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The Freedom of Music: Gettin’ Sassy in the S.U.N.

December 16th, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Late spring 1982. I was done school and wondering, what next? Plan A was guitar player: Rock Star, back-up player, studio musician, any and all choices where acceptable. Hey, I wasn’t picky – I just wanted to make gobs of money doing what I loved doing.sidebar-1

When an 19-year old decides what they want from life, they often then need to get an apprenticeship to learn their craft. In the music world, the apprenticeship is playing in a band. Rehearsing daily, learning a lot of songs in a short time, developing some stage craft and learning a few moves without throwing the song off are all requirements of the job. To that end, I set out to find a band.

At the time, there was a musicians classified service out of Toronto. You registered with them, then called the number daily and they would give you contact info of people looking for what you were offering: “guitar, rock” in my case. Using this service, I went on a number of auditions for various bands at various levels. Dutifully lugging my number 2 guitar – a Gibson S1 that I never could get the hang of playing (#1 was a beautiful, and now extremely valuable 1979 Antigua Stratocaster – sold in the mid-1980’s for a relative pittance, that a friend had borrowed and was using on the road) – around Toronto.

One day I went to a house where the band was living. They were older and had a female lead singer. The band was set up in the basement and the gig would require me to live at the house with the band. They had a record deal, I was told, and we were to work on developing the songs as well as gigs to keep the money flowing. All that’s required was to pass the audition.

The audition did not go well. I always struggled with the intonation on the S1 and was basically out of tune the whole time. As well, I could never get the S1 to do my bidding in any real way. Top it off with the fact that I wasn’t that good, and these guys were, and looking back I can only marvel at how nice they all were to me. I had forgotten I even went on all these auditions until something jogged my memory a few years back. Thinking about it after 20-years, I realized I had tried out for Sass Jordan’s band.

Tell Somebody, her first album and single, would propel Jordan onto the charts six years later and ten years later Jordan would release her masterpiece, Racine, still one of the best Canadian albums ever produced. Just imagine what she could have done if she’d taken a chance on a young, not very good guitarist back in 1982: the mind boggles.

Lately, Jordan has teamed up with an internet pal of mine to produce one of the best rock records of the last few years. I began interacting with Michael Devin when he was playing bass for Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience and I wrote a bio of him and other relatively unknown members of the band. Devin moved on to Whitesnake with his favourite rhythm section partner, Brian Tichy, and together they spent 2011 touring the world in rock star style.

Moving to guitar, Tichy and Devin teamed up with Jordan and drummer Tommy Stewart to form S.U.N. (Something Unto Nothing). The four decamped to an abandoned cabin in “the mountains of Canyon Country,” and spent two weeks writing songs. The result was a hard rocking album straight out of the 70’s that inspired it.

When two Zep-heads like Tichy and Devin formed the rhythm section for former Coverdale/Page singer David Coverdale’s Whitesnake, I expected a Zeppelin sounding album. It wasn’t so, and these guys so influenced by 70’s rock still sounded like an 80’s band. That problem has been corrected on Something Unto Nothing. Opening with Burned the Zeppelin connection is obvious: Burned is Black Dog dressed differently. Even the production sounds more open and ambient in the Jimmy Page style, rather than the tightly compressed sound that most producers go for these days.

That’s not to say Something Unto Nothing is just a Zeppelin clone. It is influenced, not taken from. Many of the songs play to singer Jordan’s strengths, tight melodic lines interspersed with occasional bursts of belting it. Did Me No Good is a great example of this, while Mobile Again shows off how good the rhythm section is, playing off the funkiest groove I’ve heard in years.

The album’s first single, I’m The One, is doing fairly well charting in the mid-50’s in the weeks since the albums release. It is, again, just a straight ahead piece of rock and roll, well played and fun to listen to. If I Was You slows it down a touch, sounding like a classic Sass Jordan song on first listen. Mid tempo Wide Ocean, bluesy , S.U.N. a Bad Company-esque 7 minute power ballad: all excellent songs that get better on repeat listenings.

The bottom line is, if you miss the days when rock music was loose, fun and ambient, if you miss when rock was considered danceable and dynamics where encouraged, you’re gonna love Something Unto Nothing.


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The Freedom of Music: Black Country Communion’s Afterglow

November 4th, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

A random thought passes as I listen to Black Country Communion’s new album Afterglow: with the recent bad blood between bassist Glenn Hughes and guitarist Joe Bonamassa, if Bonamassa was on fire, would Hughes put him out? sidebar-6
Answer, not on Afterglow he doesn’t.
Throughout the band’s third studio album in as many years, Bonamassa’s playing is smoking: Big Train’s wah-wah infused rave up; the white hot solos on Midnight Sun and The Giver; the guitar intro to Midnight Sun; or the slow burning slide on Cry Freedom. Bonamassa lights the album up with his best playing to date with this band. Hughes response is to fuel the flames with a collection of songs of great licks and words that twist and turn, offer loud and soft (light and shade?) moments throughout.

If, as has been allowed as possible through various media outlets, this is the end of the line for Black Country Communion, it will prove to be a great pity. On reviewing their first album, I offered a number of times their influences came to the top, on their second album, I noted less of this. On this album, they sound from start to finish uniquely like themselves. Hey are a band that has found an identity. Moments like the dual Hughes/Bonamassa vocals on Cry Freedom or the tight, super-funky groove Hughes and drummer Jason Bonaham get on the Bonham penned piece Common Man sound like Black Country Communion and no one else.

You can’t talk about Afterglow without also mentioning Derek Sherinian, who takes a greater role than the first two albums, playing a couple of organ solos that are exceptional. His playing throughout is top notch.
Black Country Communion’s Afterglow, which was released Tuesday, is a great rock and roll album that will improve with time and listenings. It is what these guys do best, flat out rock.


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The Freedom of Music: Re-discovering Zep

October 28th, 2012

The Freedom of Music: I Don’t Do Lists

October 7th, 2012

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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

“Do you think you could make him a list of bands and songs from the 70’s to listen to?”

