Saturday, May 30, 2009

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, Bob Dylan (1963)

"The learning process for artists of all stripes usually follows the path of imitate, assimilate, then innovate. If an artist is struck by something in his or her chosen art form, there is an all-consuming desire to absorb everything about it. During the process of assimilation the artist's output will be an imitation of the beloved form. In the end, for the uniquely gifted, there will be innovation." - Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin' Time

There are many reasons why living the creative life isn't for the faint of heart. One of them is, especially if you're particularly prolific, that sooner or later you will be accused of ripping someone else off.

I just finished reading A Freewheelin' Time, the memoir by former Bob Dylan sweetheart Suze Rotolo (pictured above). I recommend it to anyone who is a Dylan enthusiast and/or is interested in the Greenwich Village folk scene in its heyday and the politics of the early 60s - it's a fascinating read. It's been on my list for awhile so I whipped through it in honor of Bob's 68th birthday last weekend (!). Yeah, he's 68, people.

One of the many worthy songs from his second album - recorded during the height of Dylan's relationship with Rotolo - is Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. This painfully stark song shines a light on the awful ambivalence one experiences when a relationship is crumbling and will probably end because the necessary foundation for its survival is too compromised.

Dylan composed the song while he was with Rotolo during the time that she had exiled herself indefinitely in Italy studying art. It was not clear when she would return to him - although she did, for awhile - and Rotolo writes that Dylan, while coaxing her to return in lovestruck letter after lovestruck letter, was publicly spreading bile among their friends about how this defection was adversely affecting him. I saw at least one book reference that Rotolo's successor, Joan Baez, later dueted with Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, apparently introducing the song in some thinly veiled uncharitable terms while Rotolo was in the audience. Living under that microscope was one of many reasons Rotolo did not feel she could continue in the relationship.

According to various sources, Dylan is alleged to have lifted some of the backbone of Don't Think Twice from Paul Clayton, a friend and fellow folkie, who recorded Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I'm Gone) in 1960. Litigation ensued, during which Clayton's song was demonstrated to be similar to a traditional song in the public domain, possibly originating with Marybird McAllister, called Who's Gonna Buy You Chickens When I'm Gone. No harm, no fowl, I guess. Although there seem to be a lot of people who feel Dylan has been, through his career, deficient in giving credit where credit is due, in Cameron Crowe's liner notes to 1985's Biograph, Dylan does acknowledge the "riff" being Clayton's (by then, he had long since died, however).

I don't pretend to know anything about how intellectual property is protected in the music industry. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to prove many claims that are made, however. Art being art, and if it has left the confines of one's solitary conjuring of it, is inherently susceptible to morphing into new organisms. As my friend Wade opined last week on the same topic, artists who've built on works that went before "... weren't ripping anybody off - they were just contributing to the communal mosaic, seeing connections where nobody else saw them." (And he's a lawyer!) That is the folk tradition, after all. I guess if you're Bob Dylan, others' judgments will forever be projected upon you.

Check out this electric version of Don't Think Twice with Bob and Eric Clapton! Depending on which comment you read on YouTube, in true Rashomonesque fashion, this took place either at Madison Square Garden in 1999 or Carnegie Hall in 2004.

I'll end with a great Dylan quote from an article in the November 2008 issue of Uncut, in which Bob is asked by one of his sound engineers, Chris Shaw, after hearing a completely reinvented version of It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), whether he ever plays it like the original recording. And Bob replies: "Well, y'know, a record is just a recording of what you were doing that day. You don't wanna live the same day over and over again, now. Do ya?"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

You Were On My Mind, We Five (1965)

Well, this is disconcerting. I don't believe I knew that We Five had a girl lead singer until now. I think I'm the only one who didn't.

