All posts by stilsongreene

I’m a belatedly a friend of The Friends of Eddie Coyle

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I came to this party late. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a crime novel written by George V. Higgins and published in 1970. I didn’t read it then. It was on a tertiary reading list in my college American Literature class, I didn’t read it then. Two of my favorite crime authors, Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane count it as a masterpiece and a major influence on their work, I still didn’t read it. Not until until I heard chef/author/TV personality Anthony Bourdain say that he has been obsessed with this book for years did I finally give in to its power.

The power of this short, tight, taunt, tough novel is the narrative movement. It is moved by dialogue. I would guess that 85% of the book is pure dialogue. Beautifully written words unique to a tough Boston and unique to each individual character. I cannot remember any novel where the flow of the story and the places it goes are all captained by speaking.

The story is a standard crime drama, cops and robbers blurred by the lines they cross, heists, murder and betrayal. But it’s not the story that matters, what matters is how it is told.

If you are interested in the art of writing, if you are enthralled by words and how they create voice, if you are thrilled to read a master at work, I cannot recommend The Friends of Eddie Coyle high enough. I know that I will visit them many more times, they are that important.

Warren Zevon – Five Songs You Should Hear

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Warren Zevon burst from the wellspring of 1970’s Southern California songwriters, artists such as Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Don Henly, Glenn Frey and others. But Zevon was a tad different; he was bitterer, funnier, darker, scarier and tenderer. He was an oxymoron of a writer, and we are better for it.  He died at the age of 56 in 2003 but he left behind a treasure of work – you just have to find it.

Now you can easily uncover his ubiquitous “Werewolves of London” (a financial blessing but a creative curse because some people only remember him for this, so much so they think him a novelty writer) and the songs covered by other artists such as Linda Ronstadt . Her covers of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, “Mohammed’s Radio”, “Carmelita”, and “Hasten Down the Wind” are staples in her catalog.

But he was so much more, so much that I want you to hear some of his best but overlooked work and hopefully dig deeper into his work.

Desperados Under The Eaves

From his masterpiece album simply titled Warren Zevon, it is a cautionary tale of California life and its quest for success.

Accidentally Like A Martyr

A heartbreaking love song of days sliding by and love lost from his album Excitable Boy. One of his best.

Jeannie Needs A Shooter

From the album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School and co-written with Bruce Springsteen, this song of love, lust and betrayal is a self contained Peckinpah Western. Brilliant.

Splendid Isolation

From Transverse City, well this lyric says it all:

Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the World of Self

Keep Me In Your Heart

The last song on his last album, The Wind, was recorded as he battled terminal lung cancer. It is the last song of a short life and a fitting stone for his monument of work.

Note: Amazon has Zevon’s first five albums packaged in a box set for an amazingly low price, click here. I have no clue to how long this will be available but man it’s fantastic.

 

Take a walk down Kentucky Avenue with Tom Waits

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Warning: This is a participatory post.

I’m not allowed to play Tom Waits at home while my wife is there, I can only listen through my headphones. The voice, well she just doesn’t get it. I can understand that, he is an acquired taste, but even she admits the power of his lyrics, well the ones she can make out.

I think everyone should listen to Tom, I know that ain’t gonna happen but I’m going to do my part to introduce you non-Waiters to one of the most original artists of our times via a song called Kentucky Avenue. It is a remembrance of his childhood and his friendship with a wheelchair bound pal stricken with polio. It is an amazing song, one that still moves and astounds me with its beauty. It captures that time so perfectly that it transports you.

So  click here, hit play, then come back to this page and read the lyrics below as Tom sings, do this, you will not regret it.

