Robert Johnson: The Centennial of an American Genius (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Does any single figure loom as large over an art form as Robert Johnson?

Bach and Shakespeare come to mind, but classical music, like literature, took centuries and multiple cultures in order to unfold and evolve.

The history of American popular music came to be dominated by rock and roll, which initially flowered as a (mostly white) appropriation of the blues. The blues was the common language and unifying force of all rock’s earliest practitioners, many of whom were obsessed with the music made in the first part of the 20th century. It’s well documented that most of the artists from what came to be called the British Invasion were inspired and driven by the example of blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Put simply, the one individual who even those masters must be measured against, in terms of influence and innovation, is Robert Johnson.

Perhaps the most effective way of getting a handle on Johnson’s unshakable impact is to consider the number of his songs covered by other musicians. Even a listener more than casually acquainted with rock (and blues) history is likely to underestimate how many compositions—popularized by other rock (and blues) musicians spanning several decades—were originally written and recorded by Johnson over the course of a mere seven months in 1936 and 1937.

That he died so young, under sketchy circumstances (allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers), leaving behind less than two total hours of recorded music, and being in possession of impossible-sounding guitar skills and a voice no one has ever equaled naturally, perhaps inevitably, led folks to conclude larger forces were at work. Larger in this case meaning evil. As spurious, even silly as that sounds to modern ears, this was an era where anything other than music sung in church might be referred to as “Devil’s music”. In fact, the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf is only one of myriad geniuses whose decision (as if men like Wolf had any choice) to pursue a musical calling alienated—or ended—close personal and familial relations; in Wolf’s case, his mother, who never spoke to him again.

Of course, there are more than a handful of sociological elements at play in this particular legend. Not unlike Shakespeare, whom many reputable scholars refuse to believe composed all the works he is credited with creating, there were undoubtedly some folks who refused to fathom that a man in his mid-20s could possibly accomplish what Johnson did, in fact, achieve. That there are racial (and racist) elements in play scarcely warrants elaboration. Mostly, humans have been creating legends to explain the inexplicable, whether it involves cave drawings or gods on top of mountains or Faustian deals made with the prince of darkness.

Back in those days, spinning records backwards was neither possible nor necessary. It didn’t require elaborate, if silly stratagems to try and decipher the hidden codes because the lyrics themselves came right out and acknowledged—or alluded to—what certain people suspected. These song titles alone serve as signposts for anyone ready to believe, or instigate, some controversy: “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues”. That Robert Johnson met and made a deal with the devil, being granted immortality in exchange for his soul, is one of the enduring, if clichéd folk tales in American musical history.

Here are the facts. Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazlehurt, Mississippi. He worked diligently to develop his skills and cultivate a style, initially emulating (and imitating) fellow legends Son House, Charlie Patton and Willie Brown (who gets a shout out in “Cross Road Blues”). In short order (too short for comfort, according to the conspiracy-minded) Johnson began to attract enough attention to become a fixture throughout his home state and into Tennessee. At the same time he steadily gained a (bad) reputation as the most incorrigible of ladies men. In 1936 he entered a studio in San Antonio and laid down the tracks that continue to cast a shadow over everything else everyone else has ever done. In 1938, he was served a drink that was poisoned, probably by an angry husband, and he died at 27. His beatification was neither immediate nor overwhelming: it took decades of highly regarded players performing and name-checking his material for consensus to inexorably emerge. Robert Johnson belongs in a category unto himself.

And so Johnson remains a figure who almost everyone knows even if not that many people really know him. Sales of his various compilations have certainly sold well enough, but one suspects many people come by his work the same way they encounter Shakespeare: through other artists’ interpretations. This is okay; indeed it speaks volumes about the persistence of his legacy. Nevertheless, considering how incendiary—and consistently satisfying—the source material is, now is as good a time as any to encourage anyone and everyone to get intimately acquainted with the man Eric Clapton insists is “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. In fact, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page (making this three guitarists who have collectively influenced more aspiring musicians than could be counted) all concur that Robert Johnson is the Alpha and the Omega, and who would argue with them?

