Doug Sahm: Bringing It All Back Home (To Texas)

‘I wanna bring up one of my really old buddies, Doug Sahm! Everybody knows Doug and we go back a long way … ‘ (Bob Dylan welcoming Doug to the stage in 1995)

‘You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul’ (Doug Sahm)

Doug Sahm was a walking, talking, totally, ‘Texas Texture’ kind of a guy. A Texan’s Texan. Texas is a very, very, big place and is home to a staggering variety of music which is nourished in beery roadhouses, sprung floor dance halls and honky tonks heavy with the aroma of marajuana.

Music there is avidly listened to, played and danced to by a knowledgeable audience who know which songs are the best to two-step to, which are the best to slow dance to and which are the best to get you ready for a first class fist fight.

Doug Sahm growing up in a largely black section of San Antonio in the 1940s and 1950s absorbed the music blasting out from the radio and the clubs and stored it away as the treasury he would draw on, honour and add to for the rest of his life. You name it Doug Sahm knew it, loved it and could play it with the affection of a true devotee.

Doug was your man if you wanted to hear honkytonkin’ country, some gritty R&B, gutbucket or romantic blues, a Cajun two step, a once round the floor again polka, western swing or Tex-Mex border ballads. And, you could hear all these styles in one night and dance till you dropped! Whether you were a redneck or a hippie, a fan of Willie Nelson, The Grateful Dead or T Bone Walker, Doug had just the groove you were looking for.

Doug has been a boy wonder musician playing fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin on radio from the age of 6 – he was never anything other than a working musician until he died at the tragically young age of 58 in 1999.

Though Doug was widely known in Texas where he had played paying gigs before he turned 10 (once sharing the stage with the great Hank Williams) he first came to wider notice in 1965 with a fabulous record, ‘She’s About A Mover’. This was issued under the name The Sir Douglas Quintet as legendary producer Huey Meaux hoped buyers would assume the band were members of the all conquering British Invasion.

The subterfuge couldn’t last long once it was noticed that two of the band were clearly of Mexican heritage and they all had rich Texas accents. No matter, radio play was duly delivered and once heard, ‘Mover’ was an unstoppable hit!

Doug and the boys had managed to blend Ray Charles, The Beatles and a Texas two-step rhythm into an addictive confection which still has the freshness and impact of a classic song (Texas Monthly No 1 Texas tune of all time!). The Quintet lock into the rhythm as the magnificent Augie Meyers adds bite, colour and texture on the Vox Organ.

Front and centre Doug shows what a marvellously soulful, warm and winning singer he was; always true to the spirit of the song he was singing, always connecting with his fellow musicians and his audience. As I might have said in 1965 – it’s a gas! An absolute gas!

Doug was launched into a career which featured national TV spots and tours with James Brown, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. There was never a major hit follow up to, ‘Mover’ but the initial version of the Quintet produced albums with gems a plenty including, ‘Mendocino’ and, ‘Nuevo Laredo’.

The next Doug Sahm record I want to draw your attention to is the Jerry Wexler produced album, ‘Doug Sahm And Band’ on Atlantic from 1973.

The record is notable for extensively featuring Bob Dylan who at that time was still largely in reclusive mode. More importantly it is one of those records which has such a consistently attractive musical character and personality that it seems to glow in your imagination as you listen to it. And, believe me as someone who has listened to this record hundreds of time its charm never palls.

It’s one of those records like Van Morrison’s, ‘Moondance’ which alters your mood for the better every time you hear it. One of those records that just as you are about to put it back in the sleeve you decide with a smile that you should play again, just one more time!

Every track has been my favourite at one time or another. Doug, the Cosmic Cowboy, assisted by musicians of the calibre of Dr John, Flaco Jimenez, ‘Fathead’ Newman, David Bromberg and his indispensable musical brother Augie Meyers cooks up a richly flavoured Texas stew which continually whets and satisfies your musical appetite.

There is a glorious sense of relaxed enjoyment in making music, a sense, listening , that we are neighbours of Doug’s dropping in on a house party that will last for days, each song suggesting another, as everyone is having so much damn fun! It’s Texas blues, Texas country, Tex-Mex and 100% the magic of Doug Sahm.

Forced to choose one song to play here I’ve selected his anthem for his hometown, ‘(Is Anybody Going)To San Antone’ which features Dylan on guitar and harmony vocals. This song, like so many on the album and throughout Doug’s career, conjures joy out of thin air – which will do for me as the definition of what music at its best can do in our lives.

Doug was always touring, always making music whether he was in or out of fashion. Mind you, he was always in fashion with fellow Texas musicians and musicians and listeners everywhere who appreciated a man who talked a mile a minute, wore his heart on his sleeve and was always ready to play one more song.

Doug made a lot of records featuring wonderfully productive collaborations because he put the music first not his ego. He brought a lot to any group venture but he knew that it’s the combination of flavours that makes for the tastiest meals.

The ideal example of the above is the glorious series of records he made with his friends, Flaco Jimenez, Freddie Fender and Augie Meyers under the banner of The Texas Tornados. Listening to these albums offers a feast of pleasures as they carry you through a loving history of Texan musical culture. A few days spent with these wonders virtually guarantees you a PhD in Texas Studies!

To give you a sense of the prowess and generosity of Doug as a bandleader here’s a deliriously enjoyable clip of him with the Tornados featuring a properly rowdy version of, ‘Adios Mexico’ followed by a lovely take on Butch Hancock’s exquisite ballad (Number 1 in my Texas pantheon), ‘She Never Spoke Spanish To Me’. If you’re not up and dancing at the first and crying after the second there’s no hope for you.

