ll have to read for yourself. No spoilers here but don’t bother hitting up your favourite source of bootlegs. It aint there. Yet…

I thought Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 was a top read. He takes the story in a number of Bostonian directions. Tim Leary, Ram Dass, the Boston Strangler, Titicut Follies, and James Brown’s dramatic show in the wake of MLK’s assassination are all in the frame. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been an unwieldy story indeed. Walsh maintains his focus, returning regularly to the album at the center of the story. The result is a snapshot of an American city in one of the most turbulent years in recent history, along with an entirely credible back-story to an album that is never far from the top on any list of essentials.

While reading, you’ll track down some of the Bosstown bands and listen to some Jim Kweskin albums. You’ll revisit late Them, early Van, Astral Weeks and Moondance. But more than anything, you’ll pine for THAT recording of Van in The Catacombs.

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Teasers: What happened to Mel Lyman? Did he really die in 1978?.

Madame George 1968, from Astral Weeks:

Madame George, 1967. The book is about what happened in between:

If you skip to the 2:30 mark, you can marvel at how this likeable but daft fellow ever came to lead a cult:

 

 

 

 

Prog Spring

51aTJiGeEcL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel, WW Norton & Co, 2016

In the summer of 1954, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, had a dream. “I need an American kid who sounds German.”  Luckily, a young truck driver named Emerson Presley had decided that he was going to make a triple album for his mum. He came by with a full orchestra and his moog synthesizer, recorded it, and left with the acetates. A few days later, Sam called him back and asked if he’d like to make some more music. Emerson turned up and was paired with some local players, a guy with an 11 string bass and another fellow with a 22 piece drum kit. They spent a few days mucking around, mostly playing hot country and jump blues. Sam was frustrated. This wasn’t what he was looking for at all. One day, during a break, Emerson sat down at his moog and started to play a piece from Bach’s Musical Offering. The other guys joined in while Emerson began to improvise a story about a mythical Elf kingdom over the music. “Wait!” yelled Sam, “that’s it! That’s the sound!”

 “I think that Prog rock is the science fiction of music.”

-William Shatner

David Weigel’s new book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock begins on a cruise ship. It’s the ‘Cruise To The Edge’, featuring Yes – get it? – and some cover bands. It sounds like a bad joke. A Prog Rock cruise? No, really! A large group of men and their either long-suffering or very patient wives on a cruise for fans of the most overblown popular music ever created. One guest talks rapturously about a one on one with Carl Palmer. Others debate the relative merits of Gentle Giant and Camel or boast about the rare pressings of Brain Salad Surgery they have acquired. Use your imagination to summon up David Foster Wallace’s essay about cruise ships and then add in a couple of early Genesis albums. Not easy, is it?

emersonlakepalmer0Weigel manages to produce a serious history of Prog without turning it into Das Kapital. He is a big fan but he also understands that there is something innately funny about the genre. Pomposity was one of its hallmarks in the manner that nihilistic aggression was part of punk. That is to say, it was pompous but unapologetically so. Naturally, Prog became something of a punchline. This was, after all a genre where one band (Magma) made up its own language (Kobaian). Rock critics hated it. They took the first few albums on their own merits – Lester Bangs liked Yes’s first album, for example – but shot each subsequent release down like wooden ducks on the midway. Remember that these writers, for the most part, found Led Zeppelin pretentious. Imagine what they thought when Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII turned up for review. When Emerson Lake and Palmer released Trilogy in 1972, Robert Christgau wrote: “The pomposities of Tarkus and the monstrosities of the Mussorgsky homage clinch it–these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans. Really, anybody who buys a record that divides a composition called “The Endless Enigma” into two discrete parts deserves it.” Still, for a little while, Prog went over like horses with the record buying and concert attending public. The most popular band of today wouldn’t dare to dream of selling a tenth of what a lesser Kansas record would have in the 70s.

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Sonja Kristina

The first challenge for an author of this sort of book is deciding what Prog is, and what it isn’t. There really is no possibility of including everything that might be conceivably considered Progressive Rock. Google ‘greatest prog albums’ and see what happens. There were two Miles Davis records on one list I saw! A truly comprehensive study really would start to look like Das Kapital. So, Jethro Tull make the grade but Horselips do not. Are there any Irish prog bands? Hawkwind is in, ELO is never mentioned. Rush features prominently as a ‘second wave’ Prog act but Supertramp doesn’t turn up. For the most part, Weigel sticks to the obvious examples of ELP, Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. There are some interesting detours to acts like Curved Air, featuring Sonja Kristina who was in the original London cast of Hair with Martha Hunt. She might also be the only woman ever in Prog Rock but I’m not sure. Certainly no other woman appears in this book aside from one or two disgruntled ex wives. He also briefly covers Gong, founded by Melbourne native Daevid Allen, and the Greek band, Aphrodite’s Child featuring Vangelis and Demis Rousos. Fans of Van Der Graaf Generator can relax. They are there!

