Wednesday, June 08, 2022

1 + 4 - 2 = The Rolling Stones

 

This year, 2022, is the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Rolling Stones. I find that just a little bit scary. In honor of this mildly frightening fact, I've decided to make some recommendations regarding what I consider their best – and worst – albums.

Just know going in that this reflects my personal preferences. Really, I hate lists. Every best/worst-of list I've ever read, I've had strong disagreements with; especially when it comes to music. Plus, I have to admit, the Stones are not my favorite band. They might not even be in my personal top ten.

That said, I like an awful lot of bands. Bands, solo acts, writers, composers, whatever. I really, really like music. I'm sure that if I were to sit down and come up with a particular order of all the musical performers/writers that I like, the 100th name on the list would be really good. I'd probably look at that name and think, shoot, they should be 57th, ahead of somebody else I really like.

So without further ado, and with no commitment as to who I like better, here are my suggestions for the uninitiated person seeking to know where to start. Because, let's face it, any group long held up as “The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World” is certainly worthy of consideration.

The 1

Okay, let's start with a premise; you don't know squat about the Rolling Stones. If you've read this far, you probably do and might even be seeking an excuse to cut me off at the knees, because I've already blasphemed them. Work with me here, wouldja? Please, for the sake of argument, accept my premise and put yourself in the shoes of someone who don't know squat about the Stones.

I, your humble friend, a person with a little knowledge of rock music, would like to recommend one album by which you can make an educated judgment about this important, significant group in the history of rock. If you get, and listen to, this album, you'll have a good idea of who I'm talking about here.

Hot Rocks 1964-1971

In sixty (60) years, the Stones have put out 26 studio albums, 34 live albums, and 29 compilation albums. Think about that for a moment. Twenty-nine best-of collections, from twenty-six studio albums. It makes sense to start with a best-of greatest-hits type collection. Of those 29, this is the one I recommend, above and instead of all the others.

Let's us Stones fans be honest for a moment; their first 10 or 12 years were their best. Yeah, they keep recording and touring, but do you know how many of those 26 studio albums were recorded and released between 1964 and 1974? Fourteen. Over half.

They started in '62, released their first LP in '64, their most recent (Blue & Lonesome) came out in 2016, and as I write this they're prepping for yet another tour. But in the forty-eight years, the almost half a century, following the release of “It's Only Rock & Roll” in 1974, they've done 12 studio albums. And some of them contain recordings left over from those first ten years. 2.2 albums a decade, and the lions share of those in the '70's.

If you decide you like the Stones, go ahead and get those later albums. If you become a rabid fan, you'll probably like them. If you're really nuts about the Stones, you'll soon have your own ideas of where they fit in their long, long history.

Now, two of those 14 early albums are US-only releases, because albums released in the UK in the sixties had more songs on them. Like the Beatles, songs left off the US releases got patched together into separate albums. Some say that's a good thing because of the way vinyl records are made. To get more songs on a vinyl LP, you have to make the grooves closer together. To do that, you have to roll off a lot of the bass, because bass makes the grooves thicker. So, it's often argued that the US releases of the early Beatles and Stones LPs sound better than the UK versions. Science!

(The real reason the US labels did this, of course, was because more albums meant more money. This is the music business, after all. Science be damned!)

Hot Rocks” is the sixth Stones compilation in their first nine years of existence. It's a two-album set full of their biggest hits. Not all their hits, but surely the most popular ones. And there's not a clunker on it. If you find you don't like this album, you can safely avoid the rest of their catalog. If you go to see them live, they will probably play several of these songs. If you stop the average person on the street and ask them to name a Stones tune, it's very likely they'll randomly pick something on this album; more often than not, “Satisfaction.”

Bottom line, if you don't know the Stones and you want to, get “Hot Rocks.”

Plus 4

This is the very short list for those who've listened to “Hot Rocks” and decided they like Mick & Co. These four albums should be, in my humble opinion, the cornerstones of your burgeoning collection.

Flowers 

This is yet another compilation album. Hold on now, stick with me here. Yes, it's a best-of, kinda, but NOT a greatest-hits. Only four of the twelve songs were ever put out as singles. Eight of the twelve come from the “Aftermath” and “Between the Buttons” albums, the other four are outtakes from the sessions from those and other albums.

This is like one of those US-only releases that pick up songs left off other albums, although not entirely. Bottom line on this one, it's a great collection of some of their early work. It's a good overview of their first period, and not many of these songs are on “Hot Rocks.”

