It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan has been gone for nearly thirty years. Vaughan, who reached legendary status in the 1980s for his fluid, fiery guitar playing with his own band, Double Trouble, and on David Bowie’s LET’S DANCE album, was killed in a helicopter crash near Aspen, Colorado in 1990. The man who was at the forefront of a serious Electric Blues revival in the United States was a little over a month shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. His importance and his influence are still felt in the music played by artists across the country and, in fact, the world.
STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (photo credit: EBET ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES)
That influence is particularly abundant in Saint Louis, as guitarists like Steve Pecaro and Tony Campanella seemingly work overtime to keep the music alive in a city that is known for the Blues. In fact, Pecaro and his band have hosted an annual STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN TRIBUTE show for two decades; the 20th anniversary show, sponsored by Pecaro’s Guitar Shop and radio station KSHE-95, will be happening on Saturday, November 24 at the Pageant. I know that a lot of so-called “tribute” bands are currently cleaning up in a market that seems perpetually stagnant. However, this show is not what most of us have come to think of as a “Tribute” show. Not even close! This is a celebration of the life and music of one of the greatest rockin’ Blues players of all time. With Pecaro, Campanella’s band and another Saint Louis mainstay, Mike Zito, are also scheduled to appear, along with special guests. If the below video is any indication, the Pageant will be packed and rockin’ all night long. Tickets remain for the all ages event, available in advance at the usual outlets for twenty bucks or $22.50 on day-of-show at the venue’s box office, with 21 and up balcony seats available for $25. The doors open at 7:00 PM, with Mike Zito taking the stage around 8:00.
(October 14, 2018; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis MO)
Celebrity deaths are not new and I tend to ponder such passings for only a short time before moving on. Exceptions, of course, do happen. The first that really – make that REALLY – affected me was the plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage. Groucho Marx, a couple of months earlier, was big but… the deaths and the devastation to the entire Skynyrd band shook me. Others – Glen Buxton, Rick Nelson, Johnnie Johnson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie– all had profound affects on me, as did the untimely deaths of three musicians I had considered friends: God Lives Underwater vocalist David Reilly, and drummers Dustin Hengst and John “Beatz” Holohan of Damone and Bayside, respectively. With all of these (and a few others), my personal feeling of loss was palpable. All of them pale, however, to the majestic hole left by the departure of Prince Rogers Nelson in April, 2016. He always seemed to be so relatable. Not just to me or his legions of fans, but to those outside of his music’s scope, as well. Heck, even my Dad sat through and liked PURPLE RAIN. So, this was an evening that I knew I must be a part of. I was not disappointed!
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (JAMES OLMSTEAD) (photo courtesy: JEN GRAY/ReviesSTL)
The show was delivered in two parts, as the project’s curator, the Roots’ Questlove, announced (via a recorded introduction). The first would highlight “deep cuts,” while the second half would feature the hits. The deep cuts came mostly from the movie UNDER THE CHERRY MOON. While the material – “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” “I Wonder U,” “New Position,” among them – are fairly unknown to me, as I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but having been arranged and orchestrated by Clare Fischer, they, seemingly, were no-brainers for this show. In a brilliant move, Quest had approached Fischer’s son, Brent, as he had worked with his father on several Prince projects. The first half also featured fairly different takes on songs like “Controversy” and the 1999 album cuts “Automatic” and “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” Complete surprises were the unreleased compositions “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Fat Lady Sings” and “All My Dreams,” leftovers from the UNDER THE CHERRY MOON sessions. More than twenty minutes into the show, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first song that I really recognized straight off. I certainly don’t mean to slightthe talented band accompanying the orchestra; however, “Nothing Compares To U” was the first time that one of the group stepped forward for any type of sustained exposure as electric violinist Ginny Luke delivered a brilliant solo. For the first time, “1999” got some folks on their feet, shaking off the staid, almost sterile orchestra feel of the evening. Miss Luke, likewise, was on her feet, delivering the first minimal vocals of the evening, as well as a bit of booty shakin’ of her own. Bassist CJ Alexander, drummer Skeeter, electronic percussionist Titus Johnson and a still unidentified guitarist, steadfast all night long, seemed energized by the crowd, pushing into new heights of rocking funkiness. If this first half dealt us a somewhat laid-back take on the Prince legacy until the end, that ending certainly did bode well for part two.
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (CJ ALEXANDER) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (THE UNKNOWN GUITARIST) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Totally eschewing that “stay in your seat, this is an orchestra” stuff, as “Let’s Go Crazy” kicked off part two and the front of the stage was crashed by a slew of hearty revellers. A Prince-worthy solo by Luke ended the number. “When Doves Cry” turned into a massive sing-along, with the Fabulous Fox crowd raising their voices as one. It was, for me, the first truly moving moment of the evening, though certain ly not the last. As Ginny Luke became more involved with the crowd, I mentally noted that she had turned into quite the show-stopper. “Little Red Corvette” sounded like it was made to be played in this orchestrated fashion. Mister Alexander delivered an absolutely amazing bass solo and the guitarist (does ANYBODY know this guy’s name?) definitely proved his funky mettle. The inherent funkiness of His Royal Purpleness continued on a cool version of “Kiss.” Though an odd choice (in my opinion) of “Starfish and Coffee” kinda slowed things downat just the right time before spilling into a majestic “Take Me With U.” A snippet of “Irresistible Bitch” followed before morphing into “Raspberry Beret.” The symphony took over for an incredible interlude that led into… the Revolution doing “Purple Rain?” Yes, at this point, the live band sat out and let the legendary moment from PURPLE RAIN speak for itself. Though we had being seeing images and visual cues of Prince all night, his voice literally (and, yes, I have used that word properly) sent a chill down my spine, put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. In fact, there were several audience members wiping away the tears during this one. The orchestra continued to accompany as Prince’s solo hit. It is, without any doubt in my head, one of the greatest, most soulful guitar workouts in the history of rock, funk, soul or any other genre of music. As the live band joined in, the already overwhelming emotions merely intensified. It was a brilliant finish to an absolutely stunning show! But, wait… after most of the musicians had quit the stage, the video screens came alive again, with the Man himself delivering those familiar words: “I ain’t done yet. Chalk one up for the Kid!” As Prince and the Revolution launched into “Baby I’m a Star” before the band and orchestra joined in amidst an insane light show. While the tune and the presentation was cool, it almost seemed anti-climactic after the stirring “Purple Rain.” My thanks go to Questlove and the Prince Trust for bringing this vision to life and for the band, conductorJames Olmstead and the local musicians of the orchestra for an unforgettable evening celebrating the one, the only Prince.
4U: A SYMPHONIC TRIBUTE TO PRINCE (PRINCE) (uncredited photo)
A chance to see Neil Young solo is rare indeed, and Saint Louis fans have not had that opportunity for many years. As a lifelong fan, there was no way I would pass up such an opportunity. I’ve seen Neil with Crazy Horse, with CSNY, with the International Harvesters, with the Stray Gators and more, but the solo acoustic concerts have certainly been among the most memorable. When I flew to San Francisco in 1978 to see Neil at the tiny Boarding House nightclub, that may well have been the most stunning concert I’ve ever seen. So, to say I was stoked for this rare Saint Louis solo show would be an understatement. John Hammond, a grizzled old blues rocker, opened the show despite not being billed. Favoring a bottleneck guitar and looking as craggy as an old oak tree, Hammond was amiable and interesting, but there was some restlessness getting through his set. And it was at least 45 minutes after he finished before Neil finally came out. Dressed all in black, a la Johnny Cash, Neil looked around, waved to the crowd, and finally took his seat. He opened with the nostalgic and totally appropriate Buffalo Springfield-era classic “On the Way Home.” This song speaks volumes to die-hard Rusties, and Neil delivered it with focus and clarity. In fact, it was quickly apparent he was in great voice tonight. At his age, it’s a wonder he can still reach most of those high notes. “Homefires” was next, the first of many surprises. That song was intended for the unreleased HARVEST follow-up, HOMEGROWN, and I couldn’t help but think it was kind of a comment on Neil’s changed love life in the last two years. “I’m free to give my love/But you’re not the one I’m thinking of/So for me, the wheels keep turning/Got to keep those homefires burning.” His ex-wife Pegi might have been the one Young was NOT thinking of. He is certainly thinking about new gal Darryl Hannah, and plenty.
NEIL YOUNG (photo credit: THRASHER)
“Love is a Rose” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ came next, and the latter was a special treat for me. I could not remember hearing that one at a Neil show before, and it was charming. Neil told little anecdotes about many things during the show. He pointed to several guitars and with a couple of them said, “I got that one from Steve Stills. He’s a great guy.” In fact, it soon became apparent that Neil was in an especially chatty mood. This is not typical for him at all. “I feel like I’m talking too much up here,” he remarked at one point. “Like I’m doin’ a job interview or something.” “You’re HIRED!” someone bellowed from the audience, and it was a memorable moment. Young fiddled with his harmonicas, telling his assistant he needed a “C harp.” But when he started the song, he quickly stopped and said, “No, I need a B flat harp!” That song was “Mellow My Mind,” one of three he performed from TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. He told the story of how he and his band had all drunk alot of tequila and gotten into a certain mood, so they could pay tribute to Bruce Berry and others who had died around that time. Neil played great, ringing piano on that song and “Speakin’ Out,” another tune I had never heard him do. The audience went nuts when he talked about a time in his career when he changed the type of songs he was writing, and how the Kent State massacre drove him to write about a new ill wind blowing in. He then performed “Ohio” on solo electric guitar, a truly compelling and unexpected moment, one the sold-out throng reveled in. His only hint about the times we’re living in came when he talked about school shootings and all the “anger” out there, leading to the fiery song “Angry World.” Some of us thought he might bring up our current president, but that did not happen. It was clear that Neil was NOT speaking from a script; spontaneity was the rule of the night.
NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)
For me, after Neil talked about where two of his pianos came from (one had fire damage and he was still able to play it), I was thrilled to hear “There’s a World,” possibly one of his most underrated songs. It’s a dreamlike ode to looking both inward and outward, and Neil played it with great delicacy. That was one of about five songs he played from his most popular album, HARVEST. “Are You Ready For the Country,” a note perfect “Out On the Weekend” and “Heart of Gold” were others. “Love In Mind,” a tender ode from the “ditch-trilogy” live album TIME FADES AWAY, also got an airing… wonderfully evocative. But for hardcore Neil-ites and “Rusties,” the one-two punch of “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” from the not often heralded LENOISE album, were the emotional peak of the show. Both these songs touch on violence, things being out of control, and environmental apocalypse, with love being seen as the one necessity for all of us, the ultimate way to peace. The guitar Neil played on that latter song allows for a certain rich, atmospheric resonance in the simple strumming of a powerful chord. The edgy sound, which potently rang through the entire theatre, accented Neil’s existential lyrics perfectly. “A polar bear was drifting on an ice floe/Sun beating down from the sky/Politicians gathered for a summit/And came away with nothing to decide… Who’ll be the one to lead this world/Who’ll be the beacon in the night?” Most in the audience sat in hushed awe.
Unfortunately, that did NOT include a chowderheaded idiot across the aisle from me, who simply could not shut up. He drew a few complaints with that, but when he stood directly in front of the people behind him and blocked their view, that’s when it got serious. The addle-brained druggie (I was sure he had to be; no one could be that rude just naturally, could they?) earned two visits from ushers, but even that didn’t do it. When he continued to jabber, the guy behind him had enough and probably called him a name. The two men stood up, and I was about to witness a fight, I thought. Right here during Neil’s apt song “Love and War”! The good guy’s girlfriend intervened to stop the violence, instead opting to go for security. They did, and the troublemaker was unceremoniously removed by Security. Maybe it’s just me, but if I paid $100 for a Neil Young ticket (or even more), I would not get so fucked up that I would lose all sense of decorum and risk getting escorted out of the show prematurely. Takes all kinds, I guess.
NEIL YOUNG (uncredited photo)
Neil appeared to not be phased by shouted requests or various fan comments. “What d’ya mean?” he said wryly, when someone shouted “Old Man!” And he remarked “It doesn’t even register” after another comment. It was striking to see this iconic, charismatic legend stalking the stage, walking this way and that way, looking as if he was making it up on the fly. “I would do something if I could remember what I was just thinking,” I believe he said near the end. The show barely grazed the 90-minute mark. He closed with “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Heart of Gold,” and was coaxed out for a single encore, “Tumbleweed,” which he played on ukelele. The tender song was clearly directed at Darryl Hannah, a sweet ode to her positive influence on him (it appears on the soundtrack to their new movie, PARADOX). Always leave ’em wanting more, it is said. Mister Young did just that; the fans were yelling until the lights went on. Altogether an eccentric, often dramatic and mostly moving performance by a performer who is seldom less than mesmerizing. I counted in my head, and with all the configurations I’ve seen him in, I think this was Neil show number 25 for me. Many moments from this one will stay with me. That’s how it tends to be with Neil Young shows.
(9 May, 2018; Peabody Opera House, Saint Louis, MO)
From the Nazz through his various solo outings, masterful production work and, particularly the ten albums released under the Utopia banner, I have been a fan of Todd Rundgren for a very long time. Sure, my previous experience with the live Rundgren had left a bitter taste in my mouth, but… this was Utopia! I knew that I must see the reunited progressive pop quartet that was responsible for the final eight Utopia albums, including ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA and OOPS! WRONG PLANET; Todd would be reuniting with Kasim Sulton, John “Willie” Wilcox and the keyboardist from the initial Todd Rundgren’s Utopia records, Ralph Schuckett,supplanting Roger Powell, who had to step away from playing in 2009 because of his health. When Ralph was forced to recuse himself due to health concerns of his own, Rundgren’s son suggested they check out a guy named Gil Assayas, who stepped into the very large shoes left by Schucket and Powell. Though Sulton and Todd had continued working together since the band’s unofficial dissolution, Utopia had not played together on North American soil for over three decades. Let’s just say that I was more than mildly stoked when I received confirmation that I would be granted access to this show. Before delving into specifics, might I also say that I was not disappointed!
TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The guys very wisely split the show into two very different sets: The first half featured the longer, more progressively-attuned material (primarily from the first offering, TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA and the concept album, RA) with a couple of covers tossed in for good measure; the second half of the show concentrated more on the skewed pop asthetics of later records like UTOPIA and SWING TO THE RIGHT. The stage configuration for the first set featured Rundgren center-stage (was there any doubt about that?), Kasim holding down stage right with Wilcox on a riser behind him and Assayas on a riser stage left… a very prog rock look, fitting perfectly with the music. And, what music! Opening the evening’s festivities wasa medley of classic Utopia tunes – “Utopia,” “The Ikon” and “Another Life” – which Todd affectionately dubbed “the Storm” after the tempest had subsided. “As you may have surmised, there’s a thing going around and I got it!,” the Runt declared before, apparently, hocking up a lung and ripping into a killer version of the Move’s “Do Ya.” The sound was virtually immaculate other than the occasional over-modulation of Todd’s mic. “Freedom Fighters,” one of my favorite tunes from my favorite Utopia album, is up next and Gil Assayas’ keyboards are on-point with that record’s version.
TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Todd Rundgren) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Kasim Sulton) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
The high notes were not coming off too well, as Todd’s affliction seemed to get the better of him on “The Wheel.” Later in the tune, Rundgren’s solo falsetto voice sounded stronger, if a bit strained. A very nice version. Kasim Sulton took the lead on “Back On the Street.” The number has a thumping groove and Todd looked absolutely hyped to be working in a true band environment again. Leonard Bernstein’s kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, “Something’s Coming,” from WEST SIDE STORY, comes off sounding very much like a kitschy-cool Broadway show tune, a great detour from the progressive pop that is this band’s bread and butter. Kasim was back on lead vocals for “Monument,” a rather lightweight attempt at a hit single from Utopia’s last official studio release, 1985’s POV. The song’s break, however, does feature a really nice solo from Rundgren and a cool short blast from Assayas. A very cool visual backdrop adds to the atmosphere and the power of Willie Wilcox and Assayas’ introduction for “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise.” Sulton and Rundgren join in before a fist-pumping take of “Communion With the Sun,” highlighting the strength of an often-overlooked classic of the progressive era, RA. The coupling was absolutely great, with some nice vocal harmonies and all four players hitting on all cylinders. “Last of the New Wave Riders,” one of the stellar tracks from the group’s 1980 record, ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA, brought the first half of the show to a rousing conclusion. As the curtain closed, Todd tells the crowd, “We’ll see you in twenty.”
TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Willie Wilcox) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
As the curtain opened for the second set to arecorded intro to “Road To Utopia,” a more traditional stage set-up was revealed, with Willie’s drums now sitting center-stage back, with Gil’s keyboard rig in basically the same spot it occupied before the break; bothmusicians were now situated on a level with Todd and Kasim, the previous set’s risers having been removed. A quick look at the time as the quartet took the stage again – playing a spirited version of one of my favorite numbers from Utopia’s “pop period” – indicated that they were gone for nearly forty minutes. The additional rest seemed to work wonders for Rundgren’s voice, so I cannot be upset over a break that was nearly twice as long as promised. This second set proved to be punchier than the first, with shorter, more melodic songs emphasizing a true band dynamic. The point is driven home by Kasim Sulton’s lead vocals on the next two tunes, POV’s “Play This Game” and the jazz-tinged “Swing To the Right.” “Trapped” featured a patented Rundgren guitar freakout and, though Todd continued to take a few vocal turns (mostly choruses and harmony parts), it seemed at this point that Kasim was doing most of the leads after the group’s return to the stage. I thought that it may have been Rundgren’s illness forcing a readjustment of the set list but, after checking set-lists from previous nights, it would appear that Sulton’s songs were bunched together like this since the beginning of the tour. “Set Me Free” gave way to a very nice version of “Love In Action,” with Todd once again taking the lead vocal. “Hammer In My Heart” seemed to indicate that the Wizard was saving his voice for the “radio/MTV hits.” Though obviously ailing, Rundgren continued to push through with some quite animated and very spirited guitar histrionics.
TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (Gil Assayas) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
Willie Wilcox got his “Ringo moment,” as he took the lead on “Princess of the Universe,” a very Nazz-like pop thing from 1982’s UTOPIA before Sulton again sings lead on “I Will Wait” from OBLIVION. A Philadelphian at heart, Todd always pushed a bit of the Philly Soul sound into his music. “Rock Love” was his “James Brown moment,” setting aside his guitar, exhorting the crowd and his bandmates like a Baptist preacher on a Sunday morning, to ever greater heights of ecstasy. Kasim, on guitar, played a nifty solo. With Sulton back on bass, Rundgren delivered a powerful, if strained (and guitar-less) “Love Is the Answer” as, finally, the audience rose to its feet for a sing-along, clap-along ending. With the Runt looking a little the worse for wear, he nonetheless strapped on the guitar for the final number of the show proper, “One World.” After a short break, the band returned for one final song, a cover of sorts – an emotional, Gospel-tinged “Just One Victory” from Todd’s 1973 solo release, A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR. The evening was everything I could have hoped for (well, I wouldn’t have minded if they did “Itch In My Brain” but, that’s a minor infraction) and, I gotta say, that even though he wasn’t feeling too well, Mister Rundgren looked pretty good for a guy that’s (mumble-mumble) years old.
Captain Sensible in repose (with fLUSH issue 11), 2002 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
They shoulda been finished by 1980. In the DIY world of late ‘70s punk rock, which saw bands implode (or explode) sometimes within days or weeks of forming, the Damned were releasing their fourth album in 1980, what I consider to be their magnum opus, THE BLACK ALBUM. Of course, by 1980, the band had already split after the departure of guitarist and primary songwriter, Brian James following the release of their second full-length, MUSIC FOR PLEASURE; thankfully, the call of the stage (and a nice payday) brought the remaining band – vocalist Dave Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies and bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible – back together, this time with drinking buddy Lemmy filling in on bass. By the time the sessions for THE BLACK ALBUM began, the group was already on to their fourth bassist, Paul Gray having supplanted former Saints bass player, Algy Ward. Over the years, twenty-five full-time or touring musicians have been a part of the legendary aggregation, with Vanian being the only constant; however, the band coalesced into a solid line-up with bassist Stu West joining Sensible, Vanian, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron and drummer Pinch in 2004.