In preparation for his centennial, Sony/Legacy has produced an attractive, affordable and essential two-CD set compiling the original San Antonio (’36) and Dallas (’37) recordings, along with more than a dozen alternate takes. The package is near-perfect, with extensive liner notes, photos and most crucially, radically improved sound. For anyone, like this writer, who has the old Complete Recordings edition (the original Holy Grail), the sound on these discs is revelatory. Certainly, there is no disguising the fact that these are old recordings, produced by antiquated means, and that dusty authenticity is impossible to disguise (thank goodness). On the other hand, many of the hisses, shifts in volume and other distracting elements from previous incarnations have been lovingly minimized. This is worth picking up even if you are completely satisfied with whatever recording you currently own; in fact you owe it to yourself to hear the difference.

Is there anything else that needs to be said? It’s always enlightening to hear the unfiltered first takes on masterpieces like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “From Four Until Late”, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues”. As anyone who knows can attest, this is not remotely music for a museum, relics to acknowledge before moving on. It is exciting, joyful noise, brimming with purpose and ingenuity, fun and frightening, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. And once again, it is remarkable to consider the diversity of artists who have been drawn to these touchstones, and our musical heritage is incalculably richer for all of the faithful and unconventional “cover songs” Johnson unknowingly commissioned.

One more thing needs to be said. T.S. Eliot wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality is this: there was no deal with the devil; there was no devil. There was one man, one guitar and one abiding legend. That legend grows in direct proportion to our capacity to come fully to grips with how influential—and unbelievable—Robert Johnson remains.

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The Cream of Cream: Their 10 Best Songs (Revisited)

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In honor of Jack Bruce’s recent passing, and as a companion piece to my tribute to the late bassist, here’s my take on the ten best Cream songs. This list is offered with one caveat: it’s mostly going to avoid the ones everyone knows, so we’ll assume it’s more or less a given that the cream of Cream’s crop necessarily includes “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Crossroads” and especially “Sunshine of Your Love”.

These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original. As such, many of the trio’s blues covers or blues-influenced homages (whether more paint-by-numbers like “Spoonful” and “Rolling and Tumbling” or more inspired like “Born Under a Bad Sign”) don’t rise all the way to the top. When Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker were properly locked-in, they not only used the blues as a successful point of departure, but they carved out a unique—and oft-imitated but seldom matched—blend of psychedelia and proto-prog (the frenzied “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is a scorching hand grenade of a song, planting a signpost of where rock had come and where it was headed): they took the British Invasion’s obsession with blues masters as far as it could (should) go, using their power trio pyrotechnics to blend a distinct English sensibility (“Wrapping Paper”, “Mother’s Lament”) with a more American rock ‘n’ roll aggression, which itself was a triumph of traditional music combining blues and folk, along with a more experimental edge influenced by jazz and the avant-garde (“SWLABR”, “Those Were the Days”).

In short, Cream went from wearing its influences on their paisley-colored sleeves to becoming one of the more influential ‘60s outfits, all in a matter of years. If it was over too soon, it can’t be said that these three men failed to reach their considerable potential, taking their chops and ambition as far as possible, considering the egos and animosity forever lurking behind every note played.

10. “Dreaming” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

If any single song on Cream’s debut album functions as a calling card, “Dreaming” does the trick nicely. The harmonies, the execution, the confidence: a two-minute tour de force. It remains a revelation to hear the drums so forward in the mix: there is a reason legends like Neil Peart always make sure to name-check Ginger Baker as an unshakeable influence. Nevermore would the time-keeper be relegated to mere grunt work as time-keeper and occasional embellishment; after this, drums could be on equal ground. And if Baker revolutionized things to the extent that interminable drum solos became a de facto part of every rock concert in the ‘70s and beyond, so be it.

9. “Dance the Night Away” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Jack Bruce’s falsetto. Clapton’s shimmering notes, like an acid trip underwater. Baker, busy as ever without managing to overwhelm. This is a disarmingly simple gem that showcases not only the individual brilliance of each musician, but the ways they could work collectively in the service of a song. Only the Beatles, circa 1967, were combining curiosity and confidence with such precision, and the results are utterly original and enduring.

