IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY… A LOOK BACK AT THE MUSIC OF THE SUMMER OF LOVE

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

The Summer of Love (San Francisco, 1967) (photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE ARCHIVES)

It’s hard to believe that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love,” highlighted by a major explosion of influential rock acts, mind-expanding music and… oh, yeah!… there was that landmark Beatles album, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. 1967 was a watershed year for music; a year which saw the release of several important debut albums and a slew of downright great rock ‘n’ roll records.

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

Big Brother and the Holding Company (James Gurley, Sam Andrew, Janis Joplin, Dave Getz, Peter Albin) (publicity photo) Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan) (photo credit: HERB GREENE)

The Doors’ first album came out early in the year, along with another important first step in the psychedelic movement, as SURREALISTIC PILLOW by the Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick’s debut with the band. The Grateful Dead followed with their first album about a month later. At the same time, the Godfathers (and Godmother) of punk and alternative rock hit the ground running with the Velvet Underground’s opening salvo. Janis Joplin got some attention as the new singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, while a former US Army paratrooper, ex-pat who also played a little guitar released his first album, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, as front man of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Beatles came out with their magnum opus, SERGEANT PEPPER’S… on the first day of June; while they were recording what many consider the greatest album of all time, a band called the Pink Floyd were also working at Abbey Road Studios, just down the hall from the Fab Four, on their first album, Syd Barrett’s psychedelic masterpiece, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN. Late in the year, Cream, Traffic, Buffalo Springfield and the Who gave us still more great music (in the forms of DISRAELI GEARS, MISTER FANTASY, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN and THE WHO SELL OUT, respectively). The Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and Lulu all hit the top of the singles charts with unforgettable tunes throughout the year. The year 1967 was, indeed, a watershed year for pop music and the year that rock and roll grew up, expanding musical limits and young minds the world over.

PINNACLE

THE BEATLES: SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND; The Beatles (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison) (publicity photo)

Obviously, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND is the standard by which all music released in 1967 (and, in fact, in the fifty years since) is measured. The album was a big surprise when it came out… lots of folks actually thought the Beatles might be breaking up because they hadn’t released anything new since February, with the single “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and, their last album, REVOLVER, hit the streets nearly a year earlier, in early August, 1966). Ironically, the John Lennon-penned “Strawberry Fields… ,” the very first song the Lads worked on for the album, didn’t even make the final cut. SERGEANT PEPPER’S was a true product of the great working relationship between the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, who took the band’s brilliant pop songs and grandiose ideas, molded them into a cohesive orchestral whole and just made everything work… beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The record’s last track, “A Day In the Life,” was immediately recognized as one of the Beatles’ best and most important songs; Lennon’s dreamy vocals at the start are still as haunting as ever and Paul McCartney’s amazing bass playing stands out, as it does throughout the entire album. Over the past fifty years, the Fab Four’s eighth full-length is as well known for the amazing cover by artist Peter Blake as for the thirteen tracks found within the sleeve; the songs, the performances, the production and the visuals all gelled to make SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND the single most memorable moment in the annals of not only popular music, but popular culture as a whole. Rock and roll and pop music would never be the same; the rock medium, in particular, would move away from looking at an album as merely a collection of singles to a well thought-out, cohesive set of songs, sequenced to be enjoyed in its entirety. I was just thirteen years old when the record came out and, even after five decades, I still appreciate and still enjoy all the great music that came from that “Summer of Love.”

TOP OF THE POPS: FIVE ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE OF POP MUSIC

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: SURREALISTIC PILLOW

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

SURREALISTIC PILLOW; Jefferson Airplane (Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin) (uncredited photo)

First and foremost, Jefferson Airplane’s SURREALISTIC PILLOW, their first with former Great Society singer Grace Slick, proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that a woman could rock the house down with the seminal Society leftovers, “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” Grace quickly ascended to become one of, if not THE premier rock vocalists of her time. With Slick on board, the Airplane were quite successful, both commercially and critically, for several years, while “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” have become radio standards. Jefferson Airplane became one of the symbols of a new era in rock music with the psychedelic folk of SURREALISTIC PILLOW. I still enjoy listening to it.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO; The Velvet Underground (Nico, Andy Warhol, Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale) (publicity photo)

The Velvet Underground’s debut – “produced” by Andy Warhol and featuring (at Warhol’s behest) Teutonic femme fatale, Nico – didn’t really hit me until years later, but the record’s influence was very important to many of the groups that I got into in subsequent years. The original group – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen (Mo) Tucker and Sterling Morrison – took quite a different approach to the commercial rock scene; their avant-garde sound, highlighted by great playing became the cornerstone that indie and alternative rock would build upon in the years since. As is often said, it may not have sold many copies, but everybody that heard it wanted to start a band; were the true alternative to pop music and started an underground rock movement that continues to reverberate throughout the music world.

THE DOORS: THE DOORS

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

THE DOORS; The Doors (Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Jim Morrison) (photo copyright: JOEL BRODSKY)

Another band that dabbled in the darker side of the musical spectrum was the Doors, perhaps darker even than the Velvets. Of course, the quartet’s first album featured the classic rock fixture, “Light My Fire,” which propelled a tragic rock god, Jim Morrison, into a larger-than-life cult figure, but it was songs like the eleven-and-a-half minute epic, “The End,” that truly defined the band. Eight months later, the group’s second record, STRANGE DAYS, cemented Morrison’s shamanistic standing with “People Are Strange,” the evil intent of Moonlight Drive,” “Love Me Two Times” and another dark epic, “When the Music’s Over.” My favorite Doors album is actually MORRISON HOTEL from a couple of years later, but the groundwork was definitely laid on their classic first album.

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: ARE YOU EXPERIENCED

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED; The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell) (publicity photo)

Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding hit big with their debut record, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, though I didn’t get into Hendrix until a few years later. Jimi took the world by storm, becoming rock’s big guitar hero, virtually supplanting England’s rock gods, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, soaring to ever greater heights in a meteoric four year career. Tragically, Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, along with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones all passed on within a couple of years of each other (between July 1969 and July 1971), becoming the first “official” members of what would come to be known as popular music’s “27 Club.”

PINK FLOYD: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN; Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters) (photo credit: ALAIN DISTER PHOTOSHOT)

Finally, we have the first record from the Syd Barett-led Pink Floyd, THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, a group and an album that was the impetus for the Progressive Rock movement, which would spawn such acts as King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others down the road. Oddly enough, the Floyd were recording their debut down the hall at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles were producing their masterpiece. SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND was inspired by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS album which, in turn, was inspired by the Beatles’ own RUBBER SOUL. How much did what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing in that neighboring studio inspire Syd, Roger, Rick and Nick? That’s what made the music of the era so memorable… groups and artists could no longer afford to stand on their laurels, they were continually pushed by others to up their game, to progress and change. For fifty years (and counting), that has been the lasting legacy of SERGEANT PEPPER’S… .


PAUL MCCARTNEY

(August 13, 2016; BUSCH STADIUM, Saint Louis MO)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (The Busch Stadium crowd enjoys the show) (photo credit: JEFF KING)

It’s really worth a moment of reflection here: What’s it like to be Paul McCartney? None of us can really know. McCartney is almost unarguably the most successful and influential singer/songwriter/musician in the history of popular music. He’s reached a place no one else has gotten to, a rarified zone of rock royalty where interest and reverence for him is ongoing, on a global scale. Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen may be able to sell out stadiums at times, and the Rolling Stones can say they’ve been around as long still doing their classic rockin’ thing. But NO ONE has had the impact through multi generations, the acknowledged cultural influence, the extensive body of work and the ability to sell out shows around the world, like Sir Paul McCartney. On the pop culture landscape, it’s like there is Mount McCartney, soaring high towards the clouds to a peak you can’t even make out or even comprehend, and then way below, there are some other peaks that are also impressive but not as gigantic. Mount Dylan. The Jagger-Richards Range. Who International Park. Et cetera.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

You get the idea. So beloved are the Beatles, and so deep and enduring is the nostalgia for all that they represented, all the good memories they provided for millions, that people around the world want to experience any taste of that magic again, and to believe that Beatlemania is not just a thing of the past. Sir Paul McCartney bears that burden (not discounting Ringo here, but he doesn’t tour as much and he simply wasn’t one of the prime architects of that Beatles songwriting thing that changed the world) on his 74-year-old shoulders, and he does so with class, good cheer and almost unbelievable energy. Mount McCartney indeed! And we fans are lucky enough to still climb those musical heights each time Paulie decides to perform. He’s doing it often these days, and it is never less than a spectacle. He might be technically a senior citizen, but man oh man, Mister McCartney still shows he’s got it, and that he loves doing it. Song after song after song.

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

At Busch Stadium, August 13… nearly 50 years since the Beatles played here at the stadium’s previous location (the year that REVOLVER, one of their very best albums came out!), McCartney treated a wildly enthusiastic crowd to a generous platter of classic songs and some obscurities, from throughout his career. He opened with “A Hard Day’s Night,” a timeless classic that he’d not done before live. Another from that beloved movie, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” soon followed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only long-time fan to experience a chill or two just from those two rockers. Dressed smartly in a purple jacket and dark jeans, McCartney sounded and looked younger than his age, and wasted no time chatting up the audience. Miraculously, considering that the acoustics for a sold-out stadium show are by no means always optimal, you could hear just about every word he uttered. And you WANTED to “listen to what the man said” because, hey, how often do you get to share time with him? At one point, McCartney took time to acknowledge all the many signs people were holding up in the stadium. There were the usual lovey-dovey kinda things, but a young girl held up a sign that said (I had high-powered binoculars to try to catch all this), I think, “Loved you as a bug, loved you as a wing and love you still today.” I saw her laugh delightedly when McCartney mentioned that sign. In fact, the ample projection screen repeatedly showed people laughing, dancing, and singing along to favorite tunes. It was a celebration, after all, McCartney being “one on one” (as it was billed) with thousands and thousands of delighted fans. And the set list was by no means predictable. Sure, you’d be reasonably safe to expect stuff like “Back In the USSR,” “Let It Be,” the inevitable “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” (and yeah, he DID mostly hit those high notes despite a few subtle strains evident in his vocals here and there) and the great “Band on the Run,” one of his finest solo songs. But genuine surprises (unless you were an internet set list junkie) included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “We Can Work It Out” (a personal favorite), a warm and tender “Here, There and Everywhere,” “And I Love Her” (gorgeous) and “Fool on the Hill.” At one point, McCartney gave a nice mini-talk on where songs come from, something he’s obviously been asked a zillion times. He explained that sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes a lyric idea, and sometimes an insistent chord progression that has “potential.” He began playing one such evocative progression on guitar a few times until it evolved, marvelously, into “You Won’t See Me,” another delightful surprise. And what else can be said about brilliant songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Blackbird,” two of the many, many touchstones in Macca’s career, never losing their beauty or impact?