And, so, forty years after releasing the first UK punk record, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED, the band are back with a major tour underway and a new album in the offing. With a stop scheduled at the Delmar Hall in Saint Louis on April 21, I reached out to the responsible parties to check in with the band before the commencement of the North American leg of their tour. It was agreed that e-mailing some questions to Captain Sensible would be the best approach. This, then, is the result of that communication; other than a minor tweak here and there, Captain’s answers are left intact, exactly as he wrote them. No animals were harmed in the exchange. Well, maybe a couple, but… they deserved it!
DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED
THE MULE: You’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of your debut album, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED and forty years of a general wreaking of havoc with an extensive world tour. How has the tour been going and what can we expect when you hit the shores of North America for a two-month long jaunt?
CAPTAIN: The band gets on great; probably why it’s the longest lasting lineup in Damned history. But, the important thing is they play the material, particularly from the classic period, with real gusto. Stu and Pinch are a phenomenal rhythm section which allows Monty (an improv genius) and myself freedom to be playful with the songs… it’s never quite the same twice. Which is good, because love music shouldn’t be too predictable. I like an element of danger… I’ve always seen my role in the band to add a touch of chaos.
THE MULE: Of late, a lot of groups have been celebrating these types of anniversaries by playing the entire record live. Can we expect to hear those twelve songs played front to back or do you have other surprises in store?
CAPTAIN: We’ll be playing a special career spanning 40th anniversary set – with the Damned you’re getting three bands for the price of one – we were the first UK punk band, had a hand in creating the Goth scene and veer towards garage psych whenever the inclination takes us. The setlist can change mid gig, depending on the audience… and well timed heckling is encouraged. It’s all about the live experience – to hell with choreography and set routines – we like to live a little dangerous and just go with whatever happens.
From the punk material, I have to say my favourite is “Neat Neat Neat,” with its fabulous Eddie Cochran-esque riff. Perfect for a quick jam and eminently danceable. On the other hand, “Eloise” is simply epic… a theatrical, mad, desperate declaration of love for a “lady of the night,” These things happen… quite often, probably.
The Damned and friends, circa 1977 (Chrissie Hynde, Tommy Ramone, Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible, Dee Dee Ramone, Brian James, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: The album was among a number of firsts for the band: You were the first punk band from the UK to release a single with “New Rose,” DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED was the first UK punk album and you were the first English punk group to tour the US. What do you remember from those first few months of the band and the explosion of punk that followed? There must be a great sense of pride in what you, Dave, Brian and Rat accomplished in such a short amount of time.
THE CAPTAIN: Brian put the original ad in a music mag looking for like minded musicians. He wanted a gang that played with aggression. You can hear the results on the first two albums… but, when he jumped ship in ‘78, it left the rest of us with a huge problem. None of us had any history of songwriting. Also, with me now on guitar, we needed a bassist.
We used to hang around in the pubs in Portobello Road, where Lemmy was a permanent feature – propping up some fruit machine or other. Apart from speed metal, that was his passion. He’d let us sleep on his floor if we missed the last bus home, and was a good chum.
We were broke and had been offered some money for a London Damned show if we could get some kind of lineup back together.
As ex-guitarist of the Johnny Moped band, I fancied a go at 6 strings again, so we called up our old mate Lemmy to play bass and knocked together a setlist of Damned and Motorhead favourites during a short boozy rehearsal. The reaction of the audience on the night of the performance was splendid so we arranged another show… and then another…. and then, someone suggested writing some new tunes.
Lemmy had a tour coming up, however, so we found ourselves having the difficult task of finding a bassist with equally uncompromising attitude and sound… and then someone mentioned this bloke they’d heard of that plays his bass with metal picks. His name was Algy, he demonstrated his thunderous technique and was immediately offered the job. Finally, the Damned was ready to record its psychedelic punk rock record… MGE (MACHINE GUN ETIQUETTE – Editor).
The Damned, circa 1976 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (photo credit: JOHN INGHAM)
THE MULE: I’m reading Steve Jones’ book, LONELY BOY. He kind of gives short shrift to the Pistols’ ANARCHY TOUR that the Damned were a part of. Do you have any memories – fond or otherwise – of that tour and the other bands on the bill?
CAPTAIN: Damned, Clash, Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ band got on great – more than could be said for the four managers who all wanted preeminence for their bunch. MacClaren put the package together cos his lot couldn’t sell tickets outside London… a situation which changed when Steve Jones swore on a teatime TV show. At that point, with Rotten and company on all the front pages the next day, the Damned were no longer required to fill venues so we were given the heave-ho.
I bump into Steve every now ‘n’ then, and put it to him recently that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to curse and swear on a TV programme – I could’ve quite easily done that myself. More than capable! His reply? “But you didn’t, Captain… WE did”
You have to laugh…
The Damned play the Galaxy in Saint Louis, 2002 (Captain Sensible; Dave Vanian) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
THE MULE: The Damned has certainly had their share of ups and downs, with members coming and going, breaking up and reforming, legal issues regarding the use of the name, signing with and leaving record companies. For you, what are the high points and low points in the band’s career?
CAPTAIN: High point was the reception of the first album. It caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly, we were on front pages… the record is manic and riff heavy – Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.
We had no idea the record would be popular… let alone talked about 40 years on.
We were just making the music we wanted to hear cos there was precious little around at the time that had any get up and go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had left was country, disco and prog.
But mainly, I was trying to change my own world cos for me, as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort… I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne’er do wells – then punk rockshowed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor… and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.
During rehearsals, I was sleeping on Brian’s floor; we spent our days traipsing around clubs attempting to blag support gigs – which paid peanuts so we were generally starving. When Stiff Records offered us a record deal, the promise of a visit to a Wimpy Bar was the clincher.
As for low points… Maybe the rows and punch ups? But all bands have them, I think… even the Mamas and the Papas.
THE MULE: A couple of fairly well known musicians produced the first two Damned albums. What are your thoughts on those first two records and the producers, the Nicks: Lowe and Mason?
CAPTAIN: Nick managed to capture the live sound of the band… it’s not “posh,” that’s for sure. If you play the record loud and close your eyes, you could be in London’s sleazy basement Roxy Club watching the band. It is pure punk – unlike some of our contemporaries, who polished and perfected their sound in an un-punk like manner, I thought.
Nick Mason stood in for Syd Barrett… our original choice. But we were getting Floyd’s studio for free, so couldn’t tell him to eff off.
The Damned’s Abbey Road moment (Stu West,Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian, Pinch, Monty Oxymoron) (photo courtesy: CAPTAIN SENSIBLE)
THE MULE: One of my all-time favorite albums and my favorite Damned album has always been THE BLACK ALBUM. What are your memories of writing and recording that record? How do you think it holds up 37 years later?
CAPTAIN: Somehow, the Damned had a role in kick-starting the punk AND Goth scenes – and moving into the ‘80s, I’d noticed Dave Vanian’s songwriting was moving into darker territory – which culminated in the appropriately titled …BLACK ALBUM. We were fascinated by the possibilities a little experimentation in the studio would give… It was a very creative time of Dave and myself having all night brainstorming sessions. The other guys would listen the next day, open-mouthed at the wild departure from the two minute thrashes we’d been famous for. These are the most fun songs to perform… but demand a lot of concentration.
THE MULE: It’s been nearly ten years since the last album of new material, SO, WHO’S PARANOID. I understand that you’re working on a new record. Can you tell us about the PledgeMusic page and when we’ll see the finished product? Do you have something unexpected up your collective sleeves? With the new record coming, your fans have to wonder: Where do the Damned go from here?
The Damned, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Pinch, Dave Vanian, Stu West, Monty Oxymoron) (uncredited photo)
CAPTAIN: The Buzzcocks guys told us about this PledgeMusic thing, which I’d no idea about – but when told it allowed us to make the album we wanted to make… without a record label bloke peering over your shoulder, I was there. So, we can pretty much do what we like – which in the ‘80s would’ve meant getting comprehensively sloshed and wrecking the studio and getting thrown out of a few along the way for those sort of capers. Probably not this time though, being considerably older… and marginally wiser.
Pinch, Stu and Monty are such great players though… they’re going to get a chance to flex their muscles musically. This is a band that can break out of a song structure and really jam it up.
Each album we’ve made sounds different from the last one – and this one will continue that trend. It’s fun to experiment, to be creative… take a few risks. The only shame is not releasing before the world tour, but to have boshed out a half finished album would be wrong. I have SERGEANT PEPPER… and PET SOUNDS in my record collection, played ‘em to death over the years and, unlikely as it sounds, always aspire to achieve those standards.
An album to celebrate forty glorious years of the Damned seemed a good idea. We don’t make many… it’s quality over quantity. We’ll go off on a tangent, as per usual, as we don’t care to repeat ourselves. It’s been a musical journey in the Damned. I love the experimenting in the studio… all night brainstorming sessions fueled by copious amounts of quality ale. That’s the way to do it – it’s gonna be fun!
There will be some surprises, but plenty of energy and melodic content, too. Oh, and some darkness, too.
The Pledge campaign was an instant success. Thanks, everyone! We are currently trawling through the best material we have and putting it through the Damned machine. Who knows how much longer this band can go on, so we are really going at it with a Big (Brother) eye on the quality. Rest assured, it will be as different as any album the band has ever made. Move on or croak!!! We want people to discover this record and be aurally challenged. Dave, in particular, has some really wacky ideas that he wants to put on here and we are all pretty excited that he is vibed up about it. We may have to tour with a full orchestra and dance troupe to realize it properly! Hahahahaaaaa.
THE MULE: You had a successful solo run in the early ’80s and you continue to release music outside of the band. Is there any news on that front? If so, what and when can we expect something?
CAPTAIN: I did an album with Paul Gray… A POSTCARD FROM BRITAIN, it’s called. It’s a concept piece which reflects our views on our home country… not all of them glowing!
THE MULE: Looking back on a forty-plus year career, where do you think the Damned places in the pantheon of rock music?
CAPTAIN: I really don’t care about any of that… it’s all been fantastic fun. And, a wonderful musical adventure. The Damned are outsiders – we don’t have celeb friends or go to swanky parties. We are the same as we’ve always been… just a bunch of…
The Damned play the Royal Albert Hall, May 20, 2016 (Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian) (Photo credit: DOD MORRISON PHOTOGRAPHY)
THE MULE: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Look forward to seeing you in Saint Louis on April 21.
CAPTAIN: Cheers!!! I have to be real careful these days not to overdo it, as hangovers are gruesome when you get to this age. The getting carted about all over the place is tough on the system too – I always say I do the gigs for free… but I wanna get paid for all the traveling.
