All Hail the King: Chuck Berry Reinvented Music, and America

300x300_chuck_berry_school_days

It’s not important whether or not Chuck Berry “invented” rock ‘n’ roll, and the crucial thing isn’t that he perfected it. It’s that we call rock ‘n’ roll would sound much different and be a lot less unique and ecstatic if not for the template he provided.

As large as Berry looms in American music history, getting a handle on the immensity of his importance has, until now, been somewhat difficult. Certainly, the Matryoshka Principle applies, as it must with any progenitor: when you’ve indelibly influenced the artists who have influenced the artists who have influenced the artists, this succession of homages (intentional or not) is at once unequivocal but somehow insufficient. When we stop and consider the masters, whose earliest stuff sounds ancient, even derivative (think The Beatles’ earnest but stiff efforts, or even The Rolling Stones’ more convincing but still saccharine and stylized imitations), as desperate attempts to replicate Berry, it puts things in more appropriate perspective. Chuck Berry is pater familias of a whole new American music; he didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll—he just made it inevitable.

To younger ears, some of the hits may sound a tad redundant, variations on a recurring motif. If so, the same could be said about the parables within the New Testament. And like that slightly momentous text, these themes are meant as both foundation and instruction manual. All of which is not to say Berry wasn’t an extremely perceptive and versatile pupil: he’d studied the blues, jazz and country music that, thrown into an aesthetic blender, rock music overflowed from. Henceforth, it would forever be a gumbo of competing and complimentary source points, but Berry’s first-person flights of fancy still represent its most undiluted potential.

Recorded in May, 1955, “Maybellene” signifies the proverbial Big Bang: a blueprint for the type of music that became rock ‘n’ roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and myriad opportunistic white boys tried their damnedest to evoke that singular sound. In addition to being the first salvo, it’s arguably the most significant, as it merges much of what came before and hinted at what we’d be hearing much more of—from Berry and others: some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar; a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock ‘n’ roll song, this is rock ‘n’ roll.

While Elvis seems to have a stranglehold on the spurious “King of Rock” crown, history won’t forget that Chuck Berry did not simply (!) write the modern songbook from which a million simulations sprang, he himself was the prototype, the complete package to whom all contenders must defer. For example, where both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis played piano, Berry stood center stage, yielding the instrument that would underlie rock’s evolving ethos: electric guitar. His guitar is like an M.C., introducing each of those consequential early singles, and it rides shotgun, rhythm and lead, equal billing to Berry’s confident voice. Never a work-in-progress, Berry arrived fully-formed, like a clay god formed on Olympus. Another crucial distinction: Berry sang the songs he wrote, becoming in effect the first rock frontman, incorporating swagger, charisma, perfect hair and the devilish glint to offset the angelic voice. Or, if you like, all the assets of Lennon/McCartney (or Jagger/Richards) rolled into one.

Enough can never be said about the fact that Berry was the original triple-threat: musician, singer and lyricist (add in the stage antics, including his epic duck walking, and you have the magic recipe emulated by diverse legends ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young to Prince). While justly celebrated as rock’s first “poet”—and certainly a prototype for subsequent singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan—the whole “elevating lyrics to poetry” approbation is not erroneous, but it still misses the mark: Berry’s songs are straight-up short stories. What transpires in the three minutes (or less!) of condensed pop perfection like “Johnny B. Goode”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “You Never Can Tell” is narrative. The song serves as a vehicle for adventure or escape or deliverance is something Bruce Springsteen has made a career out of, and compared to the early work of The Beach Boys, Beatles and Stones (all of whom covered or outright copied Berry), what Berry achieved between 1955 and 1961 seems like literature.

The smart money, then, predicts that time will only affirm and reinforce Berry’s place at the top of the pantheon. With his death, it also seems likely we’ll get a more thorough and nuanced assessment of Chuck Berry’s cultural importance, which runs the clichéd spectrum of good, bad and ugly. Before, during and especially after his commercial peak, Berry was at once a trailblazer in matters of race and perhaps racist America’s most conspicuous casualty.

Did Berry, often depicted as his own worst enemy at times, simply pay the price for breaking a law (however racially inspired and enforced)? Or was he another irresistible target for a white establishment intent on keeping black men—regardless of or else because of their popularity—in their place, like Jack Johnson before him and Muhammad Ali after him? Is there any reason it isn’t a bit of both? If any icon of the 20th Century could be said to contain multitudes in the Whitmanesque sense, it’s Berry.

Let’s hope that Berry’s indiscretions and defects, somewhat glossed over since most of his life occurred before the proliferation of tabloids, not to mention the internet, will not now dominate discussions of why his music will endure. However understandably, we hate being reminded that so many of our best artists tend to be repugnant people. As such, it would be more than a little ironic if a man who paid the price in all the most hackneyed, but very real, ways—whether against “the man” or white bands making millions from his formula, or being yet another musician cheated out of more millions by the charlatans who’ve often run the music business—ends up being posthumously besmirched for character flaws too many white artists have had overlooked or forgiven.