My daughter is asking on behalf of her boyfriend, who is a Stones fan, “but he’s not into Zeppelin,” and wants to expand his musical horizons. Well, besides the fact I don’t really do lists and I consider anybody who’s “not into Zeppelin” beyond hope, sure.sidebar-4

For starters, any fan of 70’s era Stones should check out The Faces. The two groups sound, at times, remarkably alike, yet you would never mistake one for the other. Get their greatest hits album, “a nods as good as a wink….” and check out Stay With Me, Three Button Hand Me Down and Ooh La La.

As well, never ignore the albums when talking about 60’s and 70’s music. If you are a Stones fan based on any number of their hits, know that buried on the albums are songs you have never heard but are great. Pick your favourite Stones songs, and listen to the albums they came off. Chances are you’ll find songs you’ll like, and possibly whole album sides that just seem perfect (yes sides: the artists thought in terms of sides – not songs, not albums – and they are the way to approach the music of the era)

Working backwards from the 70’s, The Stones and Yardbirds both came from the same place, The Crawdaddy Club of the early 60’s. Each went in different directions, but they started at the same place. So too shall we.

The early Yardbirds is the thing, that Clapton stuff, and moving into the Jeff Beck years. Five Live Yardbirds to start, and then a greatest hits package of some sort. Branching out, check out the individual guitarists post-Yardbirds careers: Clapton with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes and his early solo work; The Jeff Beck Group (featuring pre-Faces Rod Stewart); and of course – you knew I had to get here – Led Zeppelin.

Now I know, not a Led Zeppelin fan, he’s heard them before and found them wanting &tc. But discussing the era without discussing Led Zeppelin is like not discussing The Stones or The Who. It’s an incomplete conversation. Everybody knows some Led Zeppelin songs, and judgement can be clouded by an incomplete picture of a band that played such a variety of music. Here’s what you do. Listen to, in order, Led Zeppelin I side 2 – the blues album; Led Zeppelin II, side 1, the heavy metal album; Led Zeppelin III side 2, the acoustic album; Led Zeppelin IV, side 1, the masterpiece.

Here’s the logic. After The Yardbirds, Cream and The Jeff Beck Group, the first album is in context. It’s their blues album, but side 2 will surprise you with the almost pop sounding You Time is Gonna Come, the acoustic solo Black Mountain Side, the pre-punk Communication Breakdown, Old Willie Dixon blues on I Can’t Quit You Baby and the jam How Many More Times. It has a little of everything, and turning the album over just to hear Good Times, Bad Times and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You will be a revelation.

The second album is their road album, and if Led Zeppelin invented heavy metal (they didn’t, and it’s an awful description of them as a band), II is when they did so. That in, everything you ever wanted to know about Led Zeppelin is in the first two songs of Led Zeppelin II. Whole Lotta Love, the supposed birthplace of heavy metal and What is and What Should Never Be, sweet ballad turned hard rocker in the chorus. They may not have invented heavy metal, but they did invent the heavy metal ballad with What is… The slide solo alone is worth listening to this album for.

The third album, written at a rustic cabin in the Welsh countryside, is everything Led Zeppelin is not supposed to be. Side two will literally shock the person who thinks they know Led Zeppelin but have never heard this. Four acoustic songs, each one completely different, yet not an electric guitar to be found. They return to the blues on the last song but it’s probably worth skipping until you’ve listened to the first four songs enough times to a) love them and b) wonder what the hell they are about. My favourite album side as a teenager, and still one that mesmerizes me.

Finally four, the masterwork. You know the songs on side one, but hearing them in context improves them. The sound of needle on vinyl (yes, listen to the records if you can – just ask first and put the damn things away when your done) a quiet E string being played in the open position, and then, all on his own Robert Plant, bel canto, singing on of the great opening lines:

Hey hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.

How can you not like that? It’s immediately followed up with Rock and Roll, Zeppelin’s answer to critics who said they had gone soft after the second side of the third album. If you can take it up a notch from Black Dog, they do. And then, the greatest 14 minutes in rock and roll: The Battle of Evermore/Stairway to Heaven: Prelude and Masterpiece. Everybody has heard Stairway to Heaven in isolation, or at dance’s end after Play the Funky Music and Night Fever, or on the radio in a set with Hell’s Bells and Let it Be, and it loses something. But the pastural intro to Stairway in the shadow of the war ballad of Battle of Evermore gives it an entirely new feel. Oh and by the way, here’s why Led Zeppelin are the greatest band ever. That slide solo in What is…, Page gets the sweetest sound using an electric guitar and a distortion pedal yet in Battle of Evermore they convincingly create a massive sounding war song with 2 mandolins and an acoustic guitar. Nobody else can do that, and they do it while creating emotional intensity. Stairway ends side 1 ends the way Black Dog began it, Robert Plant singing a cappella – because when I tell you the artists thought in sides, I wasn’t kidding.

So that’s Led Zeppelin, and hour and a half spent investigating some of the greatest music ever. If you’ve followed the directions and still don’t really like Led Zeppelin, well then find someone else’s daughter to date, ’cause there’s not much hope for you. But at least everything else you listen to from the decade will have the appropriate context.

Moving on, but staying ever so briefly with the Stones offshoots, Aerosmith took influence from all of The Yardbirds, The Stones, Led Zeppelin and, as I’ve argued before, The Faces. Forget everything since they’ve reformed in the 1980’s, forget that Stephen Tyler loses credibility with every TMZ day, Aerosmith’s 70’s stuff is good to great. Start with the greatest hits if you must, but hit the albums too. The hits, Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion, Dream On are all excellent. But in the albums are some stellar tracks: Mama Kin, The Yardbird’s Train Kept a Rollin, Same Old Song and Dance.

In 1981 the Rolling Stones where playing locally at Buffalo. Opening that day at Ralph Wilson Stadium was a guy the rumoured to have been readied to step in and take over for Ron Wood if he was unable to continue, which seemed possible. Reportedly the only artist Bill Wyman would ask for an autograph over the Stones long career, the guys in the Stones where George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers fans, so shouldn’t a Rolling Stones fan be too? Start at the beginning, with One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. If you can’t recite the line “I know, everybody funny, now you funny too,” with confidence, you really don’t get rock’n’roll.