Having said that, there is a theory that you stay the same mental age as when you first join your band… to a certain extent I’ve not had the responsibilities and worries that normal people have, I’ve shifted a few records… but been bankrupt and everything in between, as well. To be honest the pursuit of money and fame means nothing to me… who needs a flashy car anyway – I’m happy to get around by train.
I’m a perennial juvenile delinquent… my hero is still Dennis the Menace. There’s more than a bit of him in my act.
After a year of loss (drummer Darius Minwalla and former bassist Joe Skyward both passed away) and of new beginnings (the release of their first record in six years, SOLID STATES), the Posies – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, with drummer Frankie Siragusa – hit the road with a string of secret, “Pop-Up” shows. Playing in unconventional locations and venues, the newly revitalized band has hit upon one of the more intriguing ways to get their music out to the most die-hard Posies fans. I had the opportunity to speak with Jon Auer before a recent show in Minneapolis, which found him traveling and taking a ferry to his appointed destination.
THE MULE: So, you’ve been doing this since you were… what, seventeen? The Posies, solo work, REM, Big Star…
JON AUER: Well, yes…there’s solo work and I’ve been in Big Star. Ken’s done REM and also Big Star… we’ve both done many other things and worked in many different situations with different people… for instance, I’ve also worked on a record with William Shatner and Ben Folds (2004’s HAS BEEN).
THE MULE: Well, there you go. That’s even more important; that’s really impressive!
JON: Right, haha! But, anyway… you were saying?
THE MULE: How do you keep things fresh? How do you maintain that initial excitement? You know… what you felt at the beginning?
JON: I think it’s by trying to not repeat ourselves. That’s had a huge impact on the amount of enjoyment that I or we get out of what we do. I mean, I think it’s the same in life; if you’re sorta coasting and doing what you’ve always done perhaps it’s nice for awhile but eventually it can become stale. I mean, it may be comfortable in a way but… is it exciting? That’s the question. And, I think we’ve been very good about making the effort to not just take an easy route when we make a record or try something new. I think that if you examine every one of our records there are common threads for sure but they are all very different, each their own distinct thing… like little aural time capsules of where we were at the point in time we made them. I don’t know, man… I mean, there are bands that just try to do one thing and they do it – like Orville Redenbacher, you know? “Do one thing and do it better than anybody else” haha! – That works for certain groups… AC/DC springs to mind; I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be expecting a new AC/DC record to surprise me. If they do, that would be kinda cool but, by the same token – no offense to AC/DC – will I really need a new AC/DC record if it doesn’t? I mean… I could be wrong but I’d wager it’s probably just gonna sound like what you would expect. The Posies aren’t like that. We fall into the camp of musicians and artists who ask “What’s the point of repeating yourself?” But, the funny thing is, though we often make concerted efforts to sound massively different and then, you know…. we are who we are anyways. It may be different from what we’ve done before, often very much so, but it still sounds like “us.” It doesn’t ever sound like a completely different band because it still has the vocals and the harmonies and the way that we write songs, it’s just… It’s more like buying a new outfit ’cause you wanna try a new look or feel or maybe like trying some kind of new food that you’ve never had before because you don’t want to keep the same items on the menu all the time. It’s that kind of vibe. That’s what keeps it fresh: The new ideas and approaches.
The Posies (Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow) (photo credit: DOT PIERSON)
And, adding to that, this whole method of touring that we’re utilizing now is another way in which we’ve been able to re-invigorate the process because it’s not being done in way that we’ve experienced ourselves before. It’s a new format, a new line-up… we’re going out as a three-piece, playing unlikely spaces, unusual venues. We’ve turned it into a way of doing things where it’s just… the band. We are the crew, we are the roadies, we are the ones who sell the merchandise… we’re the drivers. We do it all.
THE MULE: So, it’s almost back to the beginning again.
JON: In a way, yes. We’re finding… you’d think it would be kind of like, “Oh jeez, what have we taken on? It’s too much!” But, the opposite has occurred where I feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a real sense of purpose here” because there’s always something to do and nobody’s doing it for us. You either succeed or fail by your own hand, whatever you have to accomplish on any given day. It’s really kinda up to you; there’s no one else to shoulder anything on. All the activity morphs into having a lot of satisfaction with what gets accomplished, which is a ton.
THE MULE: Right. Uh… how did this idea of the pop-up show come about and how does that exactly work?
JON: Well, as far as this recent touring we’re doing, Ken toured in a very similar manner with an artist named Holly last year and he thought it would work really well with us… and he was right, big time. Due to scheduling, we missed a window in 2016 to do a regular club tour and this is what we did instead and it was a real eye opener, a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve got to go back a little farther even. I realize that playing living rooms or atypical spaces isn’t a new concept. I mean, other people have been and are doing it and I admit that even as a solo artist, I’ve done… I had a nice little… what would you call it? Not a tour per se, but I had a nice little thing going where I would do certain house concerts every year at the same places since the mid-2000s. I had a nice group of regulars, really cool people, that would have me to visit and perform and they were always super great places and people there were just people there to listen. The audiences were a nice cozy size and merch sales were always good. Often there would be excellent bottles of wine around, you know… nice meals and you were well taken care of and had a great time hanging out around the show as well. There’s a lot to be said for that way of doing it; you take that and compare that to the model of maybe playing a dingy rock club in some city and then staying in, say, a Motel 6, if you wanna be cost effective, and it’s not quite the same equation, is it? Haha! Don’t get me wrong… there are many cool, classic clubs in America but then there’s often the issue that not everybody in the club is there to see you. Like, maybe there’s someone that comes because they’re a friend of the bartender or they just come to casually check you out for a few songs or they just come because they got on the list for free and wanna drink beers and talk in the back and they aren’t listening to you anyway.
That’s why this whole pop-up thing, playing in these unique venues, is so… works so well, because you really don’t get anybody there that’s just a casual audience member; they’re all usually, generally, fans that have many of your records. Or, they’re bringing people with them who’ve never heard really us but are very curious, like they’re friends are trying to indoctrinate them into the ‘ways’ of the Posies, pass it on to them. People are very respectful and they’re there because they want to listen and have a fun hang. Not only that, they’re also willing to hear us play new stuff, you know? It’s not just someone showing up to hear the hit. You know what I mean? Like they want to hear the one song and then they’re gonna leave? That never happens. We actually play our entire new record in our set… we mix it in with other stuff, of course, but, we play all twelve songs most nights. Nobody seems to mind and I think we did a very good job of designing our set list so there’s just enough familiar stuff and new stuff mixed together in the right combination at the right times so that nobody gets bored or too anxious…us included. It’s worked out incredibly well. I mean, when you experience something like this and everybody has such a good time, you kind of wonder, “What’s the point of doing it the other way?” And, also, in terms of the whole pop-up concept, it really does add mystery to the whole event as well and I mean, hey…who doesn’t like a little mystery in life? That also keeps things interesting, keeps things humming. It makes everyone more curious and filled with more anticipation and then there’s also the surprise and payoff of showing up and finding out, “Oh, this is where the show is tonight!” Okay… I’m in a back yard in Phoenix. Or, I’m at some recording studio I’ve always wanted to go to that I didn’t know they did shows there. Or, my God, look at this amazing house and how good it would sound in here.” Anyway, it’s surprising how well it’s worked… and that’s why we’re doing it again: Because it was so good.
THE MULE: Very cool. So, you’ve kinda half way answered one of my… well, actually a couple of other questions. The first, about how the tour is going; obviously, it’s going swimmingly well. And, the other thing is, obviously, I’m talking to you not only because of SOLID STATES, but also because you are playing in kinda my back yard, next Wednesday, in Saint Louis. So, I was going to ask you what we could expect at the Saint Louis show.
The Posies (Ken Stringfellow, Frankie Siragusa, Jon Auer) (photo credit: RENE OONK)
JON: Well, you know… uh, it’s cool because I don’t think we’ve done a Posies show in Saint Louis since… I want to say… 2005 maybe? Is that even possible? Hmm… Maybe it was even longer ago than that, maybe Ken and I played as a duo last time around, in 2000 or so… it’s been a while, you know? The last time I was actually in Saint Louis for anything, I think, was to play with Big Star, at a small outdoor festival with Son Volt, I believe. I forget where it was…I want to say it was downtown by some impressive looking architecture, some State buildings or structures like that. This time around I think you can expect us to be psyched to be playing a place we haven’t really done enough playing in. And you can also expect something visceral … there’s a lot of energy in our show; I mean, the record’s very… it has a lot of energy in it but, it’s also rather lush and pretty and moody and the live show kicks all of it up a couple of notches at least, because it’s just… well, it’s louder for one thing! Word to the wise: Bring earplugs! I’d tell everybody to do that. It’s not a quiet show and a lot of these shows are in smaller and/or unusual spaces where the acoustics are more explosive sounding… So, it’s always good to have some protection for your ears. Seriously, folks. You can really expect some… We don’t phone it in, you know, just because we’ve been doing what we do for quite a while now. I mean, we really try to give it our all every night, no matter how far we have traveled to get there or if our bodies are aching or whatnot. I mean, there’s no point coming to do it if we’re not having… we just want people to have a great time and enjoy it ourselves.
THE MULE: Okay… this may be kind of a hard question for you to answer. But… uh, I’m gonna ask it anyway. How did the deaths of Darius and, later, Joe effect the recording process and plans for the tours you’ve been doing since?