Much has been made of the fact that Berry, embittered and paranoid, showed up, alone, at gigs, demanded payment (in cash) up front, and didn’t care if amateurs he’d neither met nor rehearsed with shared the stage. Was he selling out, or just honest enough to acknowledge he was already an oldies act, and shrewd enough to know that he was the draw? To be sure, audiences would not have continued showing up, decade after decade, if he routinely dispensed incompetent performances. Plus, what does it say about a man who didn’t want, or couldn’t abide, either the comradery of regular bandmates or hangers-on? Perhaps Berry lasted—and thrived—as long as he did because he was tough enough not to need anyone else. Not unlike Jackie Robinson, Berry broke barriers, and while he made good money during his career, his American Dream extracted a heavy toll.

How much easier would it have been if he’d been willing (able?) to play the game; if he could ingratiate himself the way we demand of our artists, and athletes? That he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—isn’t a tragedy; if he had, it’s worth wondering whether he would have made the same music. Every time his amply documented quirks and recalcitrance are recalled, we should never forget the original line in “Johnny B. Goode” was not “country boy” but “colored boy”. With a combination of talent, dedication, and tenacity, he willed himself to be that brown-eyed, handsome man, a king within a segregated state.

We never could quite catch him, and now he’s gone…like a cool breeze? No, that’s too easy, but also inaccurate. The cool breeze is what he became; what he invented. That was the persona he perfected, equal parts shield from and artifice for the world, a world that could never fully fathom or appreciate what he meant, what he signifies, as an artist and American. He was the cool breeze. But he took that air with him and what’s left is an arid void, silent, and more than a little sad. It’s also something awe-inspiring and unconquerable.

This article originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/24/17.

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My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A few from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

Share

Time is on Their Side: The Stones Turn 50 (or, Get Yer Blah-Blahs Out…)

There they go again.

I’ve got nothing. Full marks to any act that is able, much less willing, to strut around the stage after doing it on and off for half a century.

I like to tell the story about seeing them in 1989, fall of my sophomore year in college (I was 19; or put in a different context, more time has passed in my life since then). I told my semi-skeptical buddy “We have to go. What are the chances we’ll ever be able to see them again?”

Ha, ha, right?

But Living Colour was on the bill, and that was the extra incentive I needed. Also, this was the last days of an old-fashioned era when you could actually buy (or buy scalped) tickets without getting a second job. It was, in short, an era when a broke-ass college kid and his roommate could roll up to RFK Stadium with neither tickets nor a clue, and score, as expected.

The show itself? Eh. Of course, this is coming from a dude who thought the footage from the ’81 tour was lackluster. (There are a mere handful of rock acts who can still crush it, consistently, in a live setting after the age 40, and The Stones, for my money, are not in that category. That said, last night’s gig is getting mostly solid reviews, so good for everyone involved.)

It’s almost enough to make a younger lad forget the band once owned the joint when they strolled on stage. Almost.

As such, since they have neither burned out nor faded away, I’ll give the devils their due (but no sympathy) and as they continue to cackle and stagger all the way to the bank, the rest of us can remember the better days. (From the PopMatters review, 11/09, HERE.)

The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in The World: Liver Than They’ll Ever Be

Best live album ever?

Who cares. What is beyond dispute is that 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is certainly the best live album the Rolling Stones ever recorded. And here we are, 40 years after the concerts took place in NYC at Madison Square Garden. World’s Greatest Band + World’s Greatest Stage = Deluxe Box Set! What are we looking at here? The original, remastered album? Check. Six unreleased tracks? Check. Bonus disc of opening acts B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner? Check. Bonus DVD mixing live songs and offstage antics? Check. Obligatory booklet with critical essays and never-before seen photos? Check. Caveat emptor: for anyone thinking of shelling out $40-to-$60, be warned that the extra Stones material and the DVD are both less than 30 minutes in length. For Stones enthusiasts, this newly unearthed bounty is essential and price should be no object.

Let’s leave aside the sociopolitical implications of whether or not the ‘60s effectively ended at Altamont. The conventional shorthand analysis posits that the decade died the moment that unfortunate 18-year-old was stabbed to death by a member of Hell’s Angels while the band played on. Revisionist historians will always have a tough time selling the fact that Woodstock—an event only a few months old at this point—signaled the full flowering of Flower Power, and yet the Altamont tragedy slammed that door forever shut. The Stones, of course, did not make it to Woodstock (they were not, in fact, invited). And so there is more than a little symmetry here: the band some considered too incendiary to take part in the festival upstate went ahead and claimed New York City, then closed the book on the decade a week later in California. Or something.

