Wednesday, June 12th

{ONE} A FEW THINGS ABOUT MARTIN SCORSESE’S NETFLIX FILM, “ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY
“It was more fun than the law allows, by a long shot. There were genius writers everywhere. It was a bus full of musicians and singers and painters hurtling through the night fueled by White Russians and other things, making a movie, writing songs and playing – on those evenings when we got the mixture right – some of the most incendiary, intense and inspired rock’ n’ roll, before or since. For evidence, please see the version of “Isis.” Check out Dylan’s reading of, “If you want me to, yes.” That was about it for me. That “yes” encapsulated all of it. The joy, the shock, the anger, the lust, the mirth, the bewilderment, the almost derangement of the whole ride.”
– T-Bone Burnett, one of the Revue guitarists

Watch it, it’s a hoot – brilliant and funny, and you can believe what you want to. Think back to Dylan’s playful press conferences – even now he has the ability to wrong-foot or con the audience, he’s just doing it here with Scorsese’s help. It makes no difference if the Sharon Stone bit is invented, or the Argentinian filmmaker doesn’t really exist. If you remember Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s political mockumentary, Tanner ’88, then the politician interviewed about Dylan’s closeness to President Jimmy Carter won’t be a surprise. It’s safe to say that no conventional film studio would have gone for this, but that’s what Netflix brings to the table. So here are a few great moments from Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.

1 “Isis”. Scarlet Rivera’s limo driver says that he’d never really been to a rock show, before noting that the relationship between those on the stage and those in the audience was like “one battery charging another”, a neat way of conveying the excitement felt by the audience at being in such intimate spaces seeming to spur on the performers to reach some kind of ecstasy. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the mighty performance of “Isis” captured here, transformed from a rather plain, loping, piano-driven tune to an excessive, expressive romp. With no guitar (a Patti Smith inspired move) Dylan in white-face makeup gives it the full David Bowie (while, amusingly, Mick Ronson struts and solos behind him).

2 Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg went from being part of the first shows to being bumped off-stage as the running time needed to be cut, by a lot. He continues on tour, hilariously reading Kaddish to a group of mahjong-playing women, who just happened to be in the same hotel as the Revue (they’re then treated to Dylan and band romping through “Simple Twist of Fate” in an almost “Pub Singer” style). What’s great about Ginsberg is that when the camera alights on him, he sums up what’s happening and what it may mean, in gorgeous poetic sentences.

3 “Like stations in some relay…” Among the extraordinary Bob performances nestles something equally stunning. We’re at Gordon Lightfoot’s house in Toronto, walking up darkened stairs before being ushered into a living room. Seated with guitars are Roger McGuinn, Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Joni proceeds to teach them the chords sequence that she wants them to play. When she’s satisfied that they’re not going to fuck it up, she starts… “No regrets, Coyote / We just come from such different sets of circumstances / I’m up all night in the studios / And you’re up early on your ranch…”

She delivers it drop-dead perfectly. She’s just written it about Sam Shepherd, who’s along for the ride to write a film that’s being shot as the tour winds its way up the Northeast coast of America. He’d was invited to join up, so he dropped what he was doing (setting up a horse ranch in California) and caught a train (won’t fly, not since “Mexico, 1963”) to New York. If you like the film, his Rolling Thunder Logbook is a great companion piece.

4 Turning 180º from the big-boned performances and the blustering stadiums of Tour ’74, where even the acoustic performances are bellowed, here, in the gipsy caravan of RTR, “Mister Tambourine Man” is given a beautiful reading, every line caressed and shaped and caught in amazing close-up by David Myers’ lens.

5 The whipcrack of Howie Wyeth’s snare in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. Wyeth and bassist Rob Stoner (the MD of the whole shebang) are the MVPs of the Revue, providing a brilliant rhythmic and melodic platform for everyone to swan-dive off. Stoner does outrageous melodic walks up and down the neck while never missing an accent or a root note to anchor everything again. Wyeth, a student of orchestral percussion, plays the songs, commenting on the lyrics as he goes. In Sam Shepherd’s words, “Wyeth’s jackhammer drums are splitting the four-four time into smithereens. He has a right hand that’s not to be believed. It comes down on the accent and then plays half a dozen little cluster strokes in between striking two or three cymbals for added color. A drummer like this usually goes totally unnoticed, since he lacks the obvious flash of the more athletic types – Howie sits there like he’s driving a ’58 Impala, cruising down the highway.” Joni Mitchell intended to visit for one show, but stayed for the remaining 15, partly because, she said, “Howie Wyeth’s soul is so beautiful.”