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Well Eddie Grace’s Buick got four bullet holes in the side

And Charlie DeLisle is sittin at the top of an avocado tree
Mrs. Storm will stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn
I got a half a pack of Lucky Strikes man so come along with me
And let’s fill our pockets with macadamia nuts
And go over to Bobby Goodmanson’s and jump off the roof

Well Hilda plays strip poker with the Mummers ‘cross the street
Joey Navinski says she put her tongue in his mouth
And Dicky Faulkner’s got a switchblade and some gooseneck risers
That eucalyptus is a hunchback there’s a wind down from the south
So let me tie you up with kite string and I’ll show you the scabs on my knee
Watch out for the broken glass put your shoes and socks on
And come along with me

Let’s follow that fire truck I think your house is burnin down
Asnd go down to the hobo jungle and kill some rattlesnakes with a trowel
And we’ll break all the windows in the old Anderson place
And we’ll steal a bunch of boysenberries and I’ll smear em on your face
I’ll get a dollar from my mama’s purse and buy that skull and crossbones ring
And you can wear it round your neck on an old piece of string

Then we’ll spit on Ronnie Arnold and flip him the bird
And slash the tires on the school bus now don’t say a word
I’ll take a rusty nail and scratch your initials in my arm
And I’ll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore
I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings
And I’ll tie em to your shoulders and your feet
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs
And we’ll bury them tonight out in the cornfield
Just put a church key in your pocket we’ll hop that freight train in the hall
We’ll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall

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You’re welcome.

Kentucky Avenue is on the album Blue Valentine.

 

 

 

 

Overlooked, initially underwhelming and woefully underplayed classics.


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Before Jive Talking and Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were a great pop band. Consisting of three brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. They were responsible for hits like To Love Somebody, I Gotta Get A Message To You, Massachusetts, Words and many others. After the release of their 1969 double velvet encased album Odessa, Robin left the group to pursue a solo career. Odessa remains their crowning pop achievement, but it is the next release, Cucumber Castle, minus Robin, that we touch on here. From the album cover, with the two remaining Gibbs dressed as Knights, plumes intact, to the music’s over the top production, everything about Cucumber Castle is in excess.

Through my many years of listening to music, this is without a doubt the most overproduced, lush, bloated, garish, dense, beautiful mess I’ve ever heard and I love it. Don’t Forget To Remember Me, Bury Me Down By A River and I Lay Down And Die seem as if they were written in an English manor with a baroque quartet during the 17th Century then updated with a bit of pop sensibility pepper. The album is a masterpiece of production that holds up to any of today’s rock, pop or classical release engineering. It is stunningly beautiful. The only clunker on the album is the song My Thing, I’ve never understood its inclusion as it breaks up the thick sonic cycle before and after it.

Cucumber Castle was not a hit album release and didn’t birth the usual Bee Gees top singles. It was and is overshadowed by its predecessor Odessa, the follow up album 2 Years On, featuring the return of Robin and the smash hit Lonely Days, the subsequent Top 40 hits and finally the mega success of the Saturday Night Fever era and their mirror ball future. Buried in that hubris of great pop and decadent disco are the bold shining nuggets and crystals of Cucumber Castle. It is a place worth visiting.

Note: I have no idea why the CD of Cucumber Castle is so high on amazon, so here is a link to the mp3 version and a iTunes download.

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When your first two albums are true musical masterpieces the third has the potential to add to your legacy, disappoint and question the preceding work or take a back seat to it. In the case of The Band’s Stage Fright the majority view lies with the latter, mine the former, very few the middle. A tiny number of artists create their seminal works with their debut and sophomore release, but with Music From Big Pink and The Band (aka The Brown Album), The Band did just that. Seasoned musical veterans of years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, a tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band and months of wood shedding songs together gave birth to these two incredible albums. Hailed as heroes of the new country rock genre with a cover feature in Time Magazine, lauded by critics worldwide, the pressure on their third release was enormous.

The critics were not kind to Stage Fright, but every critique was based on what came before, and what came before was different. There was less cornfield and more rock in the grooves of Stage Fright. Less sharecropper observations and more street views. Less in-the-moment songs and more remembrance. It was also a work by a successful band instead of struggling musicians in search of not only a career but a steady paycheck. They had stopped living and working together,  they now had families and separate lives and paths. Looking back on Stage Fright, time has lessened the critical web surrounding it. It was unfair to expect The Band to stay the course and not explore their rock and rhythm and blues alleys. And really, how can any album containing songs as rich and remarkable as Stage Fright, W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, The Shape I’m In, Daniel And The Sacred Heart and The Rumor be considered anything other than triumphant.

