Friday, August 9th

{INTRO} SINCE WINSTON CHURCHILL WAS NO LONGER AVAILABLE…Why does the line “The new Captain Bligh / on the new ship of fools” keep running through my mind this week? It’s from Gil Scott-Heron’s nonpareil “B Movie” of course, his incredible dissection of Ronald Reagan’s effect on the state of America. It is full of indelible images, playing off Reagan’s past as a cowboy actor, the “Voodoo Economics’ of George “Papa Doc” Bush Snr, the Madison Avenue sales job. It’s full of lines like “Racism’s up / Human Rights are down / Peace is shaky / War items are hot…” How’s this for nailing Brexit? “The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia / They want to go back as far as they can… / Even if it’s only as far as last week / Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards…”

I’m posting this just before fleeing to Marseille (not in a Country Joe, “Air Algiers” kind of way – you know, “I hopped on a plane / Oakland, New York / Oakland, New York / New York to Marseille…”). We are not going to the Casbah to cool it for a couple of years, we are not on the run from the FBI, our pictures have not been put on the Post Office walls. We are merely staying in Bédoin, a small town at the base of Mont Ventoux (there’s a plaque in the square in memory of British cyclist Tom Simpson, who collapsed and died near the peak, placed by journalists following the 1967 Tour de France).

{ONE} BETTY WRIGHT AT THE BARBICAN
I went with my old soul mucker, Mark. This is Mark’s take on what occurred: “Well, she was fabulous. Despite the best efforts of the couple sat next to me, who were more interested in scrolling through pictures on his phone during a particularly sensitive musical moment, and quite the most gormless MC who did his best to wreck the end of the show. Oddly, “Shoorah, Shoorah” was the weakest moment, but she played a bunch of songs I’d never heard which were fabulous. It didn’t feel remotely revivalist; in fact, she seemed utterly contemporary. And she was charm itself – never taking herself too seriously, funny as fuck, just a delight.”

And, although “Shoorah, Shoorah” didn’t work (it was the one New Orleans track in a Miami playlist) another Allen Toussaint anthem – “Everything I do Gohn (sic) be Funky” – summed up her exceptional band. The audience responded in kind.

{TWO} JOHN SIMON’S BOOK
“John Simon has always been one of our most musical producers, a mix of musical and social skills. Part arranger, part psychiatrist, part instrumentalist, part pure music lover, part camp counsellor.” – John Sebastian

Bob Lefsetz mentioned John Simon’s book, A Memoir of a Musical Life in and out of Rock and Roll, in one of his letters, so I sent off for a copy as I’d always been fascinated by the part he played in so many interesting careers, from Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen to Joplin, Taj Mahal, Gil Evans and The Band. It’s a great read (even if it’s littered with typos and is poorly designed) and I thoroughly recommend it. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff about the period of change from Tin Pan Alley to Flower Power – here’s a couple of excerpts…

On Fake Books. The first rock n roll song I ever played? “Shake Rattle and Roll”. I went with Dave Poe to far-off, exotic Bridgeport and we bought the sheet music in a music store. We learned songs from these little song collection books called “Combo Orks”. They were made for kids just like us. Each was issued by a music publishing house and contained songs solely from their catalogue. But what we really pined for and drooled over were… The Fake Books! These books had over 1000 songs, unlimited by the publishers right to print them and, hence, completely illegal. (if you can imagine that, long before the current climate everything-for-free internet.) These were as unattainable as The Holy Grail for youngsters like us. They were suited for pros because, unlike regular sheet music, each song had only its melody and chord names. From those chord names alone, you had to know how to transform the letters into actual chords that sounded good. It wasn’t until after college when I arrived in NYC that I managed to purchase my own illegal fakebook. It was like a drug buy! I actually had to meet this shady guy in a trenchcoat on the street who, looking left then right, opened up a large black suitcase and handed me volumes 1 and 2 for thirty bucks apiece. Then he was gone in a flash. Those two books continue to serve me well fifty years later.