 

yaya2

Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (and the subsequent Altamont concert, as well as the corresponding footage captured for posterity in the documentary Gimme Shelter) showcase the band stepping into the spotlight and becoming the undisputed alpha dogs of rock and roll. The Stones did more than fill the considerable void left by the dissolution of the Beatles; they were putting the finishing touches on a full-circle consummation of the British invasion—that musical and cultural phenomenon both these bands helped engineer. To appreciate how far the music had come in less than a decade, consider the formula for some of their earliest hit singles: ambitious, if tentative imitations of songs (most famous, some not) by Americans (some white, most not). More so than any other band (except possibly the Animals), the Rolling Stones were infatuated with American blues music. This is played out, in a literal sense, courtesy of the two distinctly uncommercial blues tunes they chose to perform. “Prodigal Son” (covered on Beggars Banquet and featured during this tour) and “You Gotta Move” (played on the tour and included on the subsequent Sticky Fingers) are respectful nods to their elders as well as confident statements of purpose. The band had found its voice, but was unafraid—and quite willing—to celebrate the milestones that made their music possible.

By the time Mick and the boys, who had taken to calling themselves—without a trace of irony—the greatest rock and roll band in the world, took the stage at MSG in November 1969, they were smack in the middle of that unprecedented (and possibly unrivaled) stretch of studio albums. On Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969) the band had convincingly incorporated certain elements of the blues idiom but, crucially, transmuted their influences and aspirations into potent material that blended danger and abandon. And attitude. No matter how hip John Lennon was, or how earnest Paul McCartney tried not to be, there was no question that those two cared; they wanted—and likely needed—approval (from the world; from each other, and the perceived lack thereof did more than anything else to split up the band). The Stones, on the other hand, presented the image that they could care less. Even if it was a calculated stance (and in fairness, we are talking about Mick Jagger, a man who never met a camera or mirror he did not court), it was convincing. And irresistible.

Having wallowed (quite purposefully) in the deep, dark blues on Beggars Banquet, the group lived the blues following the death of original member Brian Jones. That they were able to respond and deliver an album as rich and revelatory as Let It Bleed says more than a little about the resolve and focus the boys were radiating circa 1969. Indeed, the silver lining—artistically—in Jones’ departure (he was asked to leave the band shortly before his death) is the recruitment of guitarist Mick Taylor. If anything, Taylor augmented the band’s sound (this should not to be mistaken as a slight to Jones, whose contributions, at least through 1968, were considerable—but his drug use and personal problems had eventually made him a distraction who brought little to the table). All of a sudden, the band had a hungry, talented young guitarist who was quite comfortable playing blues and rock (indeed, he was recruited from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). This paid immediate dividends in the studio and significantly burnished the band’s live sound.

stones2

The music recorded for Ya-Ya’s traces the artistic path they’d been blazing, but it also anticipated the next two masterpieces: Sticky Fingers (1971) and, of course, Exile on Main Street (1972). With one foot in the past, represented by the band’s loving (and rollicking) covers of lesser-known Chuck Berry tunes, and one foot already in the next decade, evidenced by the nuanced renderings of recent and older original material, the Stones were an unstoppable force. They were also, like the Beatles before them, tinkering with the mechanics and possibilities of what rock music could be. Or, more to the point, what it needed to be in order to remain vital. The countrified vibe of “Let It Bleed” and “Country Honk” would continue to evolve on songs like “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”. The urgent synthesis of old-school blues with raw-nerve rock demonstrated on “Gimme Shelter”, “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Midnight Rambler” would further ripen on songs such as “Sway” and “Sister Morphine”.

So there they were, in November 1969, about to cement their status as the band. In a quintessentially New York City moment, the DVD shows pre-concert footage outside Madison Square Garden, where the billboard states: Today: the Rolling Stones. TOMW: Rangers. SUN: Knicks. Welcome to the Big Apple, baby. The camera catches the band exiting the limousine and they file into the arena one by one, a procession brought up from the rear by none other than Jimi Hendrix. It’s a moment that will make you do a double-take, and quickly rewind, as if to say “Was that really?” It is, really.

The set list is a solid representation of oldies (“I’m Free”, “Under My Thumb”) and cuts from the album their tour was promoting (“Live with Me”, “Love in Vain”) and recent singles (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women”). From the first notes of the first song, that heavier sound is in full effect: without an acoustic guitar softening the playful edges, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—grounded in Watts and Wyman’s wonderfully sludgy rhythm section—is dark and decidedly unflashy. Jagger, the consummate frontman, has the audience eating out of his palm immediately, as he playfully announces that he has busted a button on his trousers: “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now do ya?” After the obligatory squeal from the crowd, the band launches into Chuck Berry’s “Carol”. This version sounds more deliberate and dirty than their early single (one can hear the formulation of a sound that would be splattered all over Sticky Fingers), and the boys are fully locked in. Next is a dense (but not sloppy) reading of “Stray Cat Blues”, followed by a plaintive take on “Love In Vain”: the unvarnished agony of the originals is augmented by Richards and Taylor’s twin-guitar assault. (It’s difficult not to feel nostalgic here, appreciating the dutiful silence of the crowd: this is indeed a document from better days when people employed their ears and eyes and not their mouths at live shows.)