But there's so much about the great wound-licking song You Were On My Mind that I didn't know, like who wrote it and where the We Five were from (were they part of the British Invasion? No.) The songwriter was Sylvia Fricker Tyson, half of the Canadian folk duet Ian and Sylvia. We Five, fronted by Beverly Bivens, hailed from San Francisco - before the city became a hotbed of psychedelia.

And while I was oblivious to the fact that this wasn't an all-boy harmony combo, half the male teen universe lusted after the the ebullient Ms. Bivens (she is darling, isn't she, and check out Fred Astaire, of all people, introducing them!), or so says the YouTube commentosphere.

I often talk about constructing the definitive list of best song intros, but there's also a need for a compilation of best song outros, and this would definitely be one of them. Contralto Bivens' range was from low tenor to high soprano. Yes, that could explain it. So why did I think it was a guy? I cannot hear those last six crescendo-ing seconds without getting chills - and I love that I can match my voice to hers pretty darn well. What a feeling.

We Five was formed by Michael Stewart, brother of the Kingston Trio's John Stewart, while he and Bivens were college students. Herb Alpert, who founded A&M Records, heard the quintet performing and signed them. Bivens was thought to be a groundbreaker; her powerhouse voice anticipates the other West Coast female lead singers that followed her - Grace Slick, Cass Elliot, Spanky McFarlane. I found a Billboard cover online that pronounced their discovery as "the most important advance of vocal and instrumental talent in the last 20 years," and described them as the innovators of a sound called "thought and soul." What in the hell was that?

Whatever it was, it didn't last, and Bev Bivens left the group after only two albums, the second of which wasn't even released until she had already departed. Her much-lamented exodus seems to have coincided with her marriage to Fred Marshall, one of the Vince Guaraldi Trio that created those addictive soundtracks for the Peanuts specials.

For a period of time, Bivens and Marshall were part of an avant-garde musical collective called Light Sound Dimension that may have been the first purveyor of psychedelic light shows. The late music critic and Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason on LSD (yeah, that's right, LSD): "... the images are remarkable in their diversification ... accompanied by the improvised music which at times reaches the intensity of a cosmic upheaval ..." There have been persistent rumors that Bivens had died, but they appear to have no basis.

There is a vocal contingent that considers the original version of You Were On My Mind to be a classic; it appeared with nothing more than an autoharp and a Martin D-28 on Ian and Sylvia's Northern Journey LP. This much later performance of it after they had long since stopped performing together apparently was not a good representation of the original, and in any case is quite different from We Five's interpretation. But wait, there's more! Ian and Sylvia were part of a country-rock group called Great Speckled Bird which rocked out to yet another version of the song. A documentary called Festival Express features them with the Bird - and the Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin and a slew of other musicians - on a whistlestop tour across Canada. Ah, those were the days.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is She Really Going Out With Him?, Joe Jackson (1979)

Is she really going out with him?
Is she really gonna take him home tonight?
Is she really going out with him?
Cause if my eyes don't deceive me
There's something going wrong around here

This is a fine, fine example of blowing the doors off a done-to-death theme (romantic disappointment) in music. It's such a simple ditty but the effort Joe Jackson puts into Is She Really Going Out With Him? to freshen it up is impressive. When it hit the charts (billed as New Wave - and what is that, really?), I remember being struck by it from the first. Who doesn't love an original take on what it feels like to be on the short end of the stick when everyone seems to be more good-looking than you are?

I confess I knew nothing substantial about Jackson until I began this post. He's been kind of hiding in plain sight for decades, though. The music industry, with its pathological need to categorize everything, has never been able to get a bead on him because of his pervasive eclecticism, which apparently stems from his multi-nuanced musical background. So there's a ton of music out there, I'm finding, of which I was completely unaware. It's good - and it's not genre-specific.

I started wondering what became of him after I wrote a post about Todd Rundgren, wherein during the course of my research I discovered the two of them performing While My Guitar Gently Weeps on Conan O'Brien with the string combo Ethel. Oh my; see it while you can - it made my head explode.

