Belated R.I.P.s: Leonard & Leon

leonard_leonIf all you did was compare the musical styles of Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, both of whom, this past week, sadly departed this world, you might not see all that much in common between the two.

But delve just beneath surface and you find two prolific songwriters acclaimed for their lyrics as much as their music, two songwriters who had long-lasting and wide-ranging influence on other musicians, the latter resulting in their songs having been performed by an astonishing list of their peers.

Just two examples:

Leonard’s Hallelujah: Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, Brandi Carlile, Regina Spektor, Willie Nelson, Susan Boyle, Bono

Leon’s A Song For You: Billy Eckstine, The Carpenters, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, Willie Nelson, Helen Reddy, Whitney Houston, Elkie Brooks, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, Christina Aguilera

Additionally, both Leonard and Leon went through fairly dramatic transformations over the course of their careers:

Leon, from one of the originators of the Tulsa Sound; to a member of the legendary group of Los Angeles session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew, who recorded pop hits by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra and Sonny & Cher to The Monkeys and The Beach Boys; to hippie soul man bandleader, piano and guitar player on Joe Cocker’s epic Mad Dogs & Englishman tour, the album from which I happen to consider the best Rock & Roll live recording ever, and my deep love of which I mention in the obit I wrote upon Joe Cocker’s passing.

Leonard, from published poet and novelist; to folk music singer-songwriter; to elegant elder statesman of sophisticated literary pop music; to Zen monk.

But, of all the things they had in common, my absolute favorite was Leonard’s song Bird on the Wire, the greatest version of which, in my opinion and no surprise given what I said above, comes from Mad Dogs & Englishmen, on which you can hear Leon’s gorgeous, dare I say Liberace-esque, piano playing.

So, thanks Leonard and Leon for all you shared with the world. May all drunks in midnight choirs rejoice in your work!

R.I.P., #GeorgeMartin

Video Fridays: R.I.P. Paul Kantner

Airplane's Paul Kantner At Altamont

Wow, January’s been one helluva month for deaths of musicians and entertainers that I’ve admired, so much so that I haven’t been able to keep up and post my reactions.

I managed to mark the passing of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, but then came Glenn Frey of the The Eagles (not someone I was a big fan of, but a ubiquitous figure who inspired a lot of people to listen to and make music); the lovable actor Abe Vigoda (this time, for sure), cuz face it, who didn’t love him as Fish?; and now, sadly…

Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane/Starship fame.

Kanter, and Jefferson Airplane more generally, were — along with other favorites of mine, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and others — part of the extraordinary late 1960s San Francisco music scene, a scene that produced music of incredibly raw, wild, psychedelic power, thoroughly reflective of the explosive counterculture of the period.

Kanter was an archetypal rhythm guitarist, eschewing the spotlight that lead guitar players naturally attract in favor of playing an essential supportive role. Indeed he, along with a handful of other players, were my inspiration for becoming a rhythm guitarist myself.

One of the first vinyl LP records that I ever owned was the 1970 compilation, with its wonderfully ironic title, The Worst of the Jefferson Airplane, given to me in the mid 1970s by a cousin determined to rescue me from Top 40 music.

Though I listened to the album when I got it, the rescue ended up taking a few years. Eventually, after revisiting the record several years later, it was obvious just how fantastic the music was and how much better it was, by magnitudes, in comparison to most of what was popular at that time.

So, thanks, Paul Kantner, for all of the amazing music, for inspiring me as a musician, and for singing about revolution, still relevant to me today, as the candidate I’m supporting for President of the United States is calling for a non-violent political revolution.

Tweet of the Day: #RIPAlanRickman

Tough, tough week. First David Bowie, now Alan Rickman.

I’m sorry, Alan, that I’m unable to muster the time today to honor you as much as I would prefer, as much as you deserve.

All I have time to say is that I loved your work, from the first time I saw you in the 1991 film Truly, Madly, Deeply, through Sense & Sensibility, Galaxy Quest, the Harry Potter films, of course, Love Actually and Bottle Shock, just to name a few.

You always rang true, regularly stole scenes, showed us the human flaws in the villains you played, and did it all with panache.

Rest in peace Alan, and thanks for the memories.

R.I.P., David Bowie: A Delayed Reaction

david-bowieOk, folks. This post really IS about the death of David Bowie, but I hope you’ll indulge my taking a scenic, time machine route to his obituary.

On a hot Los Angeles, California summer night, July 10, 1989, having just read the New York Times obituary for the famous voice of Bugs Bunny and other Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, I emerged from my room in the 3-bedroom apartment I shared with my two longest-standing friends from back in New Jersey, slowly walked down the hallway, through the living room, and into the dining area, where my friends Mike & Keith were seated, and the following, two-line exchange happened:

Me: I can’t believe Mel Blanc is gone.

Keith: I can’t believe he was here.

Ever since, for over 25 years, whenever someone dies who inspired, influenced, entertained, or was otherwise meaningful to us, either by email or text one of us sends the first line of that dialogue, and it’s a race to see who will first respond with the second line.

And while it may seem strange to crack a joke upon the loss of someone meaningful to us, it was never a reflection of a lack of caring. We’re from New Jersey. It’s how we deal with loss.

So, what does this have to do David Bowie?