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Of course, there were not just Beatle songs on the list. Solo numbers as diverse as “Let Me Roll It,” “Temporary Secretary” (I personally enjoyed this one though others apparently were not in my company), “1985,” a searing “Hi, Hi, Hi” (an early Wings classic) and a clutch of tunes from McCartney’s last disc NEW (“Save Us” and “Queenie Eye” among them) sounded just fine, although it was amusing to see McCartney gesture or feign mock disappointment when the reaction to less famous songs was not as thunderous as that for Beatle classics. McCartney knows full well that fans want to hear the tunes they grew up on, and he is incredibly generous (he has been for many years) in bulking up beloved tunes on set lists these days. Two potently touching and dramatic moments occurred in the middle of the show. “Here Today,” the song McCartney wrote as “a conversation I never got to have” with John Lennon, is a tune he almost always plays in concert, but it had an intense emotional resonance to it in this performance… delicate, tender, unbearably sad… and the legend almost looked like he was tearing up anew as he sang. The audience was spellbound. Another genuine surprise was “In Spite of All the Danger,” a song the boys conceived in their Quarrymen days, and which McCartney explained they cut in a primitive studio as a demo. This event is depicted at the end of the movie NOWHERE BOY, which I’d been lucky enough to see, so it had a major impact on me, and McCartney seemed delighted to tell the story. For a song that few at the stadium could have known, it was staggering that McCartney was able to get the crowd to sing the repeated “Whoa oh oh oh” chorus with almost perfect timing. Maybe I’m amazed by this, indeed! Also a sweet and tender “My Valentine,” which he dedicated to his wife Nancy, was subtly compelling in its intimacy, and featured visual aids by Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp on the adjoining screens, something that struck me as surreal but beautiful. But it was old Beatles classics that got the crowd really jazzed: “Lady Madonna,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” the George Harrison tribute “Something” (which McCartney began on ukulele as expected, but this time it quickly evolved into a full Beatle-y band arrangement, unlike the last time I saw him perform it), and a stirring “Love Me Do,” complete with the precise harmonica part that Lennon played all those years ago. No one can ever say that Paul McCartney is not a good team player, by the way… the band he’s with now, which consists of some of the most crackerjack players around (keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, bassist and guitarist Brian Ray, guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel, Junior), has been with him for 14 years plus, longer than the Beatles were together! And any encore that includes the perfection that is “Yesterday,” the White Album novelty “Birthday” and the gripping “Golden Slumbers” section of the dazzling ABBEY ROAD medley, well, it lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are one lucky fan to be at this concert. You’re getting rock history live, right here, right now.

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney with Abe Laboriel, Junior (photo credit: JEFF KING)

Paul McCartney’s importance is not just his place in the musical scheme of things, it’s the fact that he is a living testament to the ongoing power of songwriting, performing and communicating with fans. He’s had to endure continual comparisons to his former partner Lennon, judgments about his work since the Beatles, and the always fascinating reappraisals of his recordings that new writers always feel motivated to offer. For example, the once-maligned RAM album is now considered a charming low-key classic by most, and Wings, who nearly always got short-changed in the 70s by snobby comparisons to the Beatles, now have their own special fan base, and McCartney knows that. More than anything, what McCartney knows is that music can transform, inspire, document, delight and be really, really personal for different people, different generations, over a long, long time. You just don’t get to go on the kind of journey Paul McCartney has been on, very often. Because of the volatility of the times he flourished in, and the unimaginable success, McCartney gets to see the impact of his life’s work over and over, and to keep writing, recording, and rocking. And somehow he still manages to do it with that same boyish glint in his eye that he had back on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. That is one staggering triumph of an artist and a human being, across six decades, and still going. How can you not regard Mount McCartney with absolute awe? And he’s still here today, his legend secured for all time.


SOFIA HARDIG: AND THE STREET LIGHT LEADS TO THE SEA

(SOLARIS EMPIRE; Swedish import, 2016)

Street Light II

It’s not easy reviewing an artist as important as Sweden’s Sofia Hardig. She is a singer/songwriter who pushes the thematic and conceptual envelope beyond what we associate with that category, a rock guitarist who is not interested in showing off on the instrument and sometimes buries the sound or zeroes in on one little minimal tone, an electronica innovator who is after something far more ambitious in her compositions than simply making you dance or showing you the cool sounds she can generate on her latest equipment. No, Sofia is after something more significant, something more primal and mysterious, something that is a bit of a secret unless you can either get on her wavelength or follow the “light” she alludes to on this new recording down to, well, the literal or metaphorical “sea” this music tells you to experience. Hardig is concerned about humanity, about things fractured or falling apart, about things sadly NOT working out the way they should because, y’know, PEOPLE and stuff. She is a lonely spokeswoman for angst-ridden characters searching for meaning, but she is not interested in spelling everything out clearly. You’ve got to think a little. “Let, let, let, let love in,” she declares on the opening “Streets,” obviously a universal sentiment, but she sings it like she is surrounded by men with weapons pointed right at her, with a few clangorous chords refusing to let the sentiment simply make its way easily to your ears. Few female artists so convey the urgency of an emotion the way Hardig does. She’s been doing it over the course of half a dozen stellar releases for the past decade or so, and you get the sense that her work is equal parts therapy and humanitarian dissertation. Yet this stuff does rock madly, as on the frenzied “Swim” which is a pretty sexy atonal little creation that INSISTS you listen to it.

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: EMMA GUNNARSSON)

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: EMMA GUNNARSSON)

“The Norm” is primarily a spoken word rant that finds Hardig addressing the “Citizens of the world” somewhat straightforwardly. “It’s not right what they do. They’re not experts on anything. But they think they are. Because they read a little line about what your heart should be. And what your eyes should be. And what your dreams should be. But they’re not right. We know better, you and I,” Hardig declares, then singing the repeated refrain “Keep dreamin,’ baby,” which I like to think is aimed at both the populace that desperately needs to keep having uplifting dreams for a better future, and the oppressive forces almost everywhere these days, that mistakenly THINK they can continue to run things as badly as they have. Hardig has absolute authority throughout this music, and most artists could not pull it off. The clanging, supercharged squall of music behind her helps considerably. Nothing lilting or easy about this sound in any way. It’s gloriously messy and discordant. “Sitting Still” is an ironic title for the next song, which is an ass-kicking rocker that brings to mind Hardig’s countrymen in the band the Knife, who covered some of this sonic territory on their last release, SHAKING THE HABITUAL. The tune just surges madly through a battlefield of opposing forces… no bridge, no chorus, just a furious, short flight past a stressful landscape of the worst of humanity. That’s how it struck me, anyway. After that, “Closed Eyes” is ALMOST lulling, but not quite. There’s a steady rhythm, and some carefully constructed verses, but Hardig’s vocal can’t settle for being merely emotionally resigned and descriptive… real pain rises up in her delivery and the sonic assault of the music is beautifully fierce and controlled, reminding in moments of the Doors on “The End,” the Velvet Underground or various other artists you may think you’ve heard. But this stuff is mostly stunningly original.

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: DANIEL PEDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY)

Sofia Hardig (photo credit: DANIEL PEDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY)

“Low and Slow” is another slam bang rocker, with the guitar firepower turned up high, and Hardig’s underlying punk attitude sneeringly coming to the surface. Only PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde come at all to mind when I listen to Hardig, and that’s more because they have a similar kind of absolute authority and rock and roll pedigree, rather than what the music actually does. Hardig comes across as a lonely warrior on these tracks, a woman who looks at the reality of both human folly and the flaws in the human psyche that lessen the quality of relationships and the chance for normalcy. On the brittle, repetitive “Bring It Home,” she seems on the verge of losing it, but the music is absolutely compelling in its driving simplicity and fearless edge. There’s a remix of it (along with one for “Closed Eyes”) on which the lyrics are a bit easier to hear, and the guitars seem to imitate a police siren several times, wailing towards the scene of an emotional crime that has probably inflicted tons of damage. “I lost control of my mind/I’m just skin and bones by your side/I’m layin’ all alone in despair/I can’t control this love that I lost/Come on honey now, bring it home!” Hardig darkly recites, suddenly blasting out those last two lines over and over, and it’s a blistering refrain that takes your ears prisoner while your feet tap along admiringly. With most of these songs, you can’t possibly hope to know the full story. But you don’t NEED to with this Swedish firebrand of a musician; you’ll hear enough and understand enough to get lost in the electrifying power of modern electronic rock and roll, and marvel at the way that mysterious thing called EDGE still exists, at least in whatever studio this woman works in. Sofia Hardig is a welcome antidote to slick audience-pleasing formulas, and a cry in the artistic wilderness for challenging what true self-expression in music should be, with anger and despair rising up to club bland acceptance and positive thinking mantras right over their thick skulls, guitars blazing and passion-infused vocals helping to land the blows. She’s a truly important, powerful sonic auteur who is slowly building a peerless recording catalogue that deserves the full attention of rock fans around the world.


REVEREND HORTON HEAT WITH UNKNOWN HINSON/NASHVILLE PUSSY/IGOR AND THE RED ELVISES

(February 6, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

rev_hinson_nashville_lg

What a wonderful, bizarre night this was. Reverend Horton Heat have always been one of my favorite live acts; I vaguely remember seeing Nashville Pussy somewhere about fifteen years ago… they didn’t do a lot for me but, well, things change; for me, there were two wild cards: the enigmatic Unknown Hinson, who did a short set toward the end of the Reverend’s show, and the goofball antics of Igor and the Red Elvises. Let’s start things off – as we always do – at the beginning with…

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Natalie John; Igor Yuzov; Dregas Smith) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild and wonderful women who make up the current incarnation of the Red Elvises (shouldn’t that be “Red Elvi?” Just wondering) and their Commissar of Jocularity, Igor Yuzov. With shaking hips and thrusting pelvis eliciting visions very much like that of a certain ’50s teen idol, sporting a head of “Elvoid”-based follicles and dressed in what can only be described as a lame’ jungle print zoot suit, the larger-than-life singer exhorted (extorted?) the crowd to sing along, clap along, dance along, surf along and pretty much any other “along” he could think of as he built a set from the ground up, randomly calling out – Zappa-style – the next tune. At one point, he even cajoled a good portion of the audience to “spontaneously” erupt into a shimmying, snaking conga line. Is there any wonder why this rockin’ teenage combo is “your favorite band?”