Hailing from modest beginnings in working class Britain, Jackson decided early in life that he wanted to be a composer. He particularly favored classical music as well as jazz, and took piano lessons on a secondhand piano his parents bought him. He was a bit of an outcast due to frequent ill health, a contemplative nature and musical interests that were perceived to be way beyond his station in life. But being no snob, just a lover of music in general, he developed talents for more popular styles of music as well. He began playing piano in a pub when he was 16.

Having earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, Jackson was able to study composition, orchestration and piano and major in percussion. It seems like he was always in a band of one kind or another, but he dreamed of having his own, and through sheer perseverance he did end up with the recording contract that ultimately brought his talents to a wider audience. The various milestones of his composing, recording and performing career since the days when he broke out would make your head spin. Read about it here if you have some time to kill.

In 1999, Jackson wrote A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage, in which he tells the story of how a passion for music in all its forms saved him from becoming "one of those sad bastards you see milling around outside the pub at closing time, looking for a fight." From all reviews I've read, this is a heartfelt memoir on what a life devoted to being a serious musician (not to being a star) is like and everyone seems to rave about it. It's on the reading list.

He seems to enjoy writing as much as he does music, by the way. On Jackson's website I discovered that he's a bit of a thought leader on the subject of societal pushes to curtail smoking; his entertaining 20-page thesis on this topic is entitled Smoking, Lies and the Nanny State. Ever the iconoclast!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

You Should Be Dancing, Bee Gees (1976)

Oh, don't tell me you don't love this song; you know you do.

The week You Should Be Dancing was #1 on the charts, the other four artists in the Top 5 were Lou Rawls, Wings, England Dan & John Ford Coley and K.C. & the Sunshine Band. I feel a certain nausea just thinking about it.

The Bee Gees never affected me that way. They were innately talented musicians who marched to the beat of their own drum (in this case a conga drum!), which had been obvious since their chilling 1967 debut with New York Mining Disaster 1941. The offspring of a bandleader/drummer father and singer mother, the Gibbs brothers, who were born on the Isle of Man and grew up in Australia and England, were not schooled in music. But their abilities manifested themselves early in life; before they reached the double digits in age, they had a band called the Rattlesnakes, and always wrote their own material.

As they became famous around the world, they displayed chameleon qualities for sure, slipping into contemporary genres but putting their own unique stamp onto them. Long known for sometimes heavy-handed ballads in three-part harmony, in 1975 - apparently advised to do so by Eric Clapton - they came across the pond and began working with producer Arif Mardin at Atlantic Records, where they incorporated r&b influences into their work.

This proved a wise move as the whitened funk we called "disco" flourished, making it clear that rhythmic, club-oriented dance music was going to be a dominant force for the foreseeable future. It was during this time that Barry Gibb, who hadn't always sung in falsetto, began to do so. Nights on Broadway was the first hit with that added element.

Although many people will associate You Should Be Dancing with a certain unforgettable John Travolta disco dance scene, the fact is it was a hit well before anyone had heard of a soundtrack or movie called Saturday Night Fever. The kids on American Bandstand used to rate highly the songs that "had a good beat and you can dance to it." Written by Barry with his twin brothers Maurice and Robin, You Should Be Dancing feels like a song that could make the lame walk again. Who needs faith healers, shrinks or selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitors when you've got a bass line like this?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Turn! Turn! Turn!, Byrds (1965)

While I'm on the subject of harmony groups one of whose members later joined Crosby, Stills & Nash, and since it's Pete Seeger's 90th birthday tomorrow, I might as well give the high five to my favorite Seeger song, the Byrds' version of Turn! Turn! Turn!

It was pretty well known at the time that the song was adapted from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes by Seeger, which was quite odd for that time - or any time, really. Somehow in its mellow and melodious presentation, and with America's involvement in the war in Vietnam beginning with a vengeance, it all worked. Other than minor edits and changes in the order of certain words, the most significant revision Seeger made to the Biblical text was the "I swear it's not too late" that followed "a time for peace." He describes how it came about here.

