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.

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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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, 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.