JON: Well… Darius was… Oh, jeez… I mean, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t do justice to in an interview, honestly, you know. Explaining just how much of an impact not having Darius and then Joe around anymore had… just how much of an impact that’s had on my life, on our lives…well, I mean, in the case of Darius, you’re talking about someone who played in my solo band three years before he joined the Posies and then he was with the Posies fourteen years afterwards. He was pretty much my best male friend and I was devastated when he died. And, he died right near the beginning of… I’d say a third to maybe almost halfway through making SOLID STATES? So, the question for me then became, “What do I even want to make a record for anymore?” I was super distraught and confused by the loss and I was constantly trying to make sense out of losing him when ultimately there was no sense to be found in any of it. Eventually, what ended up happening was it worked its way into some of the remaining songs I hadn’t written yet and… how could it not, y’know? It’s funny, because I always think it’s kind of obvious but, many people, they need more direct clues or a clearer road map to figure it out because they often misconstrue a song’s meaning… and fair enough, people interpret songs the way they want to interpret them unless they’re clearly spelled out, sure. And, I bring in some… we often use unusual imagery and metaphors so, actually, it’s not always so straight forward. For instance, there’s a song “Unlikely Places,” I’ve seen many reviews of it now, and unless people knew what it was about, some seem to consider it… they think it’s about a boy and a girl relationship, a romantic relationship and it’s so far from that. It’s really about me dealing with the loss of Darius, what it did to me and where I was trying to go or get to to figure out how to deal with the loss. People can help you and you can get advice… you can do therapy and you can do whatever but, no one can really totally… It’s such a personal thing. No one can get you through it, to a place where you can live with it, but yourself in the end. I don’t know what you’ve experienced as far as loss… parental or… but, it was a total ‘before and after’ moment for me in life, losing Darius, and…well… that’s just the way it is. We did eventually soldier on and got back to the music but it was painful. There’s another song, “Rollercoaster Zen,” that is for Darius. If you really look at the lyrics to that, you can see that I’m talking about him… almost to him. The dreams I’ve had… I had… oh, God, I had some incredibly vivid dreams about him, like he was still here. I don’t know. I don’t wanna keep going on too much about it because it’s too hard to explain, totally. But, you get the vibe, right?
THE MULE: Yeah. I actually just lost my mother a few weeks ago and… I was actually her caregiver for the last ten years and… it’s rough, man.
JON: So you’ve been… You know – in an even more primal way, since it’s your mother – probably the stuff I’m talking about. It just is what it is but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve just got to learn live with it eventually, you know? And it takes time. And it can bubble up at the weirdest times in the weirdest places, the grief, yes?
THE MULE: Right and, like you were saying, everybody is trying to help… there are the platitudes, “It’ll get better” and I know all that stuff but, there are times where it’s just like, “Leave me alone. Let me deal.”
Darius Minwalla; Joe Skyward (uncredited photos)
JON: Yeah, and you know what?… It’s so true… at times, often there’s nothing worse than a platitude because… you know people mean well but, it really doesn’t do justice to the loss. It’s nobody’s fault, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t really help so… it would almost be better if people would… So, yeah, I feel for you, man. There’s been a couple for me recently… As mentioned, Darius… and right before we went our first tour this year in Europe, Joe passing as well…In his case, Joe had been dealing with his cancer for awhile so we knew that he was in trouble and trying to work through it but when he finally passed it happened so fast that it was shocking too. I mean, one day I just woke up to a Facebook message from our old drummer, Brian Young, who was in the band when Joe was in the band, and… it was just pretty much, “Joe passed.” and I was just…I felt like… it was hard to believe. So then it became not only one friend lost in the last couple of years, but two. It’s still hard to believe, to wrap my head around it all, that they are no longer with us. I don’t know how old you are; I’ll be forty-seven this year.
THE MULE: Yeah… I got you beat by a few years.
JON: Okay. Still, my brother and I were just talking about this… he mentioned that really we’re just getting to the point in our lives, the ‘season’ you could say, where that’s gonna be part of our lives from now on. Like, simply, the older you get, more loss can occur… Okay… we’re getting pretty philosophical here now but… it seems true enough.. The record ended up being a way to help me deal with some of that and it kinda does a little bit and helps me celebrate lost friends… but, I don’t think anyone likes that kind change, losing people close to you, learning about loss the hard way. It hurts. My God! But, ultimately…what else can you do? We’ve gotta get back to life and live as best we can.
THE MULE: Exactly. Well, let’s get back to some more, uh… rock and rolley kind of things. Actually, last question and I will let you get back to life. Beyond SOLID STATES and this tour, what is next for you, personally, and the band?
Dynamo Royale (Tiz Aramini, Jon Auer) (photo credit: JASON TANG)
JON: I have some other projects that I’d like to promote more, spend more quality time with. There’s a duo project with Tiz Aramini called Dynamo Royale that I’m working on a proper release for. The record’s called STRAIGHT ON THE DIAGONAL and there will be more time to spread that around. You can find it and us on Bandcamp as well. It’s quite different from the Posies, perhaps more layered even, but it still has that kind of… it’s got my melodic sense woven in there with hers as well. It’s a very unique collaboration. I’d also like to make another solo record. It’s been… Jeez, the last one I put out, SONGS FROM THE YEAR OF OUR DEMISES was in 2006 so, like… I’m way overdue! And, there’s also a group I’m part of called Unseen Beings with Stephen Becker from Le Concorde and Brian Young, who played with Fountains of Wayne and now plays with The Jesus and Marychain, we have a record called AKA INFINITY due to be released next year. Then, hopefully, along with all that, we’re going to continue to realize some Posies reissues that we’ve been talking about. One of them has been out for a while – our first record, FAILURE – on this great label called Omnivore Recordings. They do excellent reissues with deluxe packaging and a lot of care, the works…we feel they like do things right, let’s put it that way. They’ve been asking to do our three major label records too: DEAR 23, FROSTING ON THE BEATER, and AMAZING DISGRACE. That’s been in talks for a while and I think 2017 might be the year for it, when they actually do come out or at least they start to come out.
And then, beyond that…I had so much fun doing this last round of touring, it was so reinvigorating and life affirming after everything we went through so, I think we’d… You never can predict what’s going to happen exactly but…I think we’d really like to try to make another Posies record and sooner than later, you know? Not wait another six years… Try to get one out in the no so distant future because… hey, we’re not getting any younger and we’re having so much fun. I think we all thought this, you know, that this is working, what we’re doing now feels good… we’re playing great, we’re enjoying it, we are a good working unit … and I don’t think we expect to enjoy it as much as we did. I certainly didn’t. To me, it feels like we thought, well, let’s see if we can do this even, after what we went through with losing our bandmates and… we pulled through and it feels… It feels really good. So, uh… I’d like some more of that feeling, please.
The Poseis (Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, Franke Siragusa) (photo credit: MARC GOLDSMITH)
Jon and the Posies are playing a pop-up show in Saint Louis, on Wednesday, September 28. For ticket prices and location, visit the band’s website. Other upcoming tour dates and more news about the Posies are available there, as well.
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)
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)
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)
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’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.
I’m gonna let you guys in on what may be one of the worst kept secrets in the universe: I love heavy metal… all kinds of heavy metal. However, if I were staked to the ground in close proximity to a colony of fire ants and the only possible salvation was telling my captors what type of metal was my favorite, I would have to say the classic, hard rocking stuff… you know, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Demon. So, even though I thoroughly enjoyed recent shows by Nile and Coal Chamber (and am looking forward to the return of Dez’s other band, DevilDriver), I gotta say that this night was Nirvana (the mystical happy place, not the band) to this old-school rocker. By the way, this was my first foray to the Lounge, a smaller room with impressive, clear sound, located to the left of the venue’s entry. What a great decision it was to put this show here and the other, more punk oriented bill in the main room.
Local three-piece Bangarang is the modern approximation of early-to-mid ’70s Mountain-ous (you know, Leslie West… Felix Pappalardi… Corky Laing) hard rock, filtered through ’80s SoCal punk. The group’s eight song set featured the five tracks from their recently released EP, SNACK TIME, including a raging jungle beast called “Jumanji,” which featured a cool breakdown, with Cory Crowell pounding out a brutal tribal beat. Other highlights were the thudding behemoth that is “Monsoon Tune” and the atmospheric “Egan’s Rats,” which put me in mind of those psychedelic freaks, NIL8. Guitarist John Loness holds an odd place within the musical structure of the band, as he – more often than not – adds chittering effects and weird little strands of rhythm rather than any kind of boisterous, balls-out lead or solo (even though he proved himself more than capable of those types of guitar heroics); when he does step out, it is always tasty and very much holding to the vibe of the song and the suitably heavy groove laid down by his bandmates, drummer Crowell and the lucidor-masked bassist Rubin Guerrios, who manages to be crushingly heavy and uncompromisingly funky at the same time. Loness, who is also the trio’s lead singer (the others provide some well-placed backing), has the perfect voice for the style of rock played by Bangarang and, though the final three songs were works-in-progress, presented as instrumentals waiting for lyrics, he still shied away from filling the lyrical void with over-the-top guitar parts… it just wouldn’t have made sense within the arrangements and would have been a distraction to what the band is attempting with their music; in fact, the first of the three instrumentals, called “Bangarang,” was more of an extended drum solo with minimal accompaniment from Guerrios and Loness. The three numbers, voiceless though they were, seemed to fit in well with what has come before and definitely bodes well for the next phase of Bangarang’s evolution; I, for one, can’t wait.
Doom and Disco (Fu Thorax; Henry Savage; Fu Thorax) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Doom and Disco, the second Saint Louis band of the evening, rather like their name, is somewhat of a paradoxical venture. The group performed as a duo, with a third member wandering the floor, unprepared to play. The band play classic riff-heavy metal at ear-bleeding volume; you know… the good stuff. Despite a count-in on virtually every song, everything sounded like it started in the middle and was over at least fifteen seconds before it ended. (Before continuing, I should point out here that the names listed are somewhat in dispute, as my best investigative efforts could only uncover one name associated with Doom and Disco, a guitarist/vocalist named Shalom Friss, the same person who gave me the band info for this review… plus, his Facebook profile looks suspiciously like the dude onstage.) Guitarist Henry Savage featured a beefy, bassy sound, while his vocals somehow reminded me of the legendary Lemmy Kilmister; skin-pounder Fu Thorax was merciless in his approach, reminding me of that wild-eyed family member who always looks like he just farted in the dip bowl while holding an internal running commentary on the social relevance of DUMB AND DUMBER TO. Doom and Disco’s musical selections included such blistering fare as “666 Death,” “Spaghetti Western,” “Savage Journey” and set closer, “Vengeance and Oblivion.” As a duo, the sound was heavy, oppressive and surprisingly full; I can only imagine what we would have heard if that third player HAD been on stage (I’m assuming that he would have played bass, which would have given their sound an even heavier vibe). Bottom line: Doom and Disco… whoever you are and however many of you there are, I hope to have the chance to see you again soon.