On Al Kooper. Al has always had a good sense of how to attract attention for publicity. When he was temporarily on staff at Columbia, he wanted to give promotional copies of a record he’d made to DJs and Program Directors and attempted to persuade the Promotion Department to hire Andre The Giant to do it (literally a huge celebrity). Al tells me it didn’t work out because Andre couldn’t fit in a taxi.

On working on The Band. The guys in the band were so inherently musical that they found picking up a new instrument and making music on it natural, challenging and fun. Levon was always open to suggestions and to learning something new, always humble, never haughty. We imagined a mandolin part for “Rockin’ Chair”, but there were more chords required than 99% of mandolin players would ever be asked to play. So he and I sat down in facing chairs to figure it out. It remains one of my favourite memories of working with Levon. We each knew something the other didn’t know. I heard some chords that he didn’t know. He could play the mandolin better than I could. So together we figured out unconventional mandolin hand positions for chords that would fit the song.

And this nugget, a tale from VU and Dylan legend, Tom Wilson. One of his former mentors was a doo-wop producer. He wrote down all the doo-wop background nonsense syllables he used, like “shebang, shebang” or “whoop-whoop” and kept them filed alphabetically in a little box to make sure he didn’t use them again.

{THREE} SWOON RIVER
Jacob Collier’s 140 guest voices (and 5,000 of his own) on a version of “Moon River” is, um, impressive. But he’s no Richard Carpenter, Senator. Every time that someone covers this indelible Mancini / Mercer song (Frank Ocean most lately) they do too much to it, slathering it in syrup. For me, nothing has ever come close to the gut string guitar and simple reading of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Fun fact: Mancini and Mercer worked on the song in different towns. After Mancini had the melody, he sent it to Mercer, who wrote the lyrics. They played it for the first time in the empty ballroom of the Beverly Wiltshire Hotel in Los Angeles.

{FOUR} IN BEATLES ABBEY ROAD WEEK…
Did you ever see this, the climax of the woeful Bee Gee musical inspired by Sgt Pepper? It is insane to think that all of these people were in the same place at the same time. Watch it and weep, mostly with laughter.

{FIVE} A SMALL ROUND UP…
Oh, Pet… Excellent wide-ranging interview with Petula Clark by Elle Hunt in The Guardian about her astonishing career. I’ve always loved the fact that she recorded a nice electro-ish chill out track aged 80. It’s called “Cut Copy Me” and can be found here.

Oh, Ashley… Bill Bradshaw, writing at onthewight.com. “Fifty years after Bob Dylan made his now-legendary appearance at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, the great troubadour has made a remarkable gesture to a new festival about to honour the anniversary. It means a previously unpublished and unheard Dylan composition will be heard exclusively for the first time at the Million Dollar Bash festival on the Isle of Wight on Saturday, 31st August. Now Dylan has made contact with Million Dollar Bash’s curator, Ashley Hutchings MBE – a founder member of Fairport Convention – to pass on a special poem. Hutchings has put together a one-off band, Dylancentric, to pay tribute to Dylan’s songs and assembled a high-class bill for the special event, including folk-rock legend, Richard Thompson. Hutchings, described by Bob Dylan as “the single most important figure in English folk-rock”, was contacted by his mentor as he called together the band for rehearsals. Hutchings said that Dylan’s messages also indicated he acknowledged the hard work going into the Bash’s salute to his 1969 appearance and that he fondly recalled his own time on the Island 50 years ago.

More Band stuff. Barney sends this: “Calling all Band fans (I know there are a few of you out there). A smart young guy named Matt Lodato asked me some great questions about Robbie, Levon, Garth, Rick & Richard… and we ended up having a pretty cool conversation.”

More Country Joe. Here’s Joe’s excellent “Air Algiers”, taken from the 1970 Big Sur Folk Festival, a week of peace ’n’ love, apart from Stephen Stills, who has a fight.

And Finally… Mark (from Betty Wright, above) and I lit in to “Air Algiers” a few years back as part of our Poisonville Project, and did it as a muezzin-inspired electric blues. Find it here.