And then comes the centerpiece, which elevates these proceedings above and beyond even the best live albums by almost all other contenders. A snare drum roll and an electric guitar strummed as if being wound up, with a quick harmonica blast, and the singer’s opening salvo: I’m-a talkin’ bout the midnight rambler, everybody got to go… The version on Let It Bleed is an uncanny tour de force: it frightens, it stalks, and by the end, it exhausts. Against all probability, each of these elements are improved upon in this live take (and if, understandably, you are inclined to wonder how it’s even possible to improve upon the verb “stalk” or what on earth a verb is doing being invoked in the service of a rock song… just cue this one up, again). The Let It Bleed version is like a wrenching documentary about a serial killer; the live version is that psychopath kicking down your bedroom door. And more than that, this is what makes Mick—and the band—so inimitable: it is raunchy, it is spooky; it’s also sexy and intoxicating. Listen to those women (and men) in the crowd. When the band slows down the freight train (Wyman and Watts, again, are in very fine form), Mick’s muted, feral harmonica honks sound at once guttural and ecstatic, while his vocals blend braggadocio and intimidation. Some folks in the crowd think the song is over and begin applauding. Sit back down suckers. When Jagger toys with them, scoffing “Honey, it’s not one of those”, he is the crafty spider catching several thousand ecstatic flies. These nine minutes represent the closest any rock band came to sounding like Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf. No other band could, and no other band ever tried.

Amusingly, a young lady toward the front, unconvinced, oblivious or ready for the coup de grace, asks for more. “Paint it black, you devil!” Right on cue, the band descends directly into the belly of the beast, firing up “Sympathy for the Devil”. Like “Midnight Rambler”, it is difficult to imagine this song being successfully rendered live. Unlike “Midnight Rambler”, this version does not surpass the original (how could it?) but it is a spirited and successful attempt. After an accelerated rendition of “Live with Me”, the group fires up its second Chuck Berry offering, a brilliantly measured deconstruction of “Little Queenie”. Once again, elements of the deceptively sloppy but confidently narcotic sound that permeated their next two albums are on delightful display: you can hear embryonic snatches of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street throughout.

A faithful run-through of “Honky Tonk Women” is followed by a crisp, guitar-heavy rendering of “Street Fighting Man”. The bonus disc includes similarly professional interpretations of “Satisfaction”, “I’m Free” and “Under My Thumb” (the latter being an especially effective showcase for Jagger’s distinctly laconic vocals). The real gems are the two mid-set acoustic numbers, “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move”. It’s nice to hear, but it’s incredible to watch (once again, these additions will be worth the price of admission for any Stones enthusiast). The DVD’s five tracks match the unreleased tracks on the CD, but the DVD has some hilarious footage of Mick cajoling the stoic Charlie Watts to sit astride a donkey in the freezing cold for a photo shoot. During the concert, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin can be seen (Joplin bopping behind stage and Hendrix rapping with Keith Richards in the dressing room). At the end, The Stones find themselves stuck on the tarmac with The Grateful Dead, waiting for their tardy plane. It’s awesome, but also somber to see these three deceased legends, two of whom would not survive the following year.

Finally, the real bonus must be the CD featuring B.B. King, followed by Ike & Tina Turner. In 1969, B.B. was already easing into elder statesman status and not quite the lean and mean machine featured on Live at the Regal (speaking of all-time great live albums). This is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable, if abbreviated set, and there is something genuine and beautiful about B.B. being on the bill at all. The Stones, like their British brethren, borrowed extensively from these blues gods; The Stones, perhaps more than any other band, went out of their way to pay tribute and share the love. The set from Ike & Tina is no slouch either, and it’s instructive to recall what a ball of fire Tina was back in the day. The band is real tight, offering supremely satisfactory versions of “Proud Mary”, “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Come Together”(!). But the highlight has to be Tina’s powerhouse performance of Otis Redding’s classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.

So, once again, the question of the day: best concert ever?

Well, taken in context—and considering the inclusion of both opening acts—it does not seem inappropriate to suggest that this represents as good a live performance as one could reasonably imagine. Put another way, wouldn’t you have given more than a little to have been there that night? Unless the possibility of time travel is perfected, this is the closest we’ll ever come.

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music, Revisited

cb

Tchaikovsky

 

Corelli

 

Bach

 

John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

Share

My Kind of Christmas Music

cb

Tchaikovsky

 

Corelli

 

Bach

John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a two-fer from Jethro Tull!


The Godfather

The Boss

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

 

Vince (The King)

Share

The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in The World: Liver Than They’ll Ever Be

 

stones1 

Best live album ever?

