BB King

BB King

CC 2008 piedmontstyle

BB King died last week. It was the end of an era. There were other blues men who influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page. Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and Willie Dixon come to mind. But BB outlived them, and he was always the most gracious.

Someone said King brought a lot of joy to people by singing the blues. And BB brought it to himself. One thing I never realized while he was alive was that he never sang and played at the same time. I thought about that and realized that, yes, I’ve never heard a BB King solo and a BB King vocal at the same time. Both are distinctive. While people think of the guitar when they think of BB, listen to U2’s “When Love Comes to Town” off Rattle and Hum. That song is nothing without BB King’s back and forth with Bono.

I discovered BB in my early twenties when I went through a blue and jazz phase. I got a greatest hits album that included “How Blue Can You Get?” If you want to see how BB balanced the darkest blues with a sense of humor, check out these lyrics.

“I gave you a brand new Ford
But you said ‘I want a Cadillac.’
I bought you a ten-dollar dinner
And you said ‘Thanks for the snack.’
I let you live in my penthouse.
You said it was just a shack.
I gave you seven children,
And now you want to give them back.”

That’s the stereotypical blues summed up in one verse, and I roared with laughter when I heard it. You can imagine BB smiling when he delivered the last two lines.

He will be missed.

The Tom Waits Phase

Tom Waits

By Tom waits in buenos aires 2007.jpg: Theplatypus derivative work: Klausness (Tom waits in buenos aires 2007.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the last decade when I was on my way to fame and fortune as the savior of the PI novel (Pause for hysterical laughter), I was introduced to Tom Waits.

It started with Ray Banks, who could not stop blogging about him. He would quote Waits in story titles and mention him in blog posts and even posted a YouTube of an ad Waits sued over because the company used a Waits impersonator.

And then there is Ken Bruen. Bruen loved waits. And if you were fortunate enough to get pulled into Ken’s orbit, he would tell you all about him. Waits, to him, was one of those guys like Johnny Cash or Neil Young or Warren Zevon. I even found myself in a bar trading Waits lines with JA Konrath, back when he was a struggling midlister. It didn’t hurt that the crime community’s favorite show, The Wire, used various versions of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as its theme song.

So what was it about this guy that attracted those of us who wrote about the dark side of life?

Well, Waits is clearly the last beat poet. If you find Kerouac or Ginsberg beyond you, listen to Waits. Everything the beatniks tried to do, Waits manages to do without imitation or pastiche. This is most obvious on his live album, Nighthawks at the Diner and in the song “Trouble’s Braids,” which formed the basis of a Christmas parody I post every year, “A Very Tom Waits Christmas.”

The essential Waits albums are NighthawksSwordfish TrombonesRain Dogs, and Mule Variations. I should really like Rain Dogs more. It’s his best music, but it’s also Waits at his graveliest. To me, Mule Variations sums up Waits best: Equal parts Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Pete Townshend (without the self-indulgence. Sorry, Pete. You know we loves ya.) “Get Behind the Mule” is as close to raw blues as he will ever get while “What’s He Building in There?” is Waits the beat poet. Then there’s “Chocolate Jesus,” showing us Waits the slumming angel in a song that would not have been out of place on Johnny Cash’s American recordings. During a rare musical appearance for The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said it best: “I hear you, and I think, ‘I’d like to get drunk and fall down in a gutter with that guy.” Waits thanked him.

Tom Waits owns the dark side of America. Oh, Green Day may have staked a claim there, and Trent Reznor might have pumped out a techno vision of one heroin-impaired corner of it, but Waits owns it.

And we all thanked him for it.

Sonic Highways by The Foo Fighters

Sonic HighwaysSonic Highways

The Foo Fighters

Every Foo Fighters album is different from the last. There Is Nothing Left to Lose is where the modern incarnation of the band, minus guitarists Chris Shifflet and Pat Smear, sprang into being. One by One found the Foos becoming the richest garage band in the world, literally recording the album in Dave Grohl’s garage. In Your Honor nailed down the Foos signature sound and added an acoustic side to it. Echoes, Patience, Silence, and Grace focused on the songwriting. Wasting Light got back to the garage band roots with a little help from Nirvana’s Krist Novocelic and Husker Du’s Bob Mould.