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Igor and the Red Elvises (Dejah Sandoval; Igor Yuzov; Jasmin Guevara) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Well, yeah… all of that over-the-top lunacy is as cool as it sounds, but this band is so much more: Musically, Igor and his ever-revolving, evolving group of Elvises play a hip, retro brand of Rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll, laced with enough updated alternative grooves to keep even the most jaded of youngsters’ heads bobbing and butts shaking; the band, especially the rhythm section of Dejah Sandoval and Jasmin Guevara (on bass and drums, respectively), are first rate musicians and, obviously, are having just as much fun as Igor and the fans. Aside from her bass-playing abilities, Sandoval proved improbably adept at remaining upright while sporting stacked boots that would give Gene Simmons a nosebleed, while Guevara was virtually a perpetual motion machine, bobbing and shaking her head like Ringo and pounding her kit like a miniature Bonzo. Keyboard player Dregas Smith showed herself capable of laying down a wicked boogie woogie piano one minute, a fuzzy, grungy garage Farfisa the next; as Igor – more often than not – neglected his guitar, Natalie John took up some of the slack on trumpet and various horned instruments, as well as the occasional funky solo. When Igor did play his chosen instrument, he mixed James Burton-style Rockabilly with Dick Dale or Link Wray-like tremolo-laced Surf guitar. The fact that he sounded like Boris Badanov fronting a band of KGB operatives only added to the man’s charm and mystique on songs like “Closet Disco Dancer,” “Surfing In Siberia,” “I Wanna See You Bellydance” and “She Works For KGB.” The aforementioned conga line took shape at the beginning of “Sad Cowboy Song,” which also featured an incredible (as in, not boring) drum solo from Jasmin; the solo actually started with the other three ladies surrounding the kit and joining in on the percussive fun. I could probably write a novella filled with superlatives about Igor and the Red Elvises, but then I would never get to the rest of the show. Suffice to say that a Red Elvises show is pretty much like watching Frank Zappa’s Mothers eat Madness and then throw up Link Wray; that’s kinda my way of saying that a good time was had by all.

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Jeremy Thompson; Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys; Bonnie Buitrago) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy, the hard-rocking, four-headed Blues beast may seem – on the surface, at least – an odd choice as tour-mates for the Heat boys, but they’ve been traveling the highways and by-ways together for nearly twenty years. If you’re not familiar with this outfit, they play a drug-fueled, beer-soaked Southern boogie… kinda like early Lynyrd Skynyrd laced with liberal doses of Motorhead, as well as a little bit of Hank, Senior. Up top, I mentioned that the only other time I saw them live, Nashville Pussy really didn’t trip my trigger; a few months back, I saw vocalist Blaine Cartwright play an acoustic set two doors down, at the Demo. Cartwright mentioned that he’d been working on his vocals and, obviously, in that stripped down environment, the melodies and the wickedly funny (and equally perceptive) lyrics weren’t so easily lost in the sheer decibels of a Pussy show and, guess what… somewhere in between that show and this one, I went back and listened to last year’s TEN YEARS OF PUSSY compilation and, well, I like ‘em… I really like ‘em! And, for the record, Blaine’s vocals ARE stronger and clearer than ever, kinda like Uncle Ted or Alice gargling with the ashes of Wolfman Jack and Bon Scott. In fact, with the addition of bassist Bonnie Buitrago a few years back (and, just maybe, the seasoning that comes from almost constant touring), the band has definitely taken on a more cohesive sound since I first saw them, lo, those many years ago.

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nashville Pussy (Blaine Cartwright; Blaine and Ruyter; Ruyter Suys) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though the band has, indeed, coalesced into a well-oiled machine, the songs maintain their inherently lewd and rude lyrical bent, while each of the four musicians appear ready to go into the crowd for a bit of a throw down at the drop of a black cowboy hat (or, at the very least, to go into the crowd to throw back a drink or two with their rabid fans). Buitrago and drummer Jeremy Thompson laid down a thunderous rumble over which Cartwright and his wife, Ruyter Suys, worked their six-string magic. Don’t think that because Blaine has concentrated on improving his vocals that he’s neglected his guitar playing… he hasn’t; true, Ruyter still does most of the lead work and soloing in her inimitable style, but I believe that Cartwright’s newfound confidence in his voice has allowed him to just let go on guitar. An example of both appeared in the unexpected form of a cover of the classic Marshall Tucker Band ballad, “Can’t You See.” Don’t think for a second, however, that that means this group has mellowed… they are still as cantankerous and debaucherous as ever; classics like “Pillbilly Blues,” “Struttin’ Cock,” “Hate and Whiskey,” “Rub It To Death” and the ever genteel “Go Motherfucker Go” tells you that this is a buncha folks that would’ve made Caligula blush. Well, most of ‘em, anyway; it was kinda funny watching Ruyter, Blaine and Bonnie sweating and thrashing and knocking back shots (or, more often, taking a slug straight from a bottle of Jack) while Jeremy just goes about his job with as little exertion as possible, but still – somehow – managing to sound like two drummers. While Suys’ guitar seemed to occasionally fall out of tune as she throttled the the neck, abused the trings and writhed about the stage, it just didn’t matter; what did matter and what came across from the time Nashville Pussy took the stage was the passion that these people (and their ravenous fans) have for the MUSIC. In a world where electronic beats and auto-tuned voices are becoming the norm, it is refreshing to hear real music played by a band that isn’t afraid to mess up from time to time.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jim Heath) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

For over thirty years, guitarist Jim Heath has fronted the band Reverend Horton Heat… to most of his fans, he IS the right Reverend Heat. The band’s sound (a melding of Western Swing, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues, Surf Music, and pretty much any other genre that they can work into the stew) really began to come together when bassist Jimbo Wallace came onboard in 1989; many, including Heath himself, consider Jimbo to be the heart and soul of the group. Spanning two different tours of duty, Scott Churilla is the trio’s longest-tenured drummer, having served from 1994 to 2006 and coming back into the fold in 2012. As you can imagine, these guys have become a well oiled live machine and, this show was certainly no different. Proving their staying power – and the continued popularity of their music – the band ripped into the fairly straight-forward Surf instrumental “Big Sky” coupled with the wild hillbilly honk of “Baddest of the Bad,” both from 1994’s breakthrough album LIQUOR IN THE FRONT, before sending the sold-out crowd into a feeding frenzy with “Psychobilly Freakout,” a fan favorite from their debut album, SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM.

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Jimbo Wallace; Jim Heath; Jimbo Wallace) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

From there, the boys dipped into the earliest years of Rockabilly with “School of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a 1958 single from fellow Texans Gene Summers and His Rebels; not only are these guys celebrating their own history, but they continue to celebrate their roots, as well as turning their fans on to music they may not have otherwise heard. In most instances, an upright tends to get lost in the mix… not Jimbo‘s; he prompted pops and thrums out of his instrument like no other could. Scott’s excellent stickwork proved why Jim and Jimbo brought him back into the fold after six years away; many of the Reverend’s best albums feature Churilla mounted on the throne (actually, he plays on all but the first three albums and 2009’s LAUGHIN’ AND CRYIN’ WITH THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT). And, of course, what can you say about Jim Heath? He’s never been a flashy guitarist, but he makes what he does seem so easy; it’s the same with his vocals… rock solid from start to finish. With his eyes in perpetual squint-mode (lights, I would guess) and his face either wearing an all-knowing, world-weary smirk or a mile-wide smile, Heath is one of the most unassuming rockers you’ll ever see. The set list looked like the back of a “Best of… ” album, with such fan-pleasing entries as “I Can’t Surf,” “Bales of Cocaine,” the hard-driving Psychobilly paean to Mister Wallace, “Jimbo Song,” as well as Chuck and Johnnie’s “Little Queenie.” Toss in the instant-classic “Zombie Dumb” from the group’s most recent release (2014’s REV) and a few more selections from an impressive catalog and you’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll show to remember. However, the boys were just getting started and… we hadn’t even seen their special guest yet!

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Unknown Hinson; Jim Heath; Unknown Hinson) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As the houselights came back up after “It’s a Dark Day,” Heath had this to say by way of introduction about Unknown Hinson (the special guest, if you haven’t been following along), “This man scares me to death. Not only because of all that vampire shit, but because of the way he plays guitar… he’s better than any of us could ever hope to be.” Sporting the suit he was buried in (I’m not positive, but I’d bet it cinched in the back) and a pompadour from Hell, the vampiric Hinson lumbered to center stage, still wearing the black gloves so important to his evening wear as he sates his murderous predilection; he removed the gloves only to pick up his guitar. Like the music of the Heat lads, Hinson is sorta all over the place: Everything from surfin’ Gothic Country to metallic hillbilly punk. Hinson’s wide palette included hardcore Western swing, Carl Perkins-style Rockabilly, fuzzed-out slabs of pure psychedelia, old-school Rhythm and Blues and his own twisted take on Southern honk; if you close your eyes just the right kind of tight, you’d swear it was Early Cuyler hisself serenading you. Unknown’s short set-within-a-set included the misogynistic “Silver Platter,” as well as such delicately titled little ditties as “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Husband,” “Fish Camp Woman” and “Your Man Is Gay.” Hinson proved to be as good advertised on guitar, moving from Heavy Metal power chords and manic Country pickin’ to mind-expanding psychedelic soloing and mournful Blues licks. The whole thing was rather like what would happen if the legendary George Jones were to hook up with Brian Warner at a Satanic mixer hosted by the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Minnie Pearl… in short, everything a true music lover hopes for in a live experience.

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Reverend Horton Heat (Scott Churilla; Jim Heath; Scott Churilla) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As Hinson exited the stage, Jimbo, Scott and Jim charged into the salacious “Let Me Teach You How To Eat” and its thinly veiled lyrical innuendo. One of Heath’s earliest (from THE FULL-CUSTOM GOSPEL SOUNDS OF THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT, released in 1993), heaviest and funniest tunes, “400 Bucks,” led into a sort of gear-head finale, with the divorce settlement classic “Galaxy 500” and the Surfabilly couplet about fast cars and faster women, “Victory Lap” and “Smell of Gasoline,” the latter featuring solos from both Scott and Jimbo. The encore brought Unknown Hinson back to the stage for an extended jam on “The King of the Country Western Troubadours,including a very Trower-esque solo from Unknown. I’ve seen Reverend Horton Heat several times since 1996 or so and they just keep getting better; throwing Hinson into the mix just upped their game even more. I can’t wait to see what they bring next year… I know it’ll be killer.