Though musically estranged from its older siblings, I believe Stage Fright stands with them as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, consecutive first three albums by any musical artists.

The Basement Tapes Complete – Raw Myths

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In 1967 in Woodstock, New York recovering from a motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan gathered his then touring band (who by then had become close friends) in a basement of a frame house painted pink to record a few songs for shits, giggles and history.

This gathering and these songs became a treasure hidden by layers of dust and fable. The house became Big Pink and the friends became one of the most important groups in American rock and roll, The Band. For years those songs swirled around the music universe, some released in bootlegs such as The Great White Wonder and finally in 1975 an authorized truncated double album called The Basement Tapes. This release was sweetened in the studio and only contained 24 songs. Although it satisfied the hunger for these sessions we all knew there was more to hear from those months of woodshedding.

Finally those days and those songs have reached the light of day with the release of The Basement Tapes Complete. A sprawling 6 CD set of 138 songs capturing a pure moment of time and artists. From experience I can tell you nothing is as spiritually lifting and exuberant as making music with friends, and second to that is being able to listen to it being made. This release fulfills the latter.

The songs run from traditional folk and blues covers, Johnny Cash and Curtis Mayfield tunes to hammering out new original works. Some of those dents hammered into classics like I Shall Be Released, You Aint Going Nowhere, Tears Of Rage, This Wheel’s On Fire, Quinn The Eskimo and many others. You hear the sheer happiness and fun these musicians are having; thankfully a reel to reel tape recorder was on capturing every guffaw and every perfection. Don’t expect a shimmering sound, this is raw stuff, recorded in the absolute lowest fi, but it’s real. It was the first trek on the genre road we now mark as Americana.

Dylan takes lead vocal on every song while The Band works out backgrounds and harmonies. This is also Dylan’s finest recorded vocal performances. He is relaxed and uses his honey soaked throat (think Lay Lady Lay) on many numbers while on others he is full of irony and bitterness. But never too serious, the setting and the musicians around him didn’t allow it. The other revelatory aspect of this set is to hear the interplay of The Band, just off years of playing electric blues and rock, including the just concluded first Dylan rock tour, they expertly handle the acoustic country folk arrangements. Some of their work here is jaw dropping with a vast canvas of instruments and voicing. This music is flesh, blood, laughter, heart and history all unfiltered and magnificent.

This release finally opens and closes the chest containing one of the most sought after troves of musical enlightenment by one of the greatest songwriters and bands to ever strike a note. It is myth making and it’s a true, you just have listen.

Note: a slimmed down 2 CD version is also available, The Basement Tapes Raw. 

Jackson Browne – Standing In The Breach, still fits.

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To me Jackson Browne is that old worn flannel shirt that you love to wear. You’ve had it for almost 40 years but it still fits great, it’s well worn and reminds you of your past days with a smile of remembrance. It’s your go-to shirt for rainy days, perfect with a hot cup of coffee and a dog curled by your feet.

I think Jackson Browne’s first five albums (Jackson Browne, For Everyman, Late For The Sky, The Pretender and Running On Empty) are at the pinnacle of the singer/songwriter genre. Each one is heartfelt, introspective and beautifully rendered. They make up the majority of the material on that flannel shirt. The work after those seminal albums is very good, singular moments are as good as his strongest moments, but as albums they don’t measure up.

Standing In The Breach not only measures up but adds to the shirt’s wove.

Starting with a tune he wrote as a teenager, The Birds of St. Marks could be an early Byrds’ album cut,  full of jangling guitars and hook laden it’s like a letter from an old friend. And after all these years his voice remains as beautiful and expressive as ever. Later he returns to the scene of one of his early successes in the song, Leaving Winslow. It’s beautiful bouncy jaunt that’s a perfect sequel to Take It Easy.