Who cares. What is beyond dispute is that 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is certainly the best live album the Rolling Stones ever recorded. And here we are, 40 years after the concerts took place in NYC at Madison Square Garden. World’s Greatest Band + World’s Greatest Stage = Deluxe Box Set! What are we looking at here? The original, remastered album? Check. Six unreleased tracks? Check. Bonus disc of opening acts B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner? Check. Bonus DVD mixing live songs and offstage antics? Check. Obligatory booklet with critical essays and never-before seen photos? Check. Caveat emptor: for anyone thinking of shelling out $40-to-$60, be warned that the extra Stones material and the DVD are both less than 30 minutes in length. For Stones enthusiasts, this newly unearthed bounty is essential and price should be no object.

Let’s leave aside the sociopolitical implications of whether or not the ‘60s effectively ended at Altamont. The conventional shorthand analysis posits that the decade died the moment that unfortunate 18-year-old was stabbed to death by a member of Hell’s Angels while the band played on. Revisionist historians will always have a tough time selling the fact that Woodstock—an event only a few months old at this point—signaled the full flowering of Flower Power, and yet the Altamont tragedy slammed that door forever shut. The Stones, of course, did not make it to Woodstock (they were not, in fact, invited). And so there is more than a little symmetry here: the band some considered too incendiary to take part in the festival upstate went ahead and claimed New York City, then closed the book on the decade a week later in California. Or something.

 

yaya2

Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (and the subsequent Altamont concert, as well as the corresponding footage captured for posterity in the documentary Gimme Shelter) showcase the band stepping into the spotlight and becoming the undisputed alpha dogs of rock and roll. The Stones did more than fill the considerable void left by the dissolution of the Beatles; they were putting the finishing touches on a full-circle consummation of the British invasion—that musical and cultural phenomenon both these bands helped engineer. To appreciate how far the music had come in less than a decade, consider the formula for some of their earliest hit singles: ambitious, if tentative imitations of songs (most famous, some not) by Americans (some white, most not). More so than any other band (except possibly the Animals), the Rolling Stones were infatuated with American blues music. This is played out, in a literal sense, courtesy of the two distinctly uncommercial blues tunes they chose to perform. “Prodigal Son” (covered on Beggars Banquet and featured during this tour) and “You Gotta Move” (played on the tour and included on the subsequent Sticky Fingers) are respectful nods to their elders as well as confident statements of purpose. The band had found its voice, but was unafraid—and quite willing—to celebrate the milestones that made their music possible.

By the time Mick and the boys, who had taken to calling themselves—without a trace of irony—the greatest rock and roll band in the world, took the stage at MSG in November 1969, they were smack in the middle of that unprecedented (and possibly unrivaled) stretch of studio albums. On Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969) the band had convincingly incorporated certain elements of the blues idiom but, crucially, transmuted their influences and aspirations into potent material that blended danger and abandon. And attitude. No matter how hip John Lennon was, or how earnest Paul McCartney tried not to be, there was no question that those two cared; they wanted—and likely needed—approval (from the world; from each other, and the perceived lack thereof did more than anything else to split up the band). The Stones, on the other hand, presented the image that they could care less. Even if it was a calculated stance (and in fairness, we are talking about Mick Jagger, a man who never met a camera or mirror he did not court), it was convincing. And irresistible.

Having wallowed (quite purposefully) in the deep, dark blues on Beggars Banquet, the group lived the blues following the death of original member Brian Jones. That they were able to respond and deliver an album as rich and revelatory as Let It Bleed says more than a little about the resolve and focus the boys were radiating circa 1969. Indeed, the silver lining—artistically—in Jones’ departure (he was asked to leave the band shortly before his death) is the recruitment of guitarist Mick Taylor. If anything, Taylor augmented the band’s sound (this should not to be mistaken as a slight to Jones, whose contributions, at least through 1968, were considerable—but his drug use and personal problems had eventually made him a distraction who brought little to the table). All of a sudden, the band had a hungry, talented young guitarist who was quite comfortable playing blues and rock (indeed, he was recruited from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). This paid immediate dividends in the studio and significantly burnished the band’s live sound.

stones2

The music recorded for Ya-Ya’s traces the artistic path they’d been blazing, but it also anticipated the next two masterpieces: Sticky Fingers (1971) and, of course, Exile on Main Street (1972). With one foot in the past, represented by the band’s loving (and rollicking) covers of lesser-known Chuck Berry tunes, and one foot already in the next decade, evidenced by the nuanced renderings of recent and older original material, the Stones were an unstoppable force. They were also, like the Beatles before them, tinkering with the mechanics and possibilities of what rock music could be. Or, more to the point, what it needed to be in order to remain vital. The countrified vibe of “Let It Bleed” and “Country Honk” would continue to evolve on songs like “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”. The urgent synthesis of old-school blues with raw-nerve rock demonstrated on “Gimme Shelter”, “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Midnight Rambler” would further ripen on songs such as “Sway” and “Sister Morphine”.