Doug Sahm lived every day with a smile on his face. All over the world from Stockholm to San Antone, from London to Lubbock his music made him friends and followers. When you dig a groove as wide and deep as Doug did it can never vanish. I usually like to recommend selected records to illustrate an artist’s career. But for Doug Sahm I would simply advise you to buy as many as you can.

Adios compadre. Vaya con Dios.

Fathers Day : Paul Simon, John Gorka, Seamus Heaney, Slievenamon & My Dad

Fathers and Sons. Sons and Fathers. Sons carry their Father’s in their bloodstream, in their mannerisms and gestures and in the echoing halls of their memories. No matter what you do in life, no matter how radically you roam from where you started you remain in some part of you (in more parts that you usually like to acknowledge) your Father’s son.

The process of becoming a man might be defined as honouring and taking the best from the experiences of your Father’s life while finding through your own experiences the kind of man and Father you want to be yourself.

Coming to terms with your Father, the Son you were and are and the man and Father you have become is the work of a lifetime. A story that’s always unfolding, always being rewritten as you learn more about the man you are and understand more about the man your Father was. Sons, schooled by the abrasive tides of life, sometimes learn to have a certain humility about the easy certainties of their youth as to who their Fathers was and what made him that way. It’s easy to be a Father until you become one.

‘What did I know? What did I know of
Love’s austere and lonely offices?’ (Robert Hayden)

Sons writing about Father’s is one of the great themes of all literature and songwriting because that story is always current, always unfolding, always full to the brim with all that is human in all its bloody and terrible glory. No two stories of Fathers and Sons are the same though most will recognise something of themselves in every story.

Here’s a cry from the soul. Paul Simon’s, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ from his aptly titled, ‘Hearts And Bones’ record. Fathers and Sons – Hearts and Bones, Hearts and Bones. Sons never know when they will need to call for their Fathers to appear in their dreams.

‘They say the left side of the brain dominates the right
And the right side has to labor through the long and speechless night
In the night my Father came and held me to his chest.
He said there’s not much more that you can do
Go Home and get some rest.’

The song about Father’s and Sons that grips my heart every time I hear it and which calls to me in the middle of the night is John Gorka’s, ‘The Mercy Of The Wheels’ Forgive the initially muffled sound.

‘I’d like to catch a train that could go back in time
That could make a lot of stops along the way
I would go to see my Father with the eyes he left behind
I would go for all the words I’d like to say
And I ‘d take along a sandwich and a picture of my girl
And show them all that I made out OK’

I miss my Father. My Dad.

I miss the smell of Old Holborn tobacco as he smoked one of his thin roll your own cigarettes.

I miss the days of childhood when I would buy him a pouch of Old Holborn for Father’s Day.

I miss getting up in the middle of the night with him to hear crackly radio commentaries on Muhammad Ali fights.

I miss the early Sunday mornings when we walked to a church two parishes away because he had been advised to walk a lot after his heart attack.

I miss hearing him roar home Lester Piggott as he brought the Vincent O’Brien horse into the lead in The Derby with half a furlong to go!

I miss hearing him say, ‘There’ll never be another like him’ as Jimmy Greaves scored another nonchalant goal for Spurs.

I miss hearing him say, ‘That was a complete waste of electricity’ as he glanced at the TV screen as some worthy drama concluded.

I miss sharing a pot of very, very strong tea with him well before six o clock in the morning – because as anyone with any sense knew the best of the day was gone before most people bothered to open an eye.

I miss sitting with him in easeful silence.

I miss him always expecting me to come top in every exam while always expecting me not to count on that.

I miss his indulgence in Fry’s Chocolate Cream bars.

I miss him saying, ‘You’ll be fine so ..’ whenever I had to face a daunting new challenge in life.

I miss him calling out the names of the men who worked with him on the building sites – Toher and Boucher and O’ Rahilly with me double checking the spellings as we filled out (creatively) the time sheets accounting for every hour of effort in the working week

I miss watching him expertly navigating his way to a green field site not marked on any map to start a new job and then watching him get hopelessly lost a mile from home on a shopping trip

I miss watching his delight as David Carradine in the TV show Kung Fu, unarmed, took on another gang of armed swaggering bullies and reduced them to whimpers in a few moments – ‘You watch he’ll be catching bullets next’.

I miss hearing his wholly unexpected but wholly accurate estimation of Bruce Springsteen’s cultural importance when seeing him featured on a news special when he first came to England: ‘He’ll never be Elvis’

I miss the way he remained a proud Tipperary man and Irishman despite living for more than 40 years in England.

I miss his quiet certainty that there was an after life – a world where Father’s and Sons divided by death could meet again.

I regret not being able to introduce him to the beautiful woman who, amazingly, wanted to be and became my wife.

I regret not watching him watch my Daughter and my Son grow up into their glorious selves.

I regret not watching him enjoying the pleasures of retirement and old age.

I miss alternating between thinking I was nothing like him and thinking I was exactly like him!

I miss the shyness of his smile.

I miss the sound of his voice.

I miss the touch of his leathery hands.

I miss the way he swept his left hand back across his thinning scalp when he was tired (exactly as I do now).

I miss the sound of my name when he said it.

I miss my Dad.

My dad lies in the green pastures of his beloved Tipperary now under the sheltering slopes of Slievenamon (he would never have forgiven me had he been buried anywhere else!) You can almost hear this song echoing in the silence all around him.