After each tour, Dave Grohl says the latest album might be their last. After Wasting Light, social media was all abuzz that the Foos had broken up. Grohl was making documentaries. Shifflet, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer Taylor Hawkins were off doing other projects. Even Pat Smear, whom Grohl had to lure gradually back into the band after he left in 1998, was off doing other things. What the Twitters and the Facey Pages and the Reddits failed to notice that the Foos always said that, then would get together to see if the old magic was still there. If it was, there’d be a new album. If it wasn’t, they would rather leave the body of work they’d build since they were Dave Grohl by himself in the studio.

Obviously, the magic’s still there as the band draws its inspiration from lesser known studios where some of the most groundbreaking music of the last fifty years has been recorded. While there are hints of those early Grohl-only songs on some of the tracks, the Foos are very smooth, playing in different registers and adopting more prominent guitar work than in the past. Before, the Foos tended to play more rhythm-based songs. Some of this is a function of guest appearances by Joe Walsh and Zac Brown.

Some of the original Foo sound comes from “The Feast and the Famine,” which features Grohl’s former bandmates from Scream, Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson. (Stahl’s brother Franz was a Foo Fighter for a time in the late nineties.) But Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins have been rather vocal about the Beatles of late, and it shows in “Something from Nothing” and the McCartneyesque medley “What Did I Do/God As My Witness.” No one will mistake either song for McCartney, but no one can miss the influence. The band even dabbles in progressive rock techniques, using odd rhythm and key changes in “Subterranean.”

It’s hard to figure out what the Foos can do next to keep things fresh. Then again, they never know. That’s why they’ve had such a good run so far.

Pink Floyd: The Endless River

Pink Floyd: The Endless RiverThe Endless River

Pink Floyd

If David Gilmore is to be believed, this is the end of Pink Floyd. And what an end it is. Some of it ambient. Some of it loud and psychedelic. All of it Floyd in a way A Momentary Lapse of Reason tried to be in 1987.

This album is Floyd more in how it differs from previous work than how similar it is. In the late 1960s, the band tried an album of long-form suites called Umma Gumma in the wake of Syd Barrett’s breakdown and departure. Ironically, Barrett’s solo work proved to be more coherent and interesting, but then the remaining four Floyds still did not know what Pink Floyd was without their eccentric front man. Building on work left over from The Division Bell and around the late Rick Wright’s keyboard work, David Gilmore and Nick Mason revisit the Umma Gumma concept to tell the story, mostly without lyrics, of a band called Pink Floyd. There have been Syd Barrett albums by Floyd and Roger Waters albums and David Gilmore albums, all with Nick Mason weaving some of the sonic flourishes through it from Meddle on until now. There has never really been a Rick Wright album. As “Side 1” (really, the first three pieces) shows, Wish You Were Here came closest. There are keyboard phrases that hearken back to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” really Wright’s greatest performance with Floyd.

“Side 2,” or the second trio of songs, goes all the way back to the Barrett era and Atom Heart Mother and makes one wonder if Waters sat in listening to the finished recording splitting some herb with his former bandmates. My first thought on hearing the album was that Barrett was actually louder on this album than Wright, and Wright’s fingerprints are all over this, six years after his death and 44 years after Barrett recorded his last note.

Even Waters is present in the bass work, some of which is played by Wright’s son-in-law and Gilmore-era bassist Guy Pratt. Instead of pretending he quit the band in a fit of rage, Gilmore and Mason are telling his part of the story. In interviews, Waters is gracious about his absence. Whereas he once railed against the Gilmore/Wright version of Floyd as a fraud, he simply laughs and says, “I left Pink Floyd in 1985.” (Though he and Mason have voiced a desire for one last bow following the 2005 Live 8 performance.)

