Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 25th April

The First Time I Ever Heard The Band
was when Sam Charters came through London in 1969, leaving America behind. He gave me his five favourite albums, one of which was Music From Big Pink

always reminded me of my dad. Wiry. Ornery. Absolutely lived for music and drink-fueled good times. A great turn of phrase. The man who made the party happen—wherever he was. So whenever I watch any footage of Levon, I’m always put in mind of Bill.

The Song That Meant The Most
“The melody—too beautiful and out of reach for any words I have—spins the chorus into the pastoral with a feel for nature that is really hedonistic—

Corn in the field
Listen to the rice as the wind blows cross the water
King Harvest has surely come

—and a desperate, ominous rhythm slams the verses back to the slum streets that harbour the refugees of the pastoral disaster.”
—Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

“King Harvest was one of his greatest, most intuitive performances, and the sound of his kit more than did it justice. “King Harvest was one track where I got my drums sounding the way I always wanted them. There’s enough wood in the sound, and you could hear the stick and the bell of the cymbal.” Jon Carroll wrote that Levon was “the only drummer who can make you cry,” and listening to him on King Harvest—the anguished fills and rolls, the perfect ride cymbal figure accompanying the line Scarecrow and a yellow moon, pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town—it’s hard to disagree.”
—Barney Hoskyns, Across The Great Divide: The Band & America

Two Bits A Shot
In the nineties, in the early days of rocksbackpages, Barney and a group of us were pitching ideas to Malcolm Gerrie (creator of The Tube) for magazine tv shows about music. My most unlikely idea was to almost fetishistically examine great musicians’ instruments… and of course the opening feature would have been Levon’s wood rimmed kit, with the harvest scene painted on the bass drum, filmed from the inside out…

Levon Helm, Thank You Kindly
“They took me out to the location, and it was like going back in time: The film crew had rebuilt Butcher Hollow, Loretta’s hometown… We started work late in February and filmed for about six weeks, until old Ted Webb [Loretta’s father, whom Levon was playing] passes away… I was sad when my character died and my part of the movie was over. I didn’t really want to get in the coffin for the big wake scene, but I also didn’t want to be thought of as superstitious or “difficult.” So I told Michael Apted he’d have to get in first to show me how to look. So he kind of warmed the thing up for me, good sport that he is. As the “mourners” gathered around to sing Amazing Grace, I had to sit bolt upright. It was like coming back to life.


“It’s my funeral,” I told them, “and if you’re gonna sing Amazing Grace, it’s gotta be the old-fashioned, traditional way.” And I taught ’em in my dead man’s makeup how to do it shape-note style like they would’ve back in the holler in those days. Some of the ladies they’d hired as extras turned out to be church choir singers, so once we’d got it off the ground it didn’t sound too bad. We rehearsed it a few times, then I got back in the coffin, and we shot the scene.”
—Levon Helm (with Stephen Davis) in his biography, This Wheel’s On Fire

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 18th April

Newsnight v Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All
Oh dear. Old media fails again to report properly on new phenomena… From Stephen Smith’s bizarre “Is this the future of Rock ’n’ Roll?” opening line it was The Day Today all the way. After Brick Stowell explained that he made 300 t-shirts for the pop-up shop (OF are paying their way by selling stuff rather than music at this point), Smith’s supposedly snark aside was: “Are there any washing instructions in here?” How lame is that? A pointlessly combatative interview with OF followed by their manager having to insist they paid taxes, before Smith’s coup de grâce—“Some say the band are a case of new wine in old bottles, or is that a case of old dope in new bongs?” If that’s the level of discourse, if that’s how you’re going to attempt to impart information in the six minute time slot that Newsnight will allow—then why bother? As the kids would say: Jam Yo Hype, Newsnight!

Mystic Malvina
“There were some good things at the Monterey Folk Festival—you must have missed them, or they didn’t appeal to you anyway… A girl named Janis Joplin, square built, impassive, singing blues in a high, skin-prickling voice like a flamenco woman; Bob Dylan, and some others. When thousands of kids are doing something with diligence and devotion, there are going to be some geniuses amongst them—it figures mathematically. And something is coming of this. Bob Dylan is a sign.”

