Reelin’ From The Years

Walter Becker died yesterday, at age 67.  Becker, along with Donald Fagen, was one of the co-founders of Steely Dan, the ever-changing band that was a dominant musical force in the ’70s and unquestionably one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

The clip above from the old rock TV show The Midnight Special — where the band is jarringly introduced by a mustachioed Bill Cosby — captures the group performing live in 1973, which is about the same time I first heard their music.  The song they performed live on that show, Reelin’ In The Years, is a guitar-driven classic that was one of the first Steely Dan songs that caused me to buy their albums.  It was perfect for those high school days, allowing the boys with the bad ’70s haircuts and monster bellbottoms and tight polyester shirts to play some air guitar when the song came on the radio in the car before belting out lyrics that didn’t really make a lot of sense but were great to sing, anyway.

Becker and Fagen were genuises at coming up with the riffs and the obscure, tantalizing lyrics that wormed their way into your head.  Like Neil Young in that same time period, they kept reinventing themselves.  When you bought a Steely Dan album, whether it was Katy Lied or Can’t Buy A Thrill or Aja, or any of the other great albums they put out in the ’70s, you never were quite sure what you were going to get — but you knew it would be interesting.  And you could spend hours debating what the hell the lyrics to songs like Black Cow or Bodhisattva or Deacon Blues were all about, too.  Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I think of Steely Dan’s Black Friday, and as it plays back in miy mind it stills sounds as great as it did when I first heard it, back in college.

Farewell, Walter Becker, and thank you for adding a little bit of richness and mystery to our lives.  (And 67 seems like a pretty young age to go, by the way.)

Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman died yesterday.  One of the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, a group that unquestionably is one of the finest rock bands America has ever produced, Allman had been ailing for a while.  He was only 69.

Allman was one of those recording artists whose personal life always seemed to be a mess — he was married to Cher, of all people, for a while, which probably tells you all you need to know — but you felt that his life really was about his music.  Allman played guitar and keyboards in the band, but everyone really knew him as the voice of the band.  His unique, smoky vocals, with their gravelly, gritty undertones, injected life and soul into the bluesy songs that the Allman Brothers Band made their own.  Songs like Whipping Post, One Way Out, Not My Cross To Bear, and Midnight Rider are classics in large part because the vocals are so . . . legitimate.  When Allman sang about being tied to that whipping post, you felt that he really knew what he was singing about.  He could make Happy Birthday into an exploration into the dark recesses of the human experience.

We’re getting to the point where many of the rock icons of the ’60s and ’70s are moving on.  It’s sad, but it’s also a reason to listen, again, to some of the music that made them enduring icons in the first place.  Today, it’s time to go listen anew to the Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East, one of the very best live albums ever recorded.  This performance of Whipping Post below comes from one of the band’s Fillmore East performances.

American Tune

I always listen to music walking to and from work.  This evening, as I was listening to my acoustic playlist, it struck me that American Tune by Paul Simon — a beautiful song that is one of my favorites — pretty accurately captures how many people are feeling these days.  I’m not just talking about disappointed Hillary Clinton voters, either.  There seems to be a strong sense of disquiet, an unsettled feeling, mingled with curiosity, trepidation, raw hope, and uncertainty about what might happen next, lurking throughout the general populace.  Some of those feelings stem from the election results and the thought of Donald Trump as President, to be sure, but some of them also seem to flow from concerns about the direction of the country as a whole.  Where is our road leading?

American Tune, which was released in 1973, aptly crystallizes this odd mixture of emotions and sensations.  Simon wrote:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

Two verses later, the song concludes, in a mixture of pride, doubt, fatigue, and resignation:

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

It says something about the universality of music when a song written at the end of the Nixon Administration can so perfectly express how so many Americans are feeling, 45 years later.

Prince’s Passing

It was a shock to hear yesterday about the death of Prince, at age 57.  The musical star was found dead in an elevator in his home, and the cause of his death is not yet known.  It’s a huge hit to the music world, which has been reeling in the wake of a series of deaths — David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, and now Prince — that make it seem like 2016 is the Grim Reaper’s year to swing that scythe of his through the ranks of iconic figures in different branches of the music world.

I first heard of Prince and his music back in the ’80s, during the early days of MTV, when that channel still played music.  During Richard’s infant days I spent some nights sitting in our rocking chair, with Richard’s belly pressed against my shoulder, rocking during the wee hours of the early morning and hoping he would fall back asleep.  Richard seemed to do better with some background noise, so we often turned the cable channel to MTV and listened to the music of the mid-80s.

prince-ctcOne of the frequent songs on the MTV late night/early morning playlist in those days was Prince’s Raspberry Beret, and another was the Bangles’ Manic Monday, which the MTV VJs noted was written by Prince. They were both frothy pop songs, catchy but lightweight, the kind of songs where the melody and lyrics seemed to get injected directly into your brain cells and you can’t get them out no matter how hard you tried.  Those songs defined and informed my views of Prince, and I dismissed him as a talented but somewhat insubstantial pop star.  When Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and started to get into battles with record companies and others I added egotistical to the list of adjectives I associated with him.