Also on the act that day, Foghat. Try them out, and their British counterparts (I know, Foghat are British, but their success was in the US), Status Quo.

Leaving the Stones influence behind, there’s almost too much music, too many bands of the era. In some cases whole repertoires should be explored, in others, a song or two. In most cases, I’ll discuss and album or album side.

The Beatles: Since we are discussing the era of the late 60’s early 70’s, explore at your leisure the later Beatles. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR. There’s a lot of good rock music in there between John Lennon’s experiments in avant-garde and Paul McCartney’s soppy ballads. You’ll find stuff you like, including possibly some ballads and avand-garde.

Also, the solo Beatles is good. To me, Paul McCartney’s best work, ever, was his early Wings stuff – Band on the Run and Venus and Mars. Also his first few solo albums, including the song Maybe I’m Amazed. Lennon’s solo work is also good, sometimes great. Everyone knows Imagine, but Jealous Guy, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, Watching the Wheels and Woman are all excellent. George was the underrated Beatle, and he proves it in his solo work. His first post-Beatles work is All Things Must Pass and it has My Sweet Lord and What is Life. But pick up his greatest hits and find out how good he is. Then get Somewhere in England, or at least the song All Those Years Ago and hear his tribute to John Lennon, who was killed the year before. Most people don’t know that Ringo had a fairly good solo career, and his greatest hits album is full of fun little pop songs that are a perfect way to waste an afternoon.

The Who also fall into the must listen category. Considered one of, if not the most exciting live act of the time, the Who’s work spans the decades. From the 60’s, grab their greatest hits album, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, as well as their live album Live at Leeds. For sport, imagine seeing The Who, playing as good as they do at Leeds, playing your university.

In the 70’s, check out Who’s Next. You know all the songs anyway, from the CSI intros, but listen to them in their entirety, in context. In the 80’s the post-Kieth Moon Who had former Faces drummer Kenny Jones keeping beat, and they released a couple of good albums, 1981’s Face Dances and 1982’s It’s Hard. Check them both out, including You Better You Bet, Athena, Eminence Front and John Entwistle’s ironic rocker, The Quiet One.

How’s that fro a start? There’s your homework, and there’s enough there to keep you too busy to be bothering my daughter. And when your done that, we’ll move on to individual songs you should be listening too.


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The Freedom of Music Goes 8-Track

May 27th, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

“If you want,” I said to my son, “you can put some music of your music on for a while.”

He’s 14, quiet in the monosyllabic way unique to teenage boys and has a lovely smile. He flashed it now, half in a laugh.

“No.”

sidebar-3 We were renovating a bathroom/closet and the two of us were putting up the drywall. Born to Run was on, not something he would listen to voluntarily. He’s into rap and modern pop, meaning Beyonce, Usher &tc. Bruce Springsteen is not his thing. Yet he refused my simple request with almost a chuckle.

“Don’t have any rap 8-tracks?” I asked innocently, and his time he did laugh.

“No.”

I bought the 8-track player on eBay about a year ago, and now have a small collection of tapes, also mostly bought on eBay. It was a lark really, buying a piece of obsolete audio equipment that most people couldn’t get rid of fast enough back around 1980. But it was a lark that has come with it’s small pleasures. The fact that, as near as I can tell, a rap album has never been released on 8-track is one of those pleasures.

But there’s more. eBay is full of tapes at any given time and spending half-an-hour nosing through, bidding a dollar here, two there is a bit of fun. More fun is wandering through a used stuff store and stumbling on an otherwise unexpected cache of tapes. Truth is, until you have heard Boston’s first blasting though an 8-track player, as I have after stumbling across it at the Stratford Antique Mall, you just haven’t heard it in all it’s analogue glory.

Pulling out the 8-track and throwing on some classic rock is guaranteed to generate a conversation. Other people my age remember having 8-tracks, haven’t seen them in years, and end up reminiscing about everything from music they haven’t heard since 1978 to the way you had to use a matchbook to lift the tape and keep the audio lined up with the tracks.

A couple of years ago I predicted 8-tracks might make a comeback and while I hate to take credit, even when well deserved, and it hardly qualifies as a real comeback, a noticeable thing has happened. A year ago, one-dollar 8-tracks where common on eBay. Those same 8-tracks now cost $6-8. There’s been a defined spike in the price, which leads one to believe it’s not just me who has discovered 8-tracks.

The good life is in the small pleasures. Discovering a love for 8-tracks after all these years is one of the smallest.


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The Freedom of Music: Levon Helm

May 20th, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

The Band was, undeniably, one of the great acts of the rock era. A Canadian band with a lone member from Arkansas, they played Toronto’s haunts for years backing up Ronnie Hawkins as The Hawks. Hawkin’s was a taskmaster and a perfectionist. After performing all night, virtually every night, Hawkins would rehearse his band for hours afterwards into the small hours of the morning. sidebar-2

The practice time paid off, and The Hawks became masters of their craft. So much so that when Bob Dylan decided to change rock’n’roll irretrievably by mixing folk and electric blues, he chose the Hawks to be his back up band. The Arkansas boy however, had had enough of the life and, disappointed by the initial response to Bob Dylan’s decision to “go electric,” quit music and went home. Levon Helm left his bandmates to suffer the indignity of being booed and jeered every night, just because Bob Dylan decided to expand his musical horizons.

In 1967, living in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, Rick Danko contacted Helm asking him to rejoin the band. He did and became one of the staple voices of rock music. Music From the Big Pink, released a year later, became one of the most popular and influential albums of the 1960’s, cited by George Harrison as a great album, and Eric Clapton as the reason he left Cream for more rootsy styled music. Helm, for the record, never really left Woodstock again, his popular Midnight Ramble’s, ongoing until his death, took place in his barn/studio at his home in Woodstock.