So there they were, in November 1969, about to cement their status as the band. In a quintessentially New York City moment, the DVD shows pre-concert footage outside Madison Square Garden, where the billboard states: Today: the Rolling Stones. TOMW: Rangers. SUN: Knicks. Welcome to the Big Apple, baby. The camera catches the band exiting the limousine and they file into the arena one by one, a procession brought up from the rear by none other than Jimi Hendrix. It’s a moment that will make you do a double-take, and quickly rewind, as if to say “Was that really?” It is, really.

The set list is a solid representation of oldies (“I’m Free”, “Under My Thumb”) and cuts from the album their tour was promoting (“Live with Me”, “Love in Vain”) and recent singles (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women”). From the first notes of the first song, that heavier sound is in full effect: without an acoustic guitar softening the playful edges, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—grounded in Watts and Wyman’s wonderfully sludgy rhythm section—is dark and decidedly unflashy. Jagger, the consummate frontman, has the audience eating out of his palm immediately, as he playfully announces that he has busted a button on his trousers: “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now do ya?” After the obligatory squeal from the crowd, the band launches into Chuck Berry’s “Carol”. This version sounds more deliberate and dirty than their early single (one can hear the formulation of a sound that would be splattered all over Sticky Fingers), and the boys are fully locked in. Next is a dense (but not sloppy) reading of “Stray Cat Blues”, followed by a plaintive take on “Love In Vain”: the unvarnished agony of the originals is augmented by Richards and Taylor’s twin-guitar assault. (It’s difficult not to feel nostalgic here, appreciating the dutiful silence of the crowd: this is indeed a document from better days when people employed their ears and eyes and not their mouths at live shows.)

And then comes the centerpiece, which elevates these proceedings above and beyond even the best live albums by almost all other contenders. A snare drum roll and an electric guitar strummed as if being wound up, with a quick harmonica blast, and the singer’s opening salvo: I’m-a talkin’ bout the midnight rambler, everybody got to go… The version on Let It Bleed is an uncanny tour de force: it frightens, it stalks, and by the end, it exhausts. Against all probability, each of these elements are improved upon in this live take (and if, understandably, you are inclined to wonder how it’s even possible to improve upon the verb “stalk” or what on earth a verb is doing being invoked in the service of a rock song… just cue this one up, again). The Let It Bleed version is like a wrenching documentary about a serial killer; the live version is that psychopath kicking down your bedroom door. And more than that, this is what makes Mick—and the band—so inimitable: it is raunchy, it is spooky; it’s also sexy and intoxicating. Listen to those women (and men) in the crowd. When the band slows down the freight train (Wyman and Watts, again, are in very fine form), Mick’s muted, feral harmonica honks sound at once guttural and ecstatic, while his vocals blend braggadocio and intimidation. Some folks in the crowd think the song is over and begin applauding. Sit back down suckers. When Jagger toys with them, scoffing “Honey, it’s not one of those”, he is the crafty spider catching several thousand ecstatic flies. These nine minutes represent the closest any rock band came to sounding like Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf. No other band could, and no other band ever tried.

Amusingly, a young lady toward the front, unconvinced, oblivious or ready for the coup de grace, asks for more. “Paint it black, you devil!” Right on cue, the band descends directly into the belly of the beast, firing up “Sympathy for the Devil”. Like “Midnight Rambler”, it is difficult to imagine this song being successfully rendered live. Unlike “Midnight Rambler”, this version does not surpass the original (how could it?) but it is a spirited and successful attempt. After an accelerated rendition of “Live with Me”, the group fires up its second Chuck Berry offering, a brilliantly measured deconstruction of “Little Queenie”. Once again, elements of the deceptively sloppy but confidently narcotic sound that permeated their next two albums are on delightful display: you can hear embryonic snatches of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street throughout.

A faithful run-through of “Honky Tonk Women” is followed by a crisp, guitar-heavy rendering of “Street Fighting Man”. The bonus disc includes similarly professional interpretations of “Satisfaction”, “I’m Free” and “Under My Thumb” (the latter being an especially effective showcase for Jagger’s distinctly laconic vocals). The real gems are the two mid-set acoustic numbers, “Prodigal Son” and “You Gotta Move”. It’s nice to hear, but it’s incredible to watch (once again, these additions will be worth the price of admission for any Stones enthusiast). The DVD’s five tracks match the unreleased tracks on the CD, but the DVD has some hilarious footage of Mick cajoling the stoic Charlie Watts to sit astride a donkey in the freezing cold for a photo shoot. During the concert, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin can be seen (Joplin bopping behind stage and Hendrix rapping with Keith Richards in the dressing room). At the end, The Stones find themselves stuck on the tarmac with The Grateful Dead, waiting for their tardy plane. It’s awesome, but also somber to see these three deceased legends, two of whom would not survive the following year.