So… what does Salt Lake City’s Visigoth have in common with long standing bands like Iron Maiden, Raven, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang, Witchfynde and Samson? Well, they may not hail from the United Kingdom, but they do hold the torch of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal high. The group has an epic sound, with lyrics retelling tales of legendary lore of castles and dragons and knights; vocally, Jake Rogers can wail like an earlier Briton, Rob Halford, while guitaristsLeeland Campana and Jamison Palmer deliver majestic dual leads, ala classic Maiden or Judas Priest. In short, Visigoth is the best kind of throwback band… with a studious knowledge of (and respect for) those who have gone before, paving the way for a new generation of head-banging musicians, yet talented enough to add their own metallic twists to the mix. Much of their set draws upon the group’s latest release, THE REVENANT KING, including the epic, Arthurian title track; “Dungeon Master,” the new Gamer Nerds National Anthem; “Mammoth Rider,” a mystical retelling of Hannibal’s legendary march into Italy astride elephants; and “Necropolis,” a killer Manila Road cover. The rhythm section of Mikey T on drums and Matt Brotherton on bass were rock solid throughout, laying down a massive foundation, allowing the guitars and vocals to weave their magical spells and minstrel tales of adventure. For me, one of the ultimate highlights of the brilliantly well-paced set was another cover, as the band reached back into their NWOBHM ancestry to offer “The Spell,” from Demon’s 1982 album, THE UNEXPECTED GUEST… a song, a band and a record virtually unknown in these here United States. With a new release on the horizon, Visigoth can only continue their upward trajectory. If you have the chance, do not sleep on the opportunity to see these guys live. Oh, yeah… I gotta give bonus points to Jamison Palmer for his Tank tee. Plus, additional bonus points to me for not using the words “sacked” or “sacking” anywhere in this review.
Night Demon (Dusty Squires; Armand John Anthony; Jarvis Leatherby) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
As much as I liked the under card, I was absolutely stoked for the main event. The Ventura, California trio, Night Demon, plays that classic Deep Purple brand of heavy rock, with more than just a dose of sinister Misfits style punk. They opened their setwith a blistering “Screams In the Night,” the lead track of the band’s debut full-length, CURSE OF THE DAMNED, with solid vocals from their sole original member, bassist Jarvis Leatherby; in fact, Leatherby’s vocals were on-point and – thankfully – upfront throughout the night. Along with his battery mate, drummer Dusty Squires, Jarvis also laid down a monstrously heavy bottom end… on a Flying V, no less. New(ish) guy Armand John Anthony more than held his own on guitar, with amazingly tight leads and smoking solos. The set was enhanced by oddly effective lighting, more so because they were supplied by the band’s merch guy from the front of the stage.
Night Demon (Jarvis Leatherby; Armand John Anthony; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
The guys tore through a solid song list that included tales of fast cars, ages-old evils, modern day madmen and religious rites, both sacred and profane: “Road Racin’,” “Ancient Evil,” “Killer” and the centerpiece of the band’s live performances and their raison d’etre, “Chalice.” With an intensity rivaling the original Blue Cheer or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Night Demon took their place among the great power trios of hard rock and heavy metal, updating the model to represent, not only current musical trends, but also the grimmer, grimier aspects of our modern world. If I had to compare Armand’s six-string assault to a predecessor, I hear definite influences from Gillan-era Bernie Torme, the late, lamented Paul Samson and the guys from Maiden, particularly Adrian Smith… classic metal riffs laced with a speed and fluidity that few possess, all amply displayed on “Full Speed Ahead,” among others; it’s hard to pinpoint any one style in Leatherby’s vocals… his is a strong, forceful rock and roll voice that seems to be manufactured for exactly this style of heavy music; Squires is a rock-solid Ian Paice type of drummer, a brilliant timekeeper with the occasional flash of reckless abandonment. As the show built to its climax, from “Killer” into “Road Racin’” and into the moody, sombre “Chalice,” the trio was joined onstage by Rocky, the looming, leering personification of Poe’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, who bade all to “Drink from the chalice.” This theatrical cameo brought wild cheers from the (unfortunately) modest crowd, much like the Iron’s lumbering Eddie or the Misfits’ Fiend/Crimson Ghost used to back in the day. Rocky’s departure from the stage conjured the ultimate evil, as the band charged into the final number, “Satan.” Jarvis asked for the stage lights to be lowered and, upon learning that they were actually controlled by a wall switch by the stage, Visigoth’s Leeland jumped to the rescue, turning the lights off and on, creating a type of rhythmic lightning effect… a rather silly but somehow appropriate ending to a fun evening of live music.
Night Demon (Armand John Anthony and Jarvis Leatherby with Rocky; Rocky offers the Chalice; Dusty Squires) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
I was impressed by the professionalism of all of the bands (and their meager crews), as each went out of their way to ensure that I (and the entire room, really) had a great time. I had a brief interlude with Jarvis after the show and mentioned, rather offhandedly, that I wished the record companies would send out vinyl copies of their releases for review; he asked if I had a copy of CURSE OF THE DAMNED and, receiving my negative reply, walked over to the merch table and handed me a vinyl copy, saying, “Now you do, my friend.” I certainly wasn’t expecting that but, the gesture put me in mind of the way artists generally handled their business when I first got into this game more than twenty years ago. If I hadn’t been a fan before, I definitely was when I walked out of the venue with my brand new slab of orange vinyl!
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)
One look at Paul Slade’s web-site (Planet Slade) is all you’ll need to understand the author of the new tome, UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM. You will see that Paul is not only one of the busiest men in the realm of journalistic endeavor, he is also one of the most inquisitive; that innate need to know has taken the man down some very dark backroads and alleys, into the sewers of London and the very bowels of England’s Parliament; that need to know has forced this gentle being to explore the warped psyches of criminals and vicious murderers. The time and effort put into researching the subject matter for his essays (which fall into three basic categories: “Murder Ballads,” “Secret London” and “Miscellany,” which Slade describes as “anything else I damn well feel like including”) is a full time job in itself; turning that research into entertaining pieces on significant or historic events is an art form. Working and living on Planet Slade led Paul to the idea of turning the “Murder Ballads” page of the site into a book on the subject. And, now, without further ado, we’re off to visit Planet Slade to discuss, among other things, Paul’s new book (the interview was conducted via e-mail; Iv’e kept intact the original English spellings from Paul’s replies)…
PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW
THE MULE: Paul, thanks for the great book and for taking the time to answer a few questions. First, let’s get into a bit of personal history. You’ve been a journalist for nearly 35 years. What led you down this path? Where did you start your journalistic career and what were the first stories you covered?
PAUL: When I finished my Business Studies degree in 1980, I had no idea at all how I wanted to make a living. The Watergate affair of the early 1970s had left me with a rather romantic view of journalism and I’d always enjoyed writing, so that was one of the very few areas that appealed to me, but I had no idea how to go about making that dream a reality. Then I stumbled across the media recruitment ads which THE GUARDIAN carried once a week and realised for the first time that it was possible to apply for entry-level reporters’ jobs on magazines and newspapers all over the UK.
I spent the next six months or so applying for any job in that section that looked remotely feasible and eventually struck lucky at CHEMIST AND DRUGGIST, a weekly trade magazine for retail pharmacists. They took me on to write a couple of pages of business news every week and that’s where I got my start. I was reporting company results, industry rows, boardroom changes and that kind of thing. The editor there drilled the basics of good journalistic practice into all his young team, so it proved a very good foundation.
I spent four years on C&D, then got a job on a new launch called MONEY MARKETING, which took off very rapidly and won several awards. That led to some freelancing for the nationals’ personal finance sections and the occasional bit of freelance music writing. Gradually, I managed to shift my output more towards the popular culture journalism I really wanted to do, and PlanetSlade followed in 2009.
THE MULE: I’ve been listening to music – including several of the songs chronicled in UNPREPARED TO DIE – for a very long time and, I must admit, the term “Murder Ballad” was unknown to me until Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS version of “Delia’s Gone.” Can you give the readers a quick definition of the term and a brief history of the oral and lyrical traditions involved?
PAUL: I suppose a murder ballad would be any song which tells the story of an unlawful homicide – whether that story is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two. That’s a very wide field, though and I knew I’d have to adopt a tighter definition for my own work if I was ever going to do more than scratch the surface of any given song. Hence, I limit myself to those songs which tell the story of an identifiable real murder. I also decided to concentrate on songs which had been covered many times by many different artists, as these varying interpretations add an interesting extra dimension to the song’s history.
I always envisage this process as roping off a single square of turf in an enormous meadow and digging down as deep as I can in that one area alone. If I tried to excavate the entire meadow, I’d never penetrate more than an inch or two below the surface, which would not be very satisfying for either me or my readers.
Although the word’s used much more loosely these days, a ballad is actually a strict poetic form with its own rules – just as a sonnet or a limerick is. The basic structure is provided by alternating three-beat and four-beat lines, with the second and fourth lines of each verse rhyming. The opening verse of “Knoxville Girl” is a good example and here it iswith the beats marked:
I met a little girl in Knoxville,
That town we all know well,
And every Sunday evening,
Out at her house I’d dwell.
The ballad form is fairly bursting with narrative momentum, which makes it an excellent way of telling a story. In the case of that “Knoxville Girl” verse, we’re only four lines into the song, but the story’s already well underway and we’re anxious to find out what happens next. The words’ steady rhythm means they’re half-musical already and easy to remember, so small wonder written ballad verses are so often transformed into songs. Whether used by the gutter poets of the Victorian age or by great artists like Coleridge and Wilde, the ballad form is irresistible.
Murder stories aren’t the only ones ballads tell, of course, but it’s only natural that this form should have been selected when 17th, 18th and 19th century British people had a murder tale to tell. Printed ballad sheets telling the killer’s story were sold at public hangings all over Britain until around 1850 and sometimes sung by the sellers to advertise their wares. The most popular sheets sold well over two million copies.
Folk singers have always loved the ballad form too, and are never happier than when a good juicy murder is the ballad’s subject. Traditional songs like these are polished by each new generation of singers which adopt them, constantly editing the song till only the core of the story and its most memorable images remain.
Many of the classic American murder ballads have their roots in much older British songs recording real murders. Early settlers took these songs with them across the Atlantic, later adapting them to their new surroundings. “Knoxville Girl” traces directly back to a British ballad called “The Bloody Miller,” which was written around 1683. “Pretty Polly” began life as a British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy,” which dates back to the first half of the 19th century. In their new Americanised form, these songs retain not only their ballad structure, but also much of the language and imagery coined by their original versions – sometimes word-for-word.