The end titles list every gig, by years, that Dylan has played since the Revue’s tours. It’s astonishing…

{TWO} EAZY DOES IT
It seems that the Eazy-E bench in Newhaven [for the earlier story go here] is not an unalloyed hit. But it has produced a classic local paper story. The Argus reports.

One angry resident said he was “truly shocked and outraged” by the decision to allow the bench. William Bartoli told the council: “You are all responsible for polluting our cherished town. I would have applauded Guy Stevens’ interest, and hard work in raising the funds, until I discovered it was a shrine to a drug-dealing rapper whose many song titles included ‘F*** the Police’.” He raged: “Would I get permission to have a memorial bench for Jimmy Savile? I think not.”

In response, Councillor Pinky McLean said that the bench was “a project of passion from a local taxpayer. Although we may not agree with lyrics that this American man wrote, there are many music legends who have not lived a truly wholesome life and recorded songs and lyrics that offend. But they are just humans. Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright was too. He was just a man who has been remembered on a bench and, while not everyone’s cup of tea, made many, many people happy.”

Mr Stevens, who campaigned for the bench, said: “I’d encourage everyone to get a bench of a dead rapper in their town.” Unveiling the bench, Town Mayor Amy said: “I would like to see a John Lennon bench – that was more my era. After looking up Eazy -E on the internet, I am now an expert on gangster rap. His LP Straight Outta Compton was rated as one of the best ever made, and for me, that’s fascinating, because I didn’t have a clue who he was.”


{THREE} LEE KRASNER
Thanks to Caroline and Bill, we went to the opening of Lee Krasner: Living Colour. “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.” It’s a great show, especially the early-to-mid work that the brutalist Barbican space really suits. When MoMa had an exhibition of the paintings of her husband, Jackson Pollock in 1998, they released a CD of music drawn from the Jazz 78s found in his studio. As it’s 2019, The Barbican has made a Spotify playlist for Lee, and it’s very cool.


{FOUR} THERE’S A LOT OF TALENT OUT THERE…

The ingenuity of folk knows no bounds – here’s four people with a strange band name (Walk off the Earth), some loose change, drinking glasses and giant handbells, playing my new favourite song, Lil Nas’ “Old Town Road.”


{FIVE} B.B. KING – LIFE OF RILEY
A sombre, serious portrait that ends up being less celebratory than it could be, and more melancholy. It’s on Netflix now, and beautifully directed by Jon Brewer, but I felt it needed less of the talking heads and a few more of B.B.’s milestone performances. One nugget, though, was an interesting story about his aversion to playing acoustic guitars. Eric Clapton had asked B.B. to make an album with him (2000’s Riding With the King)…

Eric Clapton: I thought the best thing to do – we’ll go into the room with a couple of guitars and see what comes out…
B.B. King: I said, “Whatever you think is good we’ll try it”, and we did, and he was right, except trying to make me play acoustic – I didn’t like that… [laughs] I had been cut all to pieces by a guy called Alexis Korner. Alexis Korner said, “B, I got two Martin guitars, acoustic guitars and I got an idea for something called “Alexis Boogie”, so let’s try it…” Boy, when we started recording, he just cut me to pieces. I said, I’ll never play another [acoustic] as long as you’re alive [laugh] and I didn’t! I promised I wouldn’t do it again, but now Alexis is dead I’ll try it. And Eric did the same thing, cut me to pieces!