I walked many roads with my Father. I’ve walked many miles without him by my side now (though I sometimes feel his presence). I hope I have many miles to walk until I join him again. As I walk I will lean on him as I face the twists, turns and trip hazards ahead, accompanied by the words of
Seamus Heaney:

‘Dangerous pavements … But this year I face the ice with my Father’s stick’

Chris Smither – Killing The Blues on Desolation Row

‘Somebody said they saw me, swinging the world by the tail,
Bouncing over a white cloud – killing the blues’. (Roly Salley)

‘I been left for dead before – but I still fight on
Don’t wait up – Leave the light on, I’ll be home soon’. (Chris Smither)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s groups of earnest, intense young men in the great academic institutions of America began to develop what can only be called an obsession with Afro-American blues music which had been recorded in the pre war period.

Names like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James began to take on a hallowed and mythical status. As they endlessly played the few records they could find of these mystery figures from the 1920s and 1930s (to the despair of their room and dorm mates) they wondered: could it be that some 30 or more years after these wondrous sides had been made that these legendary musicians might still be alive and just waiting to be discovered by enterprising young blues scholars?

Scouring record sleeves and song lyrics for clues it occurred to Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins that Mississippi John Hurt’s, ‘Avalon Blues’ from his epochal 1928 sessions must surely refer to Avalon Mississippi and who knows maybe Mississippi John was still living there; oblivious to the esteem he was held in by highly educated white men young enough to be his grandsons.

And, miraculously John Hurt was still living in Avalon and though he had long left the life of a professional musician behind he was delighted to be, ‘Re- Discovered’ and given the chance to bring, ‘Frankie’ and, ‘Candyman’ to life again in coffee houses, the gleaming halls of Harvard and festival stages where the riveting gentleness of his songs, his guitar playing, his vocals and his personality won him tens of thousands of devout new admirers.

An LP of his 1963 Newport performance was issued and this record along with others like Lightning Hopkins, ‘Blues In The Bottle’ became sacred texts for aspiring white bluesmen who practiced the guitar stylings until their fingers bled. Some of these blues apprentices were able to produce note for note recreations of their heroes great works. However, it soon became clear to the acute among them that just being able to play all the right notes in the right order at the right tempo did not make you a Bluesman.

No, really being able to play the Blues called for a cultural immersion, a sacramental devotion; a process of virtually religious formation that was beyond the desire, the will and the capability of almost all those who imagined that they could walk the walk, talk the talk and play the guitar like those old men had done and it seemed in many cases could still do.

However, there are always exceptions to every rule and always some acolytes who indeed have heard a true call, who have a vocation they are willing and eager to commit themselves to no matter how difficult the path. The artist celebrated on The Jukebox today, Chris Smither, over a 45 year long career has proved that the call he heard as a teenager in New Orleans was indeed inviting him into a new baptism as an authentic musician who can play the blues or any blues related music with complete authority. Here he is with his take on Mississippi John’s ‘Frankie and Albert’. The visuals of this live version are shaky but the sound is fine

It’s charming that Chris starts this virtuoso performance by parodying the stumbling steps of a novice setting out to follow the footsteps of a master. As you listen it’s clear that Chris Smither has now attained master status himself as he marries thumb, fingers and stamping foot to attain and maintain a grove, the Groove, which will win and hold the attention of the audience as the eternal tale of faithless love and its terrible consequences unwinds.

Chris Smither’s first instrument was the Ukelele and perhaps that goes some way to explain his fleet fingers and fluid touch as he plays the guitar. Add in his bedrock bass lines provided by a calloused thumb and the accents provided by his Italian loafers (thin soled, heavy heeled) stomping on a wooden board and you have a one man orchestra!

As, ‘Frankie’ progresses I hear a Super Chief locomotive speeding through the waving prairies sending light and sound streaming into our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

Chris Smither a fine songwriter himself with a wry, laconic style has throughout his career taken songs from his contemporaries and illuminated their depths through the scrupulous attention he brings to their strengths and a commitment to finding his own key to the heart of a song in his guitar style, choice of tempo and vocal tone.

Listen to him here take on one of Bob Dylan’s most extravagant masterpieces, ‘Desolation Row’ and make it his own with this gorgeously sardonic, rheumy eyed version.

Desolation Row might be described as a tour d’horizon of the madness of America in the mid 1960s or a glimpse into the head full of ideas surging through Bob Dylan’s brain at the time (lots of room for overlap there!) Chris Smither strips away the bravura of Bob’ s performance and sings the song like a long time resident on Desolation Row who knows Cinderella well, has suffered the nightsticks of the riot squad and is used to the sounds of the ambulances echoing in the night.

Chris Smither is a troubadour who lives his life on the road travelling light from town to town bringing a treasury of song in his knapsack. He’s a great live performer because he is able to surrender himself to the songs he plays trusting that all the hours of living with the material and his instrument will allow him to just play and let the work flow.

Watching Chris Smither play amounts to a seminar in the psychological concept of flow. The emotional heart of the songs he plays are channeled and directed, released in all their vibrant energy to touch his audience. Time seems to be suspended, speeded up or slowed down according to the demands of the song in hand. Meanwhile his hands, thumb and fingers go where they are meant to go, where they must go, without any seeming effort or glances in the mirror. The sorrow, the joy, the wisdom and the rapture locked in great songs are released to bloom in our imaginations.

Below, you’ll find yourself holding your breath as Chris suspends time as he performs Peter Case’s wonderful song, ‘Cold Trail Blues’.

