One of our great singer/songwriters left us too soon a few weeks ago, Jesse Winchester. I discovered his music in 1971 through my fanatical The Band love and bought his first album solely because it was produced by Robbie Robertson.
I was hooked, his gentle voice and graceful playing sold me. Also his Southern heritage struck a chord in me. Note: I know it’s hard to believe but Northern Virginia not too long ago was Southern in its ways and patterns, good or bad.
He never had the mass appeal, and I never found anyone who was a fan enough to ruminate with about his new work or his past catalog. I am happy my wife loves his smooth voice because she heard it often through the years.
I was lucky to see him perform once, he sat sideways on a stool, guitar in hand and for two hours took the audience by the hand and guided them through the fields of Mississippi and the caverns of the heart.
If I could have the world see just one Jesse Winchester performance, it would be the one below. It is from an Elvis Costello songwriter TV show, Jesse sings his beautiful and longing Sham-A-Ling-Ding-Dong and slays the audience and brings a tear to Neko Case’s cheek…. mine, too.
As a subscriber for over 40 years of the Post I’ve read many asinine opinions, but not many as asinine as Mr. Moyer’s The Beatles:Let Them Be.
Mr. Moyer must be too young to remember the great music critic Lester Bangs or has never read any of Greil Marcus’ work to have the connection as popular music as art. Mr. Moyer seems to be caught in the celebrity aspect of music or the next thing, nothing wrong with that, nothing unless you dismiss the past. Imagine an art critic dismissing Leonardo or Raphael as old hat and unworthy of attention or a film critic writing about Citizen Kane as unworthy and not worth a view, not with Iron Man 3 in the theatre.
The Beatles are as important to popular music as Beethoven is to classical, imagine the guffaws a critic would bear if they dismissed that master’s work. If we prattle on about dismissing the great works of the past, the seminal pieces that the foundation of that art is built upon, we lose the context of what art is and become purveyors of marketing. By dismissing the past Mr. Moyer makes the future inconsequential.
That or he believes pop music and rock and roll are not art forms but merely commodities, if that is the case, he should start working AR for a record label.
The Beatles are as relevant today as they ever have been, that is if you consider music art and the makers of it artists. Forty five years from now The Fab Four will still be treasured and honored and their art only enriched by new ears, groups such as fun. and The Lumineers will be but trivia answers.
Imagine you have to choose twenty songs that represent who you are, not just your favorite songs but songs that are you. Twenty songs that make up your life’s playlist as you stand right now. Twenty songs that friends would reflect upon you, but more importantly, twenty songs that a stranger would hear and form a glimpse of the person you are. Well, here’s mine.
1. When You Wish Upon A Star – Jiminy Cricket
2. Jailhouse Rock – Elvis
3. Old Wooden Cross – Johnny Cash
4. I Want To Hold Your Hand – The Beatles
5. A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
6. Country Comfort – Elton John
7. Every Picture Tells A Story – Rod Stewart
8. Willie The Wandering Gypsy and Me – Waylon Jennings
9. Kentucky Avenue – Tom Waits
10. Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones
11. Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight – Bob Dylan
12. Daniel And The Sacred Harp- The Band
13. Real Love – John Lennon
14. Wonderful Remark – Van Morrison
15. When Johnny Strikes Up The Band – Warren Zevon
16. Buffalo River Home – John Hiatt
17. Alien Love Song – Todd Wright
18. Here (A Song For Tammy) – Stilson Greene
19. The Weight – The Band
20. In My Life – The Beatles
So as of today, there’s mine, it could change tomorrow. I’d love to hear yours, so post on……
John’s solo releases are a fascinating look inside an artist at a particular time and space in his life. I think it’s hard for some listeners to hear and connect with an artist’s personal outlook, demos and all, if that outlook doesn’t relate or seems out of touch with their sensibilities. John’s solo albums fall into that pit.
1. Plastic Ono Band – December 1970 – John was undergoing primal scream therapy and the work reflects it. The songs are raw and emotional, stripped to basics, and deeply personal. Starting with Mother, a heart wrenching plea of John’s inner child lamenting his Mother’s early death and his father’s abandonment. Working Class Hero’s lyrics of society and its expected results of us is as relevant today as then. Love is a beautiful song to the aspects of romantic love as a physical manifestation. The work Godtakes his therapy and throws down the gauntlet to kings and kingmakers, including himself. It is one of Lennon’s greatest vocals on one of rock’s seminal albums. POB gets better with age as we look back on the end of the Sixties’ dream, but at solo Lennon on a tightrope without a net.