A few weeks ago, an announcement appeared on Helm’s webpage, signed his wife and daughter. Helm was, it said, “in the final stages of his battle with cancer.” Usually such notices mean you have days to live. In Helm’s case, it was 2 days, as he succumbed to cancer on April 20th. He was 72.

As the post-mortem tributes came in, none summed Helm up better than Bruce Springsteen, who told a New Jersey audience about a week after Helm’s death:

Both his voice and his drumming were so incredibly personal. He had a feel on the drums that just comes out of a certain place that you can’t replicate.

When Springsteen refers to Helm’s voice as personal, he doesn’t just mean unique, although it was certainly that. Whether he was stretching his voice as in Ophelia, reciting a history lesson as he did in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or mock yodeling in Up On Cripple Creek, It felt as though Helm was singing directly to you. His voice had so much soul, every note dripping with that intangible something that made him one of the very special singers.


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The Freedom of Music: Frampton’s Guitar Comes Alive

April 15th, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Guitarists and their guitars. It can be a special bond. One guitar can be such a perfect fit, so in tune with it’s player, that a guitar player who can afford, and owns hundreds of the instruments, can spend years using mainly one.sidebar-7

In his book, One Train Later, Andy Summers tells how a student came to a lesson when he was teaching in LA in 1974, and offered to sell him an old ’61 Fender telecaster. Disinterested, Summers strummed it a few times and “something stirs within” him. He takes the guitar home with him, spends a few hours with it, and finds he can’t put it down, can’t stop playing. A failed musician who had lost the desire to play, he was playing with Tim Rose within’ a few weeks. The guitar that sparks something within’ him, the ’61 Fender telecaster with the stratocaster neck and the Gibson pickup, rewired with an overdrive unit built in the body of the guitar would carry him through his career with The Police, ending in 1984, and beyond.

Andy Summers was a one guitar guy for the highest point in his career, as was Peter Frampton. Frampton was playing lead guitar with Steve Marriot’s Humble Pie in 1970 when he borrowed a 1954 Les Paul Custom with triple humbucker pickups for a show. He would later say of the guitar:

I used it for both sets and my feet didn’t touch the ground. This is the best guitar I have ever played.

After the show he tried to buy the guitar from it’s owner, but it wasn’t for sale: he gave the guitar to Frampton instead.

Frampton’s 1954 Les Paul is now iconic, having been used in the remaining Humble Pie albums, including Rockin the Fillmore, and all of Frampton’s solo albums until 1980. It is the guitar Frampton is playing on the cover of his multi-million selling Frampton Comes Alive! and, of course, the guitar Frampton plays throughout the album. Have a favourite Peter Frampton song? Chances are he played it on that ’54.

In 1980 it was aboard a cargo plane that crashed in Venezuela. There we no survivors, including, presumably, the guitar. Burnt, beaten and battered, the fine Mahogany instrument would have made great fuel in a burning wreckage and, as far as anybody knew, that was it’s fate.

It didn’t die a fiery death, however, and a couple of years ago a Dutch Frampton fanatic (who will never again want for Frampton tickets or, presumably, have to pay for them) and a Curacaon customs agent that moonlights as a guitar repair man, began investigating (based on what information did they decide to investigate, I have no idea). Late last year they found the guitar, which had been salvaged and sold to a musician in Curacao.

On February 18th Peter Frampton stepped onstage at New York’s famous Beacon Theater with his black ’54 Les Paul for the first time in more than 30 years. A musician and his guitar, reunited after all these years.


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The Freedom of Music: Van Halen

April 8th, 2012

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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

The spring/early summer of 1978 was one of those beautiful hot sunny springs, made for frisbee, beer and rock and roll. sidebar-1 At my high school there was a large open grass area immediately beside the smoking area (yes, we had a smoking area on school property). One of the grade 12 students had one of those cool 70’s vans, stocked with cans of beer and a good stereo. He and friends would have a drink, throw the frisbee around and blast Van Halen’s first album.

The thing that always surprises me about Van Halen is how many record companies took a pass on them. Sure, record companies passed The Beatles before Van Halen, but you could see their point. The Beatles were, in 1962, nothing too special. If you had already been burned by one group that sounded like The Everly Brothers, why take a flyer on She Loves You? But after Gene Simmons fronted Van Halen the cash for demos, it’s hard to imagine record companies hearing Runnin’ With The Devil or Jamie’s Cryin’ and saying, “nothing special here.” The Beatles would become a great band in just a few years after recording their first record, but Van Halen was already a great band.

As a high school student hearing it that first summer, it was a Wow! album. Nobody had ever played guitar quite like Eddie Van Halen did on that album, (and almost every guitar player since has played too much like that), and Roth was all rock star, sexuality oozing from the speakers. The songs were instant classics, and the way Van Halen owned The Kinks You Really Got Me, it was obvious they were a force to be reckoned with.

Eddie Van Halen saw Led Zeppelin in LA before Van Halen was even a band. He watched Jimmy Page play Heartbreakerand went home to duplicate the solo he saw. While doing so, he stumbled across his two handed tapping technique, and took what Page was doing to a whole new level. His virtuoso guitar solo piece, Eruption, could just as easily have been called Heartbreakier, for that’s what it was (actually, Triumph’s Rock & Roll Machine would be Heartbreakier, Eruptionwould be Heartbreakiest). But what Eddie Van Halen really seems to have learnt from Led Zeppelin was how powerful a rock band could be, how much pure energy can be created with 1 guitar, 1 bass and 1 drum set. Eruption is not just an apt title for his solo piece, but the entire album could be called that. An eruption is exactly what Van Halen’s first album sounded like booming out of bedrooms, cars and vans back in 1978.

Thirty-four years later, Van Halen continues on. This winter the original lineup of Van Halen released a new CD, their first since the mid-1980’s, A Different Kind Of Truth, and toured together. They are, by all appearances, a band again and reviews suggest the raw power and energy of a great rock and roll band still erupts from Van Halen. Sure blasting Tattoo out of the mini-van beside a sign that says, “no smoking anywhere on school property,” isn’t the same thing, and nobody will argue Van Halen isn’t unchanged and unbloodied by their 34-years as professional rock stars. But, as Mick Jagger sang, “it’s only rock and roll, and I like it.” Sometimes, that’s good enough.