An excerpt from a wonderful letter that folksinger Malvina Reynolds (composer of Little Boxes) wrote to Ralph J Gleason, published by Jeff Gold on his Recordmecca blog. As Jeff says, “Boy, did she ever get that right.” Big Brother & The Holding Company three years in the future and Dylan’s first appearance on the West Coast. “He too was almost completely unknown, and for Reynolds to invoke the genius-word was pretty prescient—and daring, indeed.” Jeff follows this with a letter from a woman called Donna, about Dylan’s 1965 San Francisco Press Conference which is just as good. More and more, these primary sources ring with resonance—the resonance of a time and place, not with hindsight or a critical straightjacket to tie them up in.

Welcome To The Library, Friday evening, 13th April

As far from the jungle as could be—you’d think—the Westminster Reference Library, just off Leicester Square. I used to do my homework there. Tonight it’s the venue for the Sam Amidon Experience.

A power trio unlike any you’ve ever heard. Sam makes the melodies of these old, old folk songs a kind of plainsong—flattened out and dessicated, almost. By repeating and intensifying phrases, voice totally in sync with his unique guitar style, the tunes move forward and shift gears. Behind him, like mad scientists tiptoeing through the cables, his genius accompanyists moved from Slingerland drumkit to computer, from bass to prepared guitar. Take a bow Shahzad Ismaily and Chris Vatalaro. With these two beyond-talented collaborators the show swayed from free jazz to beat poetry to Appalachian ballads (one of which, Prodigal Son, Amidon dedicated to Rick Santorum: “When I left my father’s house, I was well supplied, I made a mistake and I did run, I’m dissatisfied… I believe I’ll go back home, I believe I’ll go back home, I believe I’ll go back home, Acknowledge I done wrong.”)

I took my mum. She found it equal parts beguiling and baffling. She loved the final medley of Climbing High Mountains with R. Kelly’s Relief, where the audience sang the refrain like a hymn. She’d liked to have heard more Beth Orton. Mothers, eh?

Post-Rock Careers: Nine Inch Nails

Literate Rockers Alert!
As Alex Kapranos is to food, so Charlie Fink may be to film, if an enterprising publisher snaps up the Noah & The Whale Film Companion. A really entertaining diary entry in ES Magazine made me warm to a frontman whose band had hardly set my pulses racing at a couple of festival appearances last year. I’ll have to listen anew.

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 11th April

Lionel Richie, What I’ve Learned, Esquire (US), April issue
“If what’s happening now in America had happened in the sixties, we would have protests like you’ve never seen before. But in 2011, people can name every player on the football team, but they can’t tell you how badly they’re being taken advantage of and by whom. They know what Gaga’s doing, but they don’t know what the government’s doing. Everyone’s on Facebook and Myspace and Yourspace and Theirspace and Twitter and Tweeter. Great, fantastic! But anybody paying attention?” From Tuskegee, Alabama, to 1600 Penn Ave—Lionel for Vice Pres 2012!

emusic find of the month
Hayes Carll’s Kmag Yoyo (military acronym, “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own”), which features the beautiful, Willie Nelson-esque Chances Are. “Chances are I took the wrong turn, every time I had a turn to take.” Every so often a classic country song is just what you need. And the title track’s Subterranean Homesick feel is pretty cool, too.

News that Rumer is to cover It Could Be The First Day by Richie Havens sent me back to Stonehenge, one of the albums he made in the late sixties which also featured his great covers of I Started A Joke and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Richie also features on An Album To Benefit Preservation Hall (2010), which rounds up some usual and unusual suspects (Paolo Nutini, Andrew Bird, Tom Waits, Pete Seeger, Merle Haggard, Dr John, Steve Earle, Amy Lavere) in support of this venerable New Orleans institution, and his track may just be the best thing on it. Trouble In Mind is a totally gorgeous version of a old chestnut—with soft horns, walking bass, sad dobro and sandpaper clarinet underpinning Havens’ stoic vocal.