61r34SB-E2L._SY355_The next big challenge is finding a starting point. Weigel begins with The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, The Nice, and Pink Floyd. He mentions The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper which I think may have given permission for some of the high concept psychedelia that followed. The Who’s Tommy, The Small Faces’ Odgen’s Nut Gone Flake, and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle come to mind. I was surprised that The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow didn’t rate a mention. Weigel more or less settles on The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King as the point of lift off. Naturally, some of the other bands had false starts. The first Genesis album is a lot closer to Cucumber Castle than most Prog fans would care to admit. Just over two years later, they recorded Supper’s Ready, a 23 minute masterpiece or nightmare, depending on your perspective. Either way, it is Prog’s answer to The Wasteland. How’s that for a big call?

The Show That Never Ends is engaging and fast paced. Weigel’s writing provides just the right amount of detail for both fans and the Prog curious. He is good on personalities. Greg Lake’s monstrous ego, Rick Wakeman’s oddly endearing love of beer, Robert Fripp’s singular musical vision and extraordinary frankness, and, of course, the littlest Machiavellian, Phil Collins’ legendary charm. He makes a case for the best albums – early Yes, selected Crimson, first ELP – and points out the shortcomings of the worst – yup, Asia. He acknowledges that the whole thing more or less collapsed on itself in the late 70s when it became a target for punk rock fury. If only we’d been able to see John Lydon’s record collection! The snarling dead end kid went home and listened to Caravan! Who knew? By the time Yes reformed to punish us all with Owner of a Lonely Heart in 1983, Prog was finished.

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Or was it? I had no idea that Voivod went Prog or that Marillion had such a long career. And what about this Steven Wilson guy, a contemporary of the grunge generation who eschewed Black Sabbath for Genesis? I think Weigel could have made more of the Prog influence on eighties music in general. XTC and Kate Bush are the obvious examples but conceptually speaking I think a lot of bands were drifting back to BIG ideas by the early to mid 80s. Please don’t send hate mail but Sandinista comes to mind…

rs-91072-16793138-16793140-largeI must admit that, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull aside, I have never been a great fan of this stuff. While reading the book, however, I discovered some wonderful King Crimson albums I’d never heard and finally picked up Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. I even spun Emerson Lake and Palmer’s first record one night. Lucky Man brought back good memories of summer camp in the 1970s. I was struck by a sense that this music was more a part of my childhood than I thought. However, Gabriel-era Genesis remains too freaky for me. I have a complicated and slightly scary story about why I don’t listen to them but I’ll save that for when Peter Gabriel writes a memoir.

As I was finishing the book, I put on Fragile by Yes for the first time in nearly 40 years. My 13 year old son walked past. He stopped and listened to Roundabout for a few seconds. ‘What is this, Dad? It’s really good.’ He’s probably right but it was once so easy to become jaded about this music. If you feel the need to listen to Prog Rock with fresh ears, let The Show That Never Ends be your guide.

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Teasers: The hilarious story of Rush’s disastrous interview with Barry Miles where Alex Lifeson suggested that socialism was what was wrong with England in the late 70s. He was, as fans know, a massive Ayn Rand fan. Miles’ reaction is priceless.

Be scared by Genesis all over again…

The Plastic Pallenberg Band

41zWMFlh6jL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Harper Collins, 2017

In 1970, the Rolling Stones broke up amid personal and professional differences. Mick Jagger taught his fiancée, Bianca, to play keyboards and went on tour. Keith formed the Plastic Pallenberg Band with Anita and undertook a radical form of psychotherapy…

John Lennon once suggested that the Stones were always two months behind the Beatles. It’s a comment that will drive Stones fans nuts but the truth is that during the sixties everyone was two months behind the Beatles. Bob Dylan might have been working on his own schedule but he still couldn’t resist parody/homages like I Wanna Be Your Lover and Fourth Time Around. Even when he was reacting to them, as some have suggested was the case with the stripped down John Wesley Harding in the wake of Pepper, he was still in their orbit.

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Not so influential

There’s an old saw about The Velvet Underground suggesting that very few people saw them but those that did all formed bands. The same thing applies to The Beatles except that thousands and thousands of kids saw them and millions more heard them. As Rob Sheffield points out in this fascinating new book, Dreaming The Beatles, they were the most influential band in rock and roll history except when they weren’t. The Plastic Pallenberg Band line appears early in the book and made me laugh out loud, as the kids say. Folk Rock, yes; concept albums, yes; wives in bands, no. Of course Yoko squealing in a bag and Linda’s startling lack of musical talent probably weren’t a good starting point. If either had taken up with, say, Sandy Denny, things might have been different.