Wednesday, 3rd December

London Transport Lost Property Office window, Baker Street

Baker Street

Albums (one featuring BB King’s leg, I’m pretty sure) left at Archway in ’69 (disappointing to lose Abbey Road just after you’d just bought it, I’d imagine), and singles, including Harry Belafonte, abandoned on a number 24 bus in ’66.

Killer Serial
Driving from Antwerp to Utrecht we listen to Serial, which is as gripping as everyone says it is. It’s well edited, and the sound and music are really good – due to composers Nick Thorburn and Mark Henry Phillips (who also mixes the show). You’re totally drawn into this murder case from 1999, as Sarah Koenig picks at the court records, talks to the perp on the cell (literally) phone, cold calls players in the case and hires detectives to double check the police work. Highly recommended. As the miles pass I wonder why I recognise the street name that keeps cropping up: Edmondson Avenue. Then I realise that Serial is set in Baltimore, where the dream sequence in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest takes place: “I dreamed I was sitting on a bench, in Baltimore, facing the tumbling fountain in Harlem Park… Fire engines went out Edmonson Avenue.” Mark and I recorded a, um, sound collage version [in the music player on the right] of the excerpt, inspired by an abortive attempt to read Hammett’s short stories into a tape recorder for my mother. I realised pretty quickly that it’s incredibly hard to do, which is why they use actors, who have the discipline and the skill. I took an easier route: just the dream scene over a glitchy soundscape.

Thinking about Dash
James Ellroy on Hammett: “It’s the language of suspicion, alienation and the big grasp for survival. It’s a constant jolt of physical movement and conversation. Hammett’s heroes move and talk, move and talk, move and talk… Red Harvest was published in 1929. It’s a coda to the Boom and a prophecy of the Depression. The Op [Hammett’s detective] witnesses and largely precipitates a hallucinogenic bloodbath in a Montana mining town. He pits labour against management and cops against crooks. He… bluffs his way through uncountable interrogations and acclimatises himself to fatalities in war-zone numbers. He drinks laudanum and wakes up with a woman knifed to death. His actions create a momentary peace in Poisonville. That peace will soon shatter. It doesn’t matter. He’s moved on already…” My brother-in-law once interviewed Ellroy and asked him to sign a book for me, as he knew I was a fan. In a copy of Dick Contino’s Blues, he wrote: “Fear this book! James Ellroy.

Is there another house as famous in Rock Mythology™ as Big Pink?
Nice journey from the Village to the West Saugerties, narrated by Jeff (“Rock and Roll… phew!”) Bridges over “This Wheel’s on Fire”. A more interesting take is here, as Garth Hudson, getting on now, revisits Big Pink’s basement, currently owned by Don & Susan Lasala. It’s great to actually see the inside as it is (and was, pretty much) and there’s a wonderful couple of moments near the end, where Garth does what Garth does, which is play transcendentally beautiful piano. I remember Barney emailing me excitedly in about 1993, sending a realtor’s advert with Big Pink listed at about $275,000. We were, sadly, unable to come up with this amount of money. It remains a great regret of mine.

“Now the lesson is over, and the killing’s begun…”
Taking a cue from the excellent Mogwai soundtrack for French TV Series The Returned, the subtle use of music in The Missing adds layers of meaning to the story. I was reminded of Troy Kennedy Martin using Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher” from Red Headed Stranger in his state of the nation thriller Edge Of Darkness in the 80’s. In The Missing we have multiple Robert Johnson songs (“Me and the Devil”, here in its Gil Scott Heron incarnation, “Sweet Home Chicago” in a cover version heard in a bar, which is dismissed by the creepy pederast Ian, who paints disturbing pictures to Johnson’s epic “Crossroads”). Another thread is French chanson: Aznavour was in last week’s episode, and the part of the French cop Julien is taken by Turkish-born French actor Tchéky Karyo, who has an occasional recording career singing typically French-Middle-Aged-Man songs (rather nicely, I should add). The opening credit theme is by by Belgian post-rock band, Amatorski, (I don’t know any of this stuff, you understand, I’m just saving you the work of looking it up, should you have wanted to). Oh, and the closing song varies: one week, Emiliana Torrini’s crepuscular take on “If You Go Away”, the next Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman”.

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