8. “Passing the Time” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

A song that seldom (if ever) gets singled out for approbation, all one need do is listen to rock music between 1969 and 1970-something to appreciate its influence. The slow/fast time shifts, the implementation of more “exotic” instruments (cello, glockenspiel), the presentation, which pulls right up to the abyss of pretension and scoffs—we are a long way from the blues covers of the debut. Wheels of Fire creates a unified sound that is post-psychedelia and pre-prog; it neatly splits the difference between bright-eyed exploration (circa ’66-’67) and weary and/or opportunistic art rock. As ambitious as anything the group ever did, it is also tight, concentrated, idiosyncratic, and typically distinctive.

7. “Stepping Out” (Live Cream Vol. 2, 1970)

Eric Clapton getting his God on. Yes, it goes on too long, and yes, it’s indulgent, and yes, there are (many) people who played the blues better, and yes, this will get you a speeding ticket if you crank it up while you’re on the highway, and yes, of course it was featured in the epic final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

6. “We’re Going Wrong” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

A lot of people (understandably?) assume this was Clapton’s group, and that he was the lead vocalist. Of course it was Jack Bruce, the thinking man’s Golden God, who is singing virtually all these indelible songs. This is without question one of his finest moments, unvarnished and without effects (or forced affect); sheer talent, total commitment, unmitigated emotion. Oh, and Baker brings the sweet pain with his subdued maelstrom and Clapton transcends the blues-based heroics in favor of raw, plaintive expression.

5. “Politician” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

One of rock music’s most cynical and, sadly, factual songs alongside the Beatles’ “Taxman”. The lyrics aren’t terribly sophisticated (“I support the Left, though I’m leaning toward the Right / But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight”), but then neither is the subject matter. Opportunistic weasels who pollute public office are taken acerbically to task, while a cascade of filth, courtesy of Clapton’s multi-tracked majesty, supplies an appropriately muddled soundtrack. Bruce, as always, delivers the goods, and he seems to be enjoying himself and disgusted at the same time when he croaks “I wanna just show you what my politics are.”

4. “World of Pain” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Disraeli Gears is definitely a gift that never stops giving. Not only the band’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece among the many miraculous albums made during its era. On Cream’s first album there were the inescapable blues influences (some refreshing; others more stale and uninspired); by the second album the band had figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and very little if anything (by others or even Cream) sound anything like the best moments on Disraeli Gears. “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” get most of the attention, and still receive most of the airplay, but it’s the deeper cuts, like “World of Pain”, that illustrate how peerless Cream was, at its best.

3. “Badge” (Goodbye, 1969)

This is the song George Harrison inadvertently named (Badge = Bridge), and the one he played on, depending on who you believe (to this writer, the Quiet One’s guitar licks are unmistakable, especially when you think of side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road). It’s tracks like “Badge”, free-flowing yet not facile, laid-back but not lazy, that makes so much of what Clapton went on to do disappointing by comparison. Once God became Slowhand he was calling his own shots, and while he had earned every right to do so, he arguably needed some tension—and competition—to bring out the best in him. In any event, this is one of Cream’s irresistible tunes, impossible to tire of, even after four decades and change. It’s a mellow pinnacle of sorts, and will always be a bittersweet tease of what Cream could/should/might have done if they’d kept their act together.

2. “I Feel Free” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

This is the one that kicks off Cream’s catalog, and it’s less an introduction than a declaration: yes, as a matter of fact, we are a super group and this is how we roll. Multi-tracked harmonies, hand-claps, and a single pounded piano note sounding like a telegraph dispatching the news, “I Feel Free” has hit single written all over it. But the pop sensibility is undercut by what might be best described as a cocky nonchalance: we are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. There is no pandering, no false familiarity with the would-be audience, and above all, no clichés. The music, of course, was the thing: cleaner and crisper than what anyone else (including the Fab Four) was doing at this point; “I Feel Free” signaled the ascendance of a major new act, and a reminder in real time that nothing was ever going to be the same.

