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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Just Like a Big Daydream in the Middle of the Night: The Return of Shuggie Otis (Revisited)

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True story: Already an industry veteran although barely legal drinking age, Shuggie Otis was asked to join the Rolling Stones. Famously, he declined the offer.

Had he accepted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two things are certain. One, he would have become wealthy and a household name. Two, many millions of people might have more easily discovered—and fallen under the spell of—his 1974 tour-de-force, Inspiration Information. By refusing, on admirable principle, a chance to snatch the biggest of brass rings (he was more interested in his own things), Otis transformed into one of the all-time rock music mysteries, equal parts Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson.

Shuggie Otis endures as one of those inscrutable figures many people are familiar with, even if they don’t know his name. Sadly, though revealingly, he is likely best known to contemporary ears through the work of other artists. He’s been sampled by Beyonce (“Gift From Virgo”), OutKast (“Mrs. Jackson”) and most notably, The Brothers Johnson, who hit #5 on the charts in 1977 with their excellent, if inferior cover of “Strawberry Letter 23”.

Still a teenager when he wrote and performed it, this song alone should have put Otis in a class by himself. As a composition, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a near perfect synthesis of funk, soul and rock. Sly Stone got (real) close; so did Stevie Wonder, but neither hit the trifecta as indelibly. More than anything anyone else did for the entire decade, “Strawberry Letter 23” picks up what Hendrix was putting down and takes it further into the future: The phased fade-out of the coda is like Side Three of Axis: Bold as Love. And it works as a wholly organic and original vibe; Otis is not trying to recapture (or copy) Hendrix, which is what so many inferior musicians have done. If Hendrix, especially on his ballads like “Little Wing” and “Drifting”, was refining the best work Curtis Mayfield did with the Impressions, “Strawberry Letter 23” anticipates the farther-out freakiness of Funkadelic and the watered down, not-so-solid gold white boys would take to the bank too many times to count.

There are a couple of basic questions fans, like this writer, have asked themselves for entirely too long. Why isn’t Shuggie Otis recognized by more people as a genius? And why isn’t Inspiration Information regarded as one of the best albums of the ‘70s? Otis, and his masterpiece, have belonged to the underground, enigmas that attract word-of-mouth followings each generation. Ultimately there are no good, or acceptable answers for why Otis has labored so long in semi-obscurity. He has, however, continued to work, and occasionally record. The arrival of this remastered version of Inspiration Information, along with an entire bonus disc of unreleased material, sheds overdue light on what he was doing while the time he could and should have owned ostensibly passed us all by.

Certain albums, for whatever reason, never find the audience they deserve, failing to connect due to fashion or fate, or because too many souls have been sold in the service of crossover pop candy. It’s one of the oldest, if saddest stories in the music business: same as it ever was. A possibility that at once explains and justifies—however belatedly—the unique potential of Inspiration Information is that, unlike certain cult classics (Love’s Forever Changes) or unrealized masterworks (The Beach Boys’ SMiLE), Otis’ album can, and should, resonate with any listener, anytime. Like right now.

Perhaps Shuggie needed to wait until 2013 to finally come unstuck in time. Maybe Inspiration Information has always-already been in the present tense; it’s that real, that alive. It reminds us about the best of what we’ve done, and nostalgia packs a convincing punch. It is also an antidote for despair and/or cynicism: Musical history is too often written by the winners (the votes counted in cash), but there is constantly art being made in the margins, work that is always on the verge of being discussed. There is always music kicking around somewhere that will eventually announce itself in a way that realigns our proper understanding of who really did what, when.

So what is the first-time listener likely to discover, on the occasion of this third coming of Inspiration Information (the official introduction was in 1974, the second in 2001 when David Byrne re-released it on his Luaka Bop label, including four songs from Shuggie’s second album Freedom Flight, notably “Strawberry Letter 23”)? Any serious fan of music should understand immediately that this album is a significant work by a young man, a brilliant man, a confident man, a calm, cool and collected fellow full of ideas and the uncanny ability to express them. And, it should be noted, Otis made this a solo album in very literal terms: with the exception of some horns and strings, Shuggie played all the instruments himself. Understanding that virtuosity and audacity only serves to amplify what this 21 year old visionary achieved.

The needle could be dropped at virtually any point to make a compelling case for its brilliance, but the high point may be its third track, “Sparkle City”. It still seems nearly impossible that a musician so young could sound this assured, and create a statement of purpose this persuasive. Laid back and unhurried, this song is like walking into a conversation called the ‘70s. Two minutes before the vocals kick in, Otis is on his own time, taking his time—and it’s (somewhat) understandable why this didn’t find its way onto radios all over America. Dreamlike with an irresistible bass line and perfectly-placed horn flourishes, this psychedelic swirl showcases Shuggie’s remarkable voice. “I heard all the news/There is no offer that I wouldn’t refuse”, he sings, sounding wistful but not boastful. And then he follows that up with an astonishing line that practically predicts the rest of his life, intended or not: “Now come time for me to run / Sorry, people, but I’m not the one”. A wink and a nod, and maybe an insight that explains or at least vindicates how—and why—this preternaturally gifted cat could stroll so calmly off center stage.