Wednesday 18th February

OH GOD, NOT THEM AGAIN…
I forgot to mention this last week. Anyone see, for some unfathomable reason, Kasabian open the BAFTA’s? The BAFTA’s (a name I can’t now hear without Jennifer Saunders as Clarice Starling pronouncing it “Bafders” in the French & Saunders Silence Of The Lambs spoof years ago) keep looking endlessly, enviously, westwards as the years pass, as they position themselves as Oscar’s Mini-Me. And they’ve noticed that the Oscars kick off with a musical number, right? Except, on the Academy Awards night it’s a specially written “musical” number, that catalogues, critiques and generally cocks a snook at the nominated films. That’s not how BAFTA see it, obviously. This year… (drum roll)… please welcome (another drum roll)… British Rock Giants… (cheering and clapping, more drum rolls, possibly some eye rolling)… Kasabian! Dear God. I know that if I think of British Film, I’m always put in mind of the Poundshop Primal Scream that are Leicester’s famous sons. I mean, aren’t you? And shame on Stephen Fry for calling them “The Amazian Kasabian”, whilst undoubtedly thinking nothing of the sort. I hope.

A QUITE-LIKED QUOTE
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: What I’ve Learned, US Esquire: “I see only one requirement you have to have to be a director, or any kind of artist: rhythm. Rhythm, for me, is everything. Without rhythm, there’s no music. Without rhythm, there’s no cinema. Without rhythm, there’s no architecture. The cosmos is a system of rhythms that come in many ways: Images. Sounds. Colors. Vibrations… and if you don’t get that, if you don’t have that, it’s impossible to do something that vibrates. You can have the craft, the knowledge, the information, the tools, even the ideas – but if you don’t have rhythm, you are fucked.”

VISUAL OF THE WEEK
This Twen spread, shot by Robert Freeman, designed by Willy Fleckhaus, found on MagCulture.

Twen1

SOMETHING I LEARNED 1
As Don McLean prepares to sell, on April 7, the 16 pages of notes that became “American Pie” for somewhere just south of $1,000,000 according to a Christie’s estimate, I thought of the only piece I ever had in Mojo magazine. It was for a regular column called “What do you mean you’ve never heard of…?” and my chosen subject was the ghostly Paul Griffin. The man who saved “American Pie”, after various attempts to record it had failed. McLean: “And then this piano player named Paul Griffin, who had worked with Bob Dylan, started running “American Pie” down, and he played the ass off that song. It just started bouncing all over the place. He really pumped the thing and drove it. And with my guitar in his ear, and him jumping around on the piano, it came together. Once I put the vocal on, it became a very hot record.” Not forgetting Rob Stoner’s great bass playing, of course…

I wanted to find him as he’d played some of the greatest piano parts in rock, and I tried for weeks to get in touch with him, calling numbers given to me by, I think, Chris Welch at Music Sales. Various family members would answer, promising that if I called at 2pm he’d be there, but it didn’t happen. Anyway, I cobbled something together, and while looking for it yesterday, found a wonderful letter online, from Jonathan Singer to the New York Daily News in 1999, archived on the steely Dan website (Paul was the only musician ever given a co-credit by Becker & Fagen). He wanted them to write a piece to get Paul’s hospital treatment paid for. I make no apology for running so much from it. It’s just so fascinating. Here are some excerpts:

“Think of the organ intro to Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now”… the gospel piano behind Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, and Don McLean’s “American Pie”… the tack piano on B.J.Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”… Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”… Paul Simon’s “Tenderness” from There Goes Rhymin” Simon – these all feature Paul Griffin at the keyboard.

“But if any one producer monopolized Griffin, it was Burt Bacharach. From Dionne Warwick’s first records; “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Walk On By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart” – if Bacharach/David wrote it, then Paul Griffin probably played the piano part. Wait a minute. Bacharach, no slouch as a pianist, gave Paul nearly all of his own piano parts to play? “Do you know why he did that?” Griffin asked. “Because Burt used to love to come into the studio and conduct. That’s why he gave me those parts to play.”

“Other musicians might have kept quiet about Bacharach’s idiosyncrasies and just let their own legend grow. Not Griffin. Try to compliment him on that little organ part for Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” and he humbly smiles away the accolade. “A Bert Keyes arrangement,” he says, proud to give credit where credit is due.