Well, of all the people we have eulogized in this manner, Bowie comes the closest to someone who I really can’t believe was ever here, hence my delayed reaction.

Employing another anecdote, recently a Facebook friend posted this:

OK, been a while since I’ve done one of my random musical questions. This time I want to hear something that you think of as just utterly unique and off the beaten track … stuff where you hear it and just think, “What just happened?”

To me, THAT was David Bowie.

I had that reaction the first time I heard Space Oddity, Fame, or Heroes, or the entire The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars album, and if it wasn’t the entire song, it was specific lyrics:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

A small Jean Genie snuck off to the city
Strung out on lasers and slash-back blazers
Ate all your razors while pulling the waiters
Talking ’bout Monroe and walking on Snow White
New York’s a go-go, and everything tastes right

You’ve torn your dress, your face is a mess
You can’t get enough, but enough ain’t the test
You’ve got your transmission and your live wire
You got your cue line and a handful of ludes
You wanna be there when they count up the dudes

… or it was his constantly shifting appearance:

Bowie-gif

So yeah, to paraphrase my friend, What the fuck just happened?! This doesn’t sound or look like anything I’ve heard, read, or seen before!

David Bowie was the ultimate artist-musician. I might not have liked everything he did, but I never doubted that he was constantly evolving and striking out for new ground, and his massive success and critical acclaim speak for themselves.

That Bowie accomplished all that while boldly and unapologetically challenging deeply embedded, narrow, and rigid gender identities is nothing short of heroic. He made millions of people feel less alone for not fitting neatly into one of two prevailing and accepted gender stereotypes. An incredible gift.

So, thank you David Bowie, for all of the music and courage. Rest in peace.

 

 

 

Video Fridays: R.I.P. Omar Sharif & How Lawrence Of Arabia Explains A LOT

Sharif_in_Lawrence_of_ArabiaSad news today, of the passing of actor Omar Sharif.

I can’t say that I’ve been a HUGE Sharif fan, having seen him in only a relative few of the movies in which he appeared.

And yet, one film that he was in, 1962’s Lawrence Of Arabia, is one of my all-time favorites, a stunning movie in just about every way: cinematography, acting, directing, writing, etc, but also stunning for how it inadvertently explains a LOT about how the Middle East became a nearly perpetual battleground, remaining so today, thanks to Western imperialist greed.

It would require nothing less than revisionist history to argue that the latter was not the case. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America, coupled with rapidly expanding European and eventual U.S. empires, led to a voracious appetite for fuel, oil was first discovered in the Middle East in 1908, and, big surprise, World War I broke out six years later, with the events of Lawrence Of Arabia occurring during that war.

Lawrence Of Arabia is deeply poignant, in that it tells the story of how the British exploited the people of what was then a region generally referred to as Arabia, sending T.E. Lawrence to build an alliance of Arab tribes to fight the occupying Ottoman Empire, promising that the Arabs would then have full autonomy in the region, only to betray those promises under their secret Sykes-Picot Agreement with France, which divided up Arabia into “spheres of influence and control”.

For today’s Video Fridays installment, then, in honor of the late, great Omar Sharif, I’ve chosen a pivotal scene from Lawrence Of Arabia, the moment when the friendship between Sharif’s Sherif Ali and Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence was solidified, with Lawrence’s sharing of his background, and culminating in the burning of his British uniform, symbolic of oh, so much.

Video Fridays: Belated R.I.P. Chris Squier

chris-squierI’m WAY late in acknowledging the passing of a monster bass guitar player, the now-late, great Chris Squier of the band Yes.

I don’t love all prog rock, and I don’t even love all Yes music, but the Yes music that I do love has stuck with me for nearly 40 years, via powerful memories of songs like Yours Is No Disgrace, Starship Trooper, I’ve Seen All Good People, Roundabout, Long Distance Runaround, Close To The Edge, and And You And I getting regular airplay in the 1970s, and then, once I bought the albums, regular airplay at home, where I was entranced by what sounded like Classical music being played with Rock&Roll instruments and Rock&Roll sensibilities.

As The New York Times‘ Peter Catapano declared in his wonderful eulogy, of all the members in the band, Chris Squier Made Prog Rock Rock:

Squire, who was well known for being the band wild man, was a virtuoso of sorts who also poured a Stones-like street fighting spirit into Yes’s ethereal music, and saved many a song from descending into Hobbit-land (being human, he wasn’t always successful). Out of the mist of organ tones and castrati vocals would come a growl, disconcerting, oh-so-low, almost too low to be music, a primordial beast raising itself from the mud with a giant yawn. It was impolite, indelicate, wrong, and soon to be funky.

Indeed. Like I said. A monster bass player.

It took me no time to decide what song I would feature in this Video Fridays installment, as a testament to Chris Squier’s artistry and bad ass-ry, the first song I always think of when I think of him, Heart Of The Sunrise from the 1971 Yes album Fragile.

The song kicks off with a quintessentially wicked-fast Squire bass line, which it comes back to several times, the intro moves into a lush, slower, synth-drenched segment with seriously funky Squier bass, and there’s just wonderful bass throughout the whole song.

R.I.P., Chris, and thank you SO much for all of the wonderful music you left behind.