Like much of his “Post Empty” work many of the songs are political, but here they are more spoken to you than preached, approached in the same manner as his songs of heart and heart break. The Long Way Around and If I Could Be Anywhere are the best examples of this softer but just as moving approach.

The album closes with Here, a beautiful love song that would fit seamlessly on any of his first albums.

Standing In The Breach is Jackson Browne at his best, ten songs of love, honor and hope, all conjured by the affairs of the heat and of State.

 

 

Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland, A Review

 

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I  am a fan of Counting Crows. I am the first to say sometimes I find them ponderous, especially in ending their songs and in their signature drop out vocal interludes. That said, after seeing  the first track on their new CD, Somewhere Under Wonderland, clocks in at 8:22, well, I thought the worst. Fortunately Palisades Park is a tight composition in movements flawed only a little by the two aforementioned Crows’ traits, but the ear candy hooks make up for it.

But what follows are four of the tightest, rock solid compositions that Counting Crows have ever unleashed.

Earthquake Driver is a uptempo rocker that gallops along with melody and vocal hooks that grab you from the first listen; if there was still AM rock radio this puppy would capture lots of airplay.

Dislocation reflects Adam Duritz ever changing views on fame, but again most of those views are fascinating in a voyeuristic frame. The song is a guitar driven rocker with all the patented Crow dynamics present, a standout rhythm section pushes it in overdrive.

God Of Ocean Tides slows the pace and proudly displays this band’s overlooked Americana roots. I never understood all the Van Morrison references, from the start Counting Crows took some earth from Big Pink’s basement and built their own foundation, something Van aspired to but his Gaelic blues usually beautifully betrayed him.  God Of Ocean Tides is not only the best song on Wonderland it may be the best song in the band’s strong and varied catalog. Lyrically it’s just beautifully rendered:

Truck stops and river Gods
Gas stations of the Cross
Following a ghost,
Following a ghost,
I pray the water wash away
The memories and the cost.

Carry me south, to the sea
Along with your memories of me
We are born in the water
Now we return to Thee.
Colored lights
And birthday cakes
Candle wax
On paper plates.

Breathe the water
Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye.
You can see through water
All the way up to the sky.

The next track Scarecrow sounds like it dropped right from August And Everything After. It’s classic Crows and Duritz, both in composition and performance. You’ll be singing out Geronimo before the song ends.

The rest of the album is sturdy work, it holds up the running time with solid hooks, lyrics and musicianship. In fairness it would be near impossible to top the 4 previous tracks, tracks that stand with the best of Counting Crows work.

Somewhere In Wonderland is the best Counting Crows album and the best album I’ve heard in 2014.

Blood Meridian. It took me 20 years to finish this book…

 

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I started Cormac McCarthy’s first Southwestern novel, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, in 1994 and I finished it this year. It’s not a long novel and like most of McCarthy’s work beautifully written. I stopped and started over the years due to the themes and the perpetual bleak violence of the story. I mean violence.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of violence and violent people. His true account has horrifying passages but Capote’s genius lies with the words relaying these atrocities. They are poetic and beautifully structured. They slip a veil across the acts, that are no less horrifying, but soft focused by the rhythm of the telling.

McCarthy has not such an agenda, his tale of the 1849 Glanton Gang, scalp hunters massacring Native Americans and others for profit and entertainment, is clear eyed and terrifyingly focused. Adding to that stew is the introduction of a teenager, referred to throughout the novel as only “the kid” and the presence  of a genius murderous, maniacal pedophile called Judge Holden.

That violence runs to the other side, too, with a blistering account of an Apache raid that covers almost a page without punctuation. It is astonishing and also the point where I usually put the book down. It’s almost too much.

So why did I always return to these horrid tale?  One, I love McCarthy’s work, No Country For Old Men, The Road and All The Pretty Horses are some of my favorite modern novels. And as bleak and violent as they are, they cannot hold the darkness dripping from Blood Meridian.  Two, its critical reverence is vast and influential. TIME Magazine listed it as one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. So I tried, again and again.