They put out 9 studio albums between '64 and '67, a very busy and productive period. This album, seen at the time as a marketing ploy and a throw-away, holds up very well. Again, not a clunker in the bunch, and a very good broad-brush overview of their early style.

Their Satanic Majesties Request

What?!? If you're a long-time Rolling Stones fan, you're probably thinking; What?!? You want to offer a budding fan four albums to use as the cornerstones of their Stones collection, and one of them is this??

This album got crucified when it was released, no pun intended. It sold in the dozens.  Well, okay, it went straight up the charts at first, but quickly fell back down. If they hadn't had a long-term contract and a healthy track record, this album could have ruined them. “Hot Rocks” contains songs off every album they put out up to 1971, except this one.

A quick bit of history here. The Beach Boys put out “Pet Sounds” in 1966. The Beatles heard it and said WOW and several other things. They took the inspiration and produced “Sgt. Pepper”. When that came out in 1967, the rest of the world said WOW and several other things.

At that point, everybody else in the world did their own version of Sgt. Pepper; including the Stones. For a while, I was working on a collection of everybody else's Sgt. Peppers. Some weren't bad, many of them were laughable. My personal favorite faux-Peppers are “Gift From A Flower To A Garden” by Donovan, “The Beat Goes On” by Vanilla Fudge, and “Of Cabbages And Kings” by Chad and Jeremy. And, “Satanic Majesties” by the Rolling Stones.

You could easily think it's horribly dated. Some people think that of Pepper, and some even think that of Pet Sounds. Maybe so. The fact remains that Majesties was the most creative thing the Stones had done up to that point, and may still be the most creative thing they've ever done. There's some really strong material on here, and it's well-produced. With Pepper, the Beatles had given everyone permission to follow their muse down whichever rabbit hole presented itself. The Stones went in without fear.

The fear came when the sales figures came in. It bombed, badly. I don't care. I loved it then, and I love it now. “Citadel” has some great guitar tones. Bill Wyman does a good, if subdued, lead vocal on “In Another Land.” It's the last thing Brian Jones had any real input into. The production was daring, and succeeded for the most part. It was a day at the circus on acid, quite literally, with the Stones.

It took about nine months to record, which is an eternity to a '60s pop group used to cranking out three or more albums a year. Again, this copied how the Beatles did Pepper. Part of the reason was that everybody that held a guitar or drum stick in Great Britain in 1967 was spending time in court on drug charges. I wouldn't be surprised if this album was submitted as evidence by the prosecution.

Those of you who know me know that I'm a born-again Christian, so you may be wondering why I would champion this particular album. Because I have a sense of humor, that's why. I don't honestly believe that anyone in the Stones is a satanist, and if they are, that's their problem. Really, the title's just a play on Their Britannic Majesties, after all.

What the Stones have always been great at from day-one is tweaking the straights. Their marketing strategy right along has been that there's no such thing as bad publicity. If they can make a member of the Royal Family clutch their pearls in horror, all the better. The title is a finger-to-the-nose response to churches burning Beatles records as much as the music was to Sgt. Pepper. Lock up your daughters, the Rolling Stones are in town!

This was the first serious push-back they ever got, and not because of the title. The reason was, their fans didn't like it. Back in the day there was a good-natured (for the most part) rivalry between Beatles fans and Stones fans. Majesties failed, not because it was bad, but because it was derivative. It was too much of an homage to Pepper. It was the Red Sox putting on pinstripes. But 50+ years on, those pinstripes … don't look so bad.

Sticky Fingers 

This was an easy call. If the first two are arguable, this one clearly belongs as a cornerstone of Stones appreciation. Personally, it makes my short list of their best albums, and may top that list if I'm in the mood. There isn't a weak song on it.

Granted, 50 years on they couldn't get away with releasing songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Sister Morphine,” but they're still great songs. “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” are beautiful ballads. “Bitch” kicks ass! The whole thing is classic.

This is the first complete studio album featuring Mick Taylor on guitar. He's the guy that followed Eric Clapton and Peter Green as lead guitarist for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. He may not be on his predecessor's level, but he's no slouch.

While not as wildly creative as the late Brian Jones, he did bring a certain stability to the Stones' sound. Where Jones would look for another instrument, another sound, another tangent to get lost with, Taylor just looks for a great lick. They did the exact same job within the band in completely different ways. Taylor's way is just as valid, and gives the Stones a more solid center.