2. Imagine – September 1971 – You cannot escape the title cut, Imagine has become the world’s anthem. It is ubiquitous and deservedly so, but the album is pretty damn good, too. John was still in the process of discovering who he was post-Beatles, but unlike POB, Imagine is a gentler journey. Not to say he was beyond petty foibles, listen to How Do You Sleep, his send-off to Paul McCartney for a perceived slight from Paul’s solo album, Ram. Therapy wasn’t softening his strong jealous streak either. John always professed that jealousy was the biggest motivator of his art, but in typical John fashion, he takes that trait and writes one his greatest songs, the lush and lovely Jealous Guy. The Imagine album was an embrace, not only to the public, most of who thought POB cold and harsh, but an embracing of John himself. He was accepting the Beatles as past and looking forward to John.
3. Some Time In New York City – June 1972 – The less said about this album the better. It is a perfect snapshot of the time, John was caught up in New York’s radical political movement. It was a short lasting fling and the quality of the songs reflect it. It is John’s greatest stumble, a big, bold, ass-over-teacups stumble. The only shining moment was the Chuck Berryish cut, New York City. Que pasa New York?
4. Mind Games – November 1973 – Mind Games would hopefully take away some of the grime of the New York fiasco from our ears, but it only washed some of it away. John was reeling from his very first commercial and critical failure and the continuing crumbling of his marriage to Yoko. Mind Games’ title cut was a minor hit and over the years has grown in stature but the album as a whole contains some of Lennon’s most limpid writing. The exceptions being the title cut, One Day At A Time, Only People and the beautiful Out Of The Blue. Mind Games is a work of an artist who for the first time in his career faces a deep look inside his creative well and sees it draining.
5. Walls And Bridges – November 1974 – I won’t go into the whole Lost Weekend era of John’s life, but the Yoko-less months of debauchery did produce a welcome back to statis work from John. WAB is a good album, lavishly produced with confident songwriting and vocals. Its snapshot is of an artist finding his footing, emerging from a cloud of self inflicted smoke and haze while pining for his true love. The album is not bitter though, it is as life affirming as John has ever been up to this point. It contains his only number 1 hit, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, but the masterwork here is #9 Dream.
6. Rock N Roll – February 1975- Recorded between Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, Rock N Roll was a contract resolution recording and it shows. Produced by the ever-mad Phil Spector and using the best LA musicians, the album is a mish mash of old rock covers played without any heart or urgency. John gives it his best vocally but the whole retro vibe falls flat, fun but flat. He was years ahead of the rockabilly renaissance but he missed the midnight train. The album remains a inconsequential member of the Lennon Canon. Slippin’ And Slidin‘ is the best of the lot.
7. Double Fantasy – November 1980 – The sad irony of the album was the great happiness and joy surrounding its release and the murdering of its creator only a month later. After a 5 year self-imposed absence John returned with songs of domestic bliss, fatherhood, love and hope. He was happy, really happy for the first time in his life and the art sings it. Starting Over signals his arrival with an Elvis wink, Woman wraps Yoko and all women in a fabric of love and respect, Beautiful Boy is a lullaby to his son and fatherhood while Watching The Wheels accounts to the naysayers and the critics that there is more to life than art, there is life. Douuble Fantasy won the Grammy in 1981 as Best Album. It deserved the award on its own right, as I grow older its songs have become part of the litany of adulthood, being a husband and fatherhood. There is grace in there somewhere, I just haven’t figured out where yet. (Note: The original release and even the remastered CD are really hard to find, what is readily available is the “stripped down” remastered version released in 2010)
8. Milk And Honey – November 1984 – A release of produced demos and songs recorded during and after the Double Fantasy sessions. The songs continue John’s winning streak of happy introspection but with a little more salt, as in Nobody Told Me and I’m Stepping Out. The ironic and poignant Borrowed Time is hard to listen to but remains a beautiful tune. Grow Old With Me was John’s last masterpiece. A touching love letter to enduring love not only for our partners, our family and friends, but our relationship with John. Grow Old With Me deserves the pinnacle of Imagine, I doubt that it will ever reach that, it may be too precious and personal for that mass ritual. It is a fitting close to John Lennon’s work, career and life.