As we know now, Otis may have stayed more or less out of sight, but he did not retreat into self-imposed exile. Whether he was unfairly ignored by the same record executives who once courted him or he sabotaged his own promise, or simply, like the title of his awesome instrumental, not available, the reality is that Wings Of Love is the first new music the world has heard from Otis since 1974. It is not, strictly speaking, all new material; indeed, some of it goes back to the early ‘70s. It’s a seventeen song anthology covering 1970 through 2000, with several tracks from the mid ‘80s that have, unsurprisingly, dated more poorly than his earlier work.

Newcomers are strongly advised to absorb and understand Inspiration Information (and the two albums that preceded it) before passing judgment on the new stuff. That said, for anyone fearing the worst, they exceed any reasonable expectations. They function, on one level, as the diary of an artist evolving, reflecting the times but always in his unique, uniquely affecting fashion. And they work, on their own terms, as well as evidence of the ways Otis influenced a host of more successful musicians. Listening to the tracks from 1976 and 1977, there are undeniable traces of the sorts of sounds that would dominate MTV a decade later. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” will blow some minds: it’s like the missing link between Sly Stone and Prince, and it’s funky as all get out.

Old school fans will likely find these previously unreleased tracks anything from interesting to indispensable. It is refreshing to have sonic proof that Otis was not entirely silent all these years, and now he won’t (can’t?) be silenced. The meticulous liner notes function as a useful if overdue mini-biography, and include some illuminating comments from Shuggie himself. The inclusion of the live “Black Belt Sheriff”, a solo acoustic track recorded live in 2000, is worth the proverbial price of admission. It’s an update of sorts to “Sparkle City”; a cagey but incisive commentary that addresses unasked questions about the past and begs further ones about the future. That future, of course, is now. Same as it ever was.

Working on this review proven somewhat of a mixed blessing. I’ve waited a long time for an opportunity to spread the word about Shuggie Otis. Better understanding his story, and the stories behind these songs, does take away some of the mystery—but none of the magic. All art, in the final or most objective analysis, must make its own best case, regardless of circumstances, critics or expectations. The only issue, all along, as it relates to Inspiration Information, has been ensuring that as many people as possible are exposed to the work. Once that happens, matters tend to take care of themselves. Here’s hoping now is the time, finally, for this man and his music to get a proper acknowledgment from a larger crowd.

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What Is and What Will Always Be: A Fresh Look at Led Zeppelin’s Familiar Masterpieces

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Shamelessly utilized other artists’ work, didn’t bother to acknowledge the source material most of the time, became famous, influential and wealthy, is celebrated years later as a creative force without peer, is, in fact, synonymous with an entire genre. Undeniably a mercenary, a self-promoter, possibly in league with the devil.

I’m talking, of course, about William Shakespeare.

But seriously. I can also talk about the ink—and crocodile tears—spilled cataloging the sins of the generation-spanning iconoclast who allegedly has taken all kinds of freedom with hymns, poems, blues songs, all while scoffing at the mere intimation of plagiarism.

But enough about Bob Dylan.

You get the picture, I hope.

Talking about Led Zeppelin is never uncomplicated. But in 2014, with lawsuits (however unpersuasive) in the news, and the Internet making it easier than ever to understand—and hear—the instances where Zep was less than scrupulous about crediting some of their predecessors, whose songs they purloined or improved upon (depending on one’s perspective), it’s at once an ideal and odd time to reassess this great band’s first three albums.

They are here, in remastered form (yawn), but for the first time since the two-part box sets in the early ‘90s, sporting previously unheard material (woah!). As is the case with so many classic acts who are in the semi-regular routine of recycling their back catalogs under the guise of ever-improved sound, this latest round is available via modest—and reasonably priced—reissues and deluxe multi-disc productions.

Let the verdict be succinct and unambiguous: the sound quality is astonishing. If you are still rocking the now-ancient first edition CD releases (which would make you, like this writer, ancient), the first two albums in particular have desperately needed a sonic overhaul that these issues deliver: you can almost taste the lemon juice running down Robert Plant’s legs. Say this about Jimmy Page: in addition to his incontestable guitar skills, he was also a first-rate producer; if new technology enables increased fidelity, who are we to argue? Each “deluxe edition” features two discs; one with a remastered original and a bonus disc with the aforementioned “new” material. These are as no-brainer as it gets for casual fans and especially fanatics.

About the previously unavailable stuff. Who, exactly, needs bonus tracks with isolated vocals on songs like “Ramble On”? Everyone and anyone, obviously. If you are hardcore or have a cursory interest in the history of rock and/or the genesis of riffs repeated and ripped off so many times they seem artificial themselves, this is all very necessary. The question will arise: is there even more material in the vaults? Undoubtedly. But for now, this is fresh Zeppelin. Any Zeppelin is good Zeppelin; previously unavailable Zeppelin, regardless of quality or novelty, is priceless in its way.