Another book about The Beatles? I hear your collective sigh. Most of us of a certain age – those who were starting kindergarten when The Beatles were hammering out Maxwell’s Silver at Abbey Road – started with a tattered library copy of Hunter Davies’, 1968 book The Beatles before moving onto Philip Norman’s Shout. Some of us secretly read Albert Goldman’s demolition of John or waded through George’s strange I Me Mine. The best thing I read in those days, and this is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book, was Greil Marcus’s essay about them in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. I lost count after that but I suspect that I have read at least two dozen books about The Beatles as a band and a whole bunch of others about the individual members. Most recently, I devoured Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run in about two sittings. Paul in the 70s. Cool!

There are standouts, of course. Ian McDonald’s 1994 Revolution in the Head is a masterpiece. I love Barry Miles’ biography of Paul, Many Years From Now, but if you’re a John person, you might not like it. Mark Lewisohn’s In Tune from 2013 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine that anyone will ever top it. So then why would Rob Sheffield, a Rolling Stone writer and the author of a moving memoir, Love Is A Mix Tape, bother? Surely, it has all been said.

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He was in another band before this one…

Yes and no. One of the interesting things about The Beatles is that they have been reinvented in every decade. The baby boomers were the first fans and have always assumed that they, and only they, experienced The Beatles. They had a joke in the seventies about a kid in a record store saying ‘I didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings’. This was hilarious but Generation X did learn about The Beatles through Wings. There was also the spectacularly awful Sgt Pepper movie in 1978 starring the Bee Gees (and Peter Frampton) as the band. We got the music on long forgotten compilations like Rock and Roll Music, Reel Music, and songs released as singles for the first time in the 70s.  My first Beatles purchase was a 45 of Got To Get You Into My Life that turned up in 1976. Helter Skelter was on the flip side, presumably to cash in on the TV movie of that same year about the Manson murders. There is a scene in the film where a reporter comes into the office and pulls out the White Album. I watched the movie and I wanted to hear that record!

Dreaming The Beatles picks up on this generational aspect. Gen X had to contend with a lot of baggage when they discovered the band. Sheffield says that listening to The Beatles in the 80s was like eating ice cream while weird older men lectured you about the history of ice cream. In the 90s, however, The Beatles seemed to find a new audience among the post grunge kids. The Anthologies appeared, and Backbeat, a so so film with an incredible soundtrack established the fabs as protopunk warriors. In the 2000s, the baby boomers retired and abandoned the band for that Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach album. Just joking, of course. The internet became a means to collate the enormous amount of Beatles information and the albums were finally remastered properly for release on CD. Just recently, Ron Howard’s intoxicating documentary, Eight Days A Week, put the early Beatles into a visual frame for a generation raised on YouTube and social media posts.

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“Revolver!”

But Dreaming The Beatles is more than simply a retrospective of The Beatles’ continuing legacy. This is also a free floating, deeply personal discussion of the band and their music. There are a whole series of standard Beatles arguments. John or Paul? Rubber Soul or Revolver? Beatles or Stones? Beatles or Dylan? Is the White Album a masterpiece or a mess? Did Yoko break up the band? Which album is actually their last? Is their solo stuff any good? The remarkable thing is that kids are still having them. In another life, though not so long ago, I was a high school English teacher and spent more than a few double periods moderating these debates. This is a band that their grandparents revered! Try to picture a group of kids in the late 70s arguing about Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. It’s the same time frame but it didn’t happen. We were talking about, well, The Beatles.

All of these discussions are covered here in chapters with intriguing titles like ‘The Importance of Being Ringo?’ and ‘The Mystery Inside of George’. He dedicates a whole chapter to the song Ticket To Ride where he contends that Dylan didn’t get anywhere near it until at least Blood on the Tracks. How’s that for an argument starter? Girl is apparently better than Just Like A Woman. Yeah? Bring me another Guinness. Let’s get into it!

Of course, there are lots of versions of The Beatles to argue about too. Everyone has a favourite Beatles stage. The author, Rob Sheffield, is a mid period Rubber Soul/Revolver guy. I’m partial to the later Abbey Road/Let It Be/early solo stuff epoch. Others love the Mop Top years. If the band’s actual story has been covered ad nauseum, the nature and variety of Beatles’ fanhood is still a open topic.

980xOne of the threads holding the book together is a series of reflections on the relationship between John and Paul. The chapter with the best title, Paul Is A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain, is a heartfelt essay on the John/Paul dynamic and its wider implications. “Every drama queen John needs a Paul to sweep up after him. It’s tough for two Johns to be friends, which is why Johns find themselves entangled with Pauls who disappoint them.” Wow. The Beatles as a model for Transactional Analysis. Sheffield says, movingly: “For John, Paul was the boy who came to stay; for Paul, John was the sad song he couldn’t make better.” They couldn’t escape each other. In 1975, John said, “If I took up ballet dancing, my ballet dancing would be compared with Paul’s bowling.” The obvious Fred Flintstone reference aside, he was spot on and Paul’s bowling is still being compared to John’s dancing.

