Chuck Berry’s “And” and ‘n’

“Chuck Berry may very well become the artist society selects when rock music is retroactively reconsidered by the grandchildren of your grandchildren.” – Chuck Klosterman

Yup.

Harrison, my 22-year old son, is fascinated by the concept of heaven. Whenever the word comes up in conversation, he will invariably start listing off the people, cats, and dogs (You have no idea just how many dogs have walked the Hyde campus!) he has known in his life who now reside there. Now there’s a new name on his list: Chuck Berry.

Harrison is also fascinated with certain musicians. (Not sure where that comes from…) He probably listens to Abbey Road daily and he never tires of NRBQ, Steely Dan, or… Chuck Berry. The thing is, as a young man with autism, he has no understanding of the place that any of these musicians hold in the often pretentious canon of popular music. He just knows what he likes. He’s not alone.

Rock ‘n’ roll began at the intersection of the style of Elvis Presley and the substance of Chuck Berry. As John Pareles wrote in yesterday’s (3/19/17) New York Times, “While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.”


I mean, among the early pioneers, who else is in the running? As great as “Rock Around the Clock” is, can you name any other songs by Bill Haley & The Comets? And as for Jerry Lee Lewis, his own mother once said to him, “Now you and Elvis are pretty good, but you ain’t no Chuck Berry.” Far be it from me to take anything away from Little Richard or Bo Diddley, but there’s a reason that “Johnny B. Goode” was selected for inclusion on the Golden Voyager Record launched in 1997 and currently the farthest human made object from earth. Those folks knew what they were doing when they decided, Well, if there is intelligent life out there in space, they really need to hear this song.

Sure, rock ‘n’ roll is a derivative genre with all sorts of influences that came before, but ever since rock ‘n’ roll became what we in today’s world call a “thing,” musicians have been searching for their place on the intersection of Chuck and Elvis.

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan all know that they did not create said intersection:

  • John Lennon himself famously said, “If they gave rock ‘n’ roll another name, they might call it Chuck Berry.”
  • Dylan called Berry “The Shakespeare of Rock.”
  • And just what was it that caused the teenaged Keith to spark up a conversation with Mick on that Dartford train platform? Why, it was the item tucked under Mick’s arm: a copy of Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops (1960). And what was the Stones’ very first release? A cover of Berry’s “Come On.” (Note: You gotta give it up for the Stones’ Berry covers – e.g., “Carol”and “Little Queenie” – they’re consistently compelling.)

And the generation following those three know the same:

  • “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ’n’ roll writer who ever lived.” — Bruce Springsteen
  • “If you want to play rock ‘n’ roll or any upbeat number… you end up playing like Chuck.” – Eric Clapton
  • “When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock ‘n’ roll, if you want to play rock ‘n’ roll, you have to start there.” – Joe Perry, Aerosmith
  • “The idea of intelligent rock ‘n’ roll probably starts with Chuck Berry.” – Donald Fagen, Steely Dan

While it’s hard to pinpoint his magic, I think it is somehow tied to the “and” and ‘n.’ It’s those instantly recognizable infectious guitar licks and those straight to the heart lyrics. And it’s those two ingredients – those licks and those lyrics – coming at you at the same time, coming at you all at once.

Talking about the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, Keith Richards once said, “Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.” Perhaps Chuck Berry’s genius is the simple fact that while others were trying to decide between the rock and the roll, he staked out the ‘n’ all for himself. (With no small amount of swagger.)

Neither Harrison nor I know for sure. We only know that we’re Chuck Berry lifers. And as long as we “got a dime, the music will never stop.”

Onward, Malcolm Gauld

Read: Testimony by Robbie Robertson

testimony-robbie-2

The Band is my favorite musical group of all time. (NRBQ is probably second.)  My favorite sports team of all time would be the Boston Celtics teams of the 60s and 80s.  To me, the Band is to team music what the Celtics are to team ball.  If you’re not into sports… I recall a music critic who maintained something along the lines of: They’re the only band where the rhythm section is actually the lead.  Maybe that says the same thing.

testimony-band

Only diehard fans can name all five members. Many casual fans might not know any of the names.  While Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm would likely be considered the leaders, the ensemble made a clear break from the conventional lead singer/guitar axis exemplified in such duos as Jagger/Richards (Stones), Daltry/Townsend (Who), Plant/Page (Zeppelin), Tyler/Perry (Aerosmith) and so on.  Four of the five sang and the vocally silent odd man out, the classically trained Garth Hudson, was probably the most accomplished and versatile musician of the bunch.

