RICK DERRINGER: RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR

(ANGEL AIR RECORDS; 2009) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

Rick Derringer

Alternately called LIVE AT THE RITZ, NEW YORK – 1982, this album features Rick Derringer and his then-current band performing some of his best tracks and being joined by several guest artists to play a couple of their’s. The sound has been called “raw” and that works as well as anything to describe a nearly 30 year old show remastered from a video source. It has its faults but, that’s part of the charm.

Rick Derringer (uncredited photo)

Rick Derringer (uncredited photo)

Things kick off in fine fashion, with one of my favorite Derringer (the band) songs, “EZ Action” from IF I WEREN’T SO ROMANTIC, I’D SHOOT YOU. Rick and the boys in the band (Alan Merrill, sharing guitar licks with Derringer; Donnie Kisselbach on bass; Jimmy Wilcox on drums; Benjy King on keyboards) are obviously having fun. This thing ain’t called RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR for nothin’, though, as Karla DeVito (you know… the girl who wasn’t on BAT OUT OF HELL but appeared in all of the accompanying video material and toured with the Loaf for several years) joins the band for “Cool World,” from Karla’s album, IS THIS A COOL WORLD OR WHAT. The song is one of those B-52’s/Cyndi Lauper kinda new wave pop things that sounds a little quirky played by a solid-state rock ‘n’ roll band, but they pull it off. Nothing, however, can save “Just Like You,” a ballad from the same album. I guess every album or show has to have one cringe-worthy moment and this fits the bill perfectly!

Karla DeVito, Southside Johnny (video stills)

Karla DeVito, Southside Johnny (video stills)

Next up is Southside Johnny Lyon, who brought his harmonica but left his Asbury Jukes behind. Southside Johnny may be the only musician from Asbury Park, NJ who is worth even a second look. Check out the voice and harmonica on Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” (it’s called “Honey Rush” in the artwork) and the Eddie Boyd blues workout “Five Long Years” if you doubt the veracity of that comment. Probably the most well-known (one might say “infamous”) of all of Rick Derringer’s songs is “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” first recorded on the JOHNNY WINTER AND record in 1970. It has one of the coolest riffs in rock history and I’m not certain if Derringer can ever play live without at least referencing that riff (I’m fairly certain that his family Christian group won’t touch those lyrics with a 10… make that a 50 foot pole!). The version here is… serviceable. I don’t know what the deal is with those backing vocals, but they sound like they borrowed the guys from Spinal Tap to faux heavy them up.

Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert (video stills)

Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert (video stills)

For two glorious studio albums (and one live release), the band Derringer featured Vinny Appice (pronounced Ap-puh-see) on drums. So, of course, what would this show be without a little Appice? Carmine Appice (pronounced A-piece), Vinny’s big brother, brings his former Cactus and Beck, Bogert and Appice bass-playing partner, Tim Bogert, along to do “Have You Heard,” a riff-loaded track from Carmine’s then-new ROCKERS album. With Derringer (and, one would assume, Alan Merrill) supplanting Jeff Beck on the guitar parts, they rip into “Lady” from BBA’s one and only studio album. Probably one of the coolest thing about Carmine is the fact that he can utterly beat the crap out of his kit AND sing lead. Before “Lady” he mentions that instead of Jeff Beck, the song’s going to be played by “Derringer, Bogert and Appice,” a band that actually came to official fruition nearly 20 years later.

Ted Nugent (video still)

Ted Nugent (video still)

As is Carmine’s wont, he tends to take things into his own hands. So, rather than Rick announcing the next guest, Carmine does the honors. As Appice mentions, he had just finished a tour with Ted Nugent (in support of the NUGENT album, which featured Carmine on drums) and the Motor City Madman – alongside Derringer, Appice and Bogert – rips into an impressive, if a little ragged, version of “Cat Scratch Fever.” That group sticks around for a funny-car-fueled take on the Chuck Berry classic, “Oh, Carol,” with Ted on lead vocals.

