Archive for the Deep Thoughts Category

Music Industry Deaths: The Poet, The Singer, and the American

Posted in Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Music, Music Video with tags , , , , on September 15, 2011 by greedycherry

A quick thought: I hope I don’t get into the habit of being astounded at how long it’s been since my last blog entry.  Or, at least, I hope I don’t feel the need to comment on how long it’s been since my last blog entry every time I write one.  Jeez…..that would be annoying. Right?

Anyway, I made a note a few months back (wow, I can’t believe that it’s been….uh….sorry.  Nevermind.) which consisted simply of the title of this particular piece, which you can plainly see up above this entry in big yellow letters. It seemed that notable musicians were dropping over left and right, and I thought that deserved some kind of commentary, especially on a music-based blog like this one. The title came to me after a little consideration, and I figured that by jotting my idea down on a piece of paper and placing that in a prominent place on my desk it would somehow help me to remember my idea more easily and get to the task of writing more quickly.

Oops.

Well, regardless of that particular failure, I’m finally getting around to it….so let’s begin, shall we?

I think, firstly, it needs to be said that it’s a damn shame when anyone dies. I mean, hey…we all have to go sometime, but everyone who passes is always someone’s mother or father, brother or sister, spouse or friend. There are always those who feel the loss of a particular human being heavily, and those who never even know it happened at all. It’s a proximity thing. Such is life.

But when someone in the public eye, or with even the slightest hint of fame, dies, it affects more than just the people you expect it to, those closest to the deceased. It quite often affects complete strangers. People who never met, or even knew, the deceased. I find this to be an interesting phenomenon, but one not altogether unexpected. After all, everyone has heroes….everyone loves to be inspired by someone, to believe great things about themselves through the exploits of others. When someone moves you just by the fact that they exist and have done SOMEthing, whether it’s pitching a no-hitter or painting a great work of art, that person has become a part of you. When young boys go out in the backyard to play football while wearing their Tom Brady jersies, or teens sporting Ramones-style haircuts and leather jackets start a band, you can see influence and imaginations at work. You can see the public figure inspiring these people he or she has never met to action, to rise up and DO a particular thing, to emulate, to wish for, to dream.

This is the power of public greatness, and the effects that it generates.

But, as I said, since this is a music-based blog, let’s deal with the musicians. Being one myself makes me take particular note of the deaths of these artists, many of whom have created songs that are as meaningful and enjoyable to me today as when I first heard them. However, it should be noted that even though we love their music, we usually know very little about these musicians’ lives…very little about their past, about their demons, their influences, and their trials and tribulations. I mean, just because you read an article on a musician in Rolling Stone doesn’t mean you know anything about what they are like in real life, on a day-to-day basis. Yet many of us identify so much with these artists, are so inspired by them, it’s still hard to believe when they’re gone, and tough to let them go. No more songs. No more albums. No more concerts. There’s nothing left, nothing more to be had….and it leaves us with an unrelenting sadness, and that ever-present question: “What could have been?”

THE POET

BBC’s “Newsnight” program called him “The Legendary Godfather of Rap.” Quite a title for a man whose music often involved simple instrumentation, earthy, soulful rhythms, and the sound of a flute wafting through the air. But it wasn’t necessarily the music that you dropped the needle on the record to hear.

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron’s voice commanded your attention every time it rose from the musical landscape to speak. True, his voice could become loud and impassioned, but it was the words that held your ear more than anything. This man had something to say, and boy did he know how to say it. On the cutting edge both culturally and politically, Scott-Heron’s words thundered against oppression, against corruption, against hypocrisy and those who practiced it, no matter what their sex or the color of their skin. But thunder did not equal brutality…he was skillful and deft with his vocal delivery, floating and stinging like a Pulitzer Prize-winning Muhammad Ali. And, ultimately, it was the hypnotizing rhythm of his speech, the artful movement of each syllable into the other, that, if it didn’t invent it outright, certainly helped make spoken word poetry – and therefore, eventually, rap – into a successful, thriving industry.

Like most artists of his age group, most of his acclaimed work was done in the 1970’s, the collaborations with musician Brian Jackson being probably his most successful output in terms of popularity and sales. But Gil Scott-Heron will probably always be best known for his enduring anthem against commercialism and the plight of the inner-city population, 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. As you can see from the song’s entry in Wikipedia, there are more clever references and cultural name-drops than you can shake a stick at. Even the most literate and deft rapper currently recording would be hard-pressed to match Scott-Heron’s knowledge of the world around him.

(My personal favorite tracks of his, incidentally, are “The Bottle” and “H2OGate Blues”, both from 1974’s “Winter In America”. Funky/sad and funny/clever, respectively.)

His later years brought a fall from grace: a series of arrests on drug charges (the kind of bad influence that he often railed against to others during his career) and, upon release from prison, an eventual admission of his HIV-positive status. Although of questionable health and looking much older than his 60 years, in February of 2010 Scott-Heron put together his first album in sixteen years, “I’m New Here”.

It would be his final album.

Upon returning from a trip to Europe in May of this year, Gil Scott-Heron ended up in a New York City hospital and died. The cause of death has still not officially been announced.

THE SINGER

In the summer of 2007, I had what I thought was a really neat choice to make. Two big music festivals were taking shape, with two stellar lineups….the 2nd annual Virgin Music Festival in Maryland, or, if I wanted to spend more gas money, a slightly longer trip down to Tennessee for Bonnaroo. Most of the main artists I wanted to see were fortunately going to be at both concerts….the real difference between the two was, for me, simply this: I could see Lily Allen at Bonnaroo or Amy Winehouse at the Virgin Music Festival. I had come to love both of these ladies’ new records, and it was a tough decision to figure out which was the bigger draw for me.

Unfortunately, I’ve never really been anything but poor, so money was a factor…..and therefore the closer Maryland gig won out. And when I say “unfortunately,” I’m not just talking about being poor.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse tribute, spray painted on a Boston sidewalk

Although I had a great time at the festival, and most of the other bands were great, Amy Winehouse was a huge disappointment. Wait, let me capitalize that. HUGE disappointment. Hmm……still not enough. Let’s try bold with our capitals. HUGE. There…..that’s better.

Those of you who keep up with the private lives of musicians know the tale already, so I won’t really get into it here. Suffice it to say, for those of you who have better things to do than read People magazine or watch TMZ, we can break it down into two words: drugs, alcohol.

And I’m sure I don’t need to upload the video I took at the concert either to show you what I mean. Anyone who cares to can head over to Youtube and see for yourself in short order how Ms. Winehouse performed under the influence. (Or failed to perform, as the case may be.) While we all stood there baking in the intense summer heat, we became her willing victims….a twitchy dance step here, slurred words there, a glassy-eyed look that told us we really probably shouldn’t expect anything much at all today, thank you very much. And, as the exercise in futility ground to a halt, she lurched towards stage right and into the arms of her then-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who, alcohol bottle in hand, escorted her off the stage.

Just a week and a half shy of four years later, on July 24th, Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home. She was just 27.

How many more songs could she have written and sung? How many more albums could she have given us? These are the questions that ultimately get asked, but to which there are never any answers. Drugs and alcohol are often lethal to their abusers, so it’s never quite a surprise when the end comes….but somehow it never stops us from being shocked when it does.

According to her father, who was recently interviewed on Piers Morgan’s CNN program, Amy had been drug-free for about three years, and no trace of narcotics had been found in her system at the time of her death, according to the autopsy report. So perhaps that demon was behind her. Unfortunately, the alcohol was a harder habit to kick, and she apparently spent alternating periods of time drinking too much, and then not drinking at all. Her father believes that ultimately this is what killed her.

“She had a series of seizures brought on by this binge drinking and then stopping to drink,” Mr. Winehouse told CNN’s Anderson Cooper this past Monday. “I think it’s what the doctor said, I think she had a seizure and this was the time when there was no one there to rescue her.”

A sad end to a promising career and a wonderful talent. I remember when I first heard her last record “Back To Black”, and was amazed at how current and retro it sounded all at the same time. As a lover of old soul and Motown music, hearing the arrangements she chose and the instrumentation that was used truly let me know I was listening to something unique. (Although I will admit I refused to buy the CD initially when I heard she sampled “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” heavily on “Tears Dry On Their Own”. I am not a fan of the over-used, overt sample. No sir.) Her first album “Frank” was pretty tasty too, a little more tilted to jazzy inclinations, but there are some people who actually prefer it to the more popular second record. My suggestion is to get both of them and take a listen yourself….I doubt you’ll be disappointed with either purchase.

As my final tip of the hat to Amy Winehouse, I give you “You Know I’m No Good”, my favorite track of hers off either album. It might be the lyrics, it might be the killer groove, it might even be the little nuances and inflections in her vocal performance that make it so damn tasty….but I do know for sure that the bari sax part doesn’t hurt any.

THE AMERICAN

The name of their group was almost a completely accurate description of the type of music they played: America. Their songs ooze with breezy acoustic guitar work and tight, feel-good harmonies. Even if you think you’ve never heard anything by them, I’ll still bet that you have….you just don’t know that you have. Somewhere in their list of hits – “Ventura Highway”, “Horse With No Name”, “Sandman”, “Tin Man”, “Sister Golden Hair” – is a tune you would recognize the moment it started playing. The funny thing about the group America, however, was that none of the three founding members lived in their namesake country when they met, nor had they grown up there. America, in a wonderful case of historical parallel, had started in Britain.

Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek all were the sons of U.S. military personnel who were stationed in London in the mid-60’s, so the story goes, and it was a few miles north of there, at London Central High School at Bushey Hall, that they first met while playing in a couple area bands. Eventually they borrowed some acoustic guitars, warmed up their three-part harmonies, and made their first record “America”, which was released in 1971. Not really very successful at first, it was rereleased the following year with an additional song that had been very well received in their live shows but was not recorded until after the record’s initial release: a little tune called “Horse With No Name”. After that rerelease, everything changed. The album sold like gangbusters, and America officially had their first worldwide hit. They subsequently moved to Los Angeles and continued their career in the country that had given them their name.