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The Freedom of Music: Neil Christian and the Crusaders

January 29th, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

London in the early 1960’s was like a guitarist factory. These young blokes would 1) hang around the Crawdaddy club 2) go to art school and 3) become virtuosos guitar players, seemingly in that order. If you did 1 & 2 on the above list, 3 seemed certain to follow. Take for example The Yardbirds.sidebar-6

Yea, yea, yea, The Yardbirds: Clapton, the pure bluesman, who left when they performed the “commercial,” For Your Love. Beck, hired on the recommendation of his childhood pal, Jimmy Page, wild and untamed he took the Yardbirds to it’s greatest commercial success. Then Page himself joined and for a while they were a dual lead band, Page and Beck powering audiences. Then the Page era, the Yardbirds more burned out than turned on, in full psychedelic force.

So yea, The Yardbirds. But here’s another list of guitar players to ponder:

Jimmy Page
Albert Lee
Ritchie Blackmore
Mick Abrahams

According to Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page was a known quality in London as early as 1962:

… Even in 1962 I can remember people saying ‘You’ve got to go and listen to Neil Christian and the Crusaders – they’ve got this unbelievable young guitarist.’ I’d heard of Pagey before I’d heard of Clapton or Beck…

By 1963 future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was road weary and sick with glandular fever – a form of mono. He quit Neil Christian and the Crusaders to go to art school and hang around the Crawdaddy club and then, ultimately, to studio work. Eventually he would leave studio work for the Yardbirds, and then Led Zeppelin.

Neil Christian and the Crusaders? They replaced Page with future lead guitarist for The Strawbs, Paul Brett and from Brett to “Mr. Telecaster” Albert Lee.

Lee, writer of the Ricky Scaggs hit, Country Boy, is a five time consecutive winner of Guitar Player Magazine’s “Best Country Guitarist,” honor (GP retires players after 5 wins in a category) and has been cited by no less than Eric Clapton as “the greatest guitarist in the world.”

Currently, on top of his own work, Lee plays with Bill Wymann’s Rhythm Kings, a band that contains Gary Brooker, Andy Fairweather-Low and Gary U.S. Bonds as well as being regularly joined by a host of the most famous musicians in rockdom.

Albert Lee was replaced in Neil Christian and the Crusaders by a guitarist who would go on to even greater fame and accolades, Ritchie Blackmore.

Around the same time that The Yardbirds were falling apart around Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore joined Deep Purple. While with Deep Purple, Blackmore co-wrote/played on songs such as Kentucky Woman, Lazy, Woman from Tokyo, Highway Star and Smoke on the Water, and established himself as one of the top guitarists in rock music.

After he left Deep Purple he formed one of the greatest hard rock acts of the 70’s, Rainbow (also known as Blackmore’s Rainbow), a band featuring Ronnie James Dio on vocals.

He did return to the Deep Purple fold, but now plays finger style guitar in a group called Blackmore’s Night, and has released at collection of original classical guitar music. He was named 50th in Rolling Stones top guitarist list, and in 2004, placed 16th in Guitar World’s “100 greatest metal guitarists of all time,” list.

Blackmore was followed in Neil Christian and the Crusaders by Mick Abrahams. Abraham’s was a founding member of Jethro Tull, leaving due to “creative differences,” with Tull frontman Ian Anderson.

That’s the way it went in London in the swinging 60’s: some unknown band with no records produced 5 guitarists of varying style, three of whom became acknowledged greats and two who had long solid careers, products of the greatest guitarist factory ever known.


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The Freedom of Music: Rolling With the Stones One Last Time

January 22nd, 2012
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

The rumor is the Stones will return to the road this year to celebrate 50 years together as a band. If, as is the common belief, Mick Jagger likes the money more than he dislikes his guitar player, Kieth Richards, then the Stones circus is coming to town.sidebar-7

Here’s the rub. A groups of Stones fans – or Renegade Stones Fans, as it’s being reported – have begun a petition demanding some changes to he way the Stones Roll. Here’s their list of demands:

– smaller venues, arenas, not stadiums.
– no huge stage with wings, &tc.
– no onstage props: no inflatable falluses, honky tonk women &tc.
– lower ticket prices
– set list overhaul
– elimination of horn section and back up singers
– no opening acts

While I have some issues with the demands, for example if you lower ticket prices and play smaller venues, the same fans will be complaining they can’t get tickets. And while I agree with the horn section and back up singer clause, I would add no musicians onstage who are not listed as Rolling Stones. Bring back Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor, plus a keyboard player, and have a seven piece Rolling Stones on stage, playing all the parts.

Recently the Rolling Stones released a live recording, liberated from the world of bootlegs, on their website. It could be had on MP3 or lossless FLAC formats for $7.00 and $9.00 respectively. The Brussels Affair was a 1973 Stones concert in Belgium consider to be among the Stones greatest concerts.

Even a cursory listen to “the worlds greatest rock and roll band” at their peak, as they were in 1973, reveals an astounding live act, capable of playing great rock and roll without a lot of fanfare. They were sloppy and careless, song tempos sometimes far too fast, such that Jagger had a hard time keeping up. Jagger himself was prone to the missed note and odd stage banter, while the band at times seemed to wander all over the song.

Yet it’s great. It has all the fun, all the energy, all the feeling that great rock and roll should have.

Compare that to the post- Steel Wheels Rolling Stones from about 1989 onward. The stage is crowded with support musicians and back-up singers. The spotlight may stay on the four main guys, but they are certainly not doing the bulk of the playing. If Kieth Richards wants to run from his place on the main stage to one of the ramps out over the crowd, all the better to preen and pose my dears, then he stops playing and runs up the ramp. Somehow, even when the main guy is not playing, there is no noticeable difference in the sound. Kieth Richards, in other words, is relevant to the Rolling Stones only as a visual.