testimony-dylan
They began in the late 50s as road warriors — Robbie was only 16 — with Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks.  They earned their chops in the wayward bars and clubs of Canada and the U.S. Although often lumped in with the roots/Americana music category, only one – Arkansan Levon Helm – grew up in the U.S. The others were born and raised in Canada.  Their first taste of big success came when they secured their place in rock history as the musicians backing Bob Dylan when he (in)famously “went electric.” Their landmark debut, Music from Big Pink (#34 on Rolling Stones Top 500 Albums list), was released in 1968. Islands, their last studio album came out less than a decade later.  In order to understand and appreciate what went on in between, treat yourself to a viewing of The Last Waltz, the 1978 film (Fun fact: Martin Scorsese, director) about their last concert.  The guest list of performers says it all.
testimony-waltz

Robertson’s fascinating book doesn’t even get to the Band years until past its halfway point. Born to a mother of Mohawk/Iroquois roots and a Jewish father, he took to music immediately and came to personify my working definition of a musician: Any individual who can’t not play music.  His childhood drive toward mastery is striking and his stories of the people he bumped into on the way up are beyond fascinating.  In addition to Dylan, a short list would include: Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Brian Jones, Van Morrison, Tiny Tim, Todd Rundgren, Allen Ginsburg, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, all 4 Beatles, Jimmy James (AKA Jimi Hendrix), Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and on and on.

Like many high powered musical groups, there was conflict. Drug problems on the part of some members undoubtedly had the dual effect of shortening their time together and detracting from their later recording and performing outputs. The brotherly relationship between Helm and Robertson ended so acrimoniously that the two barely spoke over the 3+ post-Last Waltz decades.  (Robertson reportedly paid Helm a visit on the latter’s death bed.)

Three of the five are deceased. Only Robertson and Hudson survive. The tortured Richard Manuel hanged himself in a Florida hotel room during an attempted minus-Robertson mid-80s comeback. (To hear and appreciate Manuel’s vocals, give a listen to “She Knows,” one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever recorded.  Then, if you like that, check out his take on “Georgia On My Mind.”)  Helm and Rick Danko succumbed to illnesses.  (Check out: Helms on (my favorite band song) “Ophelia” and Danko on “It Makes No Difference.”)

testimony-robbie

Robertson steers clear of any effort to try to analyze the antagonistic interpersonal dynamics at work near the end. He could rightfully feel that these matters are well covered in two 1993 books: Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire; Barry Hoskyn’s Across the Great Divide.  In any case, he ends his book at The Last Waltz concert, arguably the group’s crowning glory.  If you give the film a look, you’ll probably see (and hear!) why.

Onward, Malcolm

The Admissions (& Other Books)

Read some good books over the March break.

admissions blue

First up, I inhaled Doug Kennedy’s The Blue Hour.  Doug is a college classmate who has garnered international respect.  (I do not mean to imply a causal connection.)  In fact, in 2007 he was awarded the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.  He also knows how to tell a captivating story. This suspenseful novel takes place in Morocco and like all of Doug’s books, is hard to put down.

admissions swans

Next came Melanie Benjamin’s (author of The Aviator’s Wife) novel The Swans of 5th Avenue. A work of historical “faction” set in mid-20th century high-society Manhattan, it focuses on the relationship between author Truman Capote and his “Swans,” a clique of high profile socialites that includes the likes of Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, and Pamela Churchill.  Interesting.

admissions pink

The third book, by John Niven, came from the awesome Continuum 33-1/3 series of small (4.5” by 6.5”) and short (100+- pages) books about classic music albums. Music from Big Pink, also a work of faction, is the 28th installment in the series of 100+- titles.  It cleverly enlightens on both the ground-breaking album and its creator, The Band.  Both are at the tip-top of my all-time favorites.  As evidence of my obsession, here is a photo I took of the Big Pink house in the Catskills a few summers ago.

Big Pink
And this brings us to Meg Mitchell Moore’s new novel, The Admissions. A few pages in, I gathered that it was about a high-achieving suburban San Francisco teenaged girl’s obsession to gain admission to Harvard.  I initially thought that I might recommend it to Hyde’s college counseling folks.

admissions cover

Then as the pages clicked by on my iPad, I began to see how the actions and attitudes of this girl’s parents and two sisters might be of particular interest to our Family Education department.

Before long, I began to perceive it as a good book for any Hyde person.