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This might be chiefly a book for fans. Unless you are the sort of person who actually owns ‘A Toot and A Snore in ’74’, you might find Sheffield’s level of devotion to this band slightly worrying. On the other hand, it is an enviably well written book padded out with humourous asides and fascinating trivia. Even casual fans of the band will find much of interest here. The chapter on the Paul is Dead phenomenon will appeal to students of popular culture. I suppose I liked reading a book written from the perspective of another ‘I didn’t know he was in a band before Wings’ GenXer. His own tales of becoming a fan in the late 70s brought back a lot of memories. This is a book about The Beatles but it is also a meditation on fanhood, friendship, and the role of music in our lives. Highly recommended.

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Teaser: A fascinating intermission devoted to cover versions and tributes. Ready your streaming service! If you like this book, his recent book on Bowie is also worth reading.

You’ve seen it before but you should watch it again:

 

 

A Ghost from a Wishing Well

9780143199205When I was 17, my dad introduced me to his new girlfriend, a woman called Anne. She was in her 40s and was in the habit of punctuating everything she said with one of those smoker’s laughs that sound like a cough. When my dad went into another room to take a phone call, she asked if it was true that I liked music. I said it was. She told me that ‘Gordy’ Lightfoot had written a song about her. Really, I said, which one? Sundown, she told me. Isn’t that about a prostitute? I asked. When my dad returned, Anne said, ‘I think your son just called me a hooker.’ It was awkward.

Sundown is a heavy song. It was always on the radio when I was growing up in Canada in the 1970s but I never took much notice of it. When I began to listen to Lightfoot more seriously as an adult, I was struck by its darkness. The singer pictures this woman in various outfits and is filled by jealously and self loathing. In the end, alcohol is his only refuge. There is something oddly vulnerable about it. The singer seems powerless and doomed. Even his veiled threats – you better take care – sound hollow.

And it turns out that the song was not an ode to my dad’s girlfriend. In Nicholas Jenning’s new biography, Lightfoot, we learn that the song is almost certainly about Cathy Evelyn Smith. Sound familiar? Yes, the same woman who went to jail for her involvement in John Belushi’s death at the Chateau Marmont. If you have read Robbie Robertson’s memoir, you may remember her in connection to Levon Helm but that really is another story.

Gordon-Lightfoot1Where I come from, Gordon Lightfoot is bigger than…well, just about anyone. Put it this way, a lot of Canadians who wouldn’t know a Neil Young song if one backed over them could probably easily name 10 Lightfoot songs. I remember my grandfather throwing Gord’s Gold into the 8 track player and letting it play over and over all day. I can also remember the Canadian bands I loved in the 1980s name checking him in interviews and playing his songs in encores. He played Massey Hall every year to audiences that included Bay Street lawyers, Scarborough tow truck drivers, hippies, punks, Social Studies teachers, and glad handing politicians. He could have run for Parliament, he could have been crowned king.

However, the living legend status is something of a consolation prize for a singer whose viability as a recording artist came to crashing halt in about 1980. He kept making records but people stopped buying them. I own everything he released up to and including Endless Wire, which appeared in 1978. I had never even heard of the follow up, Dream Street Rose or any of the subsequent records before reading this book. I suppose there are superfans that would snort at my amateurishness here but the sales figures tell the same story. Thanks for all the great songs, Gord. Here’s your gold watch. The man was 42!

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Lightfoot is a solid, chronological account of Gord’s life and work. It is a respectful and workmanlike book – rather Canadian, really! There are no startling revelations or particularly original insights. Instead, Jennings strives to build the character of the man through a number of significant episodes. Lightfoot is a very private fellow with a certain reputation for difficult behaviour. He has been married many times and has had troubles with alcohol. Jennings draws a picture of a hard working and shy man who couldn’t have been less temperamentally suited to stardom. He grew up in Orillia Ontario, a town probably not so different to Hibbing Minnesota. Unlike Hibbing’s favourite son however, Gord was never headed for Malibu via New York. I was interested to learn that throughout his long career he has always lived in Toronto. He spent years living on Alexander St, behind Maple Leaf Gardens, before moving to Rosedale. These days, he lives on Bridle Path, a glamorous address by Toronto standards but hardly Malibu.