The American Idol Equation is in full force at a modern day Stones show: everything is slick and perfect, gathering no moss as it rolls. Music is note perfect, stage movements almost choreographed, inspiration and spontaneity banished to a different time, a different place: Brussels 1973 say, or Oshawa in 1979. Certainly not now, never now.

And so Rolling Stones fans, hearing the whispers of a 50th anniversary tour, have hopes, hopes for a meaner, leaner Rolling Stones offering fans something more like The greatest rock and roll band in the world and less like the greatest show on earth.

here’s hoping they get it.


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The Freedom of Music: No Regrets

November 27th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

In 1979 I was visiting Belfast. During the trip I was at an old neighbor’s house. Their son, a few years my senior, was in University in England. He had to quit his band, he explained to me, when he left for school. sidebar-1

Stiff Little Fingers are more influential than they are popular – Green Day, among others, cite them as an influence – at least here in America. But the band would release four albums before dis-banding in 1983, and have released a number more since they reformed in 1988.

My old neighbor? He’s another middle aged guy with a job. I haven’t seen him in over 30 years, and I don’t know if he has any regrets, but I’d be willing to bet that on pub nights, he tells the boys over pints of bitter that he used to be in Stiff Little Fingers.

Terry Reid is an English singer. Recently interviewed at his Florida home, the still active performer said he had no regrets. Having had a career that had saw him eventually landing in Florida with enough assets to buy a home, that seems logical enough. What would Terry Reid have to regret?

In 1968 Jimmy Page was forming a new band in the aftermath of the Yardbirds breaking up. He had an idea for a singer, a guy who could powerfully belt out the blues, Terry Reid. Reid had some recent commitments and a reasonable prospect of success on his own, so he respectfully declined. He did, however, know of a bloke, Robert Plant.

If Reid really has no regrets about declining the gig as lead singer of Led Zeppelin, then he’s a fool. Here’s the lesson to take from the Terry Reid story: always demand a finders fee of 1 point on every album sold.

At least my Irish friend and Terry Reid made their choices. Not so Pete Best.

Best had the bad fortune of being the dues paying drummer in a nothing band called The Quarrymen, who got the boot just before they became The Beatles. On the verge of a record deal, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison were told your drummer isn’t good enough. Out went Best, in came Ringo Starr.

If you think, well you can’t spend your life worrying about what might have been, consider this. Ringo Starr backstopped The Beatles for seven years, had one of his songs turned into a movie, another into a TV show. By the time The Beatles broke up he was very wealthy. He then had a reasonably successful solo career and developed and starred in a little TV show called Thomas the Tank Engine. For the last 22 years he has spent the summers touring with the Ringo Starr All Star Band, featuring an ever changing cast of the worlds best musicians. Oh yea, he married a Bond Girl.

It’s easy to say no point worrying over what might have been, but your life was never going to the one Ringo Starr got.

Pete Best, who turned 70 last Thursday (and many happy returns to him), has said in past interviews he too has no regrets, that he’s lived a good life and wouldn’t trade any of it. Fair enough, but as his 70th birthday passed, do you suppose somewhere deep in his being a little voice said, “just let me outlive that bastard Ringo Starr!”? He who gets the last laugh, and all that.

Still, some last laughs are louder than others, wouldn’t you think.


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The Freedom of Music: One Live Yardbird

October 23rd, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

“Here,” Jeff Beck handed a 50’s telecaster to Jimmy Page. Page had recommended him to the Yardbirds in 1965, and he got the job, his big break. “Thanks for getting me the gig.”sidebar-4

He would stay with the Yardbirds two years, the last six months playing dual lead player with Page before he would go on to create his own band, discovering Rod Stewart and Ron Wood in the process. He turned down the chance to play in Pink Floyd – a gig that would go to David Gilmour – and the Stones after Mick Taylor left. He has played soul, funk, jazz and rock, always based heavily in the blues.

Jimmy Page, on the other hand, would use that telecaster five years later to record his “talk to God” solo on Stairway to Heaven.

A few weeks ago a friend asked if I was interested in going to see Jeff Beck. He was appearing in Kitchener, and he had 3rd row, center stage tickets. A chance to see an living legend from 12 feet away? Yea I’m interested.

So it was I found myself close enough to the stage Wednesday night that I could hear the onstage chatter. Jeff Beck, childhood friend of Jimmy Page, one of the three legendary Yardbirds, superstar guitarist and what Rolling Stone laughably listed as #14 all time great rock guitarists (he’s top 5 on any sane list) was close enough that I could watch his technique in detail.

beckDrive for show, put for dough, is on old professional golf maxim. In the guitar world, it is left hand for show, right hand for dough. As impressive as Jeff Beck is, as interesting as his resume makes him out to be, he’s better under close scrutiny, and it’s all right hand technique.

He controls the volume pot on his white Stratocaster constantly, and has the tremolo bar riding gently under his index finger most of the time. His manipulation of the tremolo bar, using it to create a legato through the melody, is awe inspiring.

But it’s his tone you really notice. He sounds like no one else If God plays guitar, you know he sits around going, “how does Jeff Beck get that tone?” It, and he, really is that good.

Beck is a dual member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as both a Yardbird and solo artist. Jimi Hendrix, it is claimed, lifted some of his best licks from Beck’s Yardbirds playing. And to see him from 12 feet away, there can be no doubting. If your looking for great, not good, guitarist, Jeff Beck truly is one of the best ever.

But don’t believe me: ask God.


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The Freedom of Music: We Built This City on Crappy Synth-Pop

October 16th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Rolling Stone did a reader survey asking what was the worst song of the 80‘s? Here’s how the poll was reported in the Sun newspaper chain:

Starship’s We Built This City has been named the worst song from the worst musical decade in a new Rolling Stone magazine poll.

The 80’s are the “worst musical decade?” sidebar-3

Well, it is if you take it as given that time ended on December 31st, 1989. However, if by decade you are including the 90’s and the recently ended oughts, then it’s hard to see how the 80’s are the worst of it. Put simply, the 80’s, at their very worst, was Madonna. The 90’s and 00’s brought us talent-less diva’s who cite Madonna as an influence.