Interesting how it got in the hands of the Byrds. When guitar virtuoso Jim aka "Roger" McGuinn was a mere slip of a boy - well a teenager actually - he was accomplished enough from playing acoustically in Chicago coffee houses to be asked to accompany the then-popular folk trio the Limeliters, who were based in L.A. but saw him perform during a visit to the area.

Although probably a natural talent, McGuinn studied hard to become proficient in the guitar and acquire a comprehensive grounding in the folk repertoire, enrolling in the Old Town School of Folk Music, where the Chicago folk music community congregated, and where he learned guitar from future Weaver Frank Hamilton. This served as his platform for subsequently mastering the 5-string banjo and his signature 12-string.

After he graduated from high school, he moved to California and for a time did work as an accompanist for the Limeliters, then for the Chad Mitchell Trio, and yet later for Bobby Darin. No slouch, he. During an interval when Darin retired temporarily from performing due to losing his voice, McGuinn was asked to work as a songwriter for Darin's music publishing company in the Brill Building in New York. In fact, McGuinn credits Darin with showing him the ropes of being a successful performer.

Moving on from there, McGuinn then recorded with the Irish Ramblers, Hoyt Axton and Simon and Garfunkel when they were still called the generic Tom & Jerry. What does any of this have to do with Turn! Turn! Turn!, the song McGuinn has said he would want to play on his 12-string Rickenbacker if he could only play one other song before he dies? I'm getting to that!

During this period, McGuinn arranged and played on Judy Collins' version of Seeger's song. Seeger had written it in 1959 and there is a 1962 recording of it on a rare live album from a Bitter End performance, Bitter and the Sweet. In due time McGuinn returned to California, intent upon establishing a solo career. He soon caught the eye of Gene Clark who, like him, felt that melding folk with the new rock beat that had blown in from England was the only response to the British Invasion's challenge to the folk music movement. Throw in young David Crosby, and soon the first three Byrds took off, later joined by Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke.

Happy birthday Pete!

Friday, May 1, 2009

I Can't Let Go, Hollies (1966)

Oh I tried and I tried but I can't say good-bye/Feel so bad baby, oh it hurts me/When I think of how you love and desert me/I'm the broken-hearted toy you play with/You got me goin', I need you baby/I can't let go and I want you baby/I gotta have all your love, I can't let go

In the annals of those songs that depict just how pathetic one can be when on the losing end of love, no one served it up better than the Hollies did with I Can't Let Go. Pop music has never had a shortage of these basket case-type songs, but the Hollies' otherworldly high harmonies made misery sound positively alluring.

Somewhat underrated in comparison to other British Invasion groups, the Hollies were the consummate singles band, their songs almost freakishly stimulating from their upbeat three-part harmonies. I've read in several places that Paul McCartney thought Graham Nash's high note at the end of each chorus in I Can't Let Go was a trumpet! The song is also notable for its fabulous "I know that it's wrong and I should be so strong but the thought of you gone makes me want to hold on" bridge. Great production all the way around.

Another one of those songs that many people, including myself, probably assume was a group original, actually a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based singer named Evie Sands had that distinction the previous year. Sands was allegedly Dusty Springfield's favorite singer. Never heard of her, but what a unique interpretation of the Al Gorgoni-Chip Taylor composition (Taylor, aka James Wesley Voight, uncle of Angelina Jolie) also wrote the Troggs' Wild Thing and Merrilee Rush's Angel of the Morning). Taylor is an interesting figure in the industry to this day - check out this interview to see how many artists he's touched and been influenced by.

Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks, who had a 12-string solo in this, discovered Taylor's song as a demo, and while it wasn't a huge hit in the U.S., in the U.K. it soared to #2. Somehow I remember it very vividly and it's great to discover it again.