1817Jennings explores Lightfoot’s relationship with Bob Dylan in some detail. Dylan is a fan, no question. There is a small group of songwriters that Dylan admires. He is generous but fickle on this topic in interviews. Sometimes he mentions John Prine, sometimes it’s Jimmy Buffett (no, really, he said that once) but the name that consistently comes up is Gordon Lightfoot.

Lightfoot has taken a different path from Bob in many respects. He was never the voice of a generation or a rock god. He never partied at the Factory or fell to pieces in the back of a Rolls with John Lennon. Gordon Lightfoot’s career has been comparatively low key. In the flashy dramatic world of popular music, there has always been something subtle about him. His albums, particularly the early ones, are quiet affairs. A small band, some strings here and there, and minimal overdubbing. I used to wish that Bob Johnston had produced at least one record for Lightfoot in the sixties. Are we rolling, Gord? But, maybe I’m happy that he didn’t. His 1970 Sit Down Stranger album, quickly renamed If I Could Read Your Mind after its most famous song, is a case in point. To me, this album is what Self Portrait should have been and is perhaps a glimpse of what Dylan had in mind. It was recorded in LA but there is a distinctly Nashville sensibility to it. It’s easy to see why Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash were such fans. The songs are beautifully written and unobtrusively performed. From MOR to Outlaw Country to the Laurel Canyon songsmiths, this was a masterclass in showcasing your work.

But back to Dylan. Bob doesn’t always work well with others and his relationship with Gord had always been cordial, if guarded. When the Rolling Thunder Tour pulled into Toronto in early December of 1975, Gord was asked to play the second last set in the program. He played The Watchman’s Gone and Sundown. Try to imagine following that on a Toronto stage. Bob Dylan might have been the only person on earth in those days with a chance but I’m willing to bet that his set was something of anti climax. Anyone who was there is welcome to correct me!

After the show, everybody, and I mean everybody, went back to Gord’s place in Rosedale. The party was legendary. Mick Ronson was there, trading stories with Ronnie Hawkins. Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez were avoiding each other while all eyes were on Scarlet Rivera. Then that lovable scamp Bobby Neuwirth threw his leather jacket into the fireplace and filled the whole house with black smoke. What a fun guy. See if he’s available for your next soiree.

Meanwhile, Bob and Gord had retreated to the parlor to jam. The wildest rock and roll party in Toronto history was unfolding downstairs but Dylan and Lightfoot were quietly exchanging songs. Oh, to have a decent recording. Alas, there is only a fragment of Lightfoot singing Ballad in Plain D, of all songs. Lightfoot is a remarkable man but the fact that he knew the words to Ballad in Plain D might just make him some kind of superhero. In any case, as Jennings points out, neither man was there to party. This was a summit meeting. Everyone has seen Bob’s exchange with Donovan in Don’t Look Back. This was not like that.

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“Hey Roger, he knows Ballad in Plain D!”

I suppose Jennings uses this episode to highlight the depth of Gordon Lightfoot’s commitment to songwriting. Sometimes, while reading, I had the sense of a man who might have preferred playing to a crowd of receptive regulars at his neighborhood pub to touring the world as a superstar. In one telling episode that took place in the 1970s, Gord signed on with a famous agent who managed a number of mainstream stars at the time. He wanted to take the singer to the next level where he would be on television, headlining regularly in Vegas, and selling zillions of records on the back of duets with divas, etc. After a few days, Lightfoot got cold feet and asked him to tear up the contract. He didn’t want to be Kenny Rogers or Tom Jones. Instead, he started taking the Toronto subway to the gym because he felt bad about the environment.

Nicholas Jennings had some access to the occasionally prickly singer while he was writing the book. It’s hard to imagine that such a modest and private man will ever write a memoir so this might be as close as we get. If you are a fan, don’t forget to read Dave Bidini’s utterly brilliant Writing Gordon Lightfoot too. There you go, you can ask for both for Christmas and spend Boxing Day on the couch reading while everyone else watches college football.

Meanwhile, Gordon Lightfoot will no doubt be playing his annual gig at Massey Hall and releasing a new album this year. Last week he was in Peterborough donating his canoe to the Canoe Museum there. A Canadian legend? You bet.

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Teasers: The whole story behind If I Could Read Your Mind; his early days as a singing sensation in Orillia, Ontario.

 

“Jesus loves your old songs, too”

517QmmfK3PL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Period – What Really Happened by Clinton Heylin, 2017

Baby Boomers will find this excruciatingly funny but the first Bob Dylan song I ever heard on the radio was When You Gonna Wake Up. It was the fall of 1979 and I had just started Grade 8. Despite what appears, in retrospect, to be an enormously creative run of three wonderful records – Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and the wildly underrated Street Legal – Bob Dylan wasn’t someone much discussed among junior high students at the time. I spent most of my days at school talking about music but the topics were rock vs disco, whether or not punk was cool, and what to make of the keyboard sounds on In Through The Out Door.