Alan Merrill (uncredited photo)

Alan Merrill (uncredited photo)

It’s back to the Rick Derringer band for the yet-to-be-released “Party At the Hotel” from Rick’s upcoming album, GOOD DIRTY FUN. To be perfectly honest, the guest performers were fun and the interaction with Derringer was nice to hear but, the three songs with just Rick, Alan, Benjy, Jimmy and Donnie are just a notch or two above in energy, excitement and delivery. The big “let’s bring everybody back out” number to finish the set is – next to “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” – the other number for which Rick Derringer will forever be remembered: “Hang On Sloopy,” a song that a 17-year old Rick Zehringer took to the top of the charts with the McCoys in 1965. Even with the “everybody solo” feel, this is one time that everything (and everyone) was hitting on all cylinders. A good way to end the evening and this disc. Are there rough spots along the way? Certainly. Do they detract from the music and the vibe of the performance? Not really. Is RICK DERRINGER’S ROCK SPECTACULAR worth owning? Absolutely!


CAPTAIN BEYOND: LIVE IN TEXAS – OCTOBER 6, 1973

(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)

Captain Beyond LIVE IN TEXAS

Okay, since you asked, here’s my Captain Beyond story: When I was a youngster, I took the word “consumer” to (my father would say) stupid new heights as regards music. There was very little at this stage of my life that I would not buy, if given a chance. Well, I mean… country was obviously uncool! Disco had yet to rear its ugly, simplistic head… we were okay there! So… other than the obvious, what would cause me NOT to purchase an album? In the case of Captain Beyond, there were two reasons: first, I absolutely hated that name (although I thought that Captain Caveman was pretty cool, but that’s another story) and second, I thought that they had – quite possibly, the crappiest cover art I had yet beheld on an album. Be it known that I also consumed many a crappy album because I loved the cover art but, again, that’s another story. Anyway, I could not be swayed! I didn’t care that Rod Evans, the original voice of Deep Purple was in the band (personally, I was an Ian Gillan man). Didn’t make a bit of difference to me that a pair of refugees from Iron Butterfly filled the guitar and bass spots (wasn’t a huge Butterfly fan back then). And, even though I really liked the Edgar Winter Group, are you kiddin’ me? JOHNNY Winter? I think not!

Now, here we are 40 odd years (and you have absolutely no idea how odd!) later and I’m reviewing a (kinda) new release from the band with the unpurchasable moniker and album art. I say “(kinda) new” because this one has been around for a little while as a bootleg. Purple Pyramid (Cleopatra’s “old hippie music” label) has reissued the band’s first two albums, CAPTAIN BEYOND and SUFFICIENTLY BREATHLESS (the album for which this tour was in support) and has added a spruced up version of this live show to the pile. It definitely has a “bootleg” vibe to it, but I honestly think that’s because the master tapes are almost 40 years old. Despite the unwieldy (and totally generic) title, LIVE IN TEXAS is far from unlistenable; in fact, it sounds pretty good to me! There… I said it! Forget the name, forget the artwork; I totally missed the mark on Captain Beyond all those years ago. My only complaint this time is, “was the person responsible for coming up with album titles on vacation or what?” How about calling it DANCING MADLY ACROSS TEXAS or something equally pithy (heck, even a simple LIVE is better the long winded LIVE IN TEXAS – OCTOBER 6, 1973)? Ah… but, I digress (or is that regress?)! You wanna know about the tunage, right? Well…

Bobby Caldwell (uncredited photo)

Bobby Caldwell (uncredited photo)

From the first note of “Distant Sun,” the band (the aforementioned Rod Evans, drummer Bobby Caldwell, bass player Lee Dorman and guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt) is on, pounding their way through a solid, trippy (what else would you expect from a band called Captain Beyond?) set before ending with a nice version of the Hendrix gem, “Stone Free.” Along the way, there’s almost seven minutes of Rhino solo and another nearly 13 of Bobby Caldwell solo. It has been said that drum solos on a record are not only superfluous, but an egregious crime against humanity. I don’t agree. I happen to like a well done drum solo and Caldwell’s is among the best I’ve heard on record. Rod Evans’ voice is simply magnificent! Not in an Ian Gillan “Pictures of Home” kind of way. Or even a Rod Evans “Kentucky Woman” kind of way. The knock on Evans when he left Purple was that he couldn’t handle the new, harder style that the band was headed toward. This live performance, at least, shows that he was every bit as capable (if not as distinctive) as Gillan or Ian’s successors, David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes.