Finally, it became clear that this is a great book for any… person, especially any man, woman, or child striving in earnest to balance the drive for high expectations with a respect for serenity and virtue within a family setting.

The opening line in the Amazon review sums it up pretty well: “The Admissions brilliantly captures the frazzled pressure cooker of modern life as a seemingly perfect family comes undone by a few desperate measures, long-buried secret — and college applications!”

You’ve got:
–          The valedictorian pursuing the holy grail of the Ivy League;
–          The second-grader way behind her peers on reading level;
–          The free-and-easy middle child turning locked down and distressed;
–          The accomplished consultant dad, with a few secrets of his own, who makes the whole suburban Marin County lifestyle possible;
–          The do-it-all mom who alternates between fast-track real estate sales and keeping the whole household together.

Throughout the book, I kept trying to figure out the title.  I’m still not sure, but it ultimately dawned on me that its meaning simply can’t be limited to “admissions” in the college sense. I suspect that it also refers to the inevitable sporadic admissions of truth and guilt that surface in the book’s most heated moments.  Indeed, they create its most heated moments.  (Full Disclosure: That’s the way it often goes down at our house!)

In any case, the closing line of the Amazon review is a good way to leave it: “Sharp, topical, and wildly entertaining, The Admissions shows that if you pull at a loose thread, even the sturdiest lives start to unravel at the seams of high achievement.”

Read this book.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld

Glen Frey, RIP Playlist

Even though he didn’t sing lead on it, I haven’t been able to get “Pretty Maids All in a Row” out of my head since learning of Glenn Frey’s passing. Whatever the reason, I loved their ballads best.  (Maybe it was just me, but it always seemed that they were trying too hard on the rockers.)

Anyway, here’s a Top 10 Eagles playlist.

Eagles Desperado

Off Desperado (1973)
1. “Saturday Night” – “Whatever happened to Saturday night?”

Eagles Border

Off On the Border (1974)
2. “Ol’ 55” – Once after playing this Tom Waits cover during a live show, Frey said to the audience, “We heard Tom didn’t like our version of his song. And then… he got the check.”… “The sun’s coming up, I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck.”

Eagles One Nights

Off One of These Nights (1975)
3. “Lyin’ Eyes”… “City girls just seem to find out early, how to open doors with just a smile.”  (I read that Frey was such a perfectionist that he took two full days in the studio before he was satisfied with his pronunciation of just the opening word: “City.”)

4. “Hollywood Waltz”… “Southern California will see one more day.”

Eagles Hotel Cal

Off Hotel California (1976)
5. “Pretty Maids All in a Row”… Don and Glenn cede the vocal mic over to Joe Walsh: “Hey, there, how are ya?”… The harmonies are positively Beach Boys-esque.

6. “New Kid in Town”… “They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes around.” Again, those harmonies!

7. “Wasted Time”… “You’re afraid it’s all been wasted time.”

8. “The Last Resort”… Their ode to the environment…. “She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island.”

Eagles Long Run

Off The Long Run (1979)
9. “The Sad Cafe”… Push come to shove: My favorite Eagles song… “We thought we could save this world with words like ‘love’ and ‘freedom.’ We were part of the lonely crowd inside the Sad Cafe.”… David Sanborn’s concluding sax solo is outstanding!

Eagles Christmas

Off the Christmas “album” (1978)

10. “Please Come Home for Christmas” (1978). Although you wouldn’t exactly call it a carol, it’s one of my favorite songs of the holiday season.

In conclusion, I won’t try to improve upon the words of Frey’s band mate Don Henley: “Rest in peace, my brother. You did what you set out to do, and then some.”

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld

2nd Annual Mallys!!!

mally 5

For the second consecutive year, I perused the various “Best Of” lists in the magazines and on the web only to find none of the 2015 songs that I really liked. I’m not saying that they’re not good songs, only that they’re not the ones I downloaded as “keepers” on my music streaming site of choice.  (If you’re thinking, He must be living in an alternate universe, know that my kids would say you’re not alone.) If those are the songs you prefer, watch the Grammys.  If not, you’re in luck, because you’ve got… drum roll… The 2nd Annual Mallys!!!