But I liked When You Gonna Wake Up. I heard it on my clock radio in the morning and the chorus was in my head all day. I had no idea what the song was about but it stuck with me. Yeah, when are you going to wake up?

The point in a musician’s history when a fan first discovers their work is crucial. I picked up on Neil Young when he released Rust Never Sleeps. Great album. I discovered The Rolling Stones about the time that Some Girls appeared. Pretty good record. But when Bob Dylan appeared on my teenage horizon line, he had just converted to a particularly strident form of evangelical Christianity. When I saw him a couple years later in 1981, the rumour was that he wasn’t playing any of his old songs. He did, as it turned out, but they were all but unrecognisable. I remember a big hippie dude passing me a joint and shaking his head. ‘This is just shit,’ he said, as Bob mauled one of his classic songs on the stage of Maple Leaf Gardens.

It was thus with great interest that I read Clinton Heylin’s new book, Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Period – What Really Happened. Yes, it’s the most garbled title of the year – but within its covers is a detailed chronology of the most surprising transformation in all of those in Dylan’s long career. He had been an earnest folksinger, a speedy folk rocker, a sort of Thoreau style woodland bard, a Countrypolitan gent, a complete mess, a stadium rocker, a raggle taggle gypsy and whatever the hell that was on Live at Budokan. Somehow the end of his second decade in the music business led him to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical organisation that still has centres all over the world. The story is that someone threw a silver cross on stage during the 78 tour and he pocketed it. A few days later he took it out and had a profound spiritual experience.

I’ll start with a mild criticism of Heylin’s book before I get to its many virtues. Heylin is not a Christian and does not seem to have much knowledge of the faith and its history. He is out of his depth. Unfortunately, I am too. I would have liked far more detail on Bob’s conversion and the particular brand of born again Christianity he embraced. I gathered it was vaguely in the ‘end is near’ category but I found myself doing some heavy googling for further clarification. I would have also been interested in how it all ended. Did he break with the Vineyard people? Heylin barely mentions the Infidels album. The title alone was surely worth some discussion, not to mention the sudden disappearance of overt Christianity in his lyrics. If you are in search of a book that probes the spiritual content of his conversion, this isn’t it.

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Heylin, however, makes up for his lack of theology with a real passion for this music. The book is by far the most measured and thoughtful consideration of the material Dylan recorded and performed in his Christian period. The political implications of evangelical Christianity in the US and Dylan’s centrality in the counter culture have perhaps skewed the critical reaction to the three albums he released between 1979 and 1981. Heylin tells their stories and listens to them with fresh ears.

61r3xI8yWCLThe first, Slow Train Coming, is surely one of Bob Dylan’s finest moments. After a dry spell in the early 70s, Bob began to write from a more personal place. His ability with imagery remained but he left behind the Beat babble for lyrics that seemed to come from a deeper source. The older I get, the more difficult I find it to listen to the raw pain on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Street Legal (1978) is, for me, on par with Neil Young’s Time Fades Away. It sounds like a ragged cry of bewilderment.  Slow Train thus sounds like an answer, of sorts. The songs are beautifully constructed and feature little of the obfuscation that Dylan was so well known for at the time.

268x0wIt took me years to finally sit down and listen to the second album in the series, Saved. The original cover art was confronting and the stridency of the Christian messages stung critics who felt as though they’d allowed him a free pass on one religious record already. The negative reviews in retrospect seem to be all about discomfort with the lyrics and the context of the album, rather than the music. I wonder how many people, like me, went running home to listen to it after hearing John Doe’s version of Pressing On in Todd Haynes’ film, I’m Not There. I suspect many found a far better album than they expected. I sure did!

Shot of Love, the final record in the triptych, remains a classic example of Dylan’s occasional, or not so occasional, self sabotage. There is a long list of great songs that Dylan has left off albums. Imagine not finding a place for Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind in the mid sixties! The original vinyl release of Shot of Love did not include Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar though it has been restored on subsequent releases. Caribbean Wind didn’t appear on any record until the first bootleg series albums were released in the 90s. Luckily, he did manage to include Every Grain of Sand but, as has been the case before and since, there was a much better album available that he chose not to release. It’s maddening but that’s Dylan, I guess. Daniel Lanois smashed a dobro on the floor of the studio while they were recording Oh Mercy together. I wonder if that happened when Dylan told him that he didn’t want to include Series of Dreams.Bob_Dylan_-_Shot_of_Love

Clinton Heylin is something of a rock star himself in the field of music journalism. His exhaustive two volume Songs of Bob Dylan belongs on your shelf next to Revolution in the Head. He has written books on Van Morrison, The Velvet Underground, mental illness in rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen, punk, and one of the definitive biographies of Bob, Behind The Shades. His first book was an edited collection of Dylan’s sermons on the Slow Train tour. He is clearly fascinated by Bob and, in particular, the Christian period.