Many have said it stopped being Floyd when Waters quit in 1985. He, Gilmore, and Mason would disagree. Since his death in 2008, the trio has acknowledged that Wright was the actual essential member. 1983’s Wright-less The Final Cut was essentially a Waters solo album. 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason was written with the idea bringing Wright back, but lacked something that did not bring back all the fans. The Division Bell saw a return to the thematic and musical coherence of albums from Dark Side of the Moon through Animals, but ultimately left many Floyd fans unsatisfied.

The Endless River acknowledges all that was Pink Floyd in all its many incarnations. It’s not a radio-friendly album, and maybe that’s why this coda may be one of the band’s best efforts. It’s all Floyd in 53 minutes that quotes the past without being derivative of it.

Friday Reviews: Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Who I Am by Pete TownshendWho I Am

Pete Townshend

The creative mind behind most of The Who’s music pens his autobiography, a project he admits took sixteen years. He also says he decided to write this book when he was 21. Ego? I don’t think Townshend is denying that. All rock stars, he posits, are a bit narcissistic, and while he doesn’t say it directly, he believes he is more narcissistic than Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. If you know anything about lead singers, narcissism is part of the job description.

And this is one of the amazing parts of Townshend’s autobiography. Here is the man who created Tommy, the aborted Lifehouse (which spawned the classic Who’s Next), and Quadrophenia. His solo albums, when taken as a whole instead of a collection of songs, each are organized like novels. He has one of the most ambitious imaginations in rock, perhaps exceeding the flights of fancy of Roger Waters. And yet he seems to look up to Roger Daltrey. He even says, “I hope he writes his version of The Who’s story someday.” Daltrey is a rare island of stability in his life.

Townshend hides none of his vices. He admits to being a horrible husband to former wife Kathy and worrying how leaving her might affect her. At the same time, he worries about others. The Keith Moon we have been treated to over the years was a whimsical man, the lost Monty Python member, and someone for whom being seriously was glaringly missing from his skill set. And yet, Townshend fretted over Moon’s emotional state and his bad habits, which ultimately killed him.

We’re also treated to a dismal childhood that went into much of The Who’s music, his parents contentious and adulterous relationship, probable sexual abuse at the hands of an increasingly demented grandmother, and the friends he ran with in postwar Acton, part of London. It’s all there.

Townshend’s recollection of his life is refreshingly honest and self-deprecating. I listened it on Audible, which let me hear him read what he’d written. I highly recommend doing this book on audio as his lyrical prose really comes to life.

Friday Reviews: Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn

Johnny Cash bookJohnny Cash: The Life

Robert Hilburn

Walk the Line gave us a broad portrait of the life of Johnny Cash up until about 1970. However, for the sake of a two-hour movie, many of the events and people in that movie, including June Carter Cash, were composites. While Cash did prowl around the south early in his career, sometimes staying up late with through the benefit of the pills that would eventually dog him most of his life, he never did have the package tour depicted in the movie with Carter, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.

But Robert Hillburn doesn’t have to compress, composite, and rearrange for the constraints of a movie. Instead, he takes nearly 700 pages to paint a detailed portrait of Cash, his family, his friends and colleagues, and every virtue and every wart. What emerges is a flawed man who wanted so much to be better than he was. That conflict gave Cash, even at his weakest moments as a musician, the power that seldom failed to come through.

Cash was a man of deep spiritual thoughts, but never judgmental. He ignored the strictures of the Nashville music establishment (to this day even narrower than the music industry as a whole) and embraced all kinds of music. His classic “boom chicka boom” sound was, to him, his little niche. Cash was about the downtrodden and the poor, and he used his stage to shine a lot on them. And yet, as Hillburn points out, he was an addict and a womanizer and a workaholic. That last one, though never explicitly pointed out, probably made the drugs and womanizing inevitable.