1. “White Room” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

Perhaps the ultimate commentary on this remarkable song as that, overplayed as much as it has been over the years, it still manages to defy becoming stale. In fact, it still manages to confound expectations and is capable of the thrill of surprise. Or the simple shock of recognition: this is what it sounds like when some of the best musical minds of their time were clicking on all cylinders. Boasting career-best work by all involved, “White Room” cemented the post-Sgt. Pepper proposition that rock music could be art; rock music could matter. Clapton is on-point, using his wah-wah more ingeniously than anyone not named Hendrix, Baker offers “Bolero” drum rolls, and Bruce, in addition to his typically supple bass playing, turns in what may be his ultimate vocal performance. Making the most of principal lyricist Pete Brown’s surreal poetics, “White Room” is a decidedly darker slice of psychedelia (see: “Where the shadows run from themselves”). It squeezes the last drops of Summer of Love whimsy and pours it into a simmering cocktail of bad trips, wrecked dreams, and fear. It is intense and unremitting; it sums up happier and/or headier times and peeks, presciently, at the disillusion waiting around the corner. And, in spite of how heavy it is, the prevailing vibe is one of resilience, not despair. “White Room” compresses the sounds, colors and feelings of an era and manages to make it all into something beautiful.

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Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God (One Year Later)

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The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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God Is Dead (Again): Remembering Stevie Ray Vaughan

 

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Twenty-five years ago today.

First day of classes, junior year. Standing in the bathroom with too much shaving cream and not enough whiskers, getting geared up for another semester of partying too much and studying too little. No e-mails to check, no cell phone messages to return, just listening to the clock radio on the counter, because that’s how we rolled. Not that we had much choice in the matter.

Roommate walks into the bathroom with a look on his face like someone told him that Milwaukee’s Best raised the price of six packs.

“Dude, Eric Clapton is dead.”
God is dead? I thought, reflexively.
“His helicopter crashed.”

Not that again. You get used to the overdoses, no matter how pointless or accidental or idiotic. It doesn’t make them easier to accept, or justify, but there is some semblance of accountability. But these random acts of mechanical destruction? Intolerable. Unacceptable on any level.

(Below, Exhibits A & B, from the same show, Live at El Mocambo, which you should own on DVD.)

Of course, as we shortly found out, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who had actually died (part of the confusion came from the fact that he was on tour with Clapton, and had just played on the same stage the night before). Same principle applies: shocking, inexplicable, unacceptable.

And even worse, in a way. To put it in as respectful and delicate fashion as possible, this one hit home a lot harder. Eric Clapton was another, earlier generation’s Genius. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my generation’s guitar god, the one whose albums coincided with those crucial high school years, the formative times in your life when each album is a revelation. And, with an artist like Vaughan, a living chain connecting the past to present. This is the dude who, not to put too fine a point on it, had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and take it places even the best guitar player who ever strapped on a Stratocaster didn’t go (See Exhibit B, above).

Plus, I knew Stevie. Not personally, of course. But the summer before, I worked at the local record store just as Stevie’s new album In Step dropped. We used to spin that baby a few times per day, and it wasn’t even personal, it was strictly business. The album sold well, as it should have. The back-story elevated its import: after years of struggle with drugs and drink, Vaughan had cleaned up and was enjoying sobriety (indeed, the album’s title refers directly to his recovery process, which he was understandably proud of). The album remains top notch, but—as last albums from artists taken entirely too soon tend to do—it has an almost eerily elegiac feel that is difficult to deny. That the last song on the last album released in his lifetime is the sublime “Riviera Paradise” seems, at once fitting and devastating. It teases and cajoles with its promises of what should have been—all the great music this man undoubtedly would make. It also, being a near perfect song to end any album (much less a final album), feels entirely fitting. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for our loss, but it helps. And, as always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

God is dead, again.
I can’t say for sure that I thought this, but maybe I did.
And speaking of God:
The 20 year old kid couldn’t help but wonder: “What kind of God would take a man like this from us?”
The 45 year old kid thinks: “The same one who gave him to us?”
That, of course, is not good enough. It’s never enough.
But it will have to do.

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No, Really: Jeff Beck is God (Revisited)

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6/15: Happy 71st birthday to the great Jeff Beck.

 

3/11: Since it happened to be Keith Relf’s birthday, it seemed appropriate to pay tribute to him on Tuesday. Plus, as I attempted to articulate in that piece, he warrants celebration as a unique and influential singer (and harmonica player).

That said, the issue of the guitar players in The Yardbirds still necessitates elaboration. For perfectly understandable reasons, people assume or don’t realize they are wrong to think Eric Clapton was the primary –and most important– guitarist in that group. Simply put, this is not the case. Clapton was there for the very early blue-sy recordings and Page was there for the short and sloppy swan song, but it was Jeff Beck who played on all their essential songs. Put simply, Jeff Beck was The Yardbirds, with all due respect (and I offer tons) to the other members.