It’s fair to say that this is a book for hardcore Dylan fans. It’s a little hard to imagine the general reader finding Heylin’s concert by concert, studio session by studio session account terribly engaging. I am a reasonably big fan and I found myself drifting at times as he detailed the subtle differences in the performances of particular songs from night to night. That said, at least he avoids the sort of lazy generalisations writers usually throw at Dylan’s conversion and the music that resulted. Heylin simply lays out the evidence and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Here are some of mine:

Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel and perhaps some kind of military award for courage. It was one thing to go electric in 1965. The folk boom was over and he was hanging out with Alan Price. Folk rock was cool and Dylan was cool when earnest folk singers were starting to look a bit square. But in 1979, becoming a born again Christian was not cool. The Jesus freaks, the folk mass, and the Quaker pacifist street cred of the sixties and early 70s had given way, in popular culture, to conservative TV evangelists like Oral Roberts and the cretinous Anita Bryant. Musically, 1979 was the year of the Talking Heads, The Police, Elvis Costello, Throbbing Gristle, and many others who represented a changing of the guard, as Bob might say. His near contemporaries Pink Floyd released The Wall that year and seemed to capture something of the zeitgeist of the coming of Thatcher and Reagan. It was morning in America all right, just not a very nice one. If Bob Dylan was Jackson Browne or Bruce Cockburn, he might have found new purpose in protesting against nuclear power or Reagan’s criminal behavior in Central America but, of course, Bob Dylan is predictably unpredictable. While his contemporaries came to terms with their pasts and presents with varying degrees of success, Bob launched a tour where he played no old songs whatsoever and interspersed the new material with lengthy sermons about the coming apocalypse.

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The audiences were not particularly receptive. ‘Jesus loves your old songs too’ was a common banner seen at the shows but that was a jovial sort of response. Generally audiences booed, interrupted the singer with cries of ‘Lay Lady Lay, Bob!’ before walking out. Concerts were canceled due to poor ticket sales and he was lashed by the critics who resented what they saw as a complete betrayal of their own salad days in the sixties.

This was a shame because, as Heylin points out, Bob was performing perhaps the best shows of his career. His commitment to the material was 110%. The band was tight and there was none of the sloppiness or indifference so characteristic of the mercurial singer in his live performances. There are clips galore on YouTube and the latest edition of the Bootleg Series is a remarkable document of a performer who was clearly emptying the tank every night.

My admiration for Bob grew as I followed him through this period in Heylin’s book. He is fearless and his integrity is beyond question. I seriously doubt that any other rock and roll musician, particularly of his generation, would have had the balls to do what he did in the early 80s. Bob’s output since then has been, to say the least, uneven. I think that, like the 1966 tour, the gospel shows burned him out. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he never really recovered. There have been many highlights since then and albums like Time Out of Mind and Tempest are among his best. But Slow Train Coming, Saved, and to a lesser extent Shot of Love, may represent some of his final unguarded moments. He is famous for his masks but they were all down on these records. He had experienced something profound and was mocked and reviled for sharing it with his fans. Who would blame him if he shut up shop? If you are one of the many Dylan fans who have always found the Christian period off putting, this book will almost certainly change your mind. But beware, like Bob, you might get some very mixed reactions when you put on Saved at your next dinner party!

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Teasers: John Lennon’s answer song to Gotta Serve Somebody. The ex Beatle was astounded that Bob Dylan had become a Christian and detailed his objections to religion in a song called Serve Yourself that almost ended up on Double Fantasy. What he doesn’t mention in the song is that he and Yoko, at the time, were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on astrological charts, of all things. Yep, that Christianity stuff sure is irrational…

 

All back to Bob’s place!

51KrSjJVOcL._SY346_The Traveling Wilburys: The Biography by Nick Thomas, Guardian Express Media (E-Book) 2017

The story of the Traveling Wilburys began twenty-five years before the 1988 release of their first album, Volume One. In the spring of 1963, an American superstar arrived in England for a two month tour, supported by local bands. One of these bands had become almost unimaginably successful in the period between when the tour was booked and the first shows began to take place. It was decided that they would share top billing with the American superstar. He was very gracious about it but every night the English band watched his set from the wings wondering how on earth they could manage to follow someone with so much talent. The Beatles’ guitarist, George Harrison, probably never imagined he would one day play in a band with the superstar, Roy Orbison.