Your mileage, obviously, will vary. You can, for instance, experience “Friends” as an instrumental track, or “Since I’ve Been Loving You” a first draft of the eventual tour de force; you can also hear “Whole Lotta Love” with isolated vocals and guitar(s!) which is not unlike being inside the studio to marvel at how these Gospels got written and recorded. It’s probably worth the time and money to hear “La La”, which features the band jamming not quite aimlessly, but in a way that will make aficionados appreciate the ways some of these snippets and formulations resurfaced on later tracks.

The first album’s bonus disc is a live set recorded in Paris during their ’69 tour. Like the bonus tracks on the other two discs, some of the material has been bootlegged or available online, but now it’s finally, properly presented in official form. Again, as a curiosity, this is all worthwhile; for anyone who has spent decades worshipping at the altar of the Golden Gods; this is like India Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant.

On Led Zeppelin II the bonus tracks are variations on works-in-progress or “rough mixes with vocal”; on Led Zeppelin III there’s more of the same, only more so. The rough mix, for instance, of “That’s The Way” reveals what a technician Page was: the multi-tracked acoustic guitars and mandolin are clear and lively and we can appreciate the augmented—and wistful—feelings the subsequent slide guitar brought to the proceedings. Like many of Zeppelin’s more subdued tracks, it is deceptively simple; even on these restrained outings, Page was a gentle, astute stickler for detail.

A few words, of course, are necessary to put this material—particularly the first album—in better perspective, four and a half decades after its release. For starters, Led Zeppelin is not a debut album; it’s not even merely a revelation. It’s a reckoning, a realignment: things were simply never the same and audiences owe a perpetual debt for all that came after—including the ugly and unlistenable imitators.

Speaking of debts, how about those controversial “cover” songs? As plainly put as possible, the band’s plundering could be considered audacious, cynical, calculated, cheeky and, above all, celebratory. It’s easy to suggest it is all of these things, and more. To be certain, on the early albums—especially the first one—the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and anything that could stick was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that they displayed by retitling (and, in some cases, not retitling!) other musicians’ work and claiming it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim—made with fervor by the uninformed and all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair—has gained cachet that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work. The reality, as reality often insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable, and indefensible, out of the way right up front. On the debut album more than half the songs are borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from old blues legends; they used Joan Baez’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as a launching pad for their soon-to-be-patented (and, ironically, imitated) soft/heavy sensibility. “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” were initially claimed to be original compositions, but the band at least had the sense to not even attempt denying Willie Dixon full credit for both “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”.

While the band can—and must—be castigated for being too rapacious to do the right thing regarding royalties (until legally compelled to do so), there is a significant disparity between being brazen and being uninspired. To be certain, all of this original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on. Put another way, Zep’s remakes have an originality and élan that the songs British Invasion bands covered largely lack.

True, those earlier bands gave credit where credit was due, but their motives, ironically, were arguably less benign. Give me a band with deep roots in terms of appreciation and understanding a breadth of music spanning multiple genres as opposed to opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to name two, were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating sources like Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell into their arsenal, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put yet another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles, unlike the saccharine covers of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Put still another way, if I want to hear classic blues reimagined, give me Mr. Plant over Messrs McCartney, Lennon and Jagger.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of proper attribution, it could be—and probably never convincingly has been—argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work by anyone not named Eric Clapton to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the early ‘70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they loved this music, they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies.

So, after the shame and all the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influence and they have been repaid, indelibly and perhaps karmically, by being copied by thousands of eager, inferior mediocrities. When it comes to art that matters, there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, those that came before them. These touchstones can—and should—become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf to Led Zeppelin to (insert every ‘70s and ‘80s band here) to The White Stripes and The Black Keys.

In the final analysis, what really matters? The music that endures seldom needs anyone to describe or defend it. With the exception of The Beatles, no other band has loomed quite as large, to the extent that we’ll never have enough accolades. There are a limited number of bands that provide a blueprint for how to do it, even if everyone acknowledges there is no conceivable way it could ever be duplicated, much less surpassed. The first three Led Zeppelin albums are as sui generis as any documents in modern rock, and the dust will never settle because their impact can’t be exhausted and we’ll never cease to wonder how they happened in the first place.

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Two

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Wherein five jazz saxophonists “slum” and make truly indelible contributions to five well-loved and much-played rock songs.

Considering one of the all-time ALL TIME greats (Sonny Rollins) is on this list, an anecdote from the sessions seems in order:

MICK JAGGER: “I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.”

5. Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”:

4. Dick Parry on Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”:

3. David Sanborn on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”:

2. Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja”:

1. Sonny Rollins on The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”:

Bonus insight from Jagger (EPIC!!!):

“I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part One

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A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge –not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters’ monster hit “Frankenstein” (check it out here), Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Listen: I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st Century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than The Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own –and love– every album by The Strokes yet have never heard of Secret Chiefs 3. Logically, this disqualifies them as listeners, as well as many other things; but they hold the keys to the kingdom. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock. First, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes, as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter. As I’ve mentioned before, during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: At least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. As a kinder, gentler president once said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, the recently-discussed “Jungleland”, which just happens to be the best rock song of the ’70s. Anyone have a problem with this?