STEPHEN KALINICH AND JON TIVEN: EACH SOUL HAS A VOICE

(MS MUSIC; 2015)

cover

The first time I listened to this new CD by former Beach Boys collaborator and poet Stephen Kalinich (teamed up with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Tiven), I was a bit groggy and exhausted from too much multi-tasking. That caused a curious reaction: the aptly named opener “Rude Awakenings” hit me like a long-lost track by R..E.M. Damned if Kalinich’s phrasing and some of the very long lyrical passages didn’t come across kinda Michael Stipe-ish. Additionally, the positive thinking/”why can’t this world be a whole lot better?” ethos that informs these tracks found me more receptive than I might’ve been on another day, sick as I’ve been lately of war, stupid politicians and an even stupider populace as revealed by recent news. I didn’t know of Kalinich’s association with Dennis and Brian Wilson in the ’60s (“Be Still” and “Little Bird” are among his recorded collaborations with the band) until I looked up info on him for this review, and I was more than a little amazed. But what matters here is not so much past associations, impressive though they may be, but rather the deeply empathetic lyrical approach Kalinich and Tiven take to the human condition, and the willingness to bare their souls. Take the tune “Harmony, Inner Peace and Tenderness,” which is about as unambiguous a song title as I’ve encountered recently. “Love will bring you into rhythm/You are a dear, sweet soul/But the power of love embraces you/When you lose control/In practical situations, rely on it without procrastinations,” our therapeutic duo implores. And y’know what? It kinda works; I started feeling better! Perhaps the no-frills plaintive approach here is just what the doctor ordered. Although there are a LOT of words coming at you in songs like “I Choose Life” (clearly that is the case with these guys), “Blue Teal Wall” and several other tracks, and some of these numbers are more like poems with musical backing than actual songs, you can’t question the energy or conviction behind what is being said. Even if obvious at times, we probably NEED to hear queries like “If you believe in love/And a God who’s great/What does he make of these explosions of hate?” (that one is in the mid-tempo, terrorism-referencing “Explosions of Love”). You’ll probably find yourself slipping into an introspective or meditative state as Kalinich keeps serving it up straight. Hey, that rhymes, and so does he, OFTEN! It may veer into hippy-dippy territory at times, but Kalinich is writing about real things and real feelings, and he’s been around long enough to bemoan what the human race is facing, and to have strong thoughts on the subject.

Jon Tiven and Stephen Kalinich (photo credit: ANDREAS WERNER)

Jon Tiven and Stephen Kalinich (photo credit: ANDREAS WERNER)

Something that helps on this record is the quality of the musicianship; there’s an especially pleasing combination of horns and harmonica on several songs. Jon Tiven clearly oversaw most of the arrangements, with his wife Sally joining in on bass, and Cody Dickinson (from the North Mississippi All-Stars) doing some fine drumming. There are also guest appearances by Brian May and Steve Cropper on guitar. It all succeeds in contributing to the sense of a distinctive sound being forged here; this thing has guts and a clear emotional through line that pulls you into it. The artists CARE, and that is more than can truly be said of most modern records. “Life is a fucking zoo/What animal are you?” is the refrain in “Life Is a Fucking Zoo,” a memorable tune that makes its point in a catchy, unpretentious manner. And that’s the thing about EACH SOUL HAS A VOICE: It just talks to you straight, tells you that it cares, and tells you that you’re not alone. Sure, it’s wordy and maybe a bit preachy at times, but it comes from the most heartfelt of places. “Too many polls/Too many words/Too much information to be heard/Do the best you can/Bow down to NO man,” our communal pals state on the title track. That kind of clarity is rather refreshing, don’t you think? And if you’ve got a nice beat and bluesy harmonica blowing in the background, isn’t that just the sort of sonic affirmation you need to accompany your ascent to higher consciousness, or whatever you wanna call it? “Make a diamond out of charcoal/Before you smoke your next bowl/Appreciate all that is here for you,” Kalinich implores in his philosophically offhand manner. The guy is an authentic human being, someone who cares and SHARES, and I’m glad this record exists as a document that there are still some of those folks out there.


DOUBLE THE PLEASURE: THE ZACK MURPHY INTERVIEW

BLACKFOOT GYPSIES AT THE DEMO, OCTOBER 11

BG Demo

Having been introduced to the Nashville band Blackfoot Gypsies, via their recently released second long-player, HANDLE IT, I have been on the lookout (begging their publicist, actually) for a Saint Louis date. That date has arrived! The newly engorged group will be playing at the Demo – on Manchester, in the Grove – this Sunday, October 11, 2015. For tickets, directions and everything you need to know about the show, check out the Demo’s site.

Founding members guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige and drummer Zack Murphy have added bassist Dylan Whitlow and harmonica player Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton to the mix, freeing the duo up to concentrate on their instruments of choice (Matthew has added the fiddle to his instrument list) without sacrificing the larger, fuller sound that they are known for. The ten tracks on HANDLE IT range from Country to New Orleans Blues, Nashville Soul to straight out Rock ‘n’ Roll… sometimes, all within the course of one song. “Scream My Name” opens the album with a dose of RAW POWER-era Stooges punk; Paige’s fiddle and over-dubbed harmony vocals give “Spent All My Money” an authentic Country feel, while “In Your Mind” is a Stonesy “Gimme Shelter” rocker. There are Steve Marriott/Humble Pie hard rock tunes (“Dead On the Road”), a pop ditty that I find rather reminiscent of PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys or, believe it or not, early Sonny and Cher (“So Be It”) and a slice of punky Americana (“Too Bad”), all of which I’m certain will sound great in a live setting. In anticipation and preparation for a night of bluesy, rockin’ Country hippified honky-tonk, I sent a few questions to the band via e-mail; Zack Murphy replied. Here’s that interview, wherein Murphy discusses the new dynamics in the band and what we can look forward to on a Sunday night in the Lou.

Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)

Blackfoot Gypsies (HANDLE IT cover art)

THE MULE: One of the biggest recent changes has been the doubling of the band, going from a duo to a quartet. What prompted the change?

ZACK MURPHY: Nothing other than finding the right people. We wanted to have a full band all along. At first, it just meant Matthew and I. After we found Dylan and Ollie Dogg, it was a perfect and natural fit, so there was really no reason not to add them. They have enhanced our sound so much, we would’ve made a mistake not to add them.

THE MULE: Discuss how the change in the band’s make-up has impacted the over-all sound of the group’s performances, both in the studio and in a live setting.

ZACK MURPHY: Matthew and I don’t have to worry about filling out the sound as much. We can play what we would normally want to play for each of our parts instead of having to also worry about if the sound is too sparse or not full enough. Also, Dylan plays better bass parts than either of us would, and Ollie Dogg plays better harmonica than either of us would, so that definitely helps in the studio.

THE MULE: How has your approach to writing changed since the additions of Dylan and Ollie? Is there more of a group approach with the new songs on HANDLE IT?

ZACK MURPHY: Definitely. Matthew writes the lyrics and such and then the band kinda shapes the song after that with all of our parts and we arrange and change and figure out a good foundation for the song. The songs never stop changing and growing cuz we like to play them at least a little, if not a lot, differently each time. But yeah, they have helped change what we would normally play, write, think of, et cetera.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow, Zack Murphy, Oliver "Ollie Dogg" Horton) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow, Zack Murphy, Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

THE MULE: The new music has sort of a very modern feel and sheen, production-wise, but the lyrics and the vibe are very much based in traditional Blues and Country. Can you give us a bit of insight into the things that have been most influential in giving Blackfoot Gypsies their sound?

ZACK MURPHY: Real music made by real people. We aren’t going for a vintage or modern vibe, we’re simply trying to be our own natural selves. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Blues… it’s all there and it pretty much is the same stuff. It’s what we do best. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it move and groove.

THE MULE: Plowboy Records is a relatively new label run by veteran musicians and long-time industry insiders. What considerations went into the thought process of signing with a small indie label? How did the past experiences of Don (Cusic, who has worked in virtually every aspect of the music industry in a career spanning more than forty years), Shannon (Pollard, a thirty year music veteran and grandson of Country great Eddy Arnold) and Cheetah (Chrome, a co-founder of Cleveland’s legendary punks, the Dead Boys, as well as a producer and solo artist) influence that decision?

ZACK MURPHY: They just seemed really cool and laid back. Obviously they all knew the business, which has helped a ton, but they weren’t looking for a bunch of stuff that they could take from us and it seemed like a real natural and easy fit. Each one of those guys brings a lot of good experience to the table, so it’s nice to have them on our team.

Blackfoot Gypsies (Oliver "Ollie Dogg" Horton, Zack Murphy, Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

Blackfoot Gypsies (Oliver “Ollie Dogg” Horton, Zack Murphy, Matthew Paige, Dylan Whitlow) (photo credit: JON MORGAN)

THE MULE: When was the last time you played Saint Louis? Can you give us an idea of what we can expect when you play the Demo on Sunday night?

ZACK MURPHY: To shake your ass. We haven’t played STL since summer of 2014, so we’re pumped like Arnold to be back. We’re playin’ with some friends, Brother Lee and the Leather Jackals, so it’ll be nice to see those guys. Bring the confetti, we’ll bring the pinata. It’s gonna be a real good time, so treat yo’ self.

THE MULE: The tour runs through just before Christmas. What’s next for Blackfoot Gypsies?

ZACK MURPHY: Currently, we’re planning a European tour for 2016 and working on the next album. We are writing, rehearsing, and recording songs for the new album as we speak.

Thanks, Zack, for taking the time to answer these few questions. We look forward to seeing Blackfoot Gypsies at the Demo on Sunday!

You can order a copy of HANDLE IT on vinyl or CD at the band’s site, at Plowboy Records’ site or you can probably pick one up at the show. Come up and say “Howdy” if you make it out… I’ll be the guy right in front of the stage, drooling like an idjit.


CHUI WAN/BUG CHASER/TONE RODENT

(May 11, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

To say that I was stoked to see Chui Wan, a young psychedelic band from Beijing, China, is something akin to an understatement. All it took was hearing one song from their self-titled second album and, I was hooked. The fact that some old friends, Tone Rodent, were on the bill, alongside the belligerently unhinged octet, Bug Chaser, was merely icing on an already perfect cake. Though, as a touring band, Chui Wan were the de facto headliner, the decision was made to slot them between the two local acts (a choice precipitated by the fact that drummer Li Zichao was using Tone Rodent Adam Dick’s kit; plus, bassist Matty Coonfield was pulling double duty, playing in both Saint Louis bands); to maintain a certain “you were there” sense of continuity, this review will start with Tone Rodent and end with Bug Chaser.