Jeff Beck demands more attention, since he’s not gotten nearly enough of it over the decades. Not for nothing: he is the only guitar god who roamed the earth in the ’60s who is still very much active (and in top form) today. He is, pound for pound, the best living guitarist right now. I can’t think of anyone else who can begin to match his proficiency, his gob-smacking ability and his track record. He is an inspiration in terms of integrity and dedication (he does not just naturally get better; he is committed to his craft and treats it like it’s the most important thing in his world, which it clearly is).

Here is a brief career-spanning sampler of his greatness.

“Steeled Blues:

“Jeff’s Boogie”:

“Freeway Jam” (he manages to make fusion sound…cool):

“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (I can’t think of another, or better way to put this: the original, by the immortal Charles Mingus is one of my all-time favorite compositions –from one of my all-time favorite albums– and I sometimes think Jeff Beck almost takes it to another level. There is no point, or need, to compare –and for the record, Jeff Beck is God but Charles Mingus is GOD– but I only hope to underscore the fact that it takes more than audacity and goodwill to cover uncoverable songs, like this, and make them arguably better. As we’ve heard, Jeff Beck can shred like nobody’s business, but he also can play slow and soulful perhaps better than anyone else who has ever strapped on a guitar. It is, as is often the case when talking about the best of the best, extremely difficult to avoid cliches: but check out the feeling and soul oozing out of every line; this is something beyond sublime):

“Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (I can’t recommend the recent DVD Live at Ronnie Scott’smore enthusiastically; in addition to being a fantastic concert, it is filmed and produced wonderfully, affording constant close-up action on the magician going to work in a live setting and showing that musical deities can age gracefully and even improve (!!) as they get older):

“A Day In The Life” (Having always been overshadowed by Clapton (and Page), it was wonderfully fortuitous that Clapton was unable to MC the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert: finally the world had an opportunity to witness –because it could not ignore– the brilliance that has been woefully unappreciated for entirely too long…and speaking of uncoverable songs…getting better? Only Beck could do this once; only Beck could do this twice):

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The Cream of Cream: Their 10 Best Songs

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In honor of Jack Bruce’s recent passing, and as a companion piece to my tribute to the late bassist, here’s my take on the ten best Cream songs. This list is offered with one caveat: it’s mostly going to avoid the ones everyone knows, so we’ll assume it’s more or less a given that the cream of Cream’s crop necessarily includes “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Crossroads” and especially “Sunshine of Your Love”.

These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original. As such, many of the trio’s blues covers or blues-influenced homages (whether more paint-by-numbers like “Spoonful” and “Rolling and Tumbling” or more inspired like “Born Under a Bad Sign”) don’t rise all the way to the top. When Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker were properly locked-in, they not only used the blues as a successful point of departure, but they carved out a unique—and oft-imitated but seldom matched—blend of psychedelia and proto-prog (the frenzied “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is a scorching hand grenade of a song, planting a signpost of where rock had come and where it was headed): they took the British Invasion’s obsession with blues masters as far as it could (should) go, using their power trio pyrotechnics to blend a distinct English sensibility (“Wrapping Paper”, “Mother’s Lament”) with a more American rock ‘n’ roll aggression, which itself was a triumph of traditional music combining blues and folk, along with a more experimental edge influenced by jazz and the avant-garde (“SWLABR”, “Those Were the Days”).

In short, Cream went from wearing its influences on their paisley-colored sleeves to becoming one of the more influential ‘60s outfits, all in a matter of years. If it was over too soon, it can’t be said that these three men failed to reach their considerable potential, taking their chops and ambition as far as possible, considering the egos and animosity forever lurking behind every note played.

10. “Dreaming” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

If any single song on Cream’s debut album functions as a calling card, “Dreaming” does the trick nicely. The harmonies, the execution, the confidence: a two-minute tour de force. It remains a revelation to hear the drums so forward in the mix: there is a reason legends like Neil Peart always make sure to name-check Ginger Baker as an unshakeable influence. Nevermore would the time-keeper be relegated to mere grunt work as time-keeper and occasional embellishment; after this, drums could be on equal ground. And if Baker revolutionized things to the extent that interminable drum solos became a de facto part of every rock concert in the ‘70s and beyond, so be it.