From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile On Main Street, as well as Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that (if “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest). Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it. That is not sax, that is sex. (For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is wrong with me, the preceding paragraph should make it all a bit less complicated. Worse, I would simultaneously propose that the same paragraph illustrates everything that is right about me. Quite clearly, I am far beyond assistance or salvation. Thank God.)

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel…

Sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me. What about you?

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Just Like a Big Daydream in the Middle of the Night: The Return of Shuggie Otis (Revisited)

True story: Already an industry veteran although barely legal drinking age, Shuggie Otis was asked to join the Rolling Stones. Famously, he declined the offer.

Had he accepted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two things are certain. One, he would have become wealthy and a household name. Two, many millions of people might have more easily discovered—and fallen under the spell of—his 1974 tour-de-force, Inspiration Information. By refusing, on admirable principle, a chance to snatch the biggest of brass rings (he was more interested in his own things), Otis transformed into one of the all-time rock music mysteries, equal parts Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson.

Shuggie Otis endures as one of those inscrutable figures many people are familiar with, even if they don’t know his name. Sadly, though revealingly, he is likely best known to contemporary ears through the work of other artists. He’s been sampled by Beyonce (“Gift From Virgo”), OutKast (“Mrs. Jackson”) and most notably, The Brothers Johnson, who hit #5 on the charts in 1977 with their excellent, if inferior cover of “Strawberry Letter 23”.

Still a teenager when he wrote and performed it, this song alone should have put Otis in a class by himself. As a composition, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a near perfect synthesis of funk, soul and rock. Sly Stone got (real) close; so did Stevie Wonder, but neither hit the trifecta as indelibly. More than anything anyone else did for the entire decade, “Strawberry Letter 23” picks up what Hendrix was putting down and takes it further into the future: The phased fade-out of the coda is like Side Three of Axis: Bold as Love. And it works as a wholly organic and original vibe; Otis is not trying to recapture (or copy) Hendrix, which is what so many inferior musicians have done. If Hendrix, especially on his ballads like “Little Wing” and “Drifting”, was refining the best work Curtis Mayfield did with the Impressions, “Strawberry Letter 23” anticipates the farther-out freakiness of Funkadelic and the watered down, not-so-solid gold white boys would take to the bank too many times to count.

There are a couple of basic questions fans, like this writer, have asked themselves for entirely too long. Why isn’t Shuggie Otis recognized by more people as a genius? And why isn’t Inspiration Information regarded as one of the best albums of the ‘70s? Otis, and his masterpiece, have belonged to the underground, enigmas that attract word-of-mouth followings each generation. Ultimately there are no good, or acceptable answers for why Otis has labored so long in semi-obscurity. He has, however, continued to work, and occasionally record. The arrival of this remastered version of Inspiration Information, along with an entire bonus disc of unreleased material, sheds overdue light on what he was doing while the time he could and should have owned ostensibly passed us all by.

Certain albums, for whatever reason, never find the audience they deserve, failing to connect due to fashion or fate, or because too many souls have been sold in the service of crossover pop candy. It’s one of the oldest, if saddest stories in the music business: same as it ever was. A possibility that at once explains and justifies—however belatedly—the unique potential of Inspiration Information is that, unlike certain cult classics (Love’s Forever Changes) or unrealized masterworks (The Beach Boys’ SMiLE), Otis’ album can, and should, resonate with any listener, anytime. Like right now.

Perhaps Shuggie needed to wait until 2013 to finally come unstuck in time. Maybe Inspiration Information has always-already been in the present tense; it’s that real, that alive. It reminds us about the best of what we’ve done, and nostalgia packs a convincing punch. It is also an antidote for despair and/or cynicism: Musical history is too often written by the winners (the votes counted in cash), but there is constantly art being made in the margins, work that is always on the verge of being discussed. There is always music kicking around somewhere that will eventually announce itself in a way that realigns our proper understanding of who really did what, when.

So what is the first-time listener likely to discover, on the occasion of this third coming of Inspiration Information (the official introduction was in 1974, the second in 2001 when David Byrne re-released it on his Luaka Bop label, including four songs from Shuggie’s second album Freedom Flight, notably “Strawberry Letter 23”)? Any serious fan of music should understand immediately that this album is a significant work by a young man, a brilliant man, a confident man, a calm, cool and collected fellow full of ideas and the uncanny ability to express them. And, it should be noted, Otis made this a solo album in very literal terms: with the exception of some horns and strings, Shuggie played all the instruments himself. Understanding that virtuosity and audacity only serves to amplify what this 21 year old visionary achieved.

The needle could be dropped at virtually any point to make a compelling case for its brilliance, but the high point may be its third track, “Sparkle City”. It still seems nearly impossible that a musician so young could sound this assured, and create a statement of purpose this persuasive. Laid back and unhurried, this song is like walking into a conversation called the ‘70s. Two minutes before the vocals kick in, Otis is on his own time, taking his time—and it’s (somewhat) understandable why this didn’t find its way onto radios all over America. Dreamlike with an irresistible bass line and perfectly-placed horn flourishes, this psychedelic swirl showcases Shuggie’s remarkable voice. “I heard all the news/There is no offer that I wouldn’t refuse”, he sings, sounding wistful but not boastful. And then he follows that up with an astonishing line that practically predicts the rest of his life, intended or not: “Now come time for me to run / Sorry, people, but I’m not the one”. A wink and a nod, and maybe an insight that explains or at least vindicates how—and why—this preternaturally gifted cat could stroll so calmly off center stage.

As we know now, Otis may have stayed more or less out of sight, but he did not retreat into self-imposed exile. Whether he was unfairly ignored by the same record executives who once courted him or he sabotaged his own promise, or simply, like the title of his awesome instrumental, not available, the reality is that Wings Of Love is the first new music the world has heard from Otis since 1974. It is not, strictly speaking, all new material; indeed, some of it goes back to the early ‘70s. It’s a seventeen song anthology covering 1970 through 2000, with several tracks from the mid ‘80s that have, unsurprisingly, dated more poorly than his earlier work.

Newcomers are strongly advised to absorb and understand Inspiration Information (and the two albums that preceded it) before passing judgment on the new stuff. That said, for anyone fearing the worst, they exceed any reasonable expectations. They function, on one level, as the diary of an artist evolving, reflecting the times but always in his unique, uniquely affecting fashion. And they work, on their own terms, as well as evidence of the ways Otis influenced a host of more successful musicians. Listening to the tracks from 1976 and 1977, there are undeniable traces of the sorts of sounds that would dominate MTV a decade later. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” will blow some minds: it’s like the missing link between Sly Stone and Prince, and it’s funky as all get out.

Old school fans will likely find these previously unreleased tracks anything from interesting to indispensable. It is refreshing to have sonic proof that Otis was not entirely silent all these years, and now he won’t (can’t?) be silenced. The meticulous liner notes function as a useful if overdue mini-biography, and include some illuminating comments from Shuggie himself. The inclusion of the live “Black Belt Sheriff”, a solo acoustic track recorded live in 2000, is worth the proverbial price of admission. It’s an update of sorts to “Sparkle City”; a cagey but incisive commentary that addresses unasked questions about the past and begs further ones about the future. That future, of course, is now. Same as it ever was.

Working on this review proven somewhat of a mixed blessing. I’ve waited a long time for an opportunity to spread the word about Shuggie Otis. Better understanding his story, and the stories behind these songs, does take away some of the mystery—but none of the magic. All art, in the final or most objective analysis, must make its own best case, regardless of circumstances, critics or expectations. The only issue, all along, as it relates to Inspiration Information, has been ensuring that as many people as possible are exposed to the work. Once that happens, matters tend to take care of themselves. Here’s hoping now is the time, finally, for this man and his music to get a proper acknowledgment from a larger crowd.

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Memorial Day*

I. I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Cyrus has never actually discussed his brief stint in the army that took him to Vietnam. On a couple of occasions he has commented that he went to Vietnam with nothing and came back with a disability. The permanent limp—and the cane—are unavoidable and obvious enough that he feels obliged to make mention of them, almost as a defense mechanism, to defuse any questions or concerns. What he is understandably much more reluctant to discuss is the incurable tic he developed during, or after, the war: the nervous twitch in his left hand that he may have been able to master if he had been able to stay away from the drink. Either way, years of abuse have made the impairment to his reflexes irreparable.

Cyrus has talked about many things. How he ended up washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. How he is still bitter that he didn’t get severance pay, which he is convinced would have enabled the surgery that would have prevented his limp. The dozens of jobs he’s held over the years, and the seven states in which he has had legal residency. He rarely mentions the war, but his twitch, his cane and his tired eyes are a continuous reminder that for a person who has experienced the reality of unwanted combat, there is no convenient line dividing past from future, there is only an enduring, agonizing present: this is the condition that destroys lives, kills families and prevents perspective.

Few answers, many questions:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

When you find yourself being asked questions like these, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Like these:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

II. Paint It Black

It is night, as usual. It is late, as always. Cyrus does not want to go home. Again.

This is his life: You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!

Christ, he had actually heard these words, often. And more significantly, he felt them.

Cyrus sits in the silence, trying not to think about anything, unable to stop thinking about everything. He thinks, for instance, about the heat. The heat. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer.

Cyrus sits in his truck, watching the monotonous orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the canopy of dark branches that surround him like a shroud. The air hung languidly, holding its breath. It seemed to resignedly acknowledge that its seasonal reign would eventually expire.

Cyrus sits silently, trying not to think about anything. Inevitably, he thinks of the flowers. Of all the redundant tasks his job required him to complete, day after identical day, the most maddening was the maintenance of the flowerbeds that formed a colorful halo around the crumbling plaza. As always, they thrived in spring and had managed to make it through the early stages of summer not too much the worse for wear. But in the last several weeks they had finally begun to sway under the inexorable force of the unyielding heat. Despite their frailty they were admirably resilient, yet there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in their soil, they could not remain impervious to the extremities they were unable to escape. Eventually, all attention given was futile as they fell prey to the same warmth that initially sustained them.

They’re not so different from us, Cyrus had thought to himself, earlier that afternoon as he looked down on the shrinking stems, his sweat dripping compassionately amongst the petals. They did not ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.

And yet, it was his job to keep them alive, to do his part in cheating nature and interfere with the iron will of inevitability. It could not be done, and he could not say what was more unjust: the sufferings these flowers were subjected to or the expectation that any one person could alter their fragile destinies.

The sun had set almost six hours earlier, but the impenetrable humidity lingered heavily in the air.

Enough. Drive, just drive. Get away, go somewhere. Do something. Get out of here.

He drives.

It occurs to him, after a while, that music might help—music always helps—and he reaches gratefully for the radio. And immediately, the music is there for him, old friends making familiar sounds and singing familiar words.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…

Yes. Always he has listened to this song, and it has always spoken to him. And now it is speaking to him again, saying things he’s heard hundreds of times but never understood, in ways he’s never suddenly does not like, a new way that unnerves him:

I look inside myself and see my heart is black

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue

I could not foresee this thing happening to you

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…

The road swirls gray and white and he feels cold and realizes he should feel hot and sees that he is sweating and not paying attention then he is sliding and it’s okay because it’s not his fault how could they say it was his fault these things happen isn’t that what they say shit happens…

Cyrus is no longer on the road.

He watches the other cars move by, white and red lights as they arrive and depart from the scene. He can feel the drivers staring at him inquisitively, frowning as they pass him.

“What are you looking at?” he shouts. “You got a problem? I’ll solve it for you!”

He yells at a few more cars and then realizes where he is, and sees that he is shaking. He grabs the steering wheel with all his might and carefully negotiates his way back on the road, driving slowly the rest of the way, occasionally wiping the sweat from his steaming brow.

At last he pulls into his assigned space and turns the car off. He looks up in the mirror and examines the ragged hole he has bitten through his bottom lip. He touches it and the blood feels warm on his fingers. He grins and shakes his head.

I’m okay it’s okay it’s okay I’m okay

He looks back in the mirror and stops smiling. Closing his eyes tightly he reaches out and punches the windshield and it splinters under the force of his repeated blows.

He sits in silence for a while, gazing at the shattered glass, resolutely ignoring the pain in his hand.

It might cool off, he thinks. If only it would rain.

But it would not rain, and it would not cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist indefinitely in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good. It never did.

Eventually he realizes he is getting blood on the seat and goes inside for a bandage.

III. This Ain’t Living

Miles was drunk, but he had more drinking to do. It was a holiday after all. Actually, it was well after midnight, so technically, the holiday was over. But Miles wasn’t much for holidays anyway. If you celebrated holidays, then it tended to trivialize the important other occasions for partying, which were pretty much every night.

He walked away from the bar, confused by the lack of cabs. Not only did he dislike the prospect of hoofing it home in his condition, he realized that by the time he arrived, he would most likely be too tired to keep drinking.

And then, as they so seldom do, the angels intervened: up ahead, idling angrily, was Cyrus’s truck, rusting greedily in front of God and everyone. Finally, someone he could hang with, someone who could keep up with him. He even had drinks! A well-serviced Styrofoam cooler brooded quietly in the front seat, sweating it out in the heavy evening air.

Drive, he said.

They drove. They drank. They communicated, commiserating silently, as they had done so often this summer. Eventually, there were no more beers and Miles was forced to pay attention to something other than his empty, anxious hands.

“So what do you say there Cane?”

“What do I say about what?”

And that was that. Clearly, Cyrus did not feel like talking, and Miles was in no shape to care. This was the way his best customer and more than occasional drinking partner could be at times. Usually, he was content to listen, which suited Miles, who was usually the one talking. It was just the way it was.

Miles might have been surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, if he understood the appreciable alteration that had occurred in only the last few years. Jackson noticed immediately, having been away for so long, and having known Cyrus since the café opened. Back then Cyrus was, in turn, equally morose and amusing, a mostly pleasant and ubiquitous presence at the bar. Miles did not know that two summers ago, most people still knew Cyrus by his real name. It was only over the past couple of years that everyone had begun calling him Cane, a designation he embraced and encouraged. For reasons that would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, Cyrus had begun to become increasingly invested in his short stint in Vietnam. While it was something he used to speak of curtly and even cryptically—when he spoke of it at all—the war had come to provide an outlet, and an otherwise unattainable identity.

Miles could not know—and by now, no one was certain either way—that Cyrus had not always carried his cane around, not until he started seeing, and wanting others to see, himself as a wounded veteran. Did the discussion of war compel the escalating complaints about the deteriorating condition of his foot? Or was it the pain of an oppressive injury that caused him to crave the compassion he had heretofore never found? No one knew for sure. The more Cyrus talked, the more he drank, and the more he seemed to retreat inside himself, closing off the feelings he could not communicate.