Finally this year I pushed through the tide of blood and finally caught the phantom’s coat that runs through the story. After a while the barrage of violence numbs you and you begin to feel the beauty of the words and the power of the narrative. I realized the reason I stopped was that it was too well written. McCarthy’s prose is unfettered in its depiction of the brutality, so much so it becomes elegantly elegiac . So much so you feel guilty admiring it but you decide to travel on to see where the red beauty takes you.

I cannot recommend Blood Meridian to anyone, it’s too polarizing. I will not read it again unless to go back to a certain passage for some clarification I may need. But I will never forget it. Judge Holden is etched in my brain and I believe is one of American literature’s great, if not greatest, villain. To prove my point of this work, when I think back on it, it is not just the carnage or the atrocities that reverberate in my mind’s eye,  but also an image of a big sad dancing bear.

“Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance. – The judge”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West 

The Zombies, an overlooked masterpiece risen from the dead.

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Released in America in February 1969, two years after it was recorded, The Zombies’ second album Odessey and Oracle (O&O) fell flat and never made a dent in the charts. At its release the band was not together, they had broken up due to stagnant sales and some inner band acrimony. The closet thing to The Zombies at that time was the newly formed band from their ashes, Argent. That band would soon have the hit Hold Your Head Up on their hands.

The shame of all of this is that O&O is one of the best examples of British pop/psychedelic ever recorded. Solidly in between Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s early work, it stands the test of time. To fathom the little faith their record company had in their work all you have to know this tidbit. The graphic designer/illustrator mis-spelled Odyssey, but the brass decided not to change it after it was discovered, before being printed,  due to the cost, which was minimal.

If it wasn’t for some smart American DJ’s discovering the year old single Time Of The Season, and it becoming a hit, the album would never have seen American shores. The songs are stunning and, just like Pepper, recored in Abbey Road Studios and engineered by Geoff Emerick. Graced with a great vocalist in Colin Blunstone and players such as Rod Argent and Chris White, the work soars with harmonies, guitars, keyboards and the go-to instrument of the day, the Mellotron.

O&O starts off with this track, Care Of Cell 44, and only gets better.

I admit, I was a very late comer to this work. I discovered it about 7 years ago. I feel bad for all the times I could have heard this gorgeous piece of work from a greatly under-appreciated band.

O&O is now considered one of the great 60’s albums and is ranked in most Best Albums Lists. Rolling Stone has it at #100 in its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and New Musical Express  placed it at #32 on their “100 Greatest British Albums Ever!” list.

If you have never heard it, I highly recommend you listen, also recommended is the Live 40th Anniversary Concert. It and The Zombies sound amazing.

 

 

Covers Better Than The Original? Yep.

Everybody loves a list so here’s mine on a topic that is on many music blogs and sites. Now most of the time I prefer an artist’s own rendition of their work. Many people prefer Rod Stewart’s version of Tom Wait’s Downtown Train. Granted Rod has a voice that is like a sandpapered angel, beautiful; Tom’s is a sandpapered frog . But Tom’s version is full of the city’s mean streets and its hard luck citizens. I believe it is the vastly superior version.

So here are five covers I like better than the original, it’s subjective and personal, just like music.

5. Turn, Turn, Turn – The Byrds. That shimmering guitar jangle and Fab-like harmonies make one beautiful song. The great Pete Seeger’s original, not so much.

4.  House Of The Rising Sun – The Animals. This was a traditional blues folk song brought to radio life by a great British Invasion band. Here is an original interpretation by blues legend Leadbelly and his wife.

3. Mr. Bojangles – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Originally recorded by its writer Jerry Jeff Walker and released in 1968. It was a minor hit. In 1971 it was eclipsed by TNGDB and their excellent version.

2. Twist And Shout – The Beatles. Originally recorded by The Top Notes, then more successfully  by the Isley Brothers, the song is now on hold  to The Fabs and John Lennon’s throat tearing vocals. One of the great vocal performances in rock and roll.

1. All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix. Sorry Bob Dylan, I love you, but Jimi now owns this.

So, there are my favorite covers that outshine the originals, I’d love to hear yours.