R.I.P., Tom Petty :-(

tom-pettyOh man, I wish it didn’t take the death of one of my Rock & Roll heroes to get me back to Fish & Bicycles after a six month break, but it’s just the way it is and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Tom Petty was a quintessential rocker.

More than that, he was a prototypical rocker.

He was a Chuck Berry, a Jerry Lee Lewis, a Buddy Holly, an Elvis Presley.

He was a prolific songwriter and a natural, charismatic frontman. He was cool without flash, and onstage he always looked like he was doing the only thing he really wanted to do.

He was a bandleader in the most important ways. Not an egomaniac who demanded obedience, but a consummate musician who built one of the tightest bands of the era, a band that he could command with just the nod of his head or the wave of his hand. He was to The Heartbreakers what Bruce Springsteen has been to the E Street Band.

Rock & Roll has an intoxicating power. As someone who has had the privilege of performing in a rock band, I can tell you that it is incredibly easy to let the music take over, to entirely lose control of it.

Imagine all five members of a band experiencing that at the same time, imagine doing this in front of thousands of fans who are on their feet and grooving to the music, and then imagine Tom Petty, with his back to the rest of the band, just raising the headstock of his guitar in the air and then suddenly jerking it back down, stopping this freight train in its tracks.

Yes, he was that powerful.

I remember when The Traveling Wilburys happened, and many people wondered what Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne of ELO fame were doing in a band with legends Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan. I might have even held that belief momentarily when first hearing about the “supergroup”.

Now, Jeff Lynne still seems the odd man out, a successful songwriter for sure, but for all his success he was mostly there because he’d become good friends with George Harrison after producing George’s comeback album Cloud 9. I don’t really give a shit, he’s a great musician and talented producer, but it’s true that he just didn’t have as impressive a resume.

Tom Petty, on the other hand, by the time the Wilburys came together, had released one of the most impressive string of records ever over just 10 years.

Back in May 2013, I wrote this about the band Dire Straits:

Seriously, their first three albums are frickin’ incredible…

(Yes, there’s some great stuff after that, like Telegraph Road, a very Springsteen-ish song from their 4th album, Love Over Gold, and some of the stuff on Brothers In Arms.)

…and I think it’s stunning to think about them in the context of what was going on in music at that time, the late 70s and early 80s, so dominated by punk, post-punk/new wave, etc., and there wasn’t much else out there that sounded like Dire Straits. Maybe Tom Petty and a few others.

Early Dire Straits was like a great early to mid 70s Rock & Roll band, full of American roots music influences, who stubbornly decided to just keep making great early to mid 70s Rock & Roll.

Tom Petty also made it through the entire 1980s without abandoning his roots, which is a considerable accomplishment.

I wasn’t the biggest Petty fan. I didn’t buy every record and see him on every tour. But, his influence on me was huge. Like Tom, I play rhythm guitar and I sing, and when I’m at the mic, singing and strumming my six string, I often think of him, as I did just a few weeks ago, when me and my band played our medley of George Harrison’s Beatles-era If I Needed Someone and Petty’s Listen To Her Heart.

Tom, thanks for all of the wonderful music and the great fun you brought into the world. You’ll be missed, brother!

I’ll always think of you like this:

 

 

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.

Video Fridays: R.I.P., B.B. King

BB_KingI can think of no simpler and better way to sum up why B.B. King, who has sadly left us, so completely deserved his nickname, King of the Blues, than to point out that when I and millions of people around the world think of the blues, the sound we hear in our heads is B.B. King.

B.B. was the quintessential bluesman: raised a sharecropper on a cotton plantation, he knew and lived the hard life that is the very heart of the blues. Fortified by the gospel tradition, inspired by the blues from the very first time he heard it on the radio, he taught himself how to play the guitar, spent his Saturday afternoons, when done with work, busking and honing his craft, and was finally able to leave the plantation thanks to relentless touring on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Though he was unsuccessful in marriage — two failed 8-year stints, 15 children with 15 women — by all accounts he was a very warm, friendly, and generous person, beloved by all of the musicians who were fortunate enough to know him and/or share the stage with him.

Beyond the sound that I hear in my head, as a musician myself, when I think of B.B. King I think of the depth of his immersion in the music, the visceral feeling he could wring out of his instruments, both guitar and voice, and the visual component, the wonderful facial expressions he’d make as he performed evidence that he was totally committed to authenticity. He also smiled a lot, and the overall impression, as you watch him play, is that he felt deep gratitude and joy for his livelihood as a musician.

I have the closest, personal connection with his biggest hit, The Thrill Is Gone, as I’ve performed it in several bands that I’ve been in. I love minor key blues!

And so, without further ado, here’s this week’s Video Fridays installment.

R.I.P., B.B., thanks SO much for your wonderful music, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Video Fridays: R.I.P., Leonard Nimoy

mr-spockWow. I’m shocked by the passing this morning of Leonard Nimoy.

I’d gone years without watching any Star Trek: The Original Series, or any of the movies featuring the original cast, before I decided recently to do a series of Video Fridays posts on a late night lineup of TV reruns that I was fond of in my youth, a lineup that included Star Trek, and I published my post on Star Trek just two weeks ago.

In preparation for writing that post, I watched many episodes of the TV show, reconnecting with what I loved so much about it. And then, this past week, I was home sick in bed for two days and binged on more Star Trek, including the movies.

That Leonard Nimoy should die today, frankly, creeps me out as much it saddens me.

I think it must be nearly impossible to grow up Jewish in the late 1960s, 70s, 80s, etc., and NOT know, with enormous pride, that the two main characters in Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Nimoy), were played by Jewish actors.

Years later I learned that the Vulcan salute (seen in the photo above), was derived by Leonard Nimoy from a blessing bestowed by Rabbis, where the hands form an approximation of the Hebrew letter shin, shorthand for the Hebrew word Shaddai, one of numerous Hebrew names for God.

As an actor, I think the best compliment one could give would be that his portrayal of Mr. Spock was defining and masterful. While Gene Roddenberry may have dreamed up the character, Leonard Nimoy brought him to life and was always believable as that half-human-half-Vulcan caught between the competing aspects of his nature.

While I was very impressed by Zachary Quinto‘s performances as Spock in the recent reboots, Quinto’s was an act of imitation and Nimoy’s an act of creation.

I couldn’t pick just one video to accompany this obituary, and so I’ve included two. The first is perhaps the most moving scene from all of the TV episodes and movies, a scene that epitomizes Spock’s Vulcan logic, as well as his very human emotional bond to Captain Kirk. The second is a compilation of clips from the TV series that highlight Spock’s human-Vulcan conflict, often to comedic effect.

As my fellow Jews say, upon the death of a loved one, “May his memory be a blessing.”

Rest in peace, Leonard, and thanks so much for the many years of thought-provoking entertainment.

Live long, and prosper.