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Tone Rodent (Matty Coonfield, Adam Watkins) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

At some point in the last decade and a half, I reviewed a Tone Rodent show (give me a break if I can’t remember specifics, huh? I’m old!). Here’s what I do remember: I liked them. So, now, all these years (or months or days or hours… whatever) later, I can unequivocally tell you this: I still like them. At this point, Adam Watkins (vocals and guitar) and Matty Coonfield (bass) are the only original members from that band I saw way back when; the current version – with guitarist Jeff Robtoy, keyboard player Mark Early and drummer Adam Dick – were playing what may have been their final show, as Adam Dick is calling it a day and Coonfield is leaving to direct his energies toward Bug Chaser. The band lumbered, rather than tore, through a shambolic 35 minute set that, aside from some minor technical issues was, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable. Watkins and Robtoy complimented and played against each other (as the situation dictated) quite well and Early’s ambient drone added a depth that isn’t usually found in the noisy, hard-edged psychedelia at which Tone Rodent excel. Dick proved himself to be much more than a timekeeper, with precise fills and unexpected flourishes. And, as I’ve said too many times to count, there’s just something in the water supply that lifts Saint Louis bass players to another level; the style of music being played is irrelevant… once I hear that deep-in-the-pocket groove of the bass, I can almost always tell that the player has Saint Louis roots. Matty is no exception and is as solid and as funky as any bassist to come out of the Lou in the past three decades. Six songs into the set, Watkins said, “We have two more. After sixteen years, we’re down to two songs… and we plan to fuck both of ‘em up.” The next tune sounded great but, as the group started “Amen,” Jeff’s guitar cord shorted out but, after much chiding from his bandmates and a save from a Bug Chaser, the final song from the current line-up of Tone Rodent was over, the notes ringing in the ears of the Monday night denizens of Off Broadway.

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (Liu Xinyu; Yan Yulong) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Okay… so this is where a little learnin’ may come in handy. To understand the importance of a group like Chui Wan, I think we should first understand a bit about where they come from. Beijing’s history traces back more than three millennia – under different names – and boasts such cultural and historic sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. As the cultural and political center of the People’s Republic of China, it has also been the scene of political unrest, revolution and protest: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the infamous Gang of Four and, perhaps, the most famous societal event in recent history, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million citizens packed into an area a little over 6,300 square miles (that comes out to something like 3,400 people per square mile… to paraphrase Cheap Trick, “That’s tight!”). That’s the background – the culture and the history – that informs the music and lives of Chui Wan, alongside a diverse musical landscape that includes, individually, Classical and traditional Chinese music, avant garde pioneer John Cage (himself influenced by Eastern music and the philosophy of the I CHING) and, the one major influence that all four members cite: The Velvet Underground. Now, imagine these four young musicians venturing forth into a very different Western culture… a culture where, especially in the United States, celebrity and money are more important than history and tradition; a culture that claims superiority and looks down upon the cultural and societal mores of someone – anyone – who doesn’t share our culture and beliefs… even when we’re on their home turf. Let’s face it… we are arrogant and shallow. So, it’s with that backdrop of major culture shock (not to mention the language barrier… WE expect these young people to be conversant in our language because… “Hey, we’re Americans. What makes you so special that you can’t even learn our language?”) that Chui Wan made their third appearance in the USA (Visa problems caused them a delay of about ten days and seven shows). And what an appearance it was!

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Chui Wan (Wu Qiong; Li Zichao) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As bassist Wu Qiong began an intro riff that would make Tony Levin proud, all of those cultural differences didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered was the music. Though their sound is seemingly tight and structured, there is also a sense of the adventurous, the experimental. I immediately heard an Adrian Belew-era King Crimson influence (though I was assured that reference would have been lost on the quartet) – or to be more accurate, Fripp’s other, more improvisational group of the same period, the League of Gentlemen – as well the free-wheeling feel of some of the early 1970s (mostly) instrumental offerings from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; there were also moments that had me nodding my head, thinking, “Now I get the John Cage reference.” Though many of the band’s compositions border on free-form jazz, it’s Liu Xinyu’s effects-heavy guitar and Li Zichao’s progressive drumming that garners the group its psychedelic label; the sounds Liu coaxes out of his instrument can best be described as “otherworldly,” and isn’t that a prime definition of psychedelic music? Yan Yulong adds atmospheric soundscapes on, not only guitar, but keyboard and – briefly (and very effectively) – viola, as well. Yan, who also supplies the majority of what vocals there are, delivers them in a nearly inaudible drone that further feeds the psychedelic miasma; Wu Qiong has one vocal, a quiet and – dare I say – humble performance that seems a much more comfortable match for her demeanor than is her spirited, funky bass playing. Maybe the most amazing aspect of the inspired (and inspiring) performance is the fact that the four are – literally – wunderkinds… all are in their very early 20s (drummer Li is barely 20) and have been playing – individually and collectively – since an early age (the band’s debut album, WHITE NIGHT, was released in 2012). Even if most of the Monday night denizens were unfamiliar with Chui Wan when they took the stage, after their set, I heard nothing but terms of reverential awe regarding what will long be remembered as a triumphal Saint Louis debut.

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Bug Chaser (Pat Grosch; Kevin Insinna) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a prolonged delay, the eight-headed beast known as Bug Chaser took the stage. If Tone Rodent’s set was shambolic, then Bug Chaser’s could only be labeled chaotic, with Matty Coonfield reveling in the unbridled insanity. There were actual songs played but, naming them would merely be an exercise in futility… all you really need to know is that the band and the crowd were having too much fun to worry about things like song titles. The group was occasionally augmented and exhorted by a gentleman who originally appeared to be a drunken, overzealous fan but, as the set proceeded, seemed to be more of a well-placed prop, dancing and prancing behind the group one minute and playing the role of cocktail waitress the next. The tunes (noises?) ranged from boisterous boogie to raging rock to furious funk (see what I did there?), all delivered with a reckless abandon reminiscent of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars at their most debauched. The percussive unit of Kevin Insinna and Taylor Huff (for I believe it was they of whom I speak) laid down a solid groove, where the notes they didn’t play were as important as the ones they did; their rhythm section inmate, Coonfield, pumped out bass riffs dense enough to caulk a large-scale bathroom at the Mall of America. Zeng Zengerling and Jake Jones are potent forces of guitar showmanship, sharing frantic leads and trading querulous solos over the expansive bottom end, which also included keyboard and effects work from Jake Bremler and Jeff White. Standing over all is the strutting vocal peacock, Pat Grosch, who reminds me of a younger, more boisterous Weird Al Yankovic… but with better hair. For a full-on sonic assault, you’ve gotta see these guys live… until then, check out some tunes at Bandcamp.


ROADKILL GHOST CHOIR: IN TONGUES

(GREATEST HISS RECORDS; 2014)

Roadkill Ghost Choir cover

Hailing from the hinterlands of Central Florida (Deland, to be exact), Roadkill Ghost Choir play a swampy, down-home style of American rock ‘n’ roll akin to fellow Floridians Tom Petty and the venerable Lynyrd Skynyrd, with just a pinch of new country-pop sheen (perhaps to make it more accessible to a generation of consumers brought up on AMERICAN IDOL and THE VOICE). The Shepard brothers (singer Andrew, drummer Maxx and bassist Zach), alongside guitarist Stephen Garza and Kiffy Myers on pedal steel, are creating quite a stir with their live shows, as well as their debut album, IN TONGUES.

Roadkill Ghost Choir (Zach Shepard, Kiffy Myers, Andrew Shepard, Maxx Shepard, Stephen Garza) (publicity photo)

Roadkill Ghost Choir (Zach Shepard, Kiffy Myers, Andrew Shepard, Maxx Shepard, Stephen Garza) (publicity photo)

The album kicks off with “Slow Knife,” a jangly, stomping dose of country psychedelia with Myers’ haunting pedal steel moans weaving in and out of the vibrant noise. I must admit, however, that Andrew’s voice does take some getting used to in this setting; not that it’s bad… just not what I was expecting. “Hwy” is a hypnotic sort of track, featuring massive bass and drum from Zach and Maxx, unobtrusive but effective keyboards (electric piano from Garza, organ from guest Thayer Sarrano and some “horn” augmentation from Andrew), a perfect bit of banjo from Kiffy and great, atmospheric guitar from the tandem of Stephen and Andrew. Even though they have nothing in common, the song reminds me of Johnny Cash’s version of “(Ghost) Riders In the Sky.” Pounding drums and a fuzzed-out guitar propel “Down and Out,” with hints of NO DEPRESSION country and an abundance of Myers’ plaintive pedal steel adding fuel to the already raging fire; the last minute or so take a definite alt-rock swerve that is not unappealing. The song also features great vocals (yeah… Andrew’s voice does grow on you rather quickly) and guitar. “A Blow To the Head” is a spooky, slow grinder until the second half, when a tortured scream kicks it into a cool progressive rock thing. With lyrics like, “Stop moving towards that perfect sound/There’s blood in the mouths of American hounds/Stop moving, the sky will fall again/A blow to the head,” this is one of a hand full of truly spine-tingling tunes from the past year. Somewhere in the swirling gloom, Kevin Thomas guests on trumpet. The poppy psychedelia of “I Could See Everything,” featuring Andrew on synthesizer and acoustic guitar and Kiffy’s pedal steel, reminds me of the Beatles… if they had been fronted by Syd Barrett. The track is very short and very trippy.

Andrew’s beautiful dream-pop vocals and a throbbing bass highlight “No Enemy.” There’s a cool, fuzzed-out and crackly guitar that runs throughout the number and an uptick in the beats-per-minute that drives the final couple of minutes of the song. “Womb” is a sleepy, comfortable – dare I say – womb-like tune with some nice, understated piano (this time, Maxx and Andrew do the honors), some pretty pedal steel and trumpet (again, from Kevin Thomas) and some beautiful guitar washes. “Lazarus, You’ve Been Dreaming” features layered and echoey vocals, an odd drum signature, dreamy synthesizer passages and masterfully understated guitars (from Stephen, Andrew and James Nefferdorf). The tune continually threatens to break out with some wicked hard rock strokes, but is reined in right before the whole thing explodes. That combustible strain is palpable, making this one of the strongest numbers on the record. Clocking in at more than eight minutes, “Dead Friend” is even more languid and dream-inducing than the previous track. The song is highlighted by tribal drumming and psychedelic stabs of both electric piano (from Kiffy Myers) and guitar. The pedal steel and trumpet are soothing undercurrents, while the vocals are deeper in the mix and barely peeking out from the gauzy haze, adding to the waking-dream vibe of the piece. “See You Soon” has the gentle feel of one of those mid-’60s ballads from Small Faces or the Kinks. Andrew’s acoustic guitar has a certain ringing quality, while Kevin’s trumpet and Thayer Sarrano’s electric piano add nice touches. It’s a gentle lullaby and a nice way to end the album.