Since the 1980’s music has descended into a beauty contest with an auto-tune soundtrack. Glee is not the worst offender, it is an inevitable stop on the road, but compare Glee to it’s 1980’s counterpart, Fame, to see how far the music industry has fallen. To suggest  that the 80’s is the low point, and somehow now we are above that decade is delusional. Of course, everyone thought the 80’s music was great in the 80’s, including We Built This City (we also thought Grace Slick’s pink outfit with matching running shoes was pretty cool too). And agreed, the decline began in the 80’s, but it’s been a steady decline ever since.

The Rolling Stone readers survey: Worst Songs of the 80’s:

  1. Starship – We Built This City
  2. Europe – The Final Countdown
  3. Chris De Burgh – Lady In Red
  4. Wham! – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
  5. Men Without Hats – The Safety Dance
  6. Falco – Rock Me Amadeus
  7. Bobby McFerrin – Don’t Worry Be Happy
  8. Toni Basil – Mickey
  9. Taco – Puttin’ On The Ritz
  10. Rick Astley – Never Gonna Give You Up

I’ll give you Rock me Amadeus, Don’t Worry Be Happy and Never Gonna Give You Up. Awful songs, deserving to be on any worst of list. And Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Mickey wouldn’t be on my list, but I get why there here. The Final Countdown is also worthy of inclusion, but for the life of my I don’t know why.

But seriously, no Madonna songs? No Duran Duran? I could make a credible top ten worst songs of the 80’s list consisting of nine Madonna and Duran Duran songs, plus Paula Abduls, Opposites Attract . But conceding that may be extreme, where is The Beasty Boys/ Aerosmith’s Walk This Way? which is both bad and an abomination.

Here’s a riddle: would Fred Astaire’s Puttin’ On The Ritz make a worst song of the 30’s list? No, I thought not. Yet the Taco version sounds pretty much like the Astaire version, and as we’ve already seen the 80’s called the worst musical decade, this seems contradictory. And if we’re hating songs from that period redone in the 80’s, wouldn’t you vote for David Lee Roth’s Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody? And why do so many people hate Lady in Red so much? It’s a nice song, and granted it gets played too often at weddings, but so does You Are So Beautiful and Up Were You Belong, and nobody is putting Joe Cocker on any worst of lists.

But the two songs I’ll never understand is Safety Dance and We Built This City. Safety Dance was the only song on the list I was completely surprised by: there are people who don’t like this fun little dance song? I can’t imagine what bothers people about it. The words are OK, again a little bit of fun.

We can dance if we want to.
We can leave your friends behind.
‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance
Well they’re no friends of mine…

It’s not, “If you start me up, if you start me up I never stop…” I grant you. Musically, Safety Dance isn’t so bad either. Certainly it has some of those cheesy keyboards, but that’s just about every song of the decade. If your going to have a token cheesy keyboard song on the list – and I think you should – I Got You or Tainted Love are much better choices.

We Built This City didn’t just come out #1 for worst song of the 80’s, as voted on by Rolling Stone readers, it came in #1 by a margin of more than 2-1 against the number two song. Is We Built This City rally that bad? Personally, I don’t mind it. It’s a snappy pop song, unworthy of a former supposedly-great hippy band, I grant. But if that’s the criteria, there’s a long list of those bands, and Starship is not the worst of the bunch. There is some suggestion Starship is being punished for a) selling out and b) singing a song against selling out. The band that changed it’s name three times, moans about corporation changing names and playing, “corporation games.” The left leaning readers of Rolling Stone can’t stand the hypocrisy, seems to be the argument, as if left wing readers of Rolling Stone have ever cared about hypocrisy before.

But the readers of Rolling Stone have spoken, and We Built This City is worse than Like A Virgin, Hungry Like a Wolf and In The Air Tonight. It says more about Rolling Stone readers than it does the songs, and what it says to me is, don’t read Rolling Stone.


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The Freedom of Music: Nothing Comes Easy

October 9th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

I slipped out the door at 9:00 last Friday night, hoping I wasn’t too late already. The 515 Concert club is a 15 minute walk, and the doors open at 9, so if there’s a crowd… Earlier my sister-in-law had commented that there was terrible traffic in downtown Hespeler, perhaps, said she, they were waiting for the 515 to open.

sidebar-2It seemed to me it could be so. The 515 is not that big, tickets were not sold in advance, and at $8.00 to see a band as good as Canadian classic rockers Moxy, why wouldn’t there be a good sized crowd?

Moxy started in Toronto in the early 1970’s. Their first album, known as the Black Album because it was black with the block letter logo, isn’t just a good album, doesn’t just have Tommy Bolin adding lead guitar parts to it, it is one of the best albums of the early 1970’s. Not Canadian albums – combined with Moxy II, they are the best hard rock Canadian albums full stop – but overall. In a year that featured the best of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, were Elton John was going by the handle Captain Fantastic, Aerosmith had Toys in the Attic and the Who were writing themes songs for the CSI franchise, Moxy stands up with the best of it.

Their second album, known as the red album because of it’s red cover, otherwise almost identical to the first album, was just as good as the first and had on it a big time hit, Cause There’s Another. Touring heavily behind Moxy II, Moxy’s brand grew and they became fairly big in Canada and Texas (To this day Moxy has a strong Texan fan base).

Trouble was, however, brewing and lead singer Buzz Shearman had both a drinking and a throat problem. Touring for their third album, Ridin’ High, took it’s toll. Within a year Buzz along with guitarist and main songwriter Earl Johnson had left the band. Despite the fact that future Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno, then going under the handle Michael Rynoski, the changes took away the momentum that Moxy had going.

I’ve seen them four times, at my high school with Rynoski singing, and twice after Shearman rejoined the band: at the Canadian Music Festival in 1979 and opening for Triumph at Ontario Place somewhere in the 80’s. At the Ontario Place show the power went out halfway through the set, an impromptu drum solo kept the music going for a couple of minutes until the power came back on, proving their professionalism.

The fourth time was last Friday.