Girl Talk, Girl Talk
Speaking of muted horns, that song prompted me to find a tape recording I’d made in the late seventies. I had, unfashionably, gone to Ronnie Scott’s with tutor-cum-landlord, Dennis Bailey, to see Panama Francis And His Savoy Sultans. Dennis insisted we see a bit of jazz history, and we weren’t disappointed. To hear a (little) Big Band in a small club is an experience not to be forgotten, but what stayed with me was a glorious take on the torchy Girl Talk, a song composed by Neal Hefti, lyrics by Bobby Troup, written for the 1965 film Harlow, a biopic starring Carroll “Baby Doll” Baker. The song has been described by Michael Feinstein as the “last great male chauvinistic song written in the 60’s,” but hey—an instrumental version = no-one offended! Panama laid out a sifty undertow on his kit, the horns spread out and one of the great melodies took shape. By the time the second chorus comes round they’ve put the burners on and the whole thing is glowing and swinging and Dennis is shouting yes! yes! and we’re laughing with sheer joy, enveloped by the sound of beautifully burnished brass.
nb. Julie London does my favourite vocal version, and it is a staggering chauvinistic lyric…

In A White Room
We were talking about the surviving Abbey Road letters (as seen on the back of the Abbey Road album) that were on the memorabilia and antiques show, Four Rooms, and discussing what item of rock memorabilia we’d most like to own. The Jayne Mansfield cut-out from Sgt Pepper? Brian Wilson’s sandpit? The guitar on the cover of Joan Baez/5? My favourite choice was Simon’s: Nick Drake’s cape/blanket, Way to Blue cover.

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 4th April

Could you sound like the xx with just a cheap acoustic guitar and a cassette tape machine meant for accompanying karaoke? Willis Earl Beal can. Young, black, Southern, heartbroken, can draw, could soundtrack Juno. Evening Kiss is beautiful, insistent, mournful, touching. “This record was recorded on bad equipment. I like it that way.” Amen.

Churn, Churn, Churn
To everything there is a season… and it seems that right now it’s a fashion season, belonging to Flo and Lana. It used to be that it would take a good few years for pop or rock stars to get sucked into other orbits such as film or literature, but now the career path is Voguealicious. Is this diversification, to make the Fame Moment™ last longer? We’ve had Flo and Karl, sittin’ in a tree, yet Stylist’s cover story this week says that, “despite two number 1 albums and 18 awards Florence Welch is a reluctant star.” Really? Reluctant? It sure looks it, in the 327 full-page pictures they’ve run of her. To be fair, it’s a good interview that does paint her as someone who accepts all of this so that she can do the work she cares about… And Lana, first whispered about in September last year, now (already!) the recipient of the fashion equivalent of the Légion d’honneur, a Mulberry bag named after her, because of her—are you ready?—“retrospective look.” As for the bag, straight out of W. Eugene Smith’s Life Magazine story, “Country Doctor,” I’m failing to see much Del Rey.

Tommy, Can You Hear Me?
Tracklist for Tom Jones’ upcoming album, produced by Ethan Johns:
Tower Of Song (Leonard Cohen)
(I Want To) Come Home (Paul McCartney)
Hit Or Miss (Odetta)
Love And Blessings (Paul Simon)
Soul Of A Man (Blind Willie Johnson)
Bad As Me (Tom Waits)
Dimming Of The Day (Richard Thompson)
Travelling Shoes (Vera Hall Ward)
All Blues Hail Mary (Joe Henry)
Charlie Darwin (The Low Anthem)

Great song choices. Do I want to hear Tom Jones sing them?
Answer: Save Me, Jesus (Bobby Charles)

The Sound Of Dobell’s
“Every Jazz fan is born within the sound of Dobell’s!”
An email from Leon Parker, announcing the launch of his resource dedicated to Britain’s hugely influential Record Shops. Charlie Gillett introduced us because of Doug Dobell’s shops on Charing Cross Road (which my dad Bill built, and where I worked as a teenager). There are some nice reminiscences on the site (to which more will hopefully be added) and I particularly liked Rob Hall’s: “It was an ambition of mine to own all the albums featured on the bags they used.” Bill had selected the albums and had them photographed by an advertising photographer he knew in Soho, who shot it on lith film for better reproduction. Accidental design, it still looks good today.

Pic(k) Of The Week
“Sometimes, if I crave silence I turn to my Land 250. The experience of taking Polaroids connects me with the moment. They are souvenirs of a joyful solitude.” Patti Smith.
I thought that maybe I’d lost this, a sweet souvenir from an installation at Fondation Cartier in Paris that “reflected 40 years of her more personal visual art-making and creative expression,” but it turned up this week. And it will never be used in anger, of course.

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