Roadkill Ghost Choir (Maxx Shepard, Andrew Shepard, Kiffy Myers, Zach Shepard, Stephen Garza) (uncredited photo)

Roadkill Ghost Choir (Maxx Shepard, Andrew Shepard, Kiffy Myers, Zach Shepard, Stephen Garza) (uncredited photo)

It’s kinda hard to believe that IN TONGUES is the band’s debut album; there are groups out there who have been at this whole rock and roll game for more years than these guys have been alive and have yet to release a record this well conceived and executed. Visit the band’s website, roadkillghostchoir.com, for tour dates and to order your copy of IN TONGUES; of course, you could always visit your local record store to pick one up, too.


TOMMY JAMES: A TALK WITH THE ’60S ICON ABOUT HIS SURPRISING CAREER

(SOON TO BE A SCORSESE-PRODUCED MOVIE)

Tommy James

Story and interview by KEVIN RENICK, writing for The Mule

Children, behave!/That’s what they say when we’re together.” “Look over yonder, what do you see?/The sun is a-risin’/Most definitely.” “C’mon everyone, we got to get together now./ Oh yeah, love’s the only thing that matters anyhow.” If you’re of a certain age, you know those lyrics as the opening verses of some of the most beloved and successful pop songs of all time, and chances are you can sing the rest of the words with no trouble. For those compositions are just part of the amazing pop catalogue of Mister Tommy James, one of the most successful recording artists of all time. James had an unprecedented series of major hits in the 1960s: “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball of Fire,” “Draggin’ the Line.” And those are just the HUGE hits, there were many, many others that charted. But among the countless surprises in James’ career is how so many of his songs had a second life due to all the cover versions: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts scored a Top 10 hit with “Crimson and Clover” in 1981, teen star Tiffany scored her biggest hit with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and new waver Billy Idol had a dance floor smash with his incendiary take on “Mony Mony.” Both of the latter were in the late ’80s, and kept James’ name out there despite all the changes in the music industry. This is not to even mention the many James compositions that ended up in movies and TV shows. His songs have truly been omnipresent in the history of American rock and roll.

Nothing, however, is as startling all these years later as the too-weird-to-be-believed saga of James’ years at Roulette Records, which it turns out, was a front for organized crime. In his suspense-filled 2010 autobiography ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE WITH TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, James not only gives plenty of interesting details about his hits themselves, he tells a tale of being under the thumb of mobsters like Morris Levy that is so gripping, it sounds like something Martin Scorsese would dream up. In fact, the DENVER POST called the book “the music industry version of GOODFELLAS.” Not only that, one of Scorsese’s producers, Barbara DeFina (who worked on GOODFELLAS, CASINO and CAPE FEAR) is set to produce the James film. It’s all pretty heady, enthralling stuff for an amiable kid from Niles, Michigan who just wanted to play music.

CoverArt-book

Tommy James was born Thomas Gregory Jackson in 1947, and though born in Dayton, Ohio, his family moved to Niles early on. He was a child model at the age of four, and formed his first band, the Tornadoes, when he was only 12. Soon after, the band changed their named to the Shondells. In 1964, a local DJ, at WNIL in Niles, named Jack Douglas launched a small label, Snap Records, which recorded some early Shondells tunes. One of these was “Hanky Panky,” a catchy little ditty penned by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Some locals dug it, but there was no budget for promotion at the time, and the song was largely forgotten about. But in the first of countless legendary incidents in James’ stellar career, something unpredictable happened. In 1965, Bob Mack, who was a local dance promoter in Pittsburgh, found a copy of “Hanky Panky” in a used record bin, and began playing it at his dance clubs. An enterprising bootlegger then started pressing copies of the disc, and it sold an estimated 80,000 copies in Pittsburgh in ten days. By early 1966, the tune was Number One on Pittsburgh radio. And, after James got word of what was happening and flew to Pennsylvania to meet with Mack and Chuck Rubin (the talent booker for Mack’s clubs), the resulting promotional efforts led “Hanky Panky” all the way to the top of the singles charts by July of 1966. Much had already changed for James by then; he no longer even had the services of the original Shondells. But Tommy met a five-man group called the Raconteurs at the Thunderbird Club in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and found great chemistry with them. So the rechristened Tommy James and the Shondells started doing shows and shopping for record labels. Rubin, an experienced industry type, suggested they go to New York, where the majority of the key labels were located. And one of their last stops was Roulette Records. The head of the label, Morris Levy, was initially out of town and James and company heard nothing back at first. Oh, but the story was to get so much more interesting than the young Tommy could ever imagine, and we should hear it right from him.

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Suffice to say that James was soon recording all those classic hits that every baby boomer has memorized, and achieving his wildest, most improbable dreams… although not quite the way he imagined. I was lucky enough to speak with James by phone last fall, and I began our talk by telling him how much his music meant to me in the late ’60s. I had a particular obsession with the song “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I thought was beautiful and produced just brilliantly. That song was my favorite of the year in 1969, and the first album I can ever remember buying with my own money was THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, released that year. James is an amiable, charming person in conversation, and he is well aware of how incredible his story is. He’s involved in the ongoing development of the movie based on his life and book, and he still tours and releases new music. I first met James in the late ’70s, when I attended a New Year’s Eve show he was performing while I suffered from a horrible cold. James said he played in Saint Louis the first time in 1966, but couldn’t remember the venue. What follows is an edited version of our lengthy interview.

THE MULE: Tommy, it is so amazing to talk with you. I wanted to start out by telling you how much I loved “Sweet Cherry Wine” back in the ’60s. It was really one of the first songs that gave me chills, every time. I couldn’t wait to hear it on the radio when I listened.

TJ: Well thank you. It’s as close as we ever got to a protest song. It’s a semi-religious song. There was no such thing as being politically correct back in the ’60s. The singles that you did, and we were basically doing singles then, were like snapshots of where you were as a human being. That was one of the songs in the mix between the CRIMSON AND CLOVER album and CELLOPHANE SYMPHONY, the magic year of 1969. All the records we did were so different from one another. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was so different from “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which was in 3/4 time and, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was so different from “Crimson and Clover.” We outsold the Beatles with singles.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s amazing. And things were so crazy back then, the way rock and roll was progressing.

TJ: In late 1968, we were out on the road with Hubert Humphrey, we did the presidential campaign. And the whole industry changed from singles to albums in the 90-day period we were out with him. In August of ’68, when we left, all the major acts were singles acts… Gary Puckett, the Buckinghams, the Rascals and us and the Association. And we came back 90 days later and it was Blood Sweat and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash. The world had turned upside down in the music business. So we were very lucky to be working on “Crimson and Clover” at that very moment. Because that single allowed us to make the jump from singles to albums, from “Top 40” to FM progressive album rock. I don’t think there’s any other single we ever did that would have allowed us to do that in one shot like that.

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: “Crimson and Clover” and then, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” I wanted to say that those songs were among the first I remember hearing where background vocals were a key texture and added to the haunting nature of the song. You were doing something unique, I couldn’t even explain it at the time, but those background harmonies were amazing. Can you explain a little about what you were trying to do?

TJ: As music got more and more complicated, the background parts became actually almost part of the lead. With “Crimson and Clover,” it happened almost by accident. Basically, we had done the record with tremolo and we put it together really quickly. With tremolo on the guitar, that was sort of the signature sound. When we got to the end, we had the fade, we knew what was going to be there. We just decided to throw tremolo on it. So, we actually recorded the backgrounds straight, and then piped ‘em out through the guitar amp, and then mic’d the guitar amp, turned on the tremolo like we’d done with the guitars, and brought it back thru the board. The point was, it became sort of the signature sound of the record and it became our biggest selling single.

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

THE MULE: Do you have a personal favorite story about a song from back then? About where something came from, for example?

TJ: Well, we’re doing a movie. We’re gonna try to put as much of this stuff in the movie as we can.

THE MULE: I read that. It sounds amazing. Wasn’t Scorsese interested in the film?

TJ: His producer, Barbara DeFina, is going to produce our movie. She produced HUGO, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, CAPE FEAR. She’s an incredible talent. She’s doing the movie of the book.

THE MULE: And you’re a consultant on it?

TJ: Sure, sure. And we’re going to be working very closely with the screenplay writer, Matthew Stone. Over the next few months or so, the screenplay will be put together. And also, we have several more stories that will be in the movie, than we had time for in the book.

THE MULE: I read your book with amazement, I gotta say. I just couldn’t believe it. I never knew any of that stuff about the mob, I just liked your music so much. And my jaw dropped as I read about all those shenanigans you went through with Morris Levy. How did you even keep your cool?

TJ: Well, what it boiled down to is that we constantly had to ask ourselves if it would be smarter to get out of this thing. When we were first approaching record labels in New York, “Hanky Panky,” our first record, sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh. Really unexpectedly so. I grabbed the first bar band I could find because I couldn’t put the original group back together. We were in NY two weeks later and we made the rounds of all the record companies to try to get a national or international deal. So, this is spring of 1966. I’m 19 years old and we get to New York, and we’re taken around by a couple of people who had been in the business a long time. We got a yes from CBS, RCA, Atlantic. And Kama Sutra who were hot at the time. And the last place we took the record to was Roulette. And you know, at the end of the day we didn’t pay much attention. I thought it would be great to be with Columbia Records, one of the big corporate labels at the time. So, I went to bed that night feeling real good. And we woke up the next morning, and all of a sudden all the record companies that had said YES the day before, suddenly said, “Tom, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to pass.” And I said, “What d’ya mean you’re gonna have to pass? I thought we had a deal!” And finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth, that Morris Levy at Roulette Records had called all the other companies, and basically backed them down. (James speaks in a low-pitched mobster voice) “’This is my fuckin’ record company, back off!” And they did. Red flags went up right there… what was so special about Roulette? We’d heard rumors, but didn’t believe it. But apparently, we were gonna be on Roulette, because the first offer, we couldn’t refuse! (he laughs) All of a sudden, we started recognizing people we were doing business with. We’d meet somebody up in Morris’ office, and a week later we’d see them on the TV news being taken out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs. Y’know… “Didn’t we just see them in Morris’ office?”

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

THE MULE: That is NOT exactly what a musician hopes for from their first label.

TJ: No! Roulette was basically a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. In addition to being a functioning record label. But if we had gone with one of the corporate labels, I’ll tell you what would’ve happened. We would have been turned over to an in-house A&R guy and that’s probably the last that anyone would have heard of us. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”

THE MULE: Oh, that’s hard to believe. You think so? So, was that sort of the trade off you had to make, that you were sacrificing money for the artistic freedom you were given?

TJ: Sure. But we didn’t know that at first. It took us a while to realize that we weren’t going to get mechanical royalties. We weren’t gonna get paid for all this. Of course, we made money from all kinds of other directions, like touring, commercials. All that. But mechanical royalties, no. We had to constantly ask ourselves if we wanted to take our life in our hands and try to get outta this thing. Or, because we were having such great success there, if we could just keep our mouth shut and go along, and have the hits. Because we were making so much money in other areas, like touring. I think we made the right decision to stay. ‘Cause it worked out for us. Plus, I get to tell the story now. But we ended up doing about $110 million in record sales with Roulette.