Just as happened in Britain, the American songs were taken from town to town by travelling musicians. Home-grown American ballads could be used to spread news from one isolated rural community to another. This was a time long before radio, remember, when even those people who could read might have access to a newspaper only on their monthly trips to the nearest town. Ballads were sung to tell all kinds of stories, but a good sensational murder always been hard to beat for grabbing the audience’s attention. Murder songs’ appeal springs from the same quirk in human nature which makes us watch cop shows on TV or read true crime stories in tabloid newspapers.
THE MULE: How much of your previous work can be seen as a genesis for the material in UNPREPARED TO DIE and on your website, planetslade.com? Where did your interest in the murder ballad genre originate? Which song, in particular, fueled that interest?
PAUL: I’d done odd bits of writing for the music press before turning my attention to murder ballads, but nothing that involved analysing individual songs in any depth. That’s about the extent of the heritage as far as subject matter is concerned. More important were the skills and good habits I’d picked up in journalism of all kinds. This work had taught me the importance of getting my facts right, given me the research experience to chase those facts down and allowed me to hone my writing to a point where I could articulate exactly what I wanted to say in a clear, gripping and entertaining way.
I think I also benefitted from the fact that I’m old enough to have worked for many years in the pre-internet era. Where younger writers might assume any information that’s yet to be digitised simply doesn’t exist, I knew to dig deep among the dusty book shelves of Britain and America’s bricks-and-mortar libraries too. For all the convenience of Google, there are vast swathes of human knowledge which remain stored on paper alone, and my advanced age meant I was lucky enough to realise that.
I can think of three things which got me started seriously researching murder ballads and they all date from the noughties. Two of these three prompts directly involve “Stagger Lee,” so I guess I’d have to say that was the single most important song which drew me in.
It all began when I heard the radio DJ Andy Kershaw mention on his BBC Radio 3 show that he collected recordings of “La Bamba.” The idea of collecting one particular song in this way appealed to me, so I began collecting different recordings of “Stagger Lee.” I can’t remember why I settled on that particular song, but I’m sure Nick Cave’s stunning 1996 version of it played a part. Also, I already knew there were an awful lot of recordings of “Stagger Lee” to collect, which made finding as many as possible of them an intriguing challenge. The internet was then still in its infancy, so hunting out obscure records hadn’t yet become too easy to provide any satisfaction.
About a year later, I bought THE EXECUTIONER’S LAST SONGS, a 2002 Bloodshot Records compilation put together by Jon Langford of the Mekons. He’d taken the album on to raise funds for a death penalty moratorium project in Illinois. Langford’s approach was to team the best of our era’s Americana performers with classic murder ballads of all kinds: “The idea was to use death songs against the death penalty”, he told me.
The album’s highlights include Steve Earle’s version of “Tom Dooley,” the Handsome Family’s take on “Knoxville Girl” and Neko Case doing “Poor Ellen Smith.” Hearing so many great versions of these ballads on a single album got me thinking about the songs much more deeply and noticing the strands they had in common. Often, the killer’s logic seemed to be, “I love you, therefore I must kill you” and that stuck in my mind. What an odd way to look at the world.
Fast forward now to San Francisco in 2003, where I was enjoying a holiday. I spent one afternoon there mooching around in the basement music section at City Lights, the legendary counter-culture bookstore, where I found a copy of Cecil Brown’s STAGOLEE SHOT BILLY, a book telling the true story behind “Stagger Lee” itself. Reading that in a bar the same evening, I understood for the first time that many of the classic murder ballads were based on real crimes – and that those crimes were often recent enough to be researched in the newspaper archives. I started writing about murder ballads on my website a few years after that, and it’s those essays which eventually led to the book.
THE MULE: Your research into the eight ballads included in the book is painstaking. How long did the research into the true facts in this collection take? The murder ballad seems to be, primarily, a phenomenon of the American South. Did the origins of one tale prove more difficult to trace than the others? Did you discover information about these eight stories that surprised you?
PAUL: It’s hard to put a firm timescale on this. I started researching murder ballads properly in 2009, when I was getting PlanetSlade started, and finally published my book at the end of 2015. I was doing all sorts of other writing throughout those six years as well, though.
The bulk of my early work on murder ballads went into PlanetSlade’s essays (but again proved very useful when the book deal came up). Whenever I could manage a vacation trip to the US, I chose a city with links to one of my chosen ballads, where I’d spend a few days visiting the murder scene and all the relevant graves. These trips took me to Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Indiana.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family’s eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)
Writing the book ate up most of 2015, though I took a month away from the keyboard for one final research trip. The area around Winstom-Salem and Charlotte seems to be “Ground Zero” for the killings that inspire songs like these, so I gave myself three solid weeks in North Carolina researching “Tom Dooley,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Murder of the Lawson Family.” As on all my research trips, I took the opportunity to interview local historians and musicians there, as well as to walk the killers’ own streets and make them as real as I could in my own mind.
On my way down to North Carolina, I paused in New York for a meal with the country singer Laura Cantrell, who I knew was particularly interested in “Poor Ellen Smith.” Laura gave me some useful clues on the song’s origin, but I had a lot of difficulty tracing these back to the song’s birth. With the book’s deadline looming, I’d resigned myself to admitting this failure in print. I did decide on one final plunge into the newspaper archives before giving up altogether, though, and this time a lucky chance produced exactly the information I needed. A few hours later, I had not only found the 1893 article which printed this song’s first-ever lyrics, but also identified the jailbird mule thief who wrote them. That was a very satisfying moment.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)
There were surprises in the research for every song. I’d had no idea how deeply the “Stagger Lee” killing was embroiled in Saint Louis’ party politics, for example, with Republicans determined to see the killer hang and Democrats lobbying for his early release. The central role syphilis played in “Tom Dooley’s” murder of Laura Foster came as a shock too, as did the revelation that “Pretty Polly’s” parent song was so closely tied to Britain’s Royal Navy. I hadn’t known that “Frankie and Johnny’s” Frankie Baker had sued two Hollywood studios over distorted adaptations of her song’s story either – let alone that she’d dragged Mae West into one of those actions.
THE MULE: Obviously, this book was not written in a day or two. From the time the idea came into your head ’til you finished it, how long did you work on this project? Did your research and work extend to other ballads? Would you be interested in working on a sequel?
PAUL: As I said above, I’d been researching murder ballads – at least intermittently – ever since 2009. The bulk of the book’s work got done in 2015, though. I started writing it in February that year and delivered the finished manuscript six months later.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula’s grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)
It was a fairly tight deadline, so I had to keep all my focus just on the eight songs covered in the book, which are “Stagger Lee,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Tom Dooley,” “Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” “Murder of the Lawson Family” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I was determined to interview at least one relevant musician for each of the songs, which gave me a good excuse to arrange conversations with favourite songwriters like Billy Bragg, Dave Alvin and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey.
I do have one idea for a follow-up book, this one looking at the British gallows ballads which were sold at public hangings, but it’s a bit too early to talk about that.
THE MULE: The psychology behind these acts is as interesting as the stories and historical references. Was there one story that caused you to reevaluate your stance, once you researched the psychological aspects of the parties involved?
PAUL: There was one song that really got to me, but it’s one I wrote about on my website rather than in the book. It’s called “Misses Dyer, the Old Baby-Farmer” and it tells the true story of a woman in Victorian London who took in disgraced girls’ illegitimate babies, promising to give them a home. As soon as she had the money the girl paid her for this service, she’d simply stifle the baby and dump it in the Thames. This happened at the end of the 19th century and she’s thought to have murdered more than 40 babies in all.
I spent about a week researching this squalid, nihilistic tale and writing it up. By the time I’d finished I had a very bleak view of the human race and just wanted to scrub my brain clean of the whole tale. I often wonder how spending a full year or 18 months immersed in the life of a serial killer must affect the writers of these people’s biographies. Inviting Jeffrey Dahmer into your head to write a book about him is one thing, but persuading him to leave again when the job’s done may not prove so simple.
THE MULE: I was surprised to learn that both “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” were based on events from just across the Mississippi from my home. The story of Frankie Baker, in particular, touched something inside me…. the fact that at least three movies have used the lyrics, or simply the song title, as a jumping off spot for their script, but her real story has never been told in any meaningful way. Why do you believe her story remains largely unknown?
PAUL: I think the fact that the song’s twice been a chart hit – once for Elvis Presley and once for Sam Cooke – has worked against the real story. Neither of these chart versions bear any resemblance to what really happened, and all the movie adaptations just create further confusion. In Presley’s version, Frankie’s a singer working the Mississippi riverboats, in Sam Cooke’s she’s rich enough to buy Johnny a sports car and in Mae West’s 1933 film she marries an FBI agent. Plus, of course, she’s always a white woman.
The real story – young black sex worker kills her pimp in self-defence – is far more interesting than any of these sanitised versions, but it’s been obscured by so many distortions over the years that the genuine Frankie Baker gets lost.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)
The quote from Frankie herself that lingers most strongly with me came when she was protesting yet another cavalier Hollywood treatment of her story and the unwelcome attention which these films always brought. “I know that I’m black, but even so I have my rights,” she pleaded to one reporter. “If people had left me alone, I’d have forgotten about his thing a long time ago.” The humility and resignation of that remark breaks my heart every time I hear it.
THE MULE: Aside from your very entertaining pieces at PlanetSlade, what future works can we expect to see from the mind and desk of Paul Slade?
PAUL: I’m working on a new PlanetSlade essay at the moment, which springs from a very interesting artefact I recently discovered. It was made to commemorate a real 19th century US murder of the 1880s and, like all the best objects of this kind, leads anyone researching it into some very interesting tangents and unexpected discoveries. I don’t want to say anything more about that piece for the moment, but it looks set to keep me busy for at least the next month or so. After that, who knows?