9. “Dance the Night Away” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Jack Bruce’s falsetto. Clapton’s shimmering notes, like an acid trip underwater. Baker, busy as ever without managing to overwhelm. This is a disarmingly simple gem that showcases not only the individual brilliance of each musician, but the ways they could work collectively in the service of a song. Only the Beatles, circa 1967, were combining curiosity and confidence with such precision, and the results are utterly original and enduring.

8. “Passing the Time” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

A song that seldom (if ever) gets singled out for approbation, all one need do is listen to rock music between 1969 and 1970-something to appreciate its influence. The slow/fast time shifts, the implementation of more “exotic” instruments (cello, glockenspiel), the presentation, which pulls right up to the abyss of pretension and scoffs—we are a long way from the blues covers of the debut. Wheels of Fire creates a unified sound that is post-psychedelia and pre-prog; it neatly splits the difference between bright-eyed exploration (circa ’66-’67) and weary and/or opportunistic art rock. As ambitious as anything the group ever did, it is also tight, concentrated, idiosyncratic, and typically distinctive.

7. “Stepping Out” (Live Cream Vol. 2, 1970)

Eric Clapton getting his God on. Yes, it goes on too long, and yes, it’s indulgent, and yes, there are (many) people who played the blues better, and yes, this will get you a speeding ticket if you crank it up while you’re on the highway, and yes, of course it was featured in the epic final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

6. “We’re Going Wrong” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

A lot of people (understandably?) assume this was Clapton’s group, and that he was the lead vocalist. Of course it was Jack Bruce, the thinking man’s Golden God, who is singing virtually all these indelible songs. This is without question one of his finest moments, unvarnished and without effects (or forced affect); sheer talent, total commitment, unmitigated emotion. Oh, and Baker brings the sweet pain with his subdued maelstrom and Clapton transcends the blues-based heroics in favor of raw, plaintive expression.

5. “Politician” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

One of rock music’s most cynical and, sadly, factual songs alongside the Beatles’ “Taxman”. The lyrics aren’t terribly sophisticated (“I support the Left, though I’m leaning toward the Right / But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight”), but then neither is the subject matter. Opportunistic weasels who pollute public office are taken acerbically to task, while a cascade of filth, courtesy of Clapton’s multi-tracked majesty, supplies an appropriately muddled soundtrack. Bruce, as always, delivers the goods, and he seems to be enjoying himself and disgusted at the same time when he croaks “I wanna just show you what my politics are.”

4. “World of Pain” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)

Disraeli Gears is definitely a gift that never stops giving. Not only the band’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece among the many miraculous albums made during its era. On Cream’s first album there were the inescapable blues influences (some refreshing; others more stale and uninspired); by the second album the band had figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and very little if anything (by others or even Cream) sound anything like the best moments on Disraeli Gears. “Strange Brew”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” get most of the attention, and still receive most of the airplay, but it’s the deeper cuts, like “World of Pain”, that illustrate how peerless Cream was, at its best.

3. “Badge” (Goodbye, 1969)

This is the song George Harrison inadvertently named (Badge = Bridge), and the one he played on, depending on who you believe (to this writer, the Quiet One’s guitar licks are unmistakable, especially when you think of side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road). It’s tracks like “Badge”, free-flowing yet not facile, laid-back but not lazy, that makes so much of what Clapton went on to do disappointing by comparison. Once God became Slowhand he was calling his own shots, and while he had earned every right to do so, he arguably needed some tension—and competition—to bring out the best in him. In any event, this is one of Cream’s irresistible tunes, impossible to tire of, even after four decades and change. It’s a mellow pinnacle of sorts, and will always be a bittersweet tease of what Cream could/should/might have done if they’d kept their act together.

2. “I Feel Free” (Fresh Cream, 1966)

This is the one that kicks off Cream’s catalog, and it’s less an introduction than a declaration: yes, as a matter of fact, we are a super group and this is how we roll. Multi-tracked harmonies, hand-claps, and a single pounded piano note sounding like a telegraph dispatching the news, “I Feel Free” has hit single written all over it. But the pop sensibility is undercut by what might be best described as a cocky nonchalance: we are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. There is no pandering, no false familiarity with the would-be audience, and above all, no clichés. The music, of course, was the thing: cleaner and crisper than what anyone else (including the Fab Four) was doing at this point; “I Feel Free” signaled the ascendance of a major new act, and a reminder in real time that nothing was ever going to be the same.