Showing up at 9:15 and fearing the worst, I wasn’t prepared for what was there. Less than a dozen people milled around the bar, and the room where the stage sat was empty. I took up a choice seat, assuming it would fill: it never did and I spent the show moving from seat to seat, getting the best vantage point I could.

Nonetheless, Moxy is still a great band. The rhythm section is one of Canada’s best, Kim Hunt and Jim Samson from 70’s prog-rockers Zon, and guitar duties are being handled by original member Earl Johnson. Singer Russell Graham is a spot on Buzz Shearman, handling his songs better than Buzz himself could by the end of the 70’s. It was, in short, a great show and what a damned pity it is that virtually nobody was there to hear them.

They played all the songs you would think to ask to hear, Fantasy, Sail On Sail Away, Moon Rider, Nothin’ Comes Easy and “Moxy’s Stairway to Heaven,” Cause There’s Another. It was a great show and Johnson is such a good guitarist you don’t even notice that he’s playing two guitar parts all night as a single.

It was a great night of rock and roll in Hespeler and if you thought to go and didn’t, yes, you missed something. But that’s OK, I had a great seat.


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The Freedom of Music: Parrothead Party

September 18th, 2011
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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Summer is in the rear-view mirror, labour day a few weeks past and the kids back to school. The work week, just weeks ago shorter, whether by shaving a few hours off the Friday or grabbing a day off mid-week to enjoy the few months of warm sun we Canadians get, is now back to full. sidebar-1

In July I made the long drive to New York, spending a day at some favourite haunts, and returning two days later for a concert in Toronto. Arriving at Ontario Place half hour before curtain-up, the parking lot was full of people in colourful shirts, bird hats and sandals. The beer was flowing freely, and at the entrance to Ontario Place there was a massive stack of plastic beer cups, confiscated on the way into the park.

Jimmy Buffet was in town, and a Parrothead Party was on.
For the uninitiated, Jimmy Buffet is a singer who’s songs are a mix of folk, rock, country and calypso. It is somewhat unique, and being based on Caribbean sounds, it runs on themes of drinking, sailing and the beach (his 4 CD boxset was subdivided into 4 types of songs: Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads). His songs are very well crafted – Buffet is writer enough that he has written a book of short stories, two novels and an autobiography each of them good – and their summer themes resonate with his fans.

The fans show up en-masse at his shows in beach attire: Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts and hats decorated with colourful parrots or drinking paraphernalia (socks are virtually verboten). His concerts are an event as much as a show, and the fans are as much a part of the show as they are with any performer. Buffet, for his part, is the consummate performer, always playing his big hits, offering a minimal amount of new or unknown material. He is known to say mid-show, it’s his job, and a great job it is, to play the songs the fans want to hear.

In a list this summer of top ten boating songs by the American recreational boating industry’s awareness program, Discover Boating, Jimmy Buffet had two of the top five songs:

  1. A Pirate Looks at 40 – Jimmy Buffet
  2. Come Sail Away – Styx
  3. Redneck Yacht Club – Craig Morgan
  4. Southern Cross – Crosby Stills & Nash
  5. It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere – Jimmy Buffet and Alan Jackson

Of those five songs two are Buffet songs and another, Southern Cross, has been a concert staple for years. And the second Buffet song, It’s Five O’CLock Somewhere is really a drinking song. A Buffet fan could easily produce better sailing songs: Son of a Son of a Sailor, Fins or One Particular Harbour.

That aside it’s true, as far as it goes, that if your throwing a beach party or cruising in a boat, Jimmy Buffet is the perfect companion. But you don’t maintain a 40-year career singing Margaritaville every night. Buffet is a craftsman when it comes to song writing, offering up some of the nicest songs wrapped around the poetic ideas of travel, beaches and blue water. Take, for example, the number one song on the above list.

A Pirate Looks at 40 is the story of a modern day pirate, sailing the seas in search of a reason d’etre:

Mother mother Ocean, I have heard your call.
Wanted to sail upon your water, since I was three feet tall,
You’v seen it all. You’ve seen it all.

Watched the men who rode you, switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen.
Most of ’em dreams. Most of ’em dreams.

Yes I am a pirate, 200 years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder
I’m an over 40 victim of fate
Arriving too late. Arriving too late.

I’ve done a bit of smuggling,
I’ve run my share of grass,
I’ve made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast.
It‘s never meant to last. Never meant to last…

Mother mother Ocean, after all these years I’ve found.
Occupational hazard be my occupations just not around
Feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown.

It’s pretty, it’s poignant, and it’s great song writing. Buffet’s catalogue is full of great songs, always in the storytelling tradition. He Went to Paris chronicles a life lived, happily and tragically; Son of a Son of a Sailor chronicles his family tree; Jamaica Mistaka tells the true story of his sea plane being shot down, mistaken for a dug runner, by Jamaican Authorities.

False Echoes is among Buffets finest pieces. By the mid 1990’s, his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s, the horrible brain disease that robs it’s victim of memory. The song tells the story of his father’s life, beginning with his birth:

The skies over Cuba, pink with the light.
And the waterfront ritual, began to ignite.
All the ships in the harbour, were warmed by the sun.
Twenty-fifth of November, 1921.

On the old Chicamauga, the signal jacks flew.
The signals they spelled out, caused a great bally hoo.
Every ship in Havana, then hoisted away.
All the pennants were flying, for my dad’s first birthday.

In the chorus, Buffet returns to the here and now, his dad suffering mid-stage Alzheimer’s. If you have ever had a loved one suffering with it, you‘ll recognize the stage where long term memory seems so vivid and now, short term memory, gone:

Enduring echoes, call out from his past.
Time ain’t for saving, no time’s not for that.
Chasing false echoes like a lost legionnaire,
He waltzes on memories, while he fades like a flare.

Jimmy Buffet is the ultimate summer concert experience, but when your looking for music that going to touch you deeper, that’s actually Buffet’s strength. Wanna know how to sustain a 40 year career? Bring them in the door with Margaritaville, then give them Pirate Looks at 40. Great song writing will work every time.


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