630518-beatles-slough-poster_01-960x760About 8 months later, a 13 year old boy called Tom Petty in Gainesville Florida was watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, completely unaware that he would one day form a band with the shy fellow playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman. Four or five months after that, in the summer of 1964, George and his band mates were supposedly introduced to marijuana (Rock and Roll myth #540: They didn’t come across weed in Hamburg? Yeah right!) by a chatty fellow from Minnesota named Bob Dylan. As they puffed away in the Delmonico Hotel, Bob probably didn’t foresee the day when he would accept an invitation to join George Harrison’s band.

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The Idle Race

Four years on, a young musician named Jeff Lynne, from a band called The Idle Race, couldn’t sleep. He had spent the day watching The Beatles record Glass Onion at Abbey Road. It would be days before he’d recover from the experience. Years later he would produce two new tracks for The Beatles and play in a band with one of them. Who knew?

 

Nick Thomas’s book, The Traveling Wilburys: The Biography, is very good on the long backstory to this unusual moment in rock and roll history. ‘Super groups’ were nothing new, nor were collaborations between musicians. The ‘with heavy friends’ phenomenon goes back at least as far as Louis Armstrong turning up on a Jimmy Rogers record. Look at the names on Miles Davis’ Blue album. Super groups didn’t start with Cream though they might have ended with Asia. Thomas demonstrates that the Wilburys grew out of a number of collaborations but shows that this was no ordinary meeting of minds. This wasn’t a super group. This was Yalta!

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After those first encounters, each of the Wilburys had played and/or recorded with at least one of the other members before 1988. Bob and George had jammed in a much-bootlegged 1970 session featuring Charlie Daniels (yup, the same one) on bass. Bob had used Tom Petty’s keyboard man, Benmont Tench, on his Shot of Love album and written with Petty himself before touring with Tom and the Heartbreakers extensively in the mid eighties. Jeff Lynne produced George Harrison’s Cloud Nine album and was working on Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl record when George phoned him, hoping he would produce a new track as a b-side to a proposed single.

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The Woodstock Open: George love, Bob not so much.

There followed a relatively straightforward sequence of events. Tom borrowed George’s guitar. George picked up it up at Tom’s house and invited him to join him and Jeff at Bob Dylan’s home studio in Malibu. Roy Orbison was playing a gig nearby so they all went, ending up at Denny’s on Hollywood Boulevard after the show. The next day, they reconvened in Bob’s garage where there happened to be a box was labeled ‘Handle With Care.’ George turned to the future Nobel Laureate and said, ‘You’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t you?’ The song was written and recorded in a matter of hours.

When George played the track for the record company folks, it’s fair to say that the executives all probably had to change their trousers soon after the meeting. Make an album! Now! The name came from a joke between Jeff Lynne and George. When someone made a mistake on a song, they’d say, ‘We’ll bury it in the mix.’ We’ll bury – get it? Somehow this became Trembling Wilburys that was then prudently altered to The Traveling Wilburys.

The album was a massive success and the various singles were a pleasant break from the usual cocaine nonsense that constituted popular music in the 1980s. Sadly, Roy Orbison died within weeks of its release. There was no tour and everyone went back to whatever they were doing before the Wilburys. They did manage to reconvene for a slightly disappointing second album in 1990. It’s called Volume 3. ‘Let’s confuse the buggers,’ said George. By 2000, both were out of print and more or less forgotten. Rhino released a nifty box set in 2007 and updates have followed. Handle With Care was covered by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins at some point.

S_TravelingWilburys-Photo-AlbertoTolot-530-compressorThomas’s book makes no special claims for the songs on the album. They were written quickly by a group of very experienced songwriters throwing out lines to each other. Lyrically speaking, nothing on either record is a patch on any of the members’ own work, your feelings about ELO notwithstanding. But this record is all about atmosphere and sound. George Harrison’s lovely guitar work; Roy’s otherworldly voice; Dylan’s strangeness; and Petty’s punk rock sneer all combine here for something very special. Jeff Lynne adds his acoustic wall of sound and old school rockabilly sensibility for the icing on an estimable cake.

I was listening to the first album while writing the review and I will admit to a tear or two when End of the Line came on. Thomas’s book appeared a day or two after the sad news of Petty’s death. Reading about George’s last days with Jeff Lynne at his side while coming to terms with the idea that Tom Petty was gone too was a lot to take in. Tom formed close friendships with all of the other members, particularly George. He was a remarkably generous musician who also collaborated with people like Roger McGuinn and Del Shannon – both discussed as replacements for Roy apparently – in a spirit of respect and gratitude. His own work with The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist represents one of the great bodies of work in rock and roll. If his death has left you feeling like you need to dive back into his music and life, you could do worse than this short but thoroughly researched book on his most famous collaboration.

7976153a-e3d8-43b7-b635-7fd2ae2574ff-4300146_GFor Tom Petty, October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017

Teasers: Handle With Care has a very similar opening to an ELO song. Do you know which one?

An early Wilbury moment:

 

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