THE MULE: There was a point in the book that was really cathartic, when you finally told Levy off after years of being kinda screwed, and not getting the money you earned. It felt like a big moment.

TJ: (He laughs) I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Because the truth is, every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy and Roulette, I have to stop myself. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. That is true. However, having said that, there were a lot of bitter feelings. And there was a lot of danger up there. It was a dangerous place to be.

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: You mean like, were there times you feared for your life?

TJ: Yes! One of the times, y’know, they were having this big gang war in New York. The Gambino family was taking over, and Morris was on the wrong side. And Morris left for Spain and wasn’t heard from for almost a year. And the rest of us were just left holding the bag at Roulette. So, my attorney told me flat out, “I think it would be a real good idea if you left town ’til this damn thing blows over.” There was almost 300 people killed. Bodies were flying around all over the place. He said, “If they can’t get Morris, they’re likely to go after what’s making Morris money, and that’s YOU.” So I said, “Oh, that’s freakin’ great!” So I had to go to Nashville. I went to Nashville and did an album with Elvis’ guys. That was in 1971. And then I get back, thinking everything was over, and Tommy Eboli, Morris’ partner, who was the head of the family by that time, all of a sudden he gets killed. That’s when I exploded. I said, “I gotta get out of here. I’m done.” But Morris wasn’t gonna let me go. He said (low voice again) “You’re not goin’ anywhere.” So, I basically went about destroying my own career. Essentially, I stopped making any more records for Morris. I’d write stuff and ,sometimes I’d record it, but I wouldn’t turn it in.

THE MULE: That was purposeful on your part?

TJ: Oh yeah. God, yes. It was a horrible thing to have to do. But I finally got out by 1974. I went with Fantasy Records, on the west coast. But, we were just real lucky to make it out of there in one piece. So the gist of the book and the movie is, that here we are, trying to have this career in rock and roll, with this dark and sinister and frightening story going on behind the scenes, and we can’t talk about it.

THE MULE: There can’t be too many rock stars whose career went like this. It’s quite unique!

TJ: Probably true. When we started writing the book, Martin Fitzpatrick, my co-author and I, we were originally gonna call the book CRIMSON AND CLOVER, we were gonna write about the hits, and making records and writing songs, and that would’ve been great. But we got about a third of the way into it and,, we realized that if we don’t tell the whole Roulette story, we’ll be cheating ourselves and everybody else. I was very nervous about finishing the thing. Cause some of these guys were still walking around. And it’s not like we were talking about a huge amount of criminal activity. I mean, there was some. But the fact you were talking about this stuff could’ve gotten you killed. So I was nervous. And we put it on the shelf for about three years. And finally, in 2006, the last of the Roulette regulars as I called them, passed on. And we finally felt like we could finish the book, which took us two or three years to do. When we did, we immediately got a deal with Simon and Schuster. They just gobbled it right up.

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: And you started getting all those royalties that you were cheated out of before.

TJ: Of course. But then, at the end of all that, we started getting calls for the movie rights and for the Broadway rights. It’s gonna be a Broadway show after that. So, this is gonna be a real interesting time.

THE MULE: What kind of a shift, aesthetically, happened for you with your music after the Roulette era ended?

TJ: Well, in the ’70s, by that time music itself had changed. We kind of went with that flow. The band and I had broken up in 1970, so I was by myself doing this. The first place I went was Fantasy, and we had two albums out there. They did pretty well for us. Fantasy was a great place to be, an interesting place. Couldn’t be any further geographically from Roulette than it was. And then. after those two records, I came back to New York and signed with Millennium Records, which was RCA. And had three more chart records, one went number one, “Three Times in Love,” in 1980. We were very lucky because I took three years off in 1981 and sort of collected my publishing and got a lot of my masters back. And it was really a good time creatively. Finally, in 1988, I began recording again. We were getting all kinds of cover records in the 1980s. A lot of movies and stuff. And I released a record in 1990, the HI-FI album. That did very well for us. And that’s kind of where the book ends, in 1990. ‘Cause that’s when Morris died. He was indicted in 1986, and was put on trial in 1988. And he lost. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But, he died before he could serve any time. He died of colon cancer in 1990.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Did you ever have any final conversation with him during those days?

TJ: The end of the book and of the movie are gonna be quite touching. Because, basically, what happened is that he asked for me. As I’m rushing out the door to do a gig in Chicago – this actually happened – the first gig on this promotional tour that I was doing for the HI-FI album. It was the first album I’d put out in 10 years, so it was a big deal. And Morris was asking for me. I didn’t realize how sick he was. And Howard (an accountant at Roulette Records) said, “If you wanna see him, you better get up to the farm right away.” So I said, well okay, I’ll be back the next day. And he died that night. So I never officially got a chance to say goodbye to him. The last scene in the movie is going to be, where I am telling this story. In the book, I’m actually telling the story after he died, to a reporter there in Chicago. I go down from the theatre, about two in the morning. It’s a beautiful, crisp night in Chicago. And I’m by myself. And we’re gonna go back to the hotel. The limo driver is snoozing. And I get in the back of the limo, and I sort of have this imaginary conversation with Morris. This is at the end of the movie, and I get a chance to say goodbye to him that way. The funny part is, in the film, at the very end, the closing credits happen right then. And the limo takes off, you can see the Chicago skyline. And the credits start rolling. And this new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that I did with the original Shondells. I brought them up from Pittsburgh. Took ‘em in the studio, and we did this slow, beautiful version of the song at the end.

THE MULE: Oh man, that gives me chills.

TJ: The funny part is, the words work so well. Because Morris was gone, and we’re alone now! It worked so well in this somber moment, just as well as they did in the original teeny bop love song from the ’60s.

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

THE MULE: There are three of the Shondells still alive, right?

TJ: Yes. Mike, Ronnie and Eddie. Course, I’m out on the road now every year with a new group of Shondells.

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about one of the many covers of your songs… there’s been a zillion. But, the Billy Idol version of “Mony Mony,” which became a huge dance hit. You surely knew about this obscene four-line chant, that people started doing in the song. How did that come about?

TJ: That happened on a spring break by a bunch of kids from Chicago, who went down to Fort Lauderdale during the ’70s. And they started doing that to the song. I don’t know… it was amazing, they would sometimes do that when I was onstage. And I thought I was getting booed offstage. That just kinda happened, one of those spontaneous things the college kids just made up.

THE MULE: Two other funny things I read. You actually said NO to George Harrison about something in 1968? What was that all about?

TJ: Well it wasn’t that I said no. George Harrison wrote with a group he was producing, called Grapefruit. What happened was, when the Beatles started Apple, it started out as a publishing company before it was a record company. And their idea was to write songs for all their friends. For other artists. That was the original reason for Apple. George wrote me a bunch of songs. “Mony Mony” had been the biggest record of the decade in England. It was actually bigger over there than it was here. So, they wrote me oh, eight or ten songs. But they all sounded like “Mony Mony”. They brought ‘em over here and delivered ‘em to my manager. At that time, we had moved on to “Crimson and Clover,” to sort of another sound. And so I never really got a chance to do those songs. And I felt terrible, I never got a chance to thank George for what he had done. I just always felt bad about that.

THE MULE: Another thing I did not know. You almost died in 1970, right?

TJ: Well, that’s true. I collapsed onstage in Alabama. That was real scary. I was popping a lot of uppers at the time. And they all caught up with me onstage. I was lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. It was close.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the more recent songs. I was struck by “Megamation Man.” It’s an interesting song, with that little boy’s voice on it. Was he one of your kids, or just a kid you found?

TJ: No, it was one of the kids of my engineer, with whom I was making the record at the time. I wrote that song back in 1994, actually. It got recorded about ten years later. And it’s about what’s called the new world order. I guess you could call it the police state that’s being set up right now around the world.

THE MULE: Is megamation a real word?

TJ: I made it up, as far as I know. It’s about the character that scripture calls “the anti-Christ.” It’s a strange topic to be writing about in rock and roll, but I just felt the urge to do it.

THE MULE: How much do you allow politics or topical concerns to affect your music? Early on, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was an exception, but do you have a line there that you don’t want to cross when you are writing something?

TJ: Sometimes…. my view is that, when you write a song, it can come from several different places. It can be something that you imagine. But, when you write a song, you are writing a little story. No matter how trivial the lyrics, you are writing a story. It’s sort of a snapshot. It doesn’t have to be about real life. But sometimes it is. “Megamation Man” was about a topic that I felt strongly about, and wanted to make it musical. It’s not easy to do that sometimes. But every now and then, I have the urge to do that.

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

THE MULE: And you re-recorded a new version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” What made you do that?

TJ: My engineer came to me and was playing the piano. He’s a great musician. And he played me this sort of gospel version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” And I said, “We gotta do that.” ‘Cause, really, that’s a gospel song. And so we created a little choir, and I was just really happy with that record. In 2006, we released the HOLD THE FIRE album. And we had three top five adult contemporary records from that album. One of them went Number One, “Love Words.” And so, that was our first time back on the charts for quite some time. We were gonna release “SCW” as a single but we decided not to.

THE MULE: I also wanted to mention the song “Give It All,” which I thought was really strong. It seemed like you had reached some new kind of powerful place as a vocalist with songs like that. Did you feel that yourself?

TJ: Thank you. To me, my favorite album that I have done in the last 40 years is our Christmas album. (I LOVE CHRISTMAS, released in 2008 on Aura Records) I have never sounded better vocally. It all just came together. I recorded it with Jimmy Wisner, who I had first started making records with in 1967. Just this last Christmas, we released it on vinyl, as well. But I have been really blessed with being able to keep my voice. In my view, I’ve gotten a little better. I’ve gained almost an octave that I didn’t have as a kid. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Are you still enjoying making music just as much as in the old days?

TJ: Oh. yeah, I am. When we play on the road, I see three generations of fans at the concerts and it’s amazing.

THE MULE: Well, a lot of us grew up with your songs and just have vivid memories associated with them. There must be people that come up and tell you stories all the time, right? Poignant stories about what songs meant to them? Does anything stand out?

TJ: The funny thing is that radio was a much more intimate media than movies or TV or anything else and, your record on the radio was more intimate than anything. So, when people come up to me, they have memories attached to that song. And so do I! I feel that way about other acts during that period of time, like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. I have a lot of memories attached to the music. People feel like they know you. And your audience becomes like an extended family. It’s as close to a religious experience as you can have in rock and roll.

THE MULE: Who were some of the artists who affected or influenced you when you were coming up in music?