1. “White Room” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)

Perhaps the ultimate commentary on this remarkable song as that, overplayed as much as it has been over the years, it still manages to defy becoming stale. In fact, it still manages to confound expectations and is capable of the thrill of surprise. Or the simple shock of recognition: this is what it sounds like when some of the best musical minds of their time were clicking on all cylinders. Boasting career-best work by all involved, “White Room” cemented the post-Sgt. Pepper proposition that rock music could be art; rock music could matter. Clapton is on-point, using his wah-wah more ingeniously than anyone not named Hendrix, Baker offers “Bolero” drum rolls, and Bruce, in addition to his typically supple bass playing, turns in what may be his ultimate vocal performance. Making the most of principal lyricist Pete Brown’s surreal poetics, “White Room” is a decidedly darker slice of psychedelia (see: “Where the shadows run from themselves”). It squeezes the last drops of Summer of Love whimsy and pours it into a simmering cocktail of bad trips, wrecked dreams, and fear. It is intense and unremitting; it sums up happier and/or headier times and peeks, presciently, at the disillusion waiting around the corner. And, in spite of how heavy it is, the prevailing vibe is one of resilience, not despair. “White Room” compresses the sounds, colors and feelings of an era and manages to make it all into something beautiful.

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Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God

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The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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God Is Dead (Again): Remembering Stevie Ray Vaughan

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Twenty-four years ago today.

First day of classes, junior year. Standing in the bathroom with too much shaving cream and not enough whiskers, getting geared up for another semester of partying too much and studying too little. No e-mails to check, no cell phone messages to return, just listening to the clock radio on the counter, because that’s how we rolled. Not that we had much choice in the matter.

Roommate walks into the bathroom with a look on his face like someone told him that Milwaukee’s Best raised the price of six packs.

“Dude, Eric Clapton is dead.”
God is dead? I thought, reflexively.
“His helicopter crashed.”

Not that again. You get used to the overdoses, no matter how pointless or accidental or idiotic. It doesn’t make them easier to accept, or justify, but there is some semblance of accountability. But these random acts of mechanical destruction? Intolerable. Unacceptable on any level.

Of course, as we shortly found out, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who had actually died (part of the confusion came from the fact that he was on tour with Clapton, and had just played on the same stage the night before). Same principle applies: shocking, inexplicable, unacceptable.

And even worse, in a way. To put it in as respectful and delicate fashion as possible, this one hit home a lot harder. Eric Clapton was another, earlier generation’s Genius. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my generation’s guitar god, the one whose albums coincided with those crucial high school years, the formative times in your life when each album is a revelation. And, with an artist like Vaughan, a living chain connecting the past to present. This is the dude who, not to put too fine a point on it, had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and take it places even the best guitar player who ever strapped on a Stratocaster didn’t go.

Plus, I knew Stevie. Not personally, of course. But the summer before, I worked at the local record store just as Stevie’s new album In Step dropped. We used to spin that baby a few times per day, and it wasn’t even personal, it was strictly business. The album sold well, as it should have. The back-story elevated its import: after years of struggle with drugs and drink, Vaughan had cleaned up and was enjoying sobriety (indeed, the album’s title refers directly to his recovery process, which he was understandably proud of). The album remains top notch, but—as last albums from artists taken entirely too soon tend to do—it has an almost eerily elegiac feel that is difficult to deny. That the last song on the last album released in his lifetime is the sublime “Riviera Paradise” seems, at once fitting and devastating. It teases and cajoles with its promises of what should have been—all the great music this man undoubtedly would make. It also, being a near perfect song to end any album (much less a final album), feels entirely fitting. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for our loss, but it helps. And, as always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

God is dead, again.
I can’t say for sure that I thought this, but maybe I did.
And speaking of God:
The 20 year old kid couldn’t help but wonder: “What kind of God would take a man like this from us?”
The 44 year old kid thinks: “The same one who gave him to us?”
That, of course, is not good enough. It’s never enough.
But it will have to do.

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