America released seven albums between 1971 and 1977, rising to platinum chart-topping heights before falling back to Earth via decreasing sales and failing singles. Lots of bands follow a similar arc, and, like America, most music fans, in both good times and bad, just know these groups by their name alone….not by the names of its members. (How many times have you heard a Pink Floyd song and said, “Hey, there’s that Roger Waters song”? Well, okay….maybe some of you….)  Which is probably why you’ve never in your life heard Dan Peek’s name.

Dan Peek

Dan Peek

But it was Dan Peek who broke up the lovely three-part harmonies millions had come to know and love by leaving the group in 1977, headed off on a different path with a clean and sober outlook and a renewed Christian faith. While America would hit the charts at least once more in the subsequent years (“You Can Do Magic” off of 1982’s “View From The Ground” album reached #8 on the Billboard Pop Charts) and Peek would become a pioneering member of the Christian music scene, none of these old friends ever again reached the success they had so regularly achieved as a trio.

It’s sort of funny when you think about the circumstances and the instances of random chance that go into creating music that is not only popular, but endures. If just one person hadn’t lived here, or gone there, or dated someone who introduced them to that one particular person, well….groups might still exist. They might even have the same name. But they would be different. Their live shows would be different. Their albums would be different, and so would the songs on them. Circumstances have be exactly as they were for things to have happened exactly as they did. It’s mind-boggling to think about.

I mean, what if Terry Reid had said “yes” when Jimmy Page asked him to join his new group, The New Yardbirds? No Led Zeppelin as we know it. What if Ringo Starr had not replaced Pete Best as the Beatles drummer? Would we even know who they were today? And what if three young boys had not met in a London school in the late 1960s….would that calming, summery guitar riff at the beginning of “Ventura Highway” have ever been born?

So many different forks in the road throughout music history, and if these moments had not happened precisely as they did, the music that is so familiar and beloved by us today would probably not even exist. Something to ponder as you turn on your radio today….

Dan Peek died on July 24th at his home in Missouri. He was 60 years old.

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Takin’ What They’re Givin’

Posted in Deep Thoughts, Music, Music Video with tags , , on April 11, 2011 by greedycherry

Well, here we are again…..another Monday. The start of yet another long work week, and Friday seems just so damn far away, doesn’t it? I mean, really. Have you noticed that time only speeds by when you’re actually doing the things you want to do? And then when you’re slaving away for your employer, writing endless memos and attending endless meetings and being stuck on endless conference calls, then, and only then, does time crawl by like a race between a slug and a caterpillar.

Why does time insist on pulling that nasty trick on us, I wonder? I mean, what the hell did we ever do to time anyway?

Sigh.

Alright….well, let’s just put on the old stiff upper lip and forge ahead, shall we? Tell you what….let me give you a little music for your morning, a peppy little tune that takes into account your current work situation and gives a fair amount of empathy in the way only a well-coiffed, square-jawed harmonica player can.

“Workin’ For A Livin'”, off of 1982’s “Picture This,” wasn’t the first hit song for Huey Lewis and the News….that honor actually went to another song off the same album, “Do You Believe In Love,” which was written by mega-producer (and Shania Twain’s future ex-husband….way to screw up there, buddy boy) Robert John “Mutt” Lange. While that tune itself is a lovely sheen of harmony vocals and pop songwriting, “Workin'” was straight-up rock and roll with a blue collar message. Unfortunately, the song just missed the Billboard Top 40, peaking only at number 41 after its release as a single.

The song was co-written by Huey (born Hugh Anthony Cregg III, actually….and knowing is half the battle! GO JOE!) and the News’ lead guitarist Chris Hayes, and the lyrics certainly do highlight the common man’s working plight. A fine example at the outset of the song:

“Some days won’t end ever, and some days pass on by
I’ll be working here forever, at least until I die.”

Believe me, I know that feeling all too well…and I’m sure some of you might too. I’ve been stuck in jobs before where I wasn’t paid any more (sometimes less) than I needed to live on, hoping desperately for a way out to a better, higher-paying job, but never able to find one. It would seem like everything was stacked against me, and that no one was willing to take a chance with a new hire…..I began to think I was just doomed to stay where I was forever. It certainly does seem like you’re trapped sometimes.

But I think a lesson I’ve learned in my life so far is that sometimes things take time…..sometimes far too much time, if you ask me, Mr. Universe, but there you have it. The important thing to remember is to keep moving in the direction of your goal. Sure, you may be stuck in a crappy, dead-end job now, but if you have a goal, just keep pushing toward it. Do one little thing each day (a big thing if you have the resources and the time) that pushes you ever-so-slightly in that direction. And if you do, sooner or later, you’ll either arrive at your goal, or something unexpected will happen that will send you in another wonderful direction completely. It’s only a matter of time….

In conclusion, I find that people often spend their lives trying to control things or circumstances or outcomes. Don’t bother…you really can’t. Once you realize and accept the fact that you have almost no control over anything in your life, it sort of becomes very silly to fuss over it all. Just head in the direction you’d like to go, roll with the punches, and take the good with the bad. That’s life, as the Chairman would say.

At least those are my Monday morning deep thoughts. I’m no Jack Handey, I know, but hey…..I try.