Finally, the real bonus must be the CD featuring B.B. King, followed by Ike & Tina Turner. In 1969, B.B. was already easing into elder statesman status and not quite the lean and mean machine featured on Live at the Regal (speaking of all-time great live albums). This is nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable, if abbreviated set, and there is something genuine and beautiful about B.B. being on the bill at all. The Stones, like their British brethren, borrowed extensively from these blues gods; The Stones, perhaps more than any other band, went out of their way to pay tribute and share the love. The set from Ike & Tina is no slouch either, and it’s instructive to recall what a ball of fire Tina was back in the day. The band is real tight, offering supremely satisfactory versions of “Proud Mary”, “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Come Together”(!). But the highlight has to be Tina’s powerhouse performance of Otis Redding’s classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.

So, once again, the question of the day: best concert ever?

Well, taken in context—and considering the inclusion of both opening acts—it does not seem inappropriate to suggest that this represents as good a live performance as one could reasonably imagine. Put another way, wouldn’t you have given more than a little to have been there that night? Unless the possibility of time travel is perfected, this is the closest we’ll ever come.

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Six (Not So) Easy Pieces

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Back in 2006, I recall reading many intriguing reviews of Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music. It’s been on my Amazon wish list ever since, and writing about music as much as I do, I occasionally have friends ask me if I’ve read it, or tell me I should read it. The latest reminder came from my good friend (and music lover, high school English teacher and soccer coach) Marc Cascio, who wrote the following email to me and a few of our mutual (music loving) friends:

In his brilliant book…Levitin relates the tale of how an elderly colleague and he used to dine every Wednesday and discuss music. During one of these dinners the colleague, an octogenarian, confessed that he did not understand rock music but wanted to be able to. He asked Levitin to choose six songs that would capture “all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Levitin chose the following songs:

“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Roll Over Beethoven” (The Beatles), “All Along The Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton), “Little Red Corvette” (Prince), “Anarchy in the UK” (Sex Pistols).

What would you guys choose, and why?

(Before I share Marc’s list, and my own, I’ll make a few comments about Levitin’s. It manages to underwhelm because it is at once too safe and yet also too…ambitious? Not sure if that’s the right word, but in my opinion, Levitin fell into the same inevitable trap most music aficionados will have difficulty avoiding. Trust me, once you try, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Levitin does an admirable job of trying to span time and genre: he includes the obligatory pre-Elvis rock staple; in this case, a seminal tune by Little Richard, the man who, along with Chuck Berry, arguably did more than anyone else to invent rock and roll, or at least provide the blueprint for the type of music that became rock and roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and a billion other British white boys tried their damndest to evoke and imitate that distinctive sound. Sure enough, he picks one from The Beatles, and he happens to pick one of the worst songs by the Fab Four: a rather limp cover of the great Chuck Berry. Why not just list Berry’s version? That would seem to at once to give Berry his well-warranted props and also avoid embarrassing how lame The Beatles sound by comparison…particularly when there are many dozen essential, inimitable songs The Beatles would go on to create, all of which, in their own ways, did as much to define and expand the possibilities of rock music as anyone who has ever picked up an instrument. So two issues: are we properly concerned with the stepping stones and giving adequate acknowledgment to the forefathers? After all, without their guidance the British invasion would have never made it across the pond. But if we go down that road, we would certainly be obliged to include at least a song apiece by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino. Not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis. So, if we are trying to distinguish between the blueprints as opposed to the archetypes, shouldn’t we focus purely on the six songs –recorded by whoever, whenever– that “capture all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Returning to Levitin’s list, his desire to include different genres is laudable, but that brings up myriad issues: he goes after punk (Sex Pistols) and synthesized pop-funk (Prince) and…well, hard to say what ground he’s covering with Clapton (mawkish soft rock?) and it’s difficult to find fault with any list that ever includes Jimi Hendrix. But what about country-rock? Or heavy metal? Or folk? Or blues, which is like the oxygen without with the primitive rock amoeba could never have oozed onto shore. Or…you get the picture. The only way I can see avoiding this dilemma is by copping out and constructing multiple lists that address the prototypes (Chuck Berry et al.), the genre-spanning mavericks (The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few) and the various incarnations that incorporated the fads of the time (from prog-rock to death metal). And that would be a worthwhile exercise, but the task at hand is to, as accurately and with as much integrity as possible, identify the six songs that best define rock and roll. Pretty simple, huh? Simple and impossible).

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Here is Marc’s list:

“Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry), “Think” (Aretha Franklin), “Eleanor Rigby” (The Beatles), “Meeting Across The River” (Bruce Springsteen), “May This Be Love” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Kashmir” (Led Zeppelin).