I love the way Chris begins the song at the slowest possible ambulant tempo. The whole songs proceeds like a dream like serenade where the everyday rules of time no longer apply. The guitar lines and the vocal seems to be like smoke drifting into the sky towards a bright but cold and distant moon. The very act of playing the song seems to be a demonstration of that hope against hope that all hope is not lost. Perhaps, just perhaps, the chances of love and a life worth living again have not been absolutely left too far, too far behind.

Chris Smither has had his struggles with life. For much of the 1970s he was mired in alcoholism and is thus no stranger to the physical and emotional ditches by the side of the broad highway of life. Returning, chastened, to that highway he has written songs imbued with hard won, though never bitter wisdom. Many of his songs are honest, measured reports from the emotional battlefields we all visit from time to time. In, ‘Leave The Light On’ he hymns the lure of home as only a man who has spent half his lifetime absent from home can. The song offers reassurance that we can learn from the defeats and the self inflicted wounds of this bruising life and find a kind of blessed peace if we pay attention.

Perhaps this last song, Roly Salley’s ‘Killing The Blues’ most aptly demonstrates Chris Smither’s ability to play a song in its platonic perfection. This is surely one of those songs handed to its writer directly from the heavenly home of the songwriting muse. How else to explain a song so immediately a truthful discovery as well as a reminder of a truth we have all always known. There have been many fine version of this song song but none anywhere near Chris Smither here. The song in this performance flows sweetly and surely like an an ancient river to the endlessly welcoming sea.

Chris Smither casts spells and enchants us. One of the great tasks of a musician using rhythm, melody and line is to take us out of our everyday world and take us to a place, a still space, where we can realign our hearts and minds and find again our true direction. That’s a task Chris Smither has carried out with devotion and distinction.

Finally to show the measure of Chris Smither’s vocation as a musician here’s his answer to the question, ‘Do you remember learning (Mississippi John Hurt’s) Candyman?

‘I’m still learning it!’

Recommended Recordings:

There are enormous pleasures contained in every record Chris Smither has ever made. My personal favourites are:

‘Another Way to Find You’ (Live)
‘Live As I’ll Ever Be’ (Live!)
‘It Ain’t Easy’
‘Small Reservations’

There is an excellent tribute album to Chris, ‘Link Of Chain’ featuring Mary Gauthier and Dave Alvin among many other roots music luminaries.

Chris Smither is well represented on YouTube and I especially like the ‘Extended Play’ clip.

Louis Prima : Let’s Have A Party!!

You know him. We all know him. You know who I mean. The Guy. That Guy. You met him at school, at college, or you met him at work or at what in your glory days was your favourite bar. He might have been your uncle or your dad’s best buddy – call him Eddie or Tom or Mike. That guy – the walking, talking, laughing, crying, joking, catalytic, charismatic, party starting Guy! Yes, that Guy.

Might be years since you’ve seen him but you can still remember and spin the stories: ‘What about the time he … And would have got arrested if the cop hadn’t had him singing at his wedding!’

Well, Show Business and the music industry is heavily populated with those Guys – it comes with the territory of exposing yourself by getting up on stage for an audience to judge just how good you are or indeed if you’re any good at all.

And, of all those Guys, of all those Guys, the Guy who stands out for me as the most catalytic and charismatic; the most guaranteed to start the party you can never forget was Louis Prima. Let’s have a Party!

To start the party a recording from Louis’ great period with Capitol Records in the late 1950s when he produced a fountain of hits that had crowds jumping, jiving and wailing all across the world (but most especially in Las Vegas where he had legendary residencies at the Sahara and the Desert Inn).

Well, that has all the fun of the circus! Louis sells this operatic paean to love under the moon and stars of Naples with a mixture of genuine romanticism and sheer show biz pizazz. Often in Prima performances he seems to wind up like a baseball pitcher deciding, seemingly in the moment, whether to throw the fastball, the change up or the curve according to his own mood or the mood he senses coming across the footlights from the audience (and even in the studios Louis Prima always played to the audience).

The distinctive shuffle beat that is at the heart of Louis’ 50s sound is augmented by a wailing sax curtesy of bandleader and right and left hand man Sam Butera and by an assortment of hortatory foot stomps and handclaps. Now that I think of it Louis Prima may just be the most musically hortatory performer who ever lived!

I imagine that among the audience listening to this song will have been many former WW2 GIs who had indeed found love under the moon and stars of Naples. Some who brought brides home must have smiled at the memory of those Mediterranean nights and some who decided to return to the sweetheart waiting at home must have smiled more ruefully as they remembered the girl they left beside the beautiful Bay of Naples.

Louis Prima started out in New Orleans imbibing the spirit of Jazz in the cradle of the music. But, like so many others it was in the Big Apple in the mid/late 1930s that his career took off both as the dynamic live performer who could sell out theatres in both the white and the black communities and as a recording artist. It was in New York in 1936 that he wrote and recorded, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ which in the version by Benny Goodman would become an iconic Jazz standard.

Louis, notwithstanding Italy’s Axis status during WW2, continued to record and have hits with songs celebrating Italian-American life during the course of the war. ‘Angelina’ may well have introduced many rural Americans to terms like,’Pizzeria’ and ‘Pasta’. Few, however would have needed dictionaries to get the point of, ‘Please No Squeeze Da Banana’ or ‘Bacci Galupe (Made Love On The Stoop).

Post war Louis struggled to maintain a big band along with his stable of horses and alimony payments to a string of ex-wives. Key developments that would lead to his renaissance as a big league performer were his meeting with the 17 year old singer(and soon to be wife number 4) Keely Smith in 1948 (when Louis was 37) and his hiring of Sam Butera as band leader and arranger for his Vegas residencies and for his recordings with Capitol. Buttera, a fluent, no nonsense tenor sax player had a great instinct for songs and arrangements that would suit Louis Prima’s crowd pleasing genius.