Ironically, it was Richard who reintroduced me to Prince.  Perhaps it was his exposure to Raspberry Beret during his infancy — OK, maybe not — but Richard became a huge fan of Prince, and during his college days at Northwestern he hosted a weekly, multi-episode show on the campus radio station that was devoted to Prince’s career and songs.  Perhaps fittingly, it was broadcast during the wee hours in Evanston, and aired, I think, during the 5-6 a.m. slot, Eastern time.  If I woke up early, as I usually do, I could catch it live via web radio.  It was fun and sort of weird to hear Richard’s voice on radio first thing in the morning, so I tried to listen to the show whenever I could.

Through Richard and his radio show I learned a lot more about Prince — and realized that my casual dismissal of him on the basis of two songs was far off base.  His music was a lot more thoughtful and interesting and ground-breaking than I had given him credit for, and I added a lot of it to my iPod playlist where it has stayed ever since.  I’m sorry to hear of Prince’s untimely death, and sorry to know that Richard has lost a favorite artist — and I’m also sorry that I didn’t appreciate a great talent for so many years.  The creative world is poorer without Prince in its ranks.

 

Whiter Shade Of Pale

Let’s all take a break from the work week, decompress a bit, get a good chuckle, and get mentally ready for a nice pre-Thanksgiving weekend.  And to help us on the way, how about this vintage, poorly directed and trite video of Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale?

Whiter Shade of Pale is a great song — but I’m betting you’ll get a laugh out of the video, with its clumsy cuts, out-of-sync lip-syncing, and late ’60s Nehru jackets.  It reminds me that, long ago, UJ asked for a Nehru jacket and got it.  I think he maybe wore it once.

Trash Attraction

IMG_6100We saw lots of interesting things on the streets of New Orleans, but this was one of the most compelling and evocative sights — a trash can, decorated to resemble a human face, with the words “If ever I cease to love” on it.  When I tossed my trash away through the wide mouth, I wondered what the heck was the significance of those words.

There is, in fact, an explanation:  “If ever I cease to love” is the name of a classic Mardi Gras song.  According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune blog, the song has been the anthem of the Rex’s Boeuf Gras parade ever since the Rex organization first marched in 1872.  I think that explains the trash can’s crown and the bright coloring.

If you’re interested in hearing this Mardi Gras classic, a YouTube performance is below.

Benedictines of Mary, Queen Of Apostles

I love choral music, and recently I discovered the CD Advent at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles choir. It is an astonishingly beautiful piece of work that should appeal to anyone — regardless of their religious affiliation — who loves the sound of the human voice.

I knew nothing about the Benedictines of Mary when I discovered their music. They are a monastic order of nuns that began in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania and then transferred to the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. The order follows the monastic directives of St. Benedict, which includes regular singing and chanting. The video above tells a little bit more about the life of these nuns and gives a taste of their exquisite music. Advent at Ephesus is just one of their CDs, and coincidentally a new CD is coming out this week.

There is a ethereal, transcendent quality to the blended voices of these nuns that is enormously appealing and deeply peaceful. Of the songs on Advent at Ephesus, my favorite selections are Like the Dawning, Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth, Maria Walks Amid The Thorn, and Benedixisti Domine, but all of the songs on the CD are wonderful. I recommend it highly to anyone who is a fan of choral music.

Five Years In The House

A few days ago the Webner House blog celebrated its fifth anniversary. Our first post appeared on February 1, 2009.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years. Five years ago President Obama had just been inaugurated and began his first term in office, and the Affordable Care Act was just a gleam in his eye. Five years ago Eric Mangini was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and there have been three head coaches since then. Five years ago no one had heard of a Tea Party, or George Zimmerman, or Ted Cruz. For reasons like these, five years seems like a long time.

During our five years we’ve published 4,718 posts that have generated 289,076 views and 4,082 comments — all of which were welcome. We’ve made some new friends and found some blogs we like to check out, too. We’ve written some bad poetry, taken some bad photographs, and followed the Chronicles of Penny.

It’s been a fun five years. What better way to commemorate it than to post David Bowie and Arcade Fire performing the song of the same name — a song which begins one of the great rock albums ever recorded: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?

The Sounds Of A ’60s Summer

There was the ever-present throb of fans, because no one had air conditioning.  Square fan units that fit into the bottom of a window that you could yell into and have your voice emerge, chopped and distorted, on the other side.  Rotating fans that whirred from side to side, with streamers tied to their wire covers blowing in the breeze.  Standing fans in the corner that sent air circling around the room.  They didn’t make the air any cooler, but they helped the “circulation.”

Screen doors creaking open and slamming shut with a bang as kids came and went and exasperated Moms said:  “In or out?”  Baseball cards attached to bicycle frames with a clothes pin that were strummed by the spokes of the rear wheel and made a bike sound like a motorcycle.  The hum of riding lawnmowers, as the neighborhood Dads cut the grass on their acre-sized lots.  The fat from cheeseburgers sizzling on hot charcoal.

And, as the evening arrived and shadows grew long, boxy Zenith and RCA radio units were turned on.  The sounds of ’60s music floated out the open windows through the screens into the humid summer nights as the adults gathered on patios and kids ran around, waving sparklers or catching lightning bugs or playing flashlight tag.  Martha Reeve and the Vandellas and Dancing in the Street.  Frank Sinatra and Strangers in the Night.  The early Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons.  Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark.  And, most of all, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, whose music perfectly captured the ’60s summer mood.  Happy, bopping music, light and upbeat, infused with optimism, as the adults talked quietly and laughed about last night’s Tonight Show or reenacted one of the bits from the latest great Bill Cosby or Bob Newhart comedy album.

When bedtime came, the beat of fans was still there, accompanied by the chirping of crickets and the buzz insects in the sultry air.

Bobby “Blue” Bland Goes Farther On Up The Road

Bobby “Blue” Bland died yesterday at 83, and the ranks of the legendary blues singers were thinned measurably as a result.

Over his long career he wrote some of the great R&B songs, including timeless efforts like Further On Up The Road and Turn On Your Love Light.  I was introduced to his music by Eric Clapton, who played an exceptional Further On Up The Road filled with awesome guitar work.  When I heard Clapton’s live introduction to the song — simply, “this is a song by Bobby Blue Bland called Further On Up The Road” — I knew I had to listen to the artist who wrote such a fantastic song.  My guess is that many rock ‘n roll fans who loved Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and other rockers who played the blues were introduced to Bobby “Blue” Bland and other blues artists in that same way.

Bland had a fabulous voice, deep and smoky and soulful.  And, as the YouTube clip I’ve included above shows, he must have been a blast to share the stage with.  The clip is part of a performance by Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King on Soul Train, circa the mid-70s.  From the basso intro by Don Cornelius to the vintage ’70s clothing to the stunning music, the clip is a classic — and a great reminder of Bland’s outsized talent.

Ray Manzarek, RIP

Ray Manzarek, one of the founding members of The Doors, has died in Germany after a long battle with cancer.

When I think of The Doors, I think of Jim Morrison’s deep, throaty vocals — but I think equally of Ray Manzarek’s keyboards.  Both of those elements made The Doors musically unique, and both were equally important.  Mazarek’s deft chops on the keyboard helped to burn countless Doors’ songs into the brain synapses, where they will remain forever and can be hauled out and remembered, note by note.  Most of The Doors’ great songs had a great keyboard riff in their somewhere, but my all-time favorite is Riders On The Storm.  For us wannabe musicians, who don’t know anything about those black and white keys, it’s one of the great air piano songs ever.  I’ve “played” that extended keyboard solo on desktops, tabletops, car dashboards, and the air above the walkway around the Yantis Loop, always with a smile on my face and those lilting notes lifting my heart.  I’ve put a YouTube video of Riders on the Storm below, and it still sounds fantastic and absolutely fresh.

Thank you for that, Ray Manzarek.  You were one of those creative forces who helped to change the course of popular music, and you made my life a little bit richer through your genius.

Rocky Mountain Way

It’s Friday night, and we’re waiting to go to the airport to pick up Richard, who is coming home for a visit.  Unfortunately, his flight has been delayed, so we’re biding our time for now.

Normally I would squawk about airlines and their comically frequent flight delays, but I’m too happy about Richard’s visit and the arrival of the weekend and I don’t want to ruin my mood.  So I’m going to go in the opposite direction, dive into some truly vintage rock that takes me back to high school days, follow Joe Walsh’s suggestion, and get into the Rocky Mountain Way insteadAfter all, it is better than the way we had.

George Jones Starts The Grand Tour

George Jones died today, in Nashville, at age 81.  He was the greatest country singer of his generation, and perhaps the greatest country singer, ever.

Jones lived a rough-and-tumble life and was legendary for his unpredictable behavior, but his musical talent was unquestionable.  It was gigantic.  Jones had an authentic country voice, with a lilting twang and an ability to wring every ounce of emotion out of his songs.  He was a real person and real performer, not some phony, blow-dried, cowboy hat-wearing pop star masquerading as a country singer.  I loathe “modern” country, but I could listen to George Jones and Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline all night long – and just might do so tonight.

I’ve posted the YouTube video of Jones singing The Grand Tour (and being introduced by his one-time wife, Tammy Wynette) because the title seems apt, but also because the song is a good illustration of his awesome prowess as a singer.  It’s a simple song about a man who has been left by his wife, but Jones turns it into a poignant, deeply moving glimpse into the shards of a life.

I don’t often urge people to do this or buy that, but if you’ve never listened to country music, give George Jones a try.  He and his music were pieces of Americana, and we may not see their like again.