Hilburn’s portrait, however, connects us to Cash in a way that says he’s human, just as flawed and broken as the rest of us. The sections about Cash’s decade-long association with Rick Rubin, probably the last person one would expect to revitalize Cash’s career, are especially poignant. Here we have Cash finally staying true to June Carter (and even a touching visit from first wife Vivian Liberto after Carter’s death), his addictions under control and at some points banished entirely, and finding new relavance thanks to Rubin. However, Cash’s body betrays him before he can finally retire to a quiet life with June (who herself succumbed to a life of working and playing hard months before Cash died).

Through Hilburn’s narrative, Johnny Cash alternately inspires and infuriates, delights and disappoints, and yet comes across as someone we’ve always known. Many musicians who achieve Cash’s stature often do good that outweighs their flaws (such as all four Beatles, Pete Townshend, or Mick Jagger). Cash never really tried to hide his warts, though. Even when Cash would lie (or rather, tell a really good story), he had an honesty that’s so rare.

Friday Reviews: Meet the Beatles by Steven D. Stark; Read the Beatles by June Skinner Sawyer; Revolver: How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll by Robert Rodriguez

This semester, I have a cultural studies class called 50 Years of The Beatles. So I read all three books for the class. You get to read the reviews.

Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World

Steven D. Stark

The first book is a straight-forward history of the band in terms of their cultural impact. Stark goes from The Beatles first days as the Quarry Men where they were very much like The Monkees who poked gentle fun at them later. They weren’t very good and often lacked a drummer. But when Paul McCartney and John Lennon formed a partnership, something sparked, solidified by the addition of George Harrison. Their biggest problem was keeping a drummer. They often performed without one, and it would be 1960 before Pete Best and the future Ringo Starr (who started out covering for Best occasionally) would provide stability behind the kit (and, more importantly, the kit itself). Best and Stuart Sutcliffe are often remembered as The Beatles who lost out. While Best was ousted (mainly through the prodding of George Martin and Brian Epstein), Sutcliffe lost interest, drawn more to art. However, their role is almost as important in finishing The Beatles as the arrival of Ringo. (Best, it should be noted, was the only former Beatle to attend road manager and Apple CEO Neil Aspinall’s funeral, the others represented by children, one ex, and Yoko Ono to prevent the service from becoming a circus.)

Stark then proceeds to elaborate how The Beatles phenomenon caused a cultural shockwave. They were the first somewhat androgynous rock stars, well-dressed and rather asexual compared to the raging machismo of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and, to a lesser extent, Buddy Holly. Their encounter with Bob Dylan led to chemical and lyrical experimentation that only enhanced their popularity, which in turn made them trailblazers in the counter-culture.

On the downside, Stark is rather uncharitable to The Beatles’ efforts after their breakup, is dismissive of Abbey Road, and has a bit of a bias against Paul McCartney in his role in the band’s end. Everyone puts the blame at least one of The Beatles, except maybe Ringo. He also ignores the closeness that remained after the breakup. John and Paul made several attempts to bury the hatchet, potshots in the press aside, and George Harrison was extremely distraught over Lennon’s murder.

But where Stark shines is showing where The Beatles came from and why they were who they were. John, Paul, Ringo, and, Stark adds, Pete Best were all from homes where one parent had died or abandoned them. George came from a hard-working blue collar family who saw his efforts with The Beatles as an extension of their Liverpool roots. Moreover, the importance of Stuart Sutcliffe’s presence, particularly his influence on John Lennon long after his death in 1961, becomes crystal clear.

Read the Beatles

Edited by June Skinner Sawyers

Read the Beatles is a different kind of history of the group. Editor Sawyers collects 52 essays from all corners, kicked off with a foreword by Astrid Kirchherr, the band’s ardent supporter in their Hamburg days and girlfriend of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. The essays range from speculation (“The Afternoon Hours” by Jim O’Donnell, a fictionalized account of John and Paul’s first meeting) to eyewitness account (Jim Kirkpatrick’s piece on George Harrison’s first ever radio appearance in America) to fanboyish (Christopher Porterfield’s Time Magazine essay practically drooling over the band’s output and position in culture.)