It was Sam Butera who had the inspired idea to mash-up the songs, ‘Just A Gigolo’ and, ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ to create a matchless vehicle for Louis Prima’s overwhelming ebullience. The live version below features what can only be called a burlesque performance with Louis clowning and mugging like a solid-gone hep cat. The band and the sometimes bewildered Keely do their best to keep up and echo their leader as he plays with the song, them and the audience.

Louis could tone things down on record as you can hear in his and Keeley’s hit duet on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s evergreen romantic classic, ‘That Old Black Magic’ which won a Grammy Best Song in 1959. I still think you can insert an imaginary exclamation mark after every line sung by Louis but it does not to my mind distract from a fine recording which showcases a cool Keely vocal.

The late 50s and early 60s were golden days for Louis (despite splitting with Keeley in 1960) as he hit peak form as a live performer while recording several excellent sets for Capitol. He was, of course, hit by the tsunami of The Beatles appearance on the scene and it might have seemed that his days as an artist of note were numbered. Louis reacted by continuing as a considerable live draw and by setting up his own record label.

Then by one of those quirks of fate beyond all analysis Louis found himself right back in the spotlight with an enormous hit through the unlikeliest of collaborators – Walt Disney! Louis had recorded Mary Poppins and Robin Hood LPs and a Winnie The Pooh theme before he scored a great triumph with his movie stealing performance of the Sherman Brothers’, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ as the voice of the Orangutang, ‘King Louie’ in the film, ‘The Jungle Book’.

With the assistance of Phil Harris, voicing the character of Baloo the Bear, Louis lays down a classic performance that still stirs young and old some 50 years after it was recorded. I love the way the song builds slowly, beginning almost drowsily and the way Louis takes such care in enunciating the lyric.

I remember first hearing this song as an 11 year old at the cinema and being thrilled by the abandon of the characters to rhythm, to the beat! I also remember that even on the way out of the cinema some bright sparks had already memorised the song and gave stentorian performances with exaggerated simian antics to puzzled passers by going about their Saturday morning shopping. That defines an instant classic pretty well for me!

Louis Prima never gave up performing – how could he? It was oxygen and ambrosia for him. Louis died, after three years in a coma on 24 August 1978. He had lived a big-hearted, generous, big life. Louis packed an enormous amount of music and joy into his 67 years.

SING UP LOUIS! SING UP!

Louis Prima! Now that was some Guy!

Recommended Recordings:

‘The Wildest’ (Capitol 1958)

‘The Widest Comes Home!’ (Capitol 1962)

‘Lake Tahoe Prima Style’ (Live on Capitol 1962)

There is also a valuable film documentary, ‘The Wildest’ from 1999 which shows Louis in unstoppable full flow.

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Sam Cooke brings it on home! (Hors Categorie)

This week is School Half-Term in our part of the world. So there will be little time for blogging! Instead, there will be lots of cycling, lots of swimming, trips to see favourite aunts and visits from my extended family.

We are also going to be touring England’s West Country; gazing at the eternally mysterious ancient standing stone circle at Stonehenge, sampling the delights of the grandeur of Bath and idling through charming sleepy small towns and villages.

Following tradition my son Tom will be in charge of in car entertainment. So, lots of Louis Prima, Julie Andrews, Bobby Darin, Ruth Brown and now, top of his charts with a bullet – Meghan Trainor!

While I’m away I’ve cued up on The Immortal Jukebox an artist very dear to my heart – Sam Cooke (about whom I will write much more later!)


Sam was (is – greatness is always current) an artist of immense talent and cultural impact; a musical exemplar, a guiding spirit able to illuminate life’s arc of sorrows, joys and struggles with power, wit and grace. Sam Cooke resists all easy categorisation. Artists of this stature can’t be neatly filed in genre racks!

When I think about how to describe him I’m drawn to a term taken from the greatest of all cycling races – Le Tour de France. Anyone hoping to complete the race, let alone win it, has to be able to complete a series of lung wracking, muscle burning, mountain ascents seemingly designed to test the absolute limits of human endurance. Mountain stages receive, ‘Categorie’ ratings exquisitely calibrating the brutality of the challenge presented.

Categories of difficulty are assigned taking into account how far the riders have cycled before they begin to climb and the subsequent length and steepness of the ordeal to the summit. The, ‘easiest’ climbs are rated Categorie 4 and the most arduous Categorie 1. And then, then, there are some climbs, climbs like Alpe d’Huez with it’s terrifying 21 hair pin bends on the route to the summit at over 6000 feet involving gradients up to a near impossible 13% that merit the extraordinary term, ‘Hors Categorie’ – beyond category.

When I contemplate the stature of Sam Cooke I now use the term, ‘Hors Categorie’ as my own shorthand for those rare artists who rule imperiously over their own artistic realm. When you hear a characteristic performance by Sam Cooke the use of classifications like, ‘Soul’, ‘Gospel’, ‘Rhythm and Blues’, ‘Jazz’ and, ‘Pop’ becomes insignificant. Sam was a musical explorer; never intimidated by any map that might proscribe the limits of the world he might journey to and claim for himself and his audience. Artists of this stamp have the wherewithal and ambition to redraw all our maps.

Let’s start off with his electrifying, ‘Any Day Now’ when he was still a member of The Soul Stirrers.

This is singing that invites you to share in a transcendent experience. An experience that can’t really be described in prose but which might be just glimpsed through the medium of a poem or here via a song taking us to a place we’ve never known yet still somehow recognise.

Sam’s vocal here glides through the song like a raptor effortlessly riding the air currents – now ascending, now swooping down, now wheeling for the sheer life-affirming thrill of it! Sam Cooke sang, at all emotional temperatures, with an ease and elegant poise that is genuinely awe-some, in it’s proper sense. I’m listening to this performance on the feast of Pentecost – who can doubt that tongues of fire can descend on human heads when you listen to Sam Cooke sing, ‘Any Day Now’!

Now let’s hear Sam taking the church-wrecking skills displayed above into another dimension as he ignites the Harlem Square Club in 1963 with an out of the ball park grand slam performance of his own, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.

This is a man entirely at home on stage, entirely at home with the audience surrounding him; the audience he can seduce, thrill and command with regal authority. He’s not exaggerating when he sings, ‘Everybody’s with me tonight!’

Sam Cooke seems to live inside rhythm; pushing or lagging the beat in time with the demands of his and our own beating hearts. Crescendo after crescendo rains down on us until we are intoxicated, elated, finally enraptured. Very few singers have genuinely had the gift of opening up the gates to rapture and bringing it on home as Sam could.

When I hear Sam Cooke sing time after time I hear myself saying, ‘Now, That’s How You Sing!’

Blood On The Tracks – Bryan Ferry’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’

‘Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row’

(Bob Dylan)

‘He had made his choice, chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it. Wanting above all to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved. So it had been. So it would ever be … ‘

(Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Tender Is The Night’)

‘Can’t let go, There’s a madness in my soul tonight, Can’t let go…’

(Bryan Ferry, ‘Can’t Let Go’)

In 1978 Bryan Ferry experienced something new in his, until then, wholly successful and glittering career – failure. His fifth, and to my mind by far his best solo record, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ an adult work drenched in passion, paranoia and desperate desire emerged at the height of the punk era in the UK and was (apart from a few critics and Ferry fanatics like me) roundly ignored. I guess you just can’t fight the Zeitgeist.

Up until that point Bryan Ferry, particularly as the principal songwriter and focal point of Roxy Music, had been a virtual ringmaster of the Zeitgeist. Roxy Music had materialised in public consciousness in 1972 with their staggeringly accomplished debut single, ‘Virginia Plain’. They didn’t look or sound like anyone else – an extraordinary feat in the modern pop era.

It seemed as if they had arrived as uber-glamorous spacemen, at warp factor 8, from an exoplanet in a distant galaxy where a particularly brilliant museum curator had created a group which would simultaneously celebrate and guy the whole postmodern project in music, fashion and the fine arts and do so with thrilling musical and intellectual confidence. And, they made records which were undeniably brilliant works of pop ephemera, huge hits!, as well as being carefully crafted art projects.

Bryan Ferry was after all a fine arts graduate who had been a star pupil of Pop Art maestro Richard Hamilton as well as someone who loved the suave look of Cary Grant alongside his reverence for the deep soul sounds of Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. The first three Roxy Music albums, ‘Roxy Music’, ‘For Your Pleasure’ and, ‘Stranded’ remain peaks of artistic creativity in popular music – endlessly replayable as they give up layer after layer of meaning and pleasure.

Roxy Music, initially a dizzyingly collaborative entity drawing on the disparate talents and influences of Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson became very much Bryan Ferry’s band after the departure of Eno before, ‘Stranded’ was recorded. The next two records, ‘Country Life’ and ‘Siren’ though excellent by anyone else’s standards represented a falling off in ambition and intensity of vision for Roxy Music.

Bryan Ferry had also commenced a solo career with a series of records which showcased his distinctive take on pop history as he intriguingly covered artists as varied as Lesley Gore and Bob Dylan. These records acknowledging the treasures in the Great American Songbook as well as the products of the Brill Building were highly enjoyable exercises in style with a capital S.

But, from the evidence of, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ sometime in 1976/1977, events in Bryan Ferry’s personal and artistic life (which I choose not to speculate on) pushed him to to write a series of songs , frequently self-lacerating, which displayed, once recorded, a ferocious, hitherto unknown (and never to be repeated) emotional and vocal intensity.

He also chose to cover songs from Lou Reed, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Al Green and J J Cale which along with his lovely, infinitely weary and regretful version of the Irish ballad, ‘Carrickfergus’ (see below) constitute what can only be described as the biography of a heart and soul in torment. The whole record can feel like the last semaphored SOS of someone who has hit bottom and can’t yet see a way out.

There is something like terminal despair in the unanswered question posed at the end of, ‘What Goes On’ – how does it feel to be loved? How could that be the situation of someone who in, ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ knows no depths to the love he is prepared to give, ‘Any kind of love you want, I would get for you.’ Of course, sadly the truth sometimes dawns that love no matter how strong is sometimes denied, abused and rejected. Being loved does not always flow from loving.

A martial, crack of doom, drumbeat kicks off ‘Sign of the Times’ the opening track on, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ and immediately we are cast into a maelstrom of sound with Bryan Ferry raging like some urban Lear as he contemplates the bloody signs of the times with the leathered and lipsticked struggling chained and bound as they wait (welcoming?) for the hard lines to come down.

In the midst of the madness, in a world where we don’t know why we laugh or cry, why we live and die, he still wants to wreathe a rainbow in someone’s hair as a contrasting, perhaps countervailing, sign of the times. The song may have been written as ironic commentary on the times but the performance is anything but ironic or distanced.

