Levon Helm: Five Years Gone

Levon Helm, seen in this 1970 file photo, a singer and drummer for the rock group the Band, has died, April 19, 2012 at age 71. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.

There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.

It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.

Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes.  From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

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

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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.

 

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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.

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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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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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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