Miles could not help but notice the hair: Cyrus hadn’t cut his hair all summer and was now sporting a rather impressive Afro. What sort of statement was he making? Was he trying to grow it out to appear younger, to stave off the aging that his body was otherwise unable to ignore? Or did he just not care anymore? The fact that his hair could still grow so quickly, so abundantly, should have indicated a certain vigor, or resilience. Unfortunately, the longer the hair got, the more prominent the gray became, betraying what he hoped to conceal. The gray hairs in Cane’s ‘fro spoke about the things no one wanted to know. That you get older, inevitably, no matter who you are. And that some people get older quicker, and harder, than everyone else. That an aging body was a son of a bitch, a bastard that delighted in turning on you, turning attention to itself, which turned all eyes on the changes going on. And what changes were underway inside him that no one could see?

The silence did not suit Cyrus. He did not feel like talking, and Miles was too drunk to converse in any event. Finally he turned on the radio, surprised he had not thought of it sooner. Immediately the music was there, and Miles, who had passed out against the window, quickly came to life. Few sights could be as ridiculous as the passenger, clean-shaven kid’s face contorting with energy as he sang along in mock falsetto. Marvin Gaye he was not. And Cyrus had to laugh. He could still laugh.

Miles got out of the car. Marvin kept singing. Cyrus stopped laughing.

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Yeah make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

This ain’t livin, no this ain’t livin…

Cyrus stopped listening.

He remembered when he used to love this song, when this cassette used to get all kinds of play in his car. He loved it. He remembered when he used to love all sorts of things.

He decided not to think about it. He drove off slowly to nowhere, certain he’d soon find the nothingness that waits for some of us out there.

(*excerpted from the novel The American Dream of Don Giovanni)

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Robert Johnson: A Celebration in Covers

As was mentioned in the piece revisited yesterday (see HERE), Robert Johnson’s body of work was small but unsurpassed in terms of import and influence.

Perhaps the best way –aside from listening to his complete works, which I suggest you do, after acquiring them here– to appreciate how vast and crucial his catalog was, and remains, is to see the variety of legends who have bowed at his altar.

Here is a small sampler of some personal favorites, some well-known, some quite obscure.

Let me know which one(s) you like best, especially if it’s not included below.

The Rolling Stones:

Led Zeppelin:

Cream:

Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green!):

Taj Mahal:

Cowboy Junkies:

SRV and friends:

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Just Like a Big Daydream in the Middle of the Night: The Return of Shuggie Otis

True story: Already an industry veteran although barely legal drinking age, Shuggie Otis was asked to join the Rolling Stones. Famously, he declined the offer.

Had he accepted that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two things are certain. One, he would have become wealthy and a household name. Two, many millions of people might have more easily discovered—and fallen under the spell of—his 1974 tour-de-force, Inspiration Information. By refusing, on admirable principle, a chance to snatch the biggest of brass rings (he was more interested in his own things), Otis transformed into one of the all-time rock music mysteries, equal parts Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson.

Shuggie Otis endures as one of those inscrutable figures many people are familiar with, even if they don’t know his name. Sadly, though revealingly, he is likely best known to contemporary ears through the work of other artists. He’s been sampled by Beyonce (“Gift From Virgo”), OutKast (“Mrs. Jackson”) and most notably, The Brothers Johnson, who hit #5 on the charts in 1977 with their excellent, if inferior cover of “Strawberry Letter 23”.

Still a teenager when he wrote and performed it, this song alone should have put Otis in a class by himself. As a composition, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a near perfect synthesis of funk, soul and rock. Sly Stone got (real) close; so did Stevie Wonder, but neither hit the trifecta as indelibly. More than anything anyone else did for the entire decade, “Strawberry Letter 23” picks up what Hendrix was putting down and takes it further into the future: The phased fade-out of the coda is like Side Three of Axis: Bold as Love. And it works as a wholly organic and original vibe; Otis is not trying to recapture (or copy) Hendrix, which is what so many inferior musicians have done. If Hendrix, especially on his ballads like “Little Wing” and “Drifting”, was refining the best work Curtis Mayfield did with the Impressions, “Strawberry Letter 23” anticipates the farther-out freakiness of Funkadelic and the watered down, not-so-solid gold white boys would take to the bank too many times to count.

There are a couple of basic questions fans, like this writer, have asked themselves for entirely too long. Why isn’t Shuggie Otis recognized by more people as a genius? And why isn’t Inspiration Information regarded as one of the best albums of the ‘70s? Otis, and his masterpiece, have belonged to the underground, enigmas that attract word-of-mouth followings each generation. Ultimately there are no good, or acceptable answers for why Otis has labored so long in semi-obscurity. He has, however, continued to work, and occasionally record. The arrival of this remastered version of Inspiration Information, along with an entire bonus disc of unreleased material, sheds overdue light on what he was doing while the time he could and should have owned ostensibly passed us all by.

Certain albums, for whatever reason, never find the audience they deserve, failing to connect due to fashion or fate, or because too many souls have been sold in the service of crossover pop candy. It’s one of the oldest, if saddest stories in the music business: same as it ever was. A possibility that at once explains and justifies—however belatedly—the unique potential of Inspiration Information is that, unlike certain cult classics (Love’s Forever Changes) or unrealized masterworks (The Beach Boys’ SMiLE), Otis’ album can, and should, resonate with any listener, anytime. Like right now.