“Griffin was so knocked-out by Aretha Franklin’s piano playing, that he refused to play on the session for “Think.” “They wanted me to play that [piano] intro she does. I said, “No way! That’s her !” Then again, Griffin was playing with Aretha three years before Atlantic signed her; when Clyde Otis cut her for Columbia.

“Paul Griffin’s most extraordinary – and often uncredited – work with Bob Dylan occurred on January 25, 1966. There has always been some confusion about the players on this first New York session for Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Because the album was finished a few months later in Nashville, the album lists only the Nashville musicians. The two New York sessions, the first of which produced “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” are frequently credited to members of the Band. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson might have played bass and guitar on one of the New York sessions. But just a single listening erases any doubt about who played piano. Al Kooper, who played organ at the session, remembers Paul well. “The piano playing on “One of Us Must Know” is quite magnificent,” Kooper told writer Andy Gill. “It influenced me enormously as a pianist. It’s probably Paul Griffin’s finest moment.”

“Griffin’s playing on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is reminiscent of what he would play five years later on “American Pie” – but even more brilliant in its intensity and improvisation. The song is an emotional confession of misconnects and apologies from the singer to some woman who has tragically slipped out of his life. Griffin gives the song its tragic depth – and height. He picks his way sensitively through the verses; but at other times, he prowls beneath the words with Judgement and an ominous gospel lick that he stokes until he has climbed to the verse’s peak. At the chorus, Griffin unleashes a symphony; hammering his way up and down the keyboard, half-Gershwin, half-gospel, all heart. The follow-up, a killer left hand figure that links the chorus to the verse, releases none of the song’s tension. Then, on the last chorus, not content to repeat the same brilliant part, Griffin’s playing is so breathtaking, and so completely embodies the lyric, that he enters into some other dimension. For several seconds, on one of Dylan’s best songs, Griffin makes Dylan seem almost earthbound. “It’s great, two-fisted, gospel piano playing,” Kooper says, “played with the utmost of taste.”

“Paul Griffin doesn’t remember it. He’s momentarily bewildered, almost apologetic for not recalling something others hold so dear. The part was probably something he’d heard in Paradise Baptist church at least a hundred times before. But do not mistake an isolated, fuzzy memory for a moment that he is unaware of. He is well aware of this music’s significance – in Paul Griffin’s life.

“The sound that you hear is the sound of gratitude,” he says simply. “If it wasn’t for music, I don’t know what would have become of me. I’d had a lot of jobs – I was a cutter in the garment district, I delivered groceries for a supermarket – but nothing with any kind of future. So, what you hear is the sound of being thankful… for being able to play… for being tapped to play on a session [Dylan’s] like that… thankful… as if I’d been saved from something horrible.”

“Several months after this conversation, Paul came down with pneumonia. Over the last year, he’s been in and out of the hospital. Then, a few weeks ago, doctors told him he needed a liver transplant. After a lifetime in music, “something horrible” yet threatens to overtake Paul Griffin, and he and his family wait. Would it not be fitting and wonderful if some of the artists, musicians and executives who so appreciated Paul while his smile lit up a session and his playing lit up their hearts, could now raise up as one and help him. Even the listening public – anyone who remembers all those Shirelles records, Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now,” “American Pie,” or the first exquisite twenty seconds of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Anyone, in fact, who, like Don McLean, can still remember how that music used to make them smile…” – Jonathan Singer

SOMETHING I LEARNED 2
And, of course, looking for all this stuff, in the way of the web I run across something else… Chip Taylor’s Rock & Roll Joe site, dedicated to the unsung heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll. Where they know Paul Griffin’s name. Seriously – a place you could lose some time looking round.

ON THE PLAYLIST THIS WEEK
Say goodbye to Lesley Gore, singer of cracking songs in the Sixties. Just check out Ms Gore singing “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964, where the director has filtered the lens and shot in extreme close-up, for a brilliant modern-as-tomorrow look. Here’s a song I always liked from her last album, in 2005, recorded and written with Blake Morgan, where the quality of angels is called into question, as if she was Philip Marlowe, perhaps – “Oh I’m waiting for better angels/Oh I’m waiting, for any lead/Though my case looks fatal/I’m still hoping better angels come to me…”

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