Rod Evans and Larry "Rhino" Reinhardt (uncredited photo)

Rod Evans and Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt (uncredited photo)

Evans retired from music after this tour and does not appear on the band’s 1977 album, DAWN EXPLOSION. He came out of retirement to hook up with a bogus Deep Purple in 1980. That lasted a few months before Ritchie Blackmore and the rest sued. Rod has gone underground and hasn’t performed or recorded since. A shame really, as he did have a great voice. Just listen to “Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)” or “Myopic Void” if you doubt that statement. Of course, both Lee Dorman and Larry Reinhardt have left this mortal coil behind, Rhino in January and Lee in December of 2012. They were, as witnessed here, musical forces to be reckoned with, as was Bobby Caldwell, who continues to play with his group, the Boulder County Conspiracy and has recently appeared on the new JD Blackfoot album, THE LEGEND OF TEXAS RED.

So now, the obvious question is, “If you knew then what you know now about the music of Captain Beyond, would you have consumed or would you have been hard-headed and (still) missed out on some great music simply because of a so-so name and bad cover art?” You know, I’d really like to think that, had I actually heard the music first, I’d have bought the records no matter what but… I was a knuckle-headed kid back then and I probably still would have passed. I’m a lot older and a little smarter now, which means I’ve got some catching up to do! LIVE IN TEXAS is a good place to start.


SCORPIONS: COMEBLACK

(LEGACY/SONY; 2012)

Comeblack

At the tail-end of a 40-plus year career, German rockers Scorpions offer COMEBLACK, a cover album. Kinda. Seven of the 13 tracks are actually re-hashes of some of the band’s best known tunes, including ”Wind of Change,” one of the top five worst songs ever written – if not THE worst! I guess, now that there are two versions (not counting live) of this suck-fest on record, it officially drops “Born In the USA” out of the top five. No… wait. That’s really not fair, is it? Actually, it is a top five non-Springsteen turd. So, figure up how many songs your Boss (he ain’t mine… if he were, he owes me a heck of a lot of back pay!) has written and THEN you start counting from there. Which means that this second version of “Wind of Change” has, in reality, knocked Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” out of the top five non-Bruce stinkers. Of course, “Wind of Change” has competition right here on this album with “Still Loving You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” although neither stoops to the levels of heiniousity that particular ditty reaches. But, I guess hammering these things out on a nightly basis during the endless “farewell tour” has kept James Kottak gainfully employed for the last four or five years.

Scorpions (Marc Theis)

Scorpions (photo credit: MARC THEIS)

Alright, having gotten that off my chest, I must say that I used to really like Scorpions, at least ’til MTV found them. Two of my favorite Scorps songs, “The Zoo” and “Blackout” are both here, as well. So, it ain’t all bad! Plus, the other six songs are pretty okay. The cover of Soft Cell’s cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” is a fun, if rather odd, choice. But it works. There are also covers of Marc Bolan’s T Rex track, “Children of the Revolution” and “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. Steve Mariott’s Small Faces get play with “Tin Soldier.” “All Day and All of the Night” by the Kinks and the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” finish the set. These Teutonic takes on some of the most well-known songs of the rock era don’t add anything special to the originals, but then, I don’t think they were intended to. Like so many other bands who’ve been in the game for a good long while, Klaus Meine, Rudolf Schenker and the rest just wanted to say “thanks” to some people who inspired and enabled them to do what they love. I guess that’s one of the most confounding things about COMEBLACK: If you wanted to do a covers album, why revisit your own career (the originals are on several hits packages and feature prominently on a few live albums) for over half of the album? I would have liked to hear the guys cover the Who, the Doors and, for some reason, I think that they would have tore things up with a version of the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey To the Center of the Mind.” And, hey… “Dancing Queen” by ABBA! That would have been AWESOME!

If you just have to own versions of the seven “original covers” by the current band of Scorps and want a fun second half’s worth of “inspirational covers,” then, by all means, COMEBLACK is for you. I just wanted (and expected) a little bit more.