I saw The Band over 30 times. They were my first concert way back when as a sophomore in high school. That night they tore up Merriwether Post Pavilion. In 1974 from January 15th through the 22nd, I saw The Dylan/Band: Before The Flood Tour six times in four cities. The last time I saw them was at Wolf Trap opening for John Prine. I took my daughter Morgan for her first ever concert. As much as I loved it, I think she was too young to appreciate the music, but she liked the tie-died Life Is A Carnival tee shirt I bought her.
One visit to New York City in 1981 at a small club I was fortunate to see an impromptu show by Steve Forbert. He was joined by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. As great as the music was, it was made fantastic because during the break and after the show all four artists sat at our table. It remains a memory that has become almost surreal. All I can say is that they were down to earth, friendly, and gracious. They were cats you could hang with at the local bar or pool room. The clearest moment I have is that every time the waitress (her name was Rhonda and she was from Virginia and is the reason why we were so well seated and treated) brought the table drinks Levon would say in that beautiful soft southern drawl “thank you m’am”.
Every member of The Band, except Richard Manuel, would tell you Richard was their lead singer. But for me the voice of The Band was Levon. My first introduction to their music was his line “I pulled into Nazareth…” Hell, I never pulled out. He is considered by many as one of the best drummers of his and any generation, I cannot attest to that but I know the cat could play, and as he played he sang his ass off.
Over the past days so many appreciations of Levon have been written and read. They tell of his days as a boy in Arkansas, his stay as a teenager drummer in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Dylan years, The Band, the Last Waltz, acting, The Band’s reemergence, the illness, Midnight Rambles, revived solo career and Grammy awards. I urge you to take time to read about this remarkable artist, man, friend, father and grandfather.
This is what I know. The following are links to what I consider are his greatest vocal performances, and they are what I want people to hear as a tribute to this American troubadour, this music legend.
When I Paint My Masterpiece – A Bob Dylan song that The Band and especially Levon added the masterstroke to.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – This is the live Last Waltz rendition and it’s revelatory. Levon sings as if a gun is held to his head and his life depended on this particular take. It’s one of the greatest vocals of all time.
Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen may have written it, but The Band and especially Levon own it.
Tennessee Jed – From his last solo album, Electric Dirt. His voice, ravaged by time and illness, still conveys his power and the innate good natured inflection I love about his voice. And his pitch, as always, perfect.
So rest easy Levon, we here know the drum stool is now taken in Heaven, you and Rick and Richard can start a band.
That’s a question we all are asked a few times during our life time.
Knowing me you would think a Beatle song of course and you would be very close, because if I had to pick my second favorite song it would be their brilliant, romantic and nostalgic classic “In My Life”.
My favorite song is “The Weight”, performed by The Band and written by Robbie Robertson. This work spoke to me at an early age. It was 1968, I was 14 years old when I first heard it broadcast from my FM radio and I was immediately struck by the sound and honesty of it. Even the name of the group was dramatic, THE BAND. During this period of music it was the time of Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Chocolate Wristband, The Electric Prunes and many more who copped their handle from the elongated Beatles’ moniker, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The longer or weirder the better, because in order to play the “in” music of the time, psychedelic, the more shocking or experimental your band’s name should be.
Then out of the fog of smoke machines, back-lit slide shows and surrealistic lyrics stepped out five road tested musicians with songs about people, places and things. They didn’t wear Nehru shirts or dashikis, instead they wore jeans, vintage suits and fedoras. Their album (Music From Big Pink) design wasn’t paisley patterned with smoking pigs but adorned with photographs of their families as if at a large family reunion. Their music was the same.
The songs were real, the voices of working men singing songs of their past and their future hopes. They sounded “old”, familiar even on first listen. A complete break from “Incense and Peppermints” to dirt and corn. And leading me to their revival tent of American music history was “The Weight”.
“I pulled into Nazareth…”
The journey stars with that phrase, could it be the Nazareth of the Bible or the town in Pennsylvania where the best acoustic guitars have been made for decades, C.F. Martin & Company?
And who are Carmen and the Devil, Luke, Crazy Chester or the Fanny who has the load to bear throughout the song…. and why take the load from her. It was and remains as mysterious, haunting, enigmatic and beautiful today as the first time I heard it.
It is my favorite song because it led me to many different roads of music: folk, country, bluegrass, New Orleans, Appalachian… they are too numerous to list.
It’s my favorite song because it made me feel that music was hand-hewn and not something so far beyond me that it was impossible achieve. For the first time in my life music became a living breathing thing in my life and not just wonderful grooves on vinyl. It also brought kinship with the music of my father. I began to understand his love of Johnny Cash and finally got his affection for Hank Wilson. “The Weight” did that for me.
Every time I hear the guitar start that beautifully mournful roll into its opening line, all those feelings of family, friends and times-had roll back to me as Levon Helm starts to sing. And when it comes to its closing, whatever mood I may have been in, it is improved with bittersweet memories of times gone and times to come.
Damn Bob, May 24, 2011 you turn 70 years old. There are so many things I want to tell you old friend but I will try and break down the highlights of our relationship.
As a youngster I was too busy AM radioing to really know you. You were peripherally on my ear-radar through the songs Blowing In The Wind, Just Like A Woman and Like A Rolling Stone. But with the British Invasion winning on my Sears stereo you didn’t stand a chance, plus that voice it just wasn’t sweet enough for my ear candy tastes.
In 1968 a fortuitous purchase at the local Drug Fair changed all that. After falling in love with The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” album and devouring the liner notes I had to know more about you. My first mistake in trying to make your acquaintance was getting to know you through your “Greatest Hits” releases. I apologize. Of course all the songs were there that make you a welcome dinner guest, but not until my Cousin Booty gave me a copy of “New Morning” in 1970 did I realize your true friends got to know you through the dark corners of midnight coffee and the deep tracks of your menu. It was akin to know Dylan Thomas only through his “Gentle Good Night” than through his body of work. So I dove into the deep end, and Bob, I’ve enjoyed every new stroke and flip.
You’ve been called the voice of a generation, you scoffed at that just like a true voice should. Bill Clinton called you America’s poet laureate and you smiled and turned your amp on 11. Oscars, Grammys and Pulitzers abound, but you remain on the road and probably couldn’t sketch their images.
Every five years or so some critic calls the next new voice the new Bob Dylan, then that voice hears your canon and collapses under its weight.
Over the years you have given me many great gifts, so many I need a list to remember them all, but these 11 are so close and personal to our friendship I had to single them out:
Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight
Chimes Of Freedom
My Back Pages
Not Dark Yet
Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time
Tight Connection To My Heart
Workingman’s Blues # 2
Something There Is About You
If You See Her, Say Hello
Every Grain Of Sand
The 11th I will close this letter with, for it speaks not only of our abiding friendship but our soon to be traveled trails in the future.
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
I was asked the other day what are my favorite albums? I really couldn’t answer because I have so many, but I was pressed and I gave an answer. Looking back on it, and having time to ponder, I’ve picked the five that I would have to keep. The five you could only listen to for the rest-of -your-life-five. I made some parameters: only one from any artist/band, no live albums, no greatest hits and no various collections (no K-tel allowed baby).
1. Rubber Soul– The Beatles. No surprise I’m sure, they are intrinsic to my DNA, picking one was almost impossible, but I listen to Rubber Soul at least once a week, how could I not ever hear it again.
2. The Band(The Brown Album) – The Band – A seminal work for me, easing out Music From Big Pink by a guitar string. This album changed the way I heard and thought about music and it’s rich American heritage. Through this piece of work I discovered Bob Dylan, the blues, country and western, gospel and much more. It forked the road for me from British/American pop to another darker less traveled path.
3. Into the Music – Van Morrison. I can’t imagine never hearing Van’s voice again, and this work shines vocally. In his grunts and swoons I can hear Elvis, Jackie Wilson, Tom Waits, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Frank Sinatra and many more. I chose this for the vocalists I love, with Van at the top of the heap.
4. Broken Moon – Lowen & Navarro. I cannot put into words how I feel about this album, it has healed me many times. I think Eric Lowen and Dan Navarro are two of the best songwriters, singers and performers I have ever had the pleasure to know. I have given this album to friends almost as much as I have given them Rubber Soul; it’s that good and that important to me. Lowen and Navarro are the brave working troubadours, carrying on a time honored tradition of songwriting and truth. And brave may be too weak a word.