PART THREE: UNPREPARED TO DIE
(Paul Slade; 290 pages; SOUNDCHECK BOOKS, 2015)
Let me begin by stating, “What a great read!” Most of us have heard at least one version of at least one of the eight ballads discussed in UNPREPARED TO DIE, whether it be the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” or Sam Cooke’s “Frankie and Johnny.” I hadn’t heard the term “Murder Ballad” until it was used in reference to “Delia’s Gone” from Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS in 1994; I certainly didn’t know that tunes so named were based on actual killings (after reading Slade’s book, it’s kinda hard to call some of the cases “murder”). Maybe it was because songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagger Lee” and “Tom Dooley” were such fixtures on radio and television and in the movies when I was a kid that I never really paid much attention to the dark stories told through the lyrics. Whatever the reason, those tunes were simply background noise in my youth, with a melody so stunningly simple yet so immediately captivating that they ended up getting lodged in the old brainpan and tended to make their way to the top of my internal playlist at the oddest times. I now have a deeper understanding of where those songs originated and more than a passing respect for the original balladeers and the musicians who have kept the songs alive for so long… in some cases several hundred years.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)
Slade’s writing throughout these eight essays, while scholarly in its depth, is very conversational in its delivery. In other words, he manages to get to the heart of the matter with decades (or centuries) old facts without boring the reader. As it turns out, the least compelling story is the one surrounding Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which tells of the sadistic murder of a 51 year old barmaid in Baltimore in 1963, the year Dylan wrote the song. Miss Carroll was black, her attacker was a wealthy and arrogant white man. While reading Slade’s account and history of the brutal act, as well as the grossly inappropriate sentence meted out to her attacker, one thought that ran through my mind was, “None of this right! This should never have happened,” but, I also thought, “Let’s get back to some more of those hundred-year-old cases.” I hate to say it, but… it appears that Hattie Carroll’s murder was just too recent and too mundane to keep my interest. Obviously, though, it piqued enough interest in both Dylan and Slade to be the subject of a song and a chapter in UNPREPARED TO DIE.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (“They all were buried in a crowded grave.” Paul Slade at the Lawson family’s plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)
The other pieces, “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” in particular, really managed to keep me involved in the stories of both the victims and the killers. In the case of Frankie Baker, who was charged with murdering her boyfriend, Allen Britt, for “paying attention to another woman,” the song is far more famous than the actual Saint Louis case. The song actually led to Miss Baker leaving Saint Louis, settling first in Nebraska, then moving on to Oregon; it seems that wherever she went, the song and the rumors followed. It’s amazing that, in the nearly 120 since Frankie killed Allen, at least three different movies (one starring Mae West, another Elvis Presley) have been produced based on the “Frankie and Johnny” song, but not one has bothered to tell the real story. “The Murder of the Lawson Family” is a gruesome tale of mental illness, probable incest, a guilty conscience and – after the fact – unimaginable greed. On Christmas Day, 1929, North Carolina tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson slaughtered his wife and six of their seven children before killing himself. Slade’s examination of the case presents several possible scenarios for what led to such a very bloody Christmas present, including an earlier brain injury and an incestuous rape of the Lawson’s oldest daughter. The latter theory posits that Lawson’s wife, Fannie, had discovered that daughter Marie was pregnant and that Charlie was his grandchild’s father. These and other factors led to a perfect storm of despair in Charlie’s mind, leaving only one solution. Several moneymaking schemes from Charlie’s brother and nephew after the tragedy are nearly as grotesque as the actual killing spree.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)
Along with the retelling of events for each of the eight killings (more than a few are of the jealous rage or “you done me wrong” variety), are interviews with historians and, more compelling, many of the musicians responsible for keeping the “Murder Ballad” alive as a viable musical genre. Insight into the art form and the songs themselves is offered from Dave Alvin, Billy Bragg, Laura Cantrell and others. Following each chapter is a list of ten of the most iconic versions of the song discussed therein, dating from the early 1920s through to some of the most recent versions, performed by many of the musicians interviewed for the book. And, like most good releases nowadays, UNPREPARED TO DIE includes several bonus features, which can be found here. The bonus material includes additional thoughts from the various musicians on each song, the genre in particular and much more (like Dave Alvin’s musings regarding killer bees), as well as play lists for each chapter. Whether you’re a music fan, a history fan or a true crime fan, UNPREPARED TO DIE should be right up your dark alley. UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM is available directly from Soundcheck Books, Amazonor any of the usual outlets.
(February 17, 2016; THE BALLROOM AT THE SHELDON CONCERT HALL, Saint Louis MO)
I have long heard great things about the Sheldon Concert Hall but, though I have visited the venue in a sales capacity when I worked at WDLJ radio, I have never been to a show there. Needless to say, I was stoked for this one… not only would I have the pleasure of witnessing the amazing fiddling acumen of the three Quebe Sisters but, I would finally see a show at what has often been referred to as the “most acoustically perfect” room in the Midwest. Initially, I was brought low once I realized that the show was scheduled for another room at the Sheldon complex, the Ballroom located on the fourth floor. To call the Ballroom intimate is a bit of an understatement (the room is slightly larger than Off Broadway); the top floor location, high ceilings and general layout of the room concerned me: Would the acoustics be an issue here? Once the music started, however, all fears were laid aside, as the sound was phenomenal throughout the night.
Tommy Halloran (Abbie Steiling; Abbie Steiling, Tommy Halloran; Tommy Halloran) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Local Jazz and Blues artiste Tommy Halloran left his combo – the exquisitely titled Guerrilla Swing – at home but, he wasn’t alone… he brought violin player Abbie Steiling along to keep him company. The duo worked their way through a set of mostly original material, primarily from Halloran and the Guerrilla’s 2014 offering, UNDER THE CATALPA TREES, stopping along the way for offerings from Irving Berlin (the opening number, “My Walking Stick,” originally performed by Ethel Merman in 1938; other memorable versions were by Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers) and Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter (“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” performed by Armstrong and Billie Holiday in the 1947 movie NEW ORLEANS). Tommy is a dabbler; he dabbles in a variety of styles, everything from Hot Jazz to Texas Swing to a form of jazzy Blues that is inherently Saint Louis in nature. Halloran has a supple, pleasant voice with just a hint of rasp on the uptempo tunes, like the… uh… highly-caffeinated “Caffeine.” His facial expressions, general demeanor and vocal phrasing bring to mind both Tom Waits and the incomparable Leon Redbone; his physical appearance and style of dress brings the term “disheveled gentleman chic” to mind. The more “love song” ballady numbers, like “Under the Catalpa Trees” and “Gardenias For Rita” highlighted Ms Steiling’s subtle, almost fragile violin work, as well as Tommy’s playful rhythm guitar; but, don’t think the pair incapable of kicking up a bit of the proverbial dust, if the tune called for it, as on “My Favorite Sin.” Even though this was my first exposure to Tommy Halloran, his is a familiar name in Saint Louis music circles. I can now understand the reverence with which many speak his name… I was left wanting more and would certainly relish the chance to hear a full-band dissertation from Guerrilla Swing in the future.
The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
As impressed as I was by Halloran and Steiling, this night definitely belonged to Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe (which, according to their website, rhymes with “maybe”). The sisters have all been fiddle champions, both in their home-state of Texas and on a national level. Accompanied by Daniel Parr on upright bass and Simon Stipp on guitar, the ladies proved themselves proficient in everything from the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Swing of Ray Benson to the Big Band sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman to the pure Country of Hank Williams, Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely and the myriad of connective styles between. The highlights came fast and furious, as the group kicked things of with an anthem of the Mexican Revolution of 1912, the instrumental workout, “Jesse Polka.” From there, it was on to a beautiful version of Hank Senior’s classic honky-tonk tear jerker, “Cold Cold Heart,” with amazing harmony vocals from the trio, huddled around a single microphone, like the radio and Opry stars of yore. The hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican’s “Every Which A-Way” led into “Twin Guitar Special,” a classic fiddle hoedown from the Quebe’s biggest influence, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bridging the gap between Western Swing and the “tear-in-my-beer” Country and Western tunes so prominent in the 1960s was a number written by Cindy Walker and recorded by Wills, “Going Away Party.” The high harmony vocals and the plaintive strains of the fiddles lend an air of authenticity that three twenty-somethings like Hulda, Grace and Sophia simply should not possess. “If I Talk To Him” is full-on Country misery, as Sophia takes the lead on the Connie Smith sob-fest; the harmonies, as always, are beautiful but, it’s also nice to hear each sister take a lead.
The Quebe Sisters (Daniel Parr; Grace, Sophia, Hulda Quebe; Simon Stipp) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
After a couple of true Country tunes, a version of Roy Rogers’ “Along the Navajo Trail” (which was later recorded by – among others – Wills and the Playboys; the Quebes recorded a version with Benson and his group, Asleep At the Wheel last year for an album called STILL THE KING: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS) and “Once a Day,” written by Bill Anderson and originally recorded by Connie Smith, things started to get a bit adventurous with trips down avenues rarely traveled by a group such as the Quebe Sisters. These excursions included “How High the Moon,” a Jazz number first recorded by Big Band legend Benny Goodman and a later, more popular version by the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford; “Be My Life’s Companion,” a vocal hit for both crooners the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney; the Rhythm and Blues barn-burner (and early template for the music we call Rock and Roll), “Teardrops From My Eyes,” a song that propelled Ruth Brown to the top of the R and B charts; and set-closer “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie,” a Country Blues ballad made popular by Fats Waller and recorded by the Ink Spots, among many others. As each of the trio, as well as Stipp and Parr, performed near-mind-numbing solos and the Quebes displayed further talents with dual and triple harmony fiddle leads, I, nevertheless, found myself engulfed in the sound of the transcendent female voices, blending in perfect harmony. Both Jeannie Seely’s “Leaving and Saying Goodbye.” a hit for Faron Young, and one of Willie Nelson’s most examples beautiful compositions, “Summer of Roses,” sent chills down my spine.
The Quebe Sisters (Grace Quebe; Daniel Parr, Sophia Quebe; Hulda Quebe) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)
Aside from the already-alluded to “It’s a Sin To Tell a lie,” the final portion of the set was given over to classic Folk numbers, beginning with Woody Guthrie’s “Sally Goodin,” which turned into a fiery fiddle breakdown, again highlighting the individual and collective talents of the Quebe Sisters. Perhaps the most stirring moments of the show came with a medley of early nineteenth century Folk tunes, one quite English in origin, the other unmistakably American. Starting with the haunting “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the group’s strong vocals and the weariness evoked by the moans of the fiddles had the entire room transfixed; “Speed the Plow” was, likewise, very emotionally charged and moving. I’ve tried to give words to the soaring voices and exemplary playing of the Quebe Sisters; I’ve attempted to describe the genre-bending musical choices played on this night. I’m not exactly sure how best to describe what happened on the fourth floor of the Sheldon Concert Hall on the evening of February 17, 2016, other than to say that this was the music of America (call it “Americana,” if you must), played by what may very well be the best and the brightest we have to offer.