GREG LAKE: SONGS OF A LIFETIME

(ESOTERIC ANTENNA/MANTICORE/CHERRY RED; 2013)

GL_SOL_CD_DPS1_Cover_BOOKLET-D_Rev111612

I’m not sure how I feel about this album. I mean, this is the guy that sang one of the all-time great metal anthems (though, I’m sure Robert Fripp will shortly have a price out on my head for saying that), “21st Century Schizoid Man!” This is the “L” in not one, but two, ELPs! This is the man who replaced John Wetton in Asia for a six-show tour of… uh… Asia! Greg Lake is a musician of some considerable skill, on both acoustic and electric guitar, as well as his chosen instrument, the bass guitar. He also possesses one of the silkiest voices in rock, with a rich, resonant baritone that is as forceful as it is smooth. So, you say, “Alright! Enough already! We get it… Greg Lake is good! You like Greg Lake! Now, what about SONGS OF A LIFETIME?”

SONGS OF A LIFETIME, prompted by work on his biography, was recorded during Lake’s 2012 solo tour of the same name. When I say “solo tour,” I mean “solo,” as in on his own. No one else on stage with him. At this point, you might be wondering how such bombast as “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two,” the above-mentioned “21st Century Schizoid Man,” and “Touch and Go” sound with just a voice and an acoustic guitar (after all, that is the way most of these “solo” things are done, right?). Well… surprisingly full! Mister Lake wanted an intimate evening without the hindrance of a band onstage while he reminisced. He also wanted to give the listener a full concert experience. C’mon… we are talking about the Greg Lake from King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and, briefly, Powell). Even the soft, acoustic stuff from those groups was noisy! So, what to do? Why, take certain elements from the songs he would be performing, add new parts to make it sound close to the original, then flesh it out with his vocals performed live along with either the bass, electric or acoustic guitar and – if I’m not mistaken – piano on at least one tune. Don’t get me wrong! The sound and the performance are top-notch. It just leaves me feeling a slight bit cheated. While this type of show with these kinds of playback are nothing new, they don’t lend themselves to any spontaneity or interaction between musicians. They are almost too precise. In fact, for a little bit, I thought that I was listening to new studio recordings of some of Greg’s greatest hits.

Greg Lake (Lee Millward-GRTR)

Greg Lake (photo credit: LEE MILLWARD-GRTR)

Also, while I found his stories entertaining and somewhat enlightening as to the inner workings of a 50 year veteran of the music industry and a man who was a part of two of the most well respected rock bands of the past 45 years, I also found them rather strained, a little forced and more than a tad over-rehearsed. You just wanna say, “Geez, Greg! Lighten up, huh?” Okay… enough of the negatives, huh? While I did find them initially off-putting, they really did not hinder my enjoyment of the whole package. Lake was in fine voice for these recordings, sounding more like the 30 year-old version of himself than the well-traveled 64-year old version (his age when these shows were recorded). Also, while I would have liked to have seen (or, more precisely, heard) a few different tunes, especially from his Emerson, Lake and Palmer days (“Benny the Bouncer” from BRAIN SALAD SURGERY immediately comes to mind), the four Crimson tracks are solid enough and there’s enough good ELPalmer (the already-alluded-to “Karn Evil 9” piece, “Still… You Turn Me On” from the same excellent album, and the ubiquitous “Lucky Man” among them) and ELPowell (“Touch and Go”) to keep me happy. The fact that Greg also tosses in a nice grouping of songs that influenced his music and his career amounts to icing on a very tasty cake! As, apparently, every musician who ever picked up an instrument after 1956 or so is influenced by Elvis Presley, we are presented with a story and a song – “Heartbreak Hotel.” More understandable – to me anyway – is the influential aspects of the Beatles. Lake’s version “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” is spot-on and fairly awesome. The final “cover” is a little less immediately obvious for a progressive rock icon: the beautiful and oft-covered Curtis Mayfield tune,“People Get Ready.”

Okay, then… bottom line time, right? Can I recommend that you go out and procure (by any LEGAL means) Greg Lake’s SONGS OF A LIFETIME, considering some of my early qualms? Absolutely! Taken as a whole and considering the obvious thought and work that went into constructing this musical biography, the pluses far outweigh a couple of relatively minor minuses (that wasn’t a double negative there, was it?). This album is well worth adding to your collection.


JUDAS PRIEST: SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE (SPECIAL 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION)

(LEGACY/SONY; 2012)

Screaming-For-Vengeance-30th-pack-shot_1024

 

Until quite recently, I owned very few Judas Priest albums: SAD WINGS OF DESTINY and SIN AFTER SIN epitomizes the Priest for me… both are excellent; the unfortunate debut, ROCKA ROLLA, which was given to me as a gift; the killer live album, UNLEASHED IN THE EAST. Somewhere along the way I picked up PRIEST… LIVE, which was a little bit of okay. Then… nothing until 1997’s JUGULATOR, which introduced the world to Rob Halford’s replacement, Tim “Ripper” Owens… not a bad album, really, though it got the short shrift from Priest fans. The “Ripper” era band also produced a live set called ’98 LIVE MELTDOWN.

Now, of course, with Halford back and with the record labels reissuing just about anything, a couple of 30th Anniversary editions have cropped up, BRITISH STEEL and, more recently, this album, SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE. I think Priest fell out of favor for me with the album HELL BENT FOR LEATHER (or KILLING MACHINE, everywhere but in the States). Didn’t like the cover (either one, actually) and didn’t like the song “Hell Bent For Leather.” I did, as mentioned, come back for the UNLEASHED IN THE EAST album, but, by then, the band had veered further into the realms of MTV pop for me (yeah… I know… sacrilege! The very same crap that made Priest superstars made me wanna puke!). But I digress… kinda. I will get to the point of this review, which is the double disc SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE reissue (a CD with extra live tracks and a DVD of a live set from the ensuing tour), somewhere around the next paragraph.

Judas Priest (uncredited photo)

Judas Priest (uncredited photo)

And, so… here we are, 30 years later with an album that is beloved by every metal-head on the planet… except me. But, I have done my due diligence and listened to the thing again so I could be objective. And, you know what? It ain’t as bad as I thought back then. It ain’t no SAD WINGS… and definitely ain’t on a par with SIN AFTER SIN, but I can listen to most of it today without becoming nauseous. Tracks like “Bloodstone,” “Pain and Pleasure,” “Devil’s Child” and the title song hold up fairly well after 30 years, while the big hit, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” still sounds like New Kids On the Block to me. The “ballads,” “(Take These) Chains,” “Fever,” and the aforementioned “Pain and Pleasure,” are exactly what you’d expect from a heavy metal band during the early ’80s. Actually, under the steady hands of the Priest, they’re a tick or two above the generic “power ballads” of the day.

Halford’s vocal acrobatics hadn’t lost their edge (still haven’t today, as far as I can tell); the riffage and dual leads of guitarists KK Downing and Glenn Tipton are sharp throughout and the rhythm section of drummer Dave Holland and bassist Ian Hill – while not spectacular – are rock solid. The production, by Tom Allom, is crisp and very much of the time: a big drum sound and everything shined to perfection. Of course, even my favorite mid-’70s Priest albums were very well produced, eschewing the muddied sound that befell many metal records of that time, so the above statement isn’t a negative, just a fact.

Judas Priest (publicity photo)

Judas Priest (publicity photo)

Of course, what would an “Anniversary Edition” be without extras? Why… certainly nothing special (although there are some instances where even WITH the bonus material, the product is still nothing special). To fill out the original album’s less than 40 minute length, the CD has been expanded by six tracks, 5 live and 1 that I can only assume was recorded for use on the album or for a single B-side (I can’t find any information about that one anywhere!). The five live songs are SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE tunes that really add nothing to the originals, per se. I guess, from my perspective, the really cool thing about them is that they were recorded on September 10, 1982 (which happened to be my 24th birthday) at the San Antonio Civic Center (which just happens to be my home address… oops! That’s not right! What I meant to say is, “which just happens to be nowhere near where I was on that day”). The final cut is a ballady thing called “Prisoner of Your Eyes.” It’s kinda okay, but if it is an outtake, I can understand why: nothing spectacular or even particularly special. If it had turned up as a B-side somewhere, I don’t think people would have burned their copy of the record, but it may not have been played as often as some other minor Priest songs.

The second disc (aw, c’mon… you knew there’d be a second disc, right? I mean… there’s always a second disc!) is a DVD of the band’s full appearance at the Us Festival on May 29,1983. You remember the Us Fests, don’t you? Two holiday weekends of peace, love and drunken revelry that was supposed to bring the world together for a big ol’ bear-hug and a sloppy wet kiss to say, “I love ya, man!” So… anyway, the things were filmed by people who had no idea how to film a rock show. Throughout this performance, we get shots of Ian Hill’s back as Glenn Tipton shreds an awesome solo; then it’s off to a picture of Tipton’s guitar neck while KK Downing is soloing like a madman on the other end of the stage. And let’s not forget shots with the security guards blotting out everyone on stage or the crazy panning while they try to locate Halford as he comes onstage. Shouldn’t they have had production notes about such things? As far as the boys, themselves, there’s enough shiny spandex and studded leather to make Vince Neil and a whole herd of cows envious!

Rob Halford and Friend, Us Festival 1983 (uncredited photo)

Rob Halford and Friend, Us Festival 1983 (uncredited photo)

But enough about dubious wardrobe choices and the amateur-in-training visual aspects of the thing, how does it sound? Hmm… not perfect, but not bad. Not bad, at all. Halford proves early on that he owns one of the greatest voices in music (pick a genre, any genre) and, as mentioned regarding the studio recordings, Downing and Tipton play together and off each other superbly. Hill and Dave Holland may be boring to watch – especially the latter – but they keep the rest of the boys moving with a solid bottom-end. Set-wise, we understandably get a hefty dose of the then-current SCREAMING… album, a couple of my favorite Priest tunes (“Victim of Changes” and “Metal Gods”), two of the best covers I’ve ever heard (“Diamonds and Rust” and “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”) and all of their NKOTB tracks (“Heading Out To the Highway,” “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”). In a curious occurrence (maybe just to cement my New Kids digs), Rob Halford actually morphs into Madonna during “ …Another Thing… “ as he strikes one ridiculous pose after another. Even with all of the little (or medium-big) complaints, I did fairly enjoy watching one of the biggest metal bands of any era at the height of their popularity and, arguably, at the top of their game. If you’ve gotta own one CD version of SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE, make it this one!


THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY; MAKEUP TO BREAKUP: MY LIFE IN AND OUT OF KISS

(Fred Kaplan; 655 pages; DOUBLEDAY, 2003); (Peter Criss and Larry Sloman; 384 pages; SCRIBNER, 2012)

TWAIN CRISS COVERS

 

One may ask (and rightly so), why are two such disparate (auto)biographies lumped together in one review? Well…

Short answer: These are actually the last two non-fiction books that I have read. Essay answer: I feel that, no matter how intriguing your subject matter (in Criss’ case, himself), at some point in the writing process, you’ve just gotta say, “Enough is enough!” In both instances, the story would have been much more enjoyable (and manageable) with… less! I mean, do you really care that on Clemens/Twain’s 63rd birthday, he was blessed with a healthy bowel movement? Yeah… okay… I’m exaggerating, but not by much. In the case of MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, a shaving (or, at the very least, a condensing) of a chapter or two wouldn’t have hurt. As far as Kaplan’s… uh… exhaustive (exhausting?) biography of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, shaving a couple hundred pages of minutia certainly would have made MY reading experience more enjoyable! His “no-stone-unturned” approach, while commendable, is fairly daunting. I mean, c’mon… in these hard economic times, everybody’s cutting back. Why not here?

Does that mean that I hated these books? No. Not really. At least, not completely. However, considering that I generally can read a couple of fair sized books in a week, the fact that it took over two MONTHS to complete THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN, certainly doesn’t appear that it will be on my list of favorites or list of “re-reads.” Mister Kaplan’s thorough examination of perhaps the first true rock star of American literature comes off as dry and just a little foreboding to the ordinary reader. Once you get past the 655 pages of minutia, there’s still another 70 pages of notes and an index to further dissect the information (if more you must have)! I have only found one book impossible to get through, even though I’ve tried on several occasions, but this one sorely tried my patience. I would be lying, however, if I told you that I didn’t learn anything about the irascible humorist. His early allegiance to the South during the Civil War and his beliefs regarding slavery, while well-known, nonetheless came as a surprise as to the depths of both. The support Clemens offered his older brother, Orion, and the loathing that he harbored toward that same brother as a result was also unknown to me. There is an indication that he felt the same way about the rest of his family, as well, including his much-loved mother. As much as he doted on his wife, Livy, and their three daughters, he also spent much of his time away from them, not caring to be bothered by the intricacies of a family life.

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

The struggles of the man Samuel Clemens to rectify his life and short-comings with the mythical Mark Twain and his celebrity are, as they say, the stuff of legend. But even a legendary life can surely be summarized in a more concise, entertaining form than is offered in Fred Kaplan’s THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN. Mister Kaplan is also the author of biographies on Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, among others. I mention those two because I was very interested in seeking them out, but after sinking chest deep into the morass of this book, I think I’ll look for other options regarding the life of those two.

Mark Twain (uncredited photo) Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

Mark Twain (uncredited photo); Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

I think that, like many others, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Peter Criss. At the height of KISS’ career, he seemed to be the most together guy in the band. When he fell from grace, I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. After reading his tell-all autobiography, MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, I still feel for the Cat. Not because he was wronged by band mates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, but because he was wrong in many instances himself and refuses to take responsibility. His cavalier attitude toward his sexual conquests collide head-on with his derision of Simmons’ and guitarist Ace Frehley’s sexual proclivities. He complains about Gene and Paul being all about the money, but he doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his abandoning his band, Criss, for the high-profile, high-profit KISS reunion tour in 1996 and quitting the band again – and turning his back on his one true friend in the group, Ace – when he discovered that Frehley was making more than he was per show. He attacks both current drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer for wearing the Cat and Space-Ace make-up when both he and Frehley signed their rights to the make-up over to the KISS corporate body (in other words, Gene and Paul) for a few thousand dollars. He spends paragraphs discussing how betrayed he felt by his second wife when he discovered that she was having an affair, but shows little or no remorse for the fact that he was having sex with two or three women every night on the road; to say that’s expected because he’s in a rock band just doesn’t cut it! My point is, we all make mistakes; it’s what we learn from our mistakes that matter. Unfortunately, for Peter Criss, all he’s learned is avoidance of guilt and buck-passing.

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

 

Now, like the Clemens/Twain book, there are some enjoyable – even uplifting – moments (actually, more here than there). In particular, Criss’ wife Gigi’s fight with breast cancer and the ultimate revelation that he, too, had breast cancer was a wake-up call to everyone, males included, to do a regular self-examination. There are also some moments that could have been condensed (or cut completely!). Just about every person who reads this book is a KISS fan; they wanna know about Peter’s time in what was once the biggest band on the planet. As such, the first three chapters or so of the book (BK: Before KISS) could be cut down to one shorter, introductory chapter. The constant and continual references to dicks, titties, pussy and sexual gratification in its many forms get tiresome unless you’re a ten year old boy. Okay, Peter… we get it! You were a big rock star! The overwrought bashing of just about everyone who has ever been in Peter’s life tends to make this more of a “oh-woe-is-me” book as opposed to a tell-all. Manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records owner Neil Bogart went above and beyond, financing the band and molding them into the juggernaut they became after the release of ALIVE in 1975, but one perceived slight from Peter Criss and they were finished in his mind. He never trusted them again and they became cannon-fodder in MAKEUP TO BREAKUP.

I have very fond memories of KISS and Peter Criss from their heyday in the ’70s. His raspy, Rod Stewart-like vocals were always a welcome surprise and his drum solo during “100,000 Years” on ALIVE is testament to his talents (and to his adoration of drum legend Gene Krupa). This book, though, leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth. (DT)


ANT-BEE: LUNAR MUZIK

(DIVINE RECORDS, UK; 1997) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS (UPDATE BELOW)

R-2085961-1263166075

The entity known far and wide (and just around the corner) as Ant-Bee is actually a mad genius named Billy James, who has managed to cozy up to an unimaginable group of rock stars, including Gong’s Daevid Allen, every member of the original Alice Cooper with a name other than Alice Cooper (including the late Glen Buxton), and a slue of ex-Zappa sidemen who occasionally go by the name “Grandmothers” (Bunk Gardner, Motorhead Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, and Don Preston, among others). James himself is sort of a rock everyman: He plays drums, guitar, keyboards, bass; he writes… music and books (he’s written or co-written books about/with Peter Banks, Michael Bruce, Grand Funk Railroad, and – his latest – Todd Rundgren); he produces and, occasionally, he slices and dices (just like Sean “P. Doh-Wah Diddy-Daddy” Combs, only with talent); he promotes other musician’s releases. And, regardless of the involvement of the ex-Mothers, he has a definite Frank Zappa sensibility toward songwriting, production, and arrangement. Listen, for instance, to the album’s opener, “Snorks and Wheezes,” with its bizarre time changes, obtuse vocals in a psuedo-doo-wop middle section, and Ruth Underwood-style percussion, and tell me that you are not having a late ’60s-early ’70s Mothers flashback.

“Child of the Moon” is a pretty straight take on the old Jagger-Richard B-side, with some nice orchestration and vocals. It also features some nice acoustic work. Later, James and his uber-minions give the same treatment to Mike Nesmith’s amazing psychedelic country hit, “Love Is Only Sleeping.” There’s a wicked guitar solo – performed by Roy Herman – that weaves its way throughout “Love Is Only Sleeping,” adding to the overall psychedelic feel of the tune. Again, like Zappa, compositions/ideas tend to run together. The triptych nestled between “Child of the Moon” and “Love Is Only Sleeping” wanders between lunatic rave-ups (with a couple of wild backward guitar solos – which always seem to sound more impressive than they probably are – and a percussive coda repeated from “Snorks and Wheezes” on “Blew a Banana Thru the Sun”) and introspective balladry (complete with harpsicord, gongs, and lilting vocals on “The One Who Is Gold”) and back again (“Silicone Hump,” an ancient Don Preston piece of Turtles-esque lunacy). The album’s centerpiece, “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is a composition in four parts, encompassing Harvey Bainbridge’s (he of Hawkwind fame) “The Swan and the Horseshoe” and Neal Smith’s (he of Alice Cooper fame) “The Platinum God” sandwiched between original James music. The nearly ten minute piece continues LUNAR MUZIK’s thematic make-up: Pretty, almost pastoral vocals interspersed with manic percussion and noisy rock guitar. Bainbridge’s part is an almost ambient synthesizer wash, leading back to the main theme before giving way to “The Platinum God,” which features the four ex-Coopers – Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and some trippy guitar from Glen Buxton, undoubtedly one of the last things he recorded before his death.

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

The album ends – much as it began – with songs running together, themes repeated and overlapping into each other. “Diva Gliss (Are You Sirius?),” which flows out of the final movement of “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is by Daevid Allen and features him on guitar; the tune leads – seamlessly – into “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” a return, as it were, to “By-and-By… ,” which leads into a Michael Bruce/Billy James composition called “Return of the Titanic Overture.” The piece features themes and pieces of music culled from the very first Alice Cooper album, PRETTIES FOR YOU. It, like “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” features Bruce’s guitar work. “Son of Snorks and Wheezes” closes the proceedings with an even more bizarre take on the opening track. It features most of the Grandmothers, with Jimmy Carl Black’s prominent Indian chants and attempts to extort money and beer from the producer. Boys and girls, this is the type of inspired lunacy that one could regularly expect to find in the record bins as the 1960s phased into the 1970s: Nearly virtuoso performances coupled with adventurous arrangements, melding rock with jazz, doo-wop, classical instrumentation, and big-band phrasing. Though the album has been out for awhile, it’s so hard to come by that I only recently acquired this CD-R copy from James himself and I just had to tell you about it. Oh, yeah… the album artwork is by some guy named Syd Barrett! (Check out Billy James’ “Web Bizarre” at www.ant-bee.com and, if you’re really nice to him, you may be able to pick up your very own copy of LUNAR MUZIK… before it’s too late!)

(UPDATE) Gonzo Multimedia’s reissue of LUNAR MUZIK was released in June 2014. For ordering information, check Billy’s site.