Hey, I’m no music critic.  I’m just a music liker. If I like something, I download it.  Here are 15 2015 songs I liked (in no particular order).

mally 2

1.  “Little Queenie” by Kentucky Headhunters w/Johnnie Johnson. Off Meet Me in Bluesland.  I love the Headhunters. I also love the way they hooked up with the underappreciated Johnnie Johnson two years before his 2005 death to cut this album.  (Q: Who was he?  Hmmm… Where to start?  Well, not only was he Chuck Berry’s legendary piano player, the song “Johnny B. Goode” is about him!  His 1992 Johnny B. Bad is one of my all-time fave albums.)  “Meanwhile, I been thinkin’…”

2. “Waitin” by The Banditos.  Off Banditos, this Nashville band’s debut album on Bloodshot records. (They just sound like a band that ought to record for a label named Bloodshot Records.)  I note that this song did, in fact, make it on to NPR Radio’s “Best of 2015” list.  It’s a good’un!  “And I say, oh daddy, I’m in trouble now that you’re gone.”

3.  “Cost of Living” by Don Henley w/Merle Haggard. Off Cass County.  The Eagle has re-landed… and he has brought his twang.  A strong return to form.  “It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.”

4. “Acadian Driftwood” by Shawn Colvin. Off Uncovered (2015). While she gives great cover to many artists, she wins my heart because she “gets” The Band.  (e.g., Her version of “Twilight” on 1994’s Cover Girl adds to the original.)  “Been out ice-fishin’… too much repetition.”

mally 1

5. “Beautiful Life” by Judith Hill. Off Back in Time.  Keep an eye on this gal.  Although she had recorded with Michael Jackson and received high marks on The Voice, this debut album is the start of big things.  “And tip your hat to the haters, who try to tear you apart.”

6. “Good Night Irene” by Keith Richards. Off Cross-eyed Heart.  I mean, isn’t it high time we all started thinking about what kind of world we’re going to leave behind for Keith Richards? Not only does time appear to be on his side, it seems to wait for him. (Sorry, diehard Stones fans.)  Anyway… “Sometimes I have a great notion…”

7. “Flesh & Bone” by Buddy Guy (w/Van Morrison). Off Born to Play Guitar.  With Buddy backing him on guitar, I’d listen to Van the Man sing the phone book. This duet dedicated to B.B. King is extra special. “We’ll meet again some sweet day, Far beyond this world in pain.”

8. “Sedona” by Houndmouth.  Off Little Neon Limelight.  Weird name, but very tight band. Infectious song.  “John Ford said, ‘won’t you hop on into the stagecoach baby’…”

9. “All Your Favorite Bands” by Dawes. Off All Your Favorite Bands.  Some say these guys were born 40 years too late.  I don’t know about that, but they would have fit right in with the likes of Jackson Brown, The Band, CSNY, Joni Mitchell.  If you’ve ever longed for your favorite dis-banded band to re-unite, this track’s for you.  “And may all your favorite bands stay together.”

10. “November Tale” by The Waterboys. Off Modern Blues.  These guys have never gotten the acclaim and respect they deserve.  Let’s hear it for all those bands that just keep on keepin’ on.  “If you’re problem is long-standing, why don’t you try kneeling?”

11. “How Can a Poor Boy…?” by Van Morrison w/Taj Mahal. Off Duets: Reworking the Catalogue. Van gets two name checks in this year’s Mally’s!  Great to hear again from Taj!  “…ever get thru to you?”

mally 3

12.  “Elevator Operator” by Courtney Barnett.  Off Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.  Such a powerful debut! I can’t shake this idea in my head: If Bob Dylan grew up a half-century later, but as a girl in Australia starting out with a Fender (instead of a folk acoustic guitar), he might have been Courtney Barnett.  Here’s why: “Breakfast on the run again, he’s well aware; He’s dropping soy linseed Vegemite crumbs everywhere.”

13.  “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” by Modest Mouse. Off Strangers to Ourselves.  Ben Burlock ’13 – R.I.P. – unknowingly turned me on to these guys.  I’m pretty sure he’d like this track.  Unique and compelling sound.  “It’s a watercolor weekend.”

14.  “The Usual Time” by Steve Earle & The Dukes.  Off Terraplane.  The Last of the Hardcore Troubadours plays the blues!  “Here I come, baby, it’s the usual time of the night.”

15.  “Autumn Leaves” by Bob Dylan. Off Shadows in the Night (2015). Hey, it’s Frank’s World… Bob just sings in it. “But I miss you most of all, My darling, When autumn leaves start to fall.”

BONUS – “Little Queenie” by Rolling Stones. Off Sticky Fingers, Super Deluxe Re-Release.  In Chuck we Trust.  Although this was actually recorded over 40 years ago, nobody covers Chuck like Mick and the boys.  “Meanwhile, I was stiiiiillllll thinkin’…”

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld