Tag Archives: Rock and roll as art

Small Town Talk Speaks Volumes


Any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually full of conundrums and partial truths, but any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually a good read. Sprinkle in The Band, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Todd Rundgren and other rock notables and you should have an enjoyable word stew. Barney Hoskyns’ new book, Small Town Talk, is a very good entree.

Dylan was visiting his brooding, enigmatic manger Albert Grossman in Woodstock NY. He had just returned from a hard grueling career changing 1966 electric world tour with his backing band, The Hawks. He needed to re-charge. Woodstock was the ideal place for him and his family to leave the public eye and enjoy a more rural pastoral life. In other words Bob was tired.

That all changed on July 29, 1966 when Bob wrecked his beloved Triumph motorcycle. Reports of the time ranged from his death, to broken neck to career ending injuries… at this point the book takes off.

During his recovery Bob invited The Hawks up to the village to play, write, and have some fun. The Hawks became The Band, the playing and writing became The Basement Tapes and the fun became infectious. Word leaked about what was happening up in Old Woodstock, then the songs leaked out and then Big Pink leaked out,  then everything changed.

Soon every rock star passed through, visited  or moved to the tiny village, and with them came sex, drugs, and, you know, rock and roll. It was a startling invasion of not only musicians but their entourages: parasites, groupies, drug dealers and media. This book chronicles those stories from 1966 until today. Some of the best parts of the story is how the locality and its governing officials and town business owners had to deal with this new paradigm of change. (The Chief Of Police has some fine stories with regards to the driving escapades of certain members of The Band ). Money was flowing in, but the quiet farming/art community was becoming more Greenwich Village than Mayberry. A seamy underbelly was growing underneath the narrow streets of the beautiful old village. The uneasy balance between old and new Woodstock is as much a character in the story as any musician. It is also filled with sadness as many of the Woodstock icons succumbed to their demons: Richard Manuel, Janis Joplin, Rick Danko and others.

Small Town Talk is a wonderful read, and any rock fan who cares about the birth of the Americana genre should pick it up. I’m betting most Dylan and Band fans already have. My only complaint is I wish the author would have dug deeper into the locals’ reaction to the conquering horde, being from a small town I know how my father would have.

Available at your favorite bookstore and here at Amazon.

A Tale of Two Bands

On November 25, Thanksgiving, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom The Band called it quits. They called it in style with a huge guest filled concert that was labeled The Last Waltz. After 17 years on the road, the toll on Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel was being to show emotionally and physically. The film and recording of this event has gone down as one of the greatest live concerts ever staged. But there’s more to add to their legacy with two new found recordings.


The first being a recording of a concert only fours months before The Last Waltz. The Band at Carter Baron Amphitheater Washington DC, July 17th 1976 proves they were not throwing the towel in on other dates of their last tour. I was fortunate to be in the audience that night, it was a downpour of rain but the show went on.

I had seen The Band many times before, even followed The Band/Dylan Before The Flood Tour on its East Coast dates. This show was bittersweet  for me, the audience knew it was maybe the last time they would ever see one of the greatest bands and live acts on stage. But The Band came to play and the recording proves it. Starting with their “we own this now” cover of Don’t Do It  to the ending notes of W. S. Walcott Medicine Show, their playing is committed and sharp. The vocals, always a benchmark of a Band show, were great except for Manuel’s which were strained and weary. Always considered the lead singer by his bandmates, his voice was showing the road and all its distractions. Robbie’s guitar work on the recording is the best I’ve ever heard, his lead on Forbidden Fruit just kills it. Garth doesn’t go off the charts as he was capable of with his keyboard work but still keeps the glue. Rick was always an inspired bassist and sometimes an ethereal vocalist, here he proves both especially on It Makes No Difference. As always Levon’s drum work was in the pocket and his vocals impassioned and impeccable. He was always the heart and soul of this unit. Other highlights are Twilight and a bare bones non-horned up Ophelia. A full track listing follows at the end of this post. A worthy and important addition for any Band fan.

81auja5zysL._SL1425_In 1983 members of The Band reconvened as a touring unit minus Robbie Robertson, his guitar work taken over by The Cate Brothers; and though not on stage, his brilliant songwriting was in full force. This is a recording of their first concert since The Last Waltz. They had played together backing Danko’s solo work and in some impromptu jams with other artists, but this was the kickoff, the 2nd Act. Recorded in Chicago’s Mandel Hall on November 6, 1983 as a FM broadcast special The Band came roaring back and took names. That concert can now be found on a new and most worthy CD called And Then There Was Four.

Starting with some drum kicks and whoops The Band storms into Up On Cripple Creek and never lets up. You can feel the love on stage as they played old favorites, a solo Danko tune and some lively blues numbers that Levon was swimming deep in since 1976. The Cate Brothers do admirable work here but even two guitarists could not match the staccato power of Robertson live, but the exuberance of the performances more than makes up for it. Every song is good and for a board recording of a radio broadcast, the quality is great. I do nothing but smile when I hear them.  Some standouts are The Shape I’m In, Rag Mama Rag and a wonderful joyous version of (I Don’t Want To) Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes.  A complete track listing follows at the end of the post.

The biggest notice here is the quality of Manuel’s voice, what was weary and worn in 1976 was strong and pure here, listen to King Harvest Has Surely Come and I Shall Be Released for the proof. Sadly this would not last, three years later in an undiagnosed depression he took his own life in a Florida motel during a tour. This tragic incident ending this second chapter of The Band. The third chapter was seven years away with the release of Jericho, a superb album that kicked off a short lived but beautiful Renaissance. #


The Band ‎– Carter Barron Amphitheater Washington DC, July 17th 1976

1 – Don’t Do It
2 –  The Shape I’m In
3 –  It Makes No Difference
4 – The Weight
5 – King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
6 – Twilight
7 – Ophelia
8 – Tears Of Rage
9 – Forbidden Fruit
10 – This Wheel’s On Fire
11 – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
12  – The Genetic Method
13 – Chest Fever
14 – Up On Cripple Creek
14 – The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show

And Then There Were Four

1 – Up on Cripple Creek                                                                                                  2 – The Shape I’m In
3 – It Makes No Difference
4 – Milk Cow Boogie
5 – Mystery Train
6 – King Harvest
7 – Java Blues
8 – I Shall Be Released
9 – Rag Mama Rag
10 – Long Black Veil
11 – (I Don’t Want To) Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes
12 – The Weight
13 – Ophelia


The White Album – Edited


The Beatles, also known as the White Album, is the ninth studio album by the Beatles, released on 22 November 1968. This was a double album and to many it’s their favorite album by the band. Not me. Don’t get me wrong, I love this work but I’ve always found it a bit, let’s say, over indulgent. I want to hear every song on it but I think it could’ve been an amazing one disc release.

So here is my edited version of The White Album. I cut it to a 12 song album with, IMO, the strongest cuts.

The Beatles

Side one:

1. Back in the USSR

2. Dear Prudence

3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

4. Happiness is a Warm Gun

5. Martha My Dear

6. I’m So Tired

Side two:

7. Blackbird

8. I Will

9. Helter Skelter

10. Revolution 1

11. Savoy Truffle

12. Cry Baby Cry.

I know the villagers are picking up pitch forks and lighting torches to storm Castle Stilson for omitting Rocky Raccoon, Bungalow Bill, Mother Nature’s Son and many others, but just think, they would comprise the best outtakes album ever released. Here’s the complete list of tracks that didn’t make my cut: Glass Onion, Ob La Di Ob La Da, Wild Honey Pie, Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Piggies, Rocky Raccoon, Don’t Pass Me By, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, Julia, Birthday, Yer Blues, Mother Nature’s Son, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey, Sexy Sadie, Long Long Long, Honey Pie, Revolution 9 and Goodnight.

I would love to see your edited version of this classic or your reasons why it’s perfect as is.


BADFINGER – A primer

20140320_532a5e9028fcaFormed in 1961 as the Iveys, Badfinger was one of the first acts signed to The Beatles’ new record label Apple. Their first album, Magic Christian Music, was a home run with their first smash single, written by Paul McCartney, Come And Get It.

They followed that single with No Matter What You Are, Day After Day and Baby Blue, all worldwide hits. They were all over George Harrison’s opus All Things Must Past, they backed up Ringo on his hit It Don’t Come Easy, they played on most of John Lennon’s Imagine album and they were the stage band for George’s famous Concert for Bangladesh.

With a pedigree like that you would think they would be part of rock’s canon. But no. Badfinger was plagued by bad management, lost opportunities and sadly, two tragic suicides.  You can read a good synopsis of their journey on their Wikipedia page.

So this post is just a introduction to some Badfinger you may not be familiar with, but should be, let’s get to it.

The followup to Magic Christian was the album No Dice.  This work contained the hit No Matter What and a soon to be world wide hit for Harry Nilsson and eventually Mariah Carey, Without You. Every cut on No Dice is great and each one moves further away from The Fab’s shadow.  Here is a beautiful song about the tragic life of a London call girl, beautifully rendered cinematically by writer Peter Ham, Midnight Caller.

The album Straight Up followed and became the band’s biggest seller. Both Day After Day and Baby Blue were on this seminal album, but they were not alone. Here is the poignant Perfection, whose lyrics are as relevant today as they were in 1971.

Also on this album was the great Name Of The Game.

Subsequent albums followed, all worthwhile, but none as powerful as No Dice or Straight Up.  Leaving Apple Badfinger signed with Warner Bros., their second Warner release Wish You Were Here was released in October 1974 and garnered glowing reviews. Unfortunately the bird was mired in management and label woes, thus the album never received any push from either. The band then went on a sad and tragic spiral. (Note:Today, Joey Molland, guitarist and vocalist, keeps the band’s music and legacy alive, you can follow him on Twitter @BadfingerJoey). Wish You Were Here is now considered the band’s masterpiece and one of the great lost classics of rock and roll. I agree, it is a beautiful work. It is hard to find, but if you can ever get a copy, get it. The above Amazon link has it in stock periodically.  Here is a fantastic cut from Wish You Were Here, No One Knows It.

I hope this will open the door for you to discover more of Badfinger. There are some very good Best of collections available, but start with the three albums above, No Dice, Straight Up and Wish You Were Here.

Five Favorite Album Covers

I love album covers. It’s the thing I miss the most about vinyl. I know vinyl is back, but most of the time the cover is designed for the CD, digital image AND the vinyl album. Not much room for nuance when the design is made for a .375 inch square avatar instead  of a square foot canvas.

The following are five of my favorite covers, I’m not saying they are the best, just five art/designs that hold special to me. I also admit what sound came from their sleeves made an impression on the choices.

5. Sailin’ Shoes – Little Feat  This was not only my initial introduction to the band but to their cover artist, Neon Park. He went on to make many more Feat covers and became a much in-demand  illustrator. Sailin’ Shoes remains my favorite Feat album and my favorite Park cover. I mean an anthropomorphized slice of cake on a swing, half a blue boy and a voyeuristic  snail, come on!


4. Led Zeppelin  This album burst out of the speakers like a rock blues hurricane, and the album art captures that explosion. All of Zeppelin’s covers were fantastic but its first, and starkest design, is the best. Note: the band and friends thought this album would fail like a lead ballon, thus the band name and the art: crash of the Hindenburg.


3. School’s Out – Alice Cooper  A perfect album cover for me at the time. Released in the Summer of 1972, I had just graduated high school and the single and the album became athemic. The cover was also interactive. It was a desk. Using great photography, oragami and wicked attention to detail, this design stood as art or at least a good high school shop project. Note: the original release album sleeve was a pair of girl’s panties soon replaced by a regular paper sleeve. Alice knew his audience, huh?

album-schools-out-front-cover-09-06-11 schoolsout

2. The Band – The Band   Designed by the great Bob Cato, using an Elliot Landy photograph, this simple cover speaks volumes of what waits inside. Their first album, Music From Big Pink (and a contender for this list) did not show the members of the group on either the front or the back; you had to open it up to see the group. Here they confront you head-on, staring at you from another time. This was the time of paisley and psychedelic design and fonts. Not this band, there were dressed as workers, laborers, as if they stepped out of 1940’s  America. Hell, they could’ve been mistaken for hobos then. The album was sepia toned as if taken from our grandparents’ scrapbook. And the music reflected it all, and magnificently. A masterpiece.



1. Revolver – The Beatles  Now you know I could’ve put lots of Fab covers here, as a matter of fact all five spots could be Fab covers: With The Beatles, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles (White Album), Abbey Road. But Revolver is my favorite. Designed and drawn by their friend and fellow musician Klaus Voorman, the cover captured the band as they were moving from Fabdom to somewhere else. It captures this space in time and the music within perfectly. As a professional graphic designer I think it is beautifully rendered and remains timeless. It also won the Grammy for Best Album Cover Design, that’s one they got right.



OK, one more, not really a favorite but this design for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats freaked me out in 1969 and still does today. Some cats have nightmares about bogeymen and monsters, I have nightmares of Hot Rats.


I’d love to know some of your favorite covers and why.



Take a walk down Kentucky Avenue with Tom Waits


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.


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


You’re welcome.

Kentucky Avenue is on the album Blue Valentine.





The Basement Tapes Complete – Raw Myths


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. 

Greatest Hits are just part of the story and the music….


In the new paradigm of the music buying machine, we have lost the concept of “album buying”. Singles are downloaded or watched on the computer screen, but before the digital age held sway, it was called the Greatest Hits album.  I’m not a Greatest Hits cat, to me they are a collection of an author’s best chapters from his or her novels. Albums are, well were, a document of a certain time in an artist’s creative journey. I cannot imagine downloading one song from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or The Stones’ Exile On Main Street, they are only pieces of the work, without context or companionship. The albums stand in testament to the work and artistry created.

That said, Greatest Hits are very popular and remain a vital piece of the artist, publisher and record company’s life blood. So let’s take a look at some of the top selling Greatest Hits collections; in looking at them I’ll give you an alternative path to absorb the root of that artist’s work.

1. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits. This is the one of biggest selling albums of all time and the number 1 Greatest Hits album. I’m sure you have it. To see where this band evolved from and to hear a great record, I recommend you listen to their second album, Desperado,  released in 1973. The work is steeped in Country Western music and cowboy imagery. The_Eagles_-_DesperadoThe songs are strong and are connected through a time and space. Here, surrounded by its family and a cycle of stories, the song Desperado is a poignant and moving elegy to a man and a time past. This is gritty and honest music by my favorite incarnation of the band. I don’t believe they ever hit this consistent height again, but they soar here.

2. Creedence Clearwater Revival Chronicle. If ever a band can be summed up by their singles and hits, it is surely CCR. The path not taken here is their fourth album released in 1969, Willie and the Poor Boys.  Unknown John Fogerty was on a roll here, from Down on the Corner to his political firebrand, Fortunate Son (still true and effective today). Every song is a winner. It Came Out Of The Sky explodes off the record, while covers of American classics Cotton Fields and Midnight Special add an authenticity to the work showing where the party started. This album is what the Americana genre uses as its blueprint, they just don’t know it.

3. Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits. If all you want to hear is Purple Haze or Foxy Lady this one is for you. Hendrix was a nuclear explosion and his albums contained detonators, ignitions and fireworks that need to be heard, not only in context but chronologically. His growth as a singer, songwriter and player on his albums was and is beautiful to hear. I’m going to go with his debut Are You Experienced as the one to explore.  2054522This was revolutionary stuff in 1967 crossing all borders of music; it was so fresh, raw, magical and expressive but soaked in classic blues. Hendrix took rock/blues guitar by the throat and shook the hell out of it until it surrendered to him. This is the starting point of the new language the instrument spoke.

4. The Essential Bob Dylan. Yep, it has Blowin’ In The Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Knocking On Heaven’s Door and many more, as a matter of fact, they keep releasing it with new additions. Picking a path for you here is a thorny task, Bob is a chameleon and his albums roll and move with his interests, moods and whimsey. I believe he is THE greatest songwriter and is America’s true Poet Laureate, to pick one of his works is futile, but I acquiesce.  Unknown-11975’s Blood On The Tracks is Dylan focused and tight, it is work of great power and astonishing insight into this enigmatic man; it’s a close view he would not share again. I’ll put it this way when Tangled Up In Blue is not the best song on an album you are flying in rare air.

So, wagons ho! Go exploring, and be sure and post your travels.

The Beatles, hey I can take criticism and dislike but dismissal…nope.


Here is a link to an opinion found in The Washington Post outlook section on Sunday, June 21, 2013, written by Justin Moyer.


Here is my reply:

Dear Editor,

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.

Stilson Greene