Perhaps Shuggie needed to wait until 2013 to finally come unstuck in time. Maybe Inspiration Information has always-already been in the present tense; it’s that real, that alive. It reminds us about the best of what we’ve done, and nostalgia packs a convincing punch. It is also an antidote for despair and/or cynicism: Musical history is too often written by the winners (the votes counted in cash), but there is constantly art being made in the margins, work that is always on the verge of being discussed. There is always music kicking around somewhere that will eventually announce itself in a way that realigns our proper understanding of who really did what, when.

So what is the first-time listener likely to discover, on the occasion of this third coming of Inspiration Information (the official introduction was in 1974, the second in 2001 when David Byrne re-released it on his Luaka Bop label, including four songs from Shuggie’s second album Freedom Flight, notably “Strawberry Letter 23”)? Any serious fan of music should understand immediately that this album is a significant work by a young man, a brilliant man, a confident man, a calm, cool and collected fellow full of ideas and the uncanny ability to express them. And, it should be noted, Otis made this a solo album in very literal terms: with the exception of some horns and strings, Shuggie played all the instruments himself. Understanding that virtuosity and audacity only serves to amplify what this 21 year old visionary achieved.

The needle could be dropped at virtually any point to make a compelling case for its brilliance, but the high point may be its third track, “Sparkle City”. It still seems nearly impossible that a musician so young could sound this assured, and create a statement of purpose this persuasive. Laid back and unhurried, this song is like walking into a conversation called the ‘70s. Two minutes before the vocals kick in, Otis is on his own time, taking his time—and it’s (somewhat) understandable why this didn’t find its way onto radios all over America. Dreamlike with an irresistible bass line and perfectly-placed horn flourishes, this psychedelic swirl showcases Shuggie’s remarkable voice. “I heard all the news/There is no offer that I wouldn’t refuse”, he sings, sounding wistful but not boastful. And then he follows that up with an astonishing line that practically predicts the rest of his life, intended or not: “Now come time for me to run / Sorry, people, but I’m not the one”. A wink and a nod, and maybe an insight that explains or at least vindicates how—and why—this preternaturally gifted cat could stroll so calmly off center stage.

As we know now, Otis may have stayed more or less out of sight, but he did not retreat into self-imposed exile. Whether he was unfairly ignored by the same record executives who once courted him or he sabotaged his own promise, or simply, like the title of his awesome instrumental, not available, the reality is that Wings Of Love is the first new music the world has heard from Otis since 1974. It is not, strictly speaking, all new material; indeed, some of it goes back to the early ‘70s. It’s a seventeen song anthology covering 1970 through 2000, with several tracks from the mid ‘80s that have, unsurprisingly, dated more poorly than his earlier work.

Newcomers are strongly advised to absorb and understand Inspiration Information (and the two albums that preceded it) before passing judgment on the new stuff. That said, for anyone fearing the worst, they exceed any reasonable expectations. They function, on one level, as the diary of an artist evolving, reflecting the times but always in his unique, uniquely affecting fashion. And they work, on their own terms, as well as evidence of the ways Otis influenced a host of more successful musicians. Listening to the tracks from 1976 and 1977, there are undeniable traces of the sorts of sounds that would dominate MTV a decade later. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You” will blow some minds: it’s like the missing link between Sly Stone and Prince, and it’s funky as all get out.

Old school fans will likely find these previously unreleased tracks anything from interesting to indispensable. It is refreshing to have sonic proof that Otis was not entirely silent all these years, and now he won’t (can’t?) be silenced. The meticulous liner notes function as a useful if overdue mini-biography, and include some illuminating comments from Shuggie himself. The inclusion of the live “Black Belt Sheriff”, a solo acoustic track recorded live in 2000, is worth the proverbial price of admission. It’s an update of sorts to “Sparkle City”; a cagey but incisive commentary that addresses unasked questions about the past and begs further ones about the future. That future, of course, is now. Same as it ever was.

Working on this review proven somewhat of a mixed blessing. I’ve waited a long time for an opportunity to spread the word about Shuggie Otis. Better understanding his story, and the stories behind these songs, does take away some of the mystery—but none of the magic. All art, in the final or most objective analysis, must make its own best case, regardless of circumstances, critics or expectations. The only issue, all along, as it relates to Inspiration Information, has been ensuring that as many people as possible are exposed to the work. Once that happens, matters tend to take care of themselves. Here’s hoping now is the time, finally, for this man and his music to get a proper acknowledgment from a larger crowd.

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Improving Upon Perfection, Part Four: Mick, Keith, Gram and Harriet

Parts 1-3 of this series here, here, and here.

Normally I would have at least a little bit to say about each of these versions, but…

Do I really need to say anything?

“Wild Horses” is far and away one of the all-time great rock performances: a stunner on all levels, and while these two covers each, in their own way, are indelible, nothing is –or could ever be– quite as perfect as the original.

The Rolling Stones:

Gram Parsons, giving it some authentic southern twang (and soul):

The Sundays, from the female, even mellower perspective:

 

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