5. Honky Tonk Heroes – Waylon Jennings. The greatest country album by one of the greatest country artists. The songs of Billy Joe Shafer brought to stunning life by a crackerjack band and a soulful singer. But it’s on the list for more than that, this album is a chapter of my life in 1973-1975 that remains as some of the best years I had as a young man and with the best brothers- in-arms a friend could ask for… and also because of Lakeside Amusement Park, three fingered whiskey and wiiiiiiild buffaloes.
So there’s my five and why, now you do the same, post yours in the comments below and let’s listen to what your life is like.
I’ve listened to the new Bob Dylan CD “Christmas in the Heart” a few times now and it’s wonderful. The arrangements are played totally straight, to the point when “Here Comes Santa Claus” starts you almost expect Paul Anka to start singing; but no, it’s Bob. It’s Bob at his croaky-I drink gravel milkshakes- best. The joy of this fun and groovy album is the contrast of styles, the background vocals are like the Jordanaires and Andrew Sisters, silky smooth and sweet, Bob adds the salt, large rough chunks of salt. Listen, to hear Bob Dylan sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” much less “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a complete gas, something as a life-long fan I thought beyond the pale, yet here it is.
And it’s all for a good cause, in a commitment to ending hunger, all of Bob’s U.S. current and future royalties from sales of “Christmas In The Heart” will be donated in perpetuity to Feeding America, guaranteeing that more than four million meals will be provided to over 1.4 million people in need in this country during this year’s holiday season.
The CD is like a crazy but favorite Uncle taking over an Andy Williams’ Christmas album recording session. It’s not for everybody but it should be. Thanks Bob, I can’t wait to clear the house this Holiday Season as I play you on 10. Now if only Tom Waits would follow your lead.
I thought I would share two good things that I’ve discovered recently, first up the self titled CD Works Progress Administration (WPA). This group is what we would once label a “supergroup”, but most of today’s music listeners never read a CD package to see who is playing or singing, much less writing the songs. That’s an impossible task if you download your music, especially song by song. I love albums, to me they’re like books with chapters, each one an integral part of the story leading to a conclusion. When I think of my favorite music, I think in terms of albums not singles. I admit it, I am a geezer dinosaur holding on to an eroding bastion of my youth.
But every once in a while as I hold on to that decaying rope I discover something that makes my grip tighter and WPA is one of those discoveries. WPA is made up of Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sproket and solo work), Sean and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Luke Bella (Tony Douglas Band, Lyle Lovett Band), Belmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell), Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello). That’s a distinguished group, not only of diverse ages but diverse musical genres; you have alternative rock, bluegrass, jazz, country, and more, all mingling into a audio stew pot of greatness.
The songs are fantastic, full of lyrical complexity and lovely melodies; and with four lead vocalists taking turns on lead and harmonies, the sound is fresh every listen. The first track “Always Have My Love” is a good summation of what is to follow. The song “Not Sure” is as lovely a love song I’ve heard in a long time. This is the best new music I’ve bought this year, just wanted to share it so it’s not overlooked. I’ll post the website so you can check out some samples. It’s also available at Amazon. Just get the damn thing, you’ll thank me.
Secondly, Tastee Freez has reopened in Berryville, Virginia. It’s in a new shiny space right on Main Street. Tastee Freez is one of my Mom’s favorite places to eat, always has been. So when I told her it was open she said she would love to go, she missed their BBQ sandwiches. Well, when your 81 year old mother wistfully wants a BBQ sandwich from Tastee Freez, by God you take her to Tastee Freez.
I did and she loved it, I realized as I sat there eating my chili slaw dog, that it wasn’t just the taste of BBQ, it was a taste of her life so far. She remembered taking my brother and sister and me to the Tastee Freez in Leesburg long ago, the times we brought one home to her as we were out cruising, and the times she and Dad would ride over to the old one in Berryville and have lunch. The smile on her face was one I haven’t seen for long time, it was more than a BBQ sandwich, it was magic BBQ sandwich made in Mr. Peabody’s Time Machine.
Life is funny and mysterious, and sometimes the answers can be found in a Tastee Freez.