Throughout this song and the whole record the studio veteran musicians, often derided as session mercenaries, seem to these ears to play, in response to their leader’s example, as if their lives depended on leaving no realm of emotion unvisited (not excluding emotional enervation and paralysis: the song, ‘When She Walks in the Room’ seems to drift in the ether like some weightless narcotic smoke ring of loss.)

The centrepiece of the album for me is, ‘Cant Let Go’ which I consider the greatest performance of Bryan Ferry’s career and one of the greatest performances by anybody in the rock era. ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a wide screen journey into a landscape offering no hope of redemption. The song is a postmodern epic (Ferry has always had a filmic imagination) echoing the Hollywood creeping insanity of Hitchcock’s, ‘Vertigo’ and the repellant allure of Wilder’s, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ while prefiguring the desperate hall of mirrors madness of David Lynch’s, ‘Mulholland Drive’.

The song follows and incarnates the nightmare situation of a man, a man who knows there is no waking up from this nightmare. A man who is a self-aware exile from the havens of love and home. Some disaster expelled him from home; a love gone horribly wrong has propelled him left him West to the land where pain (so they say) might be avoided.

Once there, he finds that a life without pain can only be found in the grave – a grave he finds himself not yet ready to occupy. He goes on as a man who finds that it doesn’t matter where he drives because all directions end up being the same. The driving is important as the whole song seems to take place inside the tormented mind of someone looking through the rain spattered windscreen of a car speeding nowhere fast in endless loops.

Bryan Ferry’s superlative singing on this song seems dragged from the depths of his being and worthy, in its commitment, of the Stax soul masters he had hitchhiked to see in London when he was a student. His voice here has wonderful presence, power and a desperate nuanced elegance which survives even as he is about to be overwhelmed by the terrible storm. The terrible storm which remains one car wheel behind, one car wheel away from overtaking him, one car wheel away from destroying him. Rain streams down as his soul fights a battle between the consolations of finally feeling no pain and the not yet buried desire to live again.

Wasted and cold, exhausted from a hundred sleepless nights, he has to try to hold on, to hang on by his fingertips or else he will be lost forever and the madness in his soul will take full and permanent possession of his life. Afraid in the dark, there is no relief in celebrity, now he is only a face in the crowd, one more anonymous face, endlessly circling the purgatorial freeways.

The music enveloping Bryan Ferry as he fights his life and death battle has a wonderful sense of the movement between control and loss of control. The musicians accelerate and decelerate, rising and falling with the increasingly desperate situation of the singer. Waddy Watchtel on lead guitar, urged on by the string arrangement, sends shining sad spirals of sound echoing into the seemingly endless dark of the night.

As the song reaches its resolution you are left wondering whether this represents the car being driven off the road into the canyon or rather a hard stop allowing, after a deep shuddering breath for life, one more chance to begin again.

Perhaps the repeated final anguished cries of, ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a wounded acknowledgement that to be able to feel the need not to let go is proof that some strands of a man who might still find the will to hope, might yet wish to live, survives.

Perhaps that’s the spirit animating the elegiac version of, ‘Carrickfergus’ I leave you with now.

I will close, as I began, with a Bob Dylan quote, which seems particularly apposite to my take on, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare':

‘Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?’

Notes:

Though I think that, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ is by far the best record of Bryan Ferry’s career it is heartening that a recent project, ‘The Jazz Age’ featuring 1920s style recreations of songs from the Roxy era was a triumphant success on record – as were the concerts that followed.

I also have enormous affection for his album of Bob Dylan songs, ‘Dylanesque’.

Bruce Springsteen & Manfred Mann : Pretty Flamingo!

‘In quella parte del libro de la mia memoria dinanzi a la quale poco is potrebbe leggere, si trova ina rubrica la quale dice: Incipit Vita Nova …….

In that first book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life.’

(Dante from Vita Nuovo)

‘Yonder comes my lady, rainbow ribbons in her hair …. Nobody, no, no, no, nobody stops me from loving you baby … And you were standing there in all your revelation! It’s too late to stop now!’

(Van Morrison, ‘Cyprus Avenue’)

‘Some sweet day I’ll make her mine, pretty flamingo
Then every guy will envy me
‘Cause paradise is where I’ll be
Pretty flamingo, pretty flamingo.’

(Mark Barkan)

There really are moments when the course of your life is irrevocably altered. Moments when your history, your story, becomes divided into Before and After. After such a defining moment you look at and experience the world around you as if it were an entirely fresh landscape glistening with new possibility. Epiphanies are lightning strikes to the dormant consciousness; quickening barely acknowledged dreams into blood pumping, temperature raising life.

And, so often they occur without warning. One moment you’re a regular fellow shooting the breeze with the guys on the corner of the block and the next, the next, you’re a hopeless, helpless fool prepared to mortgage your entire future for this girl, no , The Girl … If you just could – if she just would, if she just would, if she just would!

And, this can happen at any stage of your life. It might happen, as it did, for the 9 year old Dante Aligheri on first glimpsing the divine vision of the crimson robed 8 year Beatrice Portinari in a Florentine Palazzo. It might happen, as it did, for the teenaged Van Morrison obsessively haunting the tree lined avenue, so close and yet so far from his working class East Belfast home, as a rainbow-ribboned vision of beauty came into view.

It might happen, as it did for me, at 40 plus, in a worthy seminar about third world debt – suddenly realising that the woman I had just met was without any shadow of doubt the woman I must captivate because she was the woman I was going to marry, the woman I HAD to marry .. If I just could, if she just would.