It’s the interviews that give the best account of The Beatles. Gloria Steinem conveys a sense of confusion after meeting the human whirlwind that was the pre-Yoko John Lennon.More poignant is Lennon’s last interview, give only 48 hours before his death. Perhaps more poignant was the inclusion of a poem by Paul McCartney where he is barely able to convey his grief over the loss of his former partner.

There is, however, an annoying tendency by the critics in this collection to dismiss the Beatles’ solo efforts as lacking or pale shadows. Also, one essayist seems miffed that Abbey Road is as beloved as it is. Despite firsthand accounts by three of The Beatles (Ringo is criminally underserved here.) stating that the breakup was almost inevitable after Sgt. Pepper, many of the writers are very much guilty of asking the same question Robert Plant summed up about Led Zeppelin later. “Where’s my ‘Whole Lotta Love, Parts 2, 3, and 4?” They seem to want Sgt. Pepper, Volumes II, III, & IV. Even if they had stayed together, a 1970’s Beatles would have sounded vastly different from even Abbey Road. (Ironically, the most Beatlesque former member these days is Pete Best, whose output sounds like a fresh take on Beatle co-conspirator Jeff Lynne.)

What really sells the collection, though, is the final essay by music writer Toure. Toure writes about discovering The Beatles as a kid, which seemed odd to him as he is black. But while the racial angle provides a unique perspective on The Beatles, Toure came to the group the same way I did, becoming aware of them after they broke up. The only Beatles tune I remember when it was current was “Something,” which may explain my fondness for Abbey Road. But Toure compares those who grew up watching The Beatles grow into an institution to his early adulthood and Michael Jackson’s rise and fall. Jackson appeared during my high school years and was the closest thing to an Elvis or a Beatles my or Toure’s generations knew.

Revolver:  How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll

Robert Rodriguez

This last book could a literary version of Sound City, only instead of a bunch of bands trying to get the sounds of their amps onto vinyl, The Beatles attempt what was never attempted before: Putting sounds that can’t be made onto vinyl. Whereas the former derides digital recording as a cheap way to cover the shortcomings of less talented musicians, the latter shows what happens when the studio becomes an instrument. Granted, much of what was accomplished on Revolver could be done in a couple of hours now using Pro Tools, the sounds on that album came about from trial and error. It’s rather telling that Paul McCartney is in Sound City, because much of his approach to creating “Cut Me Some Slack” with the remnants of Nirvana date all the way back to the experiments he did with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr.

Rodriguez also posits that Revolver, not Sgt. Pepper’s, is The Beatles artistic peak. In the first third of the book, he describes the back and forth with other bands that drove the Fab Four to higher and higher creative efforts. There were creative rivalries with the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson was insanely jealous of Paul McCartney), the Rolling Stones (who, despite their friendship with The Beatles, annoyed John Lennon to no end), and The Byrds. They also had a collective man crush on Bob Dylan.

The last third deconstructs Sgt. Pepper’s, which Rodriguez ultimately finds wanting, with the exception of the brilliant “A Day in the Life.” In between, Revolver is a music nerd’s delight, discussing such arcane things as varispeed and ADT. While the book does give insight to the band’s inner workings and politics, it dispels several myths about how the band got along in the mid-1960’s. George Harrison truly came into his own on this album, not only contributing three songs, but providing some of the glue that holds the album together. Also,the importance of Ringo Starr’s presence in the studio is brought into clear focus here. Starr was not the typical rock drummer, who are generally seen as light-headed, unpredictable, and otherwise there for rhythm. Not only were Ringo’s instincts on the drums crucial to nailing the right sound, but he also provided snippets of lyrics and melody that brought many of the songs together.