That is a pretty solid list. It is, in many ways, more satisfying, in my estimation, than Levitin’s. But even Marc (understandably) attempts to cover the basics (with Berry), the essential soul element (Aretha) and the heavyweights (The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and while those are two of the more influential songs by either band, perhaps the ultimate dilemma is paring down both of those band’s catalogs to pick just one song: the best Beatles song? The most important Led Zeppelin tune? The one song by either band that most satisfactorily speaks for what rock music can be? Good luck with that).

But as anyone who has read Utopian literature can attest, (or anyone who has a favorite sports team or preferred religion, for that matter), one person’s nirvana is another person’s perdition. So perhaps any list will say more about the person making it, and the person responding to it, than the actual songs themselves. Plus, it’s not as though there is any truly objective mechanism to determine which songs signify the sine qua non of rock and roll. Plus, how rock and roll is it to agonize over what songs actually define rock and roll? Perhaps the ultimate point (at least for the types of dorks who enjoy making and comparing lists like this in the first place) is to react and respond; there is no Aristotlean list, or any type of Platonic ideal. Rock, after all, is dirty, imperfect and immutable. The only thing that counts, in the end, is authenticity.

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And with that, here is my imperfect, dirty, but very authentic list:

(I can’t even begin without a caveat: my first list included John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, because to me, this one has all the elements; this is the primal DNA, bringing in boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, and folk element: this is the sound so many early rockers hoped to imitate, even the ones who didn’t realize it. But anything that is not purely rock and roll simply cannot be included on this particular list…)

1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)

Despite what was said above, any list of essential rock songs simply cannot fail to include Chuck Berry. End of story. Plus, of all the early Berry hits, this one brings in some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar –a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock and roll song, this is rock and roll.

2. “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Yeah boy. Creedence had already dragged folk and blues through the bayou and paid their obligatory dues at the altar of psychedelic inspiration, and once that was out of their system, John Fogerty locked in and began writing tight, compact, perfect rock songs. He is firing on every cylinder here: the piss and vinegar of the chorus, the sociopolitical import of the lyrics (same –and true– as it ever was, more than four decades later) and the irresistible groove: it is angry, indignant and indelible — and it’s all over in two minutes and nineteen seconds.

3. “Rocks Off” (The Rolling Stones)

It was a down-to-the-wire decision to pick this one or the runner-up, “Brown Sugar”. Either one would suffice, but this one (almost impossible when considering “Brown Sugar”) actually does rock more…and it has “rock” in its title. “Brown Sugar” is a bit dirtier (sonically and lyrically) and has one of the ultimate rock and roll riffs of all time, but “Rocks Off” has every element of what makes The Stones the consummate rock band: the whole history of music is crammed into virtually everything they recorded between ’68 and ’72, and it’s all on ugly, beautiful display here. You really could offer this one up to someone who has never listened to rock music and simply say “Here you go”. There is no guarantee that they’ll like it, but there is no question that after only one listen, they’ll get it.

4. “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen)

Kind of like Beethoven emulated Bach and ended up, in many ways, being better, Bruce Springsteen wanted to sound like Roy Orbison (including name-checking him a few lines into this, the first song on his masterpiece Born To Run), and wound up transcending him. This is the complete package: the harmonica, piano, guitar and glockenspiel (!), this song is an entire lifetime in under five minutes. It also has one of the best beginnings and endings of any song, ever. And if Chuck Berry was singing to hopeful sock hoppers just getting their driver’s licenses, The Boss was talking to young adults who had already graduated but were still capable of dreaming.

5. “London Calling” (The Clash)

Punk? Please. The Clash always represented the melting pot that rock music, at its best, can be. Joe Strummer is God. The Clash was the only band that mattered. Any further questions?

6. “Tattooed Love Boys” (The Pretenders)

In part because it was impossible to pick between “My City Was Gone” and “Middle of the Road” (or “Back on the Chain Gang” for that matter…holy shit, was Learning To Crawl a fantastic album or what?), but also because of the many, many songs that kick much ass by the great Pretenders, it’s hard to top “Tattooed Love Boys”. While Chrissie Hynde was undoubtedly the baddest bitch on the block, she is also an uncommonly gifted writer and her vocals go toe-to-toe with anyone (male or female) who has ever stepped up to a mic.

Anyone who knows me can guess that I’m already disappointed with my own list. How could I not be? The inherent limitation of picking only six songs is infuriating. It also, I reckon, is the point. It would be less interesting, or perhaps less fun, to have more flexibility. And then: how much easier would this task actually be if you had ten songs? Twenty? In some ways, it might be even more difficult because then the (unavoidable) omissions would seem even more glaring. (What, no Sabbath? No Skynyrd? No Halen? No Who? No Beatles? No Doors?  No Floyd?  No Zep? No Heart? No Boys? No Neil? No Rush? No R.E.M.? No Smiths?  No Brains? No SK? No LC? I know…)

So: the only way this exercise is worthwhile is to share it. And see what other people think. I’ve shown you mine; show me yours.

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