Mark Barkan, a jobbing Brill Building style songwriter, in early 1966 through some divine inspiration came up with a perfect pop song, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ which captures, as few pop songs have ever done, that moment of abandonment to the dream of finding the love of your life. The lovely image of the crimson coloured Flamingo, simultaneously familiar and exotic, brilliantly captures the sensual glamour of the beauty who, simply walking by, turns an ordinary day into a never to be forgotten one.

The original and in some senses definitive version of the song was by the Manfred Mann group who took it all the way to Number 1 in the UK in May 1966. It went on quickly to become an anthemic world wide hit.

This is a very 1960s beat group record brim full with youthful energy and vigour. The brash guitar is loud and upfront as the song starts and remains powerful as it beats on throughout; perhaps portraying the rib pounding rhythm of the protagonist’s heart as he comes to terms with his new, captive, situation. The background wash of keyboards and the lovely woodwinds point to the escalating wonder and desire for one who seems so out of reach and out of sight. You can almost feel the sigh as she walks by with that crimson dress that clings so tight.

Vocalist, Paul Jones, manages to capture the wonder and the longing of the situation as well as the bewilderment. I love the, ‘Huh!’ he inserts as he contemplates whether he really could and whether she really would!

This incarnation of the Manfred Mann group had Manfred providing jazz chops on the Hammond Organ, Mike Hugg on drums, Jack Bruce (only very briefly a member) on bass and Tom McGuiness on guitar. I’m assuming that the gorgeous flute work was provided Mike Vickers who had only recently ceased to be in the band.

The group had become a strong musical outfit through intensive gigging from from the very early 1960s. They combined musicianly multi-instrumental prowess and a love of jazz, R&B and Soul music with a flair for picking top quality songs from the emerging titans of the American songwriting scene (Carol King, Greenwhich/Barry and the peerless Bob Dylan).

I think you can hear their musical togetherness and attack in, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ reflecting their joy in music making and the thousands of road miles they had travelled together. Their version of, ‘Pretty Flamngo’ should always be in any representative collection of the finest 1960s pop.

A song and a record like, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ was certain to light a flame in heart of would be tough but tender songwriters the world over. So it is no surprise that the 16 year old Bruce Springsteen, listening to his radio in Freehold, New Jersey should have been bowled over by the song and kept it bright in his memory in the ensuing decades as he progressed from a tyro writer and performer to a global superstar.

I would hazard a guess that along with the operatic arias of Roy Orbison the echo of the yearning of, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ was somewhere in the creative mix in Bruce’s mind as he wrote ‘Thunder Road’one of his indisputably classic songs.

The magnificent opening of that song with the vision of Mary’s dress waving as she dances across the porch recalls for me the sashay of the Flamingo as she brightened up the neighbourhood and constricted the throats of every guy who wished she would let him be the Guy, not just one of the guys. The Guy who had made her his!

Listen to Bruce’s live version of Flamingo from 2014. He performs the song solo, virtually acapella, and introduces the song with a meditation outlining how the song tells a story, a primal story, that’s always true and current. For men as long as they breathe will fall in love with a girl, the Girl, as she passes by your porch.

He muses, sotto voce, as he begins to play the song that, ‘You’re always…. ‘. I think we can take it that by this he means that we are all always hoping that this time, today, will be the moment when could and would miraculously coincide so that together you take up residence in the longed for paradise.

Bruce, the mature twenty-first century Bruce, performs Flamingo with a wry romanticism that includes real erotic charge as well as an almost elegiac plangecy. It may be that has something to do with Bruce’s inevitable recognition that his days as one of the guys on the corner of the block are long past – no matter how fondly remembered. The consolations of such a realisation are however beautifully captured as Bruce’s own flamed haired beauty, his wife Patti Scialfa, joins him duetting at the microphone.

Sometimes all your dreams of the sweet day when you make the Girl, the fabled Flamingo, your very own turns out to be more than a daydream. It turns out to be what you were living for before you knew what you were living for.

Notes:

As the ornithologists among you will know the name Flamingo derives from the Iberian, ‘Flamengo’ (with the colour of flame) is a highly distinctive wading bird prone, eccentrically, to standing on one leg. The Flamingo, which can vary in colour from light pink to Dantesque Crimson, is in the genus Phoenicopterus from the family Phoenicopteridae. Don’t you just love the Greek language and Taxonomy!

Manfred Mann:


Their 60s output is a cornucopia of delights and you will be amazed at how many of their songs are already in your own mental jukebox (take just, ‘The Mighty Quinn’, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’ and,’ 5-4-3-2-1′ for starters!)

The succeeding Chapter 3 and Earth Band have intriguing catalogues with regular forays into the Dylan and Springsteen catalogues as well as radio classics such as, ‘Joybringer’ and, ‘Davy’s on the road again’.

More Flamingos!

As a pop classic Flamingo has been covered innumerable times. The versions I recommend are:

The Everly Brothers – an ineffably tender rendition from their 1966, ‘Two Yanks in England’ record.

Elvis Costello – a rave-up version (powered by excellent drumming) where Elvis turns spa like Montreux into a sweaty simulacrum of 60s beat dives like Liverpool’s The Cavern or London’s The Marquee. He is joined by the brilliant songwriting team from Squeeze Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook along with his own mentor Nick Lowe. Their obvious collective pleasure, as hardened songwriting professionals, in playing such a glorious pop confection is a joy to behold.

Paul Weller – has recorded Flamingo acoustically and also performed a tremendously rousing live version where he shows how acute his ear for the merits of the 60s pop song has been since his emergence from the punk pack.