TJ: Oh, man… all of them. I listened to the Beach Boys’ records and I’m there. The Four Seasons. I used to PLAY a lot of that stuff, it wasn’t just listening to it. I was in cover bands in high school and so forth. So I played all this stuff. “1-2-3″ by Len Barry. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that record. It’s amazing what music does for me. I can tell you what year it was, where I was in my life, I can almost tell you what I had for dinner that night.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Well Tommy, there are so many other things I’d love to ask you, but I know we have to wind down now. Do you have certain hopes for your musical future, things that you want to accomplish that you haven’t quite done yet?

TJ: Well, you know we just started our YouTube channel. YouTube people came to me over the previous Christmas holiday and asked me if I would like to have a YouTube channel, because our catalog was so deep. And I said, “Yeah. What’s THAT?” (laughs) And they told me. And it’s all your past stuff, plus new stuff. So every two to three weeks, we put up a new video on the YouTube channel. It’s usually me talking about the song or where it came from. And we’re gonna keep putting up new music.

THE MULE: Finally, and this is silly, but I gotta ask. Does your baby still do the hanky panky?

TJ: Oh yeah. It never stopped. When we still play that record, the place kind of explodes.

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

By the time Tommy James was truly free of the Morris Levy craziness, he had sold millions upon millions of records, had become a household name, and found himself with a tale to tell that would give him a wildly improbable entry into the movie business. The ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC book talked about earlier is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the depth of James’ journey. James only released a few records in the 70s (the Shondells era was long over by then); these included CHRISTIAN OF THE WORLD, IN TOUCH and MIDNIGHT RIDER, but few of these yielded hits as huge as what had come before, although “Three Times in Love” was a 1980 single that made it to number 19 on the Billboard chart. But, after that, there was no new James material until 1990’s HI-FI. James’ last new album was 2006’s HOLD THE FIRE. There have been many compilations, of course; with a catalogue as deep as James’, record companies will always want to keep the reissues coming. And James has a YouTube channel well worth investigating, because he talks about various songs himself in a witty and lively manner. The link for the channel is here: www.youtube.com/user/TJShondells. James also continues to tour, both solo and with a new version of the Shondells. Although he could easily coast on his past glories, James still loves songwriting and performing, and continues to write new stuff. He’s a very lucky guy and he knows it. Despite the royalties he was once screwed out of by Morris Levy, not only was the wrong eventually righted in a way that gave James unprecedented financial security, Levy unintentionally did James a peculiar favor by making his particular tale so interesting that new life was given to the music years later, and James would get the opportunity to work with top people in film and theatre. Whatever “hanky panky” happened in the past, Tommy James is enjoying some “sweet cherry wine,” indeed, these days, and the audiences still turn out in droves for his shows. His is an amazing rock and roll tale, and we can look forward to much, much more from James in the near future. For tour dates and more, visit Tommy’s official site: www.tommyjames.com and, of course, ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC is available at all of the finest book repositories and the usual on-line places.


BERNIE TORME: FLOWERS AND DIRT

(RETROWREK RECORDS; English import, 2014)

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To most here in the States, the name Bernie Torme probably means very little. First of all, he is not the son of “Velvet Fog,” Mel, but, if you are one of the legions of followers of one John “Ozzy” Osbourne’s particularly lucrative solo career, you will remember Bernie as the hot-shot gun-for-hire brought in to continue the DIARY OF A MADMAN tour after original (and much lauded) guitarist Randy Rhoads found himself on the receiving end of a gravedigger’s hole-filling shovel in early 1982. Before saving Osbourne’s bacon, Torme had made a name for himself with Gillan, the band led by former and future Deep Purple frontman, Ian, appearing on three albums between 1979 and 1981 (including the UK chart-topper FUTURE SHOCK) and subsequent tours for each.

Gillan, circa 1980 (Bernie Torme and Ian Gillan) (uncredited photo)

Gillan, circa 1980 (Bernie Torme and Ian Gillan) (uncredited photo)

After leaving the Ozzy Osbourne situation behind (it was never the guitarist’s intent to be a permanent replacement for Rhoads), Bernie formed Electric Gypsies, eventually renaming the group Torme (and bringing ex-Girl singer, Phil Lewis, along for the change). After a total of six albums (including an excellent solo record called TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, just re-released on Bernie’s own Retrowrek label and worth picking up), and experiencing minimal success, Torme hooked up with Dee Snider and Iron Maiden’s original drummer, Clive Burr, in the band Desperado. 1999 saw the release of WHITE TRASH GUITAR, credited to Bernie Torme’s Electric Gypsies, but for all intents and purposes, a solo record; in 2005, Bernie teamed with powerhouse drummer Robin Guy and his old Gillan bandmate, bassist John McCoy to form GMT (Guy, McCoy, Torme). The trio released two great studio albums and one live document in five years. Now, some fifteen years after his last studio album of new solo material, Bernie is back with FLOWERS AND DIRT, a two disc set with 20 totally unique Torme tracks.

Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)

Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)

The first track, “Crash and Burn,” is a chugging rocker, reminiscent of Bernie’s guitar hero, Rory Gallagher; the lead and solo work, however, are unmistakably Torme. Once a distraction on early releases, Torme offers a solid vocal performance, no doubt refined by his years leading GMT. A muddy sounding bass and a noisy, stick-in-your-skull riff fuels “Partytown,” allowing Bernie to run off some high-register solos. The lyrics, as the song’s title implies, are of the basic, throw-away variety. The vocals, again, are rock solid. “Blood Run Cold” blasts in with a hefty power chord that has you imagining a BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY type scenario where some unfortunate (oh… Death, let’s say) standing in front of a massive stack of Marshalls is blown completely off the stage (and, maybe, through the back wall). As usual, the guitars are top-notch, the rhythm section (bassist Chris Heilmann, drummer Simon Jeffrey) is rock hard, the lyrics are a vast improvement over “Partytown” and, somewhere, buried deep in the mix is a bluesy harmonica (could it be Bernie’s old boss, Ian Gillan, making an uncredited guest appearance?)… this song just sounds LOUD! Slamming into your earholes with a Zeppelin-like riff and a John Bonham bottom end, “Your Voodoo” features Torme as a veritable guitar army, with finest-kind slide work and swirling, buzz sawing, psychedelically influenced runs thorughout. “Mister Fixit” has a great, bluesy “Train Kept A-Rollin’” kinda feel, with Phil Spalding offering up a nice, strolling bass line and Bernie delivering some awesome hair band inspired solos. Overall, this is one fantastic song. With Jeffrey playing on the rims and Torme’s funky, grooving guitar, “No Lips (Tsunami Blues)” has a slow-burning ZZ Top thing happening. There’s great interplay between the rhythm guitar, bass and drums and another awesome, slashing solo from Bernie.

Devil and the Deep Blue” is flat-out Americana – bordering on new country. Even the shredding multi-layered guitars have that certain down-home vibe. The lyrics are a notch above and Torme’s vocals add a suitably menacing touch. Fellow Irishmen Bono and U2 have attempted songs like this, but they just manage to sound condescending (okay… to be fair, Bono ALWAYS sounds condescending); Bernie, Chris and Simon make it work and make it sound right. The guitar on “Lockjaw” has a kind of Chuck Berry-cum-John Sykes dichotomy thing going on. The tune itself is of the “storming-the-beaches,” chugging rocker variety. “Everybody Needs Love” has a distinct “Give Me Your Money Please” (Bachman-Turner Overdrive) vibe, with heavy drums (by Torme’s regular skin-pounder, Ian Harris) and another great guitar melody. The slow, near-balladic “Good Man Down,” while totally Torme, features an uncharacteristically understated guitar that still manages to bite, heartfelt lyrics and one of the most passionate vocals of Bernie’s career. The track leads into “Warpaint,” a swampy, foot-stomping blues number with Torme heating things up on the dobro. The major problem with the song is its length; it’s only two-minutes long and seems to just be hitting its stride before an all-too-soon end.

Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)

Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)

I think that “Bad Juju” is what they mean by “gut-bucket” rock and roll, with echoey bass and drums, a staccato descending riff from Bernie and a slide guitar lead part. “Mister Bad Luck” is a noirish strolling blues track. Torme’s guitar is about two parts CORRIDOR OF POWER era Gary Moore (another of Bernie’s early influences) and one part Ritchie Blackmore bombast… rather a nice combination. There’s more homage with “Highway Chains,” as Gallagher and Eric Bell (a solid blues player who formed Thin Lizzy and played on their first three albums) are referenced. The highlight of the tune is a fuzzy, over-modulated solo. Bernie’s vocal delivery on “Out in the Cold” has a distinct Bob Dylan feel, as do the symbolic, allusory lyrics: “Wanted you to believe/That you could always leave/Make your move and head on down the road.” Bernie unleashes a wicked, atmospheric minute-long solo over the slow but powerful groove, which reminds me of Epic-era Alice Cooper (maybe “Love’s a Loaded Gun” from HEY STOOPID). “Garden of Earth’s Delight” is a straight-out rocker with lewd, smarmy sounding vocals. Chris Heilmann offers up an intriguing bass sound and Torme does a cool “solo-as-rhythm” kinda thing that works really well within the context of the song.

Bernie Torme (photo credit: TRUDI KNIGHT)

Bernie Torme (photo credit: TRUDI KNIGHT)

Though Bernie has skirted around the issue a bit throughout the entirety of FLOWERS AND DIRT, it isn’t until “Spirit Road” that he lets his more adventurous side appear. The number has a distinctive mix of African and Asian influences, with Harris introducing djembe and Torme approximating the sound of a sitar on his guitar; a very psychedelic offering. At first blush, I was thinking of English highwaymen but, once all of the instruments were introduced, they became Moroccan robbers. The track is topped off with a beautiful acoustic solo from Bernie. “Turn of the Tide” starts off as a gently swaying folk tune and the vocals keep that folky feel throughout as brutally heavy drums and bass – not to mention some blistering guitar runs – drive the song home. The epic “Stoneship” has a big, heavy Black Sabbath feel with lyrics that are vaguely reminiscent of Sabbath’s SEVENTH STAR record. There’s a weird kind of swing in the doomy, dirge-like tempo that gives a feeling of dread. That feeling is only heightened by a monolithic guitar break. The final track, “Outlaw Blues,” is an honest-to-goodness cowboy song, featuring campfire harmonica, a semi-acoustic guitar and a twangy vocal turn from Bernie. It would seem as though Mister Torme waited for the last fourth of the album to veer away from the bluesy hard rock that he does so well, proving that he is most capable of just about any style. A couple of the more “standard” heavy rockers bog down a bit, but the rest of the record more than makes up for any shortcomings. The twenty tracks here-in have reminded me why I always loved Bernie Torme; it’s music that should be in everybody’s home.