The cover was the usual thumb-to-the-nose thing, with the life-size bulging jeans and a real zipper. Only now they had enough pull to have it done by Andy Warhol. When they learned that the zipper was damaging the stacked records at the warehouse, the solution was to have the zippers pulled down half-way so as not to damage the grooves, but the label in the center of the record.

This was the Stones returning to their roots. Not that they hadn't already done that, but this was the best and most confident version of it. The common reaction to Majesties was that they'd lost their way. This album made that assessment more difficult to argue with. It proved that, at their core, the Rolling Stones are really a rock 'n' roll band. It's where they're from. It's their home base.

Goat's Head Soup

My four cornerstones end as it begins; with an under-appreciated masterpiece. This album was a commercial success, but not so much a critical one. Stones fans tend to dismiss it. I do not.

In many ways, it's the logical follow-up to Sticky Fingers, even though there was an album in between (which I will discuss shortly). Probably not as strong on the whole as Fingers, it's still very good. It's easy to put this up alongside their classics and find it wanting. On its own, taken out of the context of its predecessors, it's pretty solid. It's an album to enjoy, not compare.

 

Minus 2

Here's where I get in trouble for real. These are two Stones albums I do NOT recommend.

Beggar's Banquet

The first picture is the cover the Rolling Stones wanted.  
The second is the one the record company allowed.

Before you judge me for my low opinion of this album, give it a listen first.

The Wikipedia article on this album reads like Mick wrote it. The reviews, at the time and since, are an embarrassment of riches. It seems that everybody considers it one of the greatest albums of all time. It's widely regarded as a return to form for them after Satanic Majesties.

Listen to the album.

Beggar's Banquet is proof that the Stones … and here's where I get in big, big trouble … could, at times, be a real bunch of candy-asses. They're supposed to be rock's bad boys, right? The tongue-and-lips logo, lock up your daughters, trashing hotel rooms, drugs and more drugs, the whole perverted dog-and-pony show?

When the chips are down and the pressure's on, the Stones fold up like a cheap pup tent. How about the whole ker-fuffle over 'Let's Spend the Night Together' on the Ed Sullivan show? That was a pretty controversial thing to say in 1966 when that song came out on “Between the Buttons.” Sullivan wouldn't let them sing that on the show. He insisted that Mick sing 'let's spend some time together'. So … he did.

Who cares, right? I mean, really, it's not a big deal. The reason it matters is that it exposes them. Once they got there, it really hasn't been about the music. When they were kids listening to blues and early rock 'n' roll records, it was. But once they saw the view from the top of the mountain, the goal became to stay there. So being bad boys was a lot of fun … until Daddy pushed back. They're not satanically majestic, they're Eddie Haskell with money.

Listen to the album.

The whole reason for their 'return to form' was the fact that Majesties - Banquet's immediate predecessor – tanked. If it had been hailed as a tour de force, a brilliant creative statement – and most importantly, a huge cash cow – they'd have cheerfully cranked out a Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road, just like their buds from Liverpool.

But it didn't. So they had to regroup and prove to the record-buying public that Majesties was an anomaly. Sorry, we were stoned that week. Here's what we really sound like; just like you want.

Listen to the album.

It's a hot mess. The only two songs that got a serious attempt at professional-grade production were the opening songs on each side; Sympathy For the Devil and Street Fighting Man. The rest of the songs were not only sloppily played, but sloppily recorded. Play the album/tape/CD and those two songs will jump out at you.

Yes, there were some good songs, and some interesting blues covers. Salt Of The Earth, the album's closer, is a particular favorite of mine because it's a classy statement. But even that … just isn't very well done. It's like a decision was made early on that, to create the illusion of authenticity, we have to be muddy and sloppy. Like an old Robert Johnson 78.

Listen to the album. Not how you felt the first time you heard it, not what everybody and his dog says about it, not where it falls on the list of Greatest Albums Of All Time. Just listen to the music. Take away the two best-known songs, the ones that open the two sides, and don't tell anybody that it's the Rolling Stones, and you have eight songs that nobody would buy, by a group that nobody would sign.

Exile on Main Street 

All right, now imagine Beggar's Banquet stretched into a double album. Same rave reviews, or better, same high position on everybody (else's) top-albums lists, same hot mess.

The scary part is that it falls right between two of what I consider their best, named above; Fingers and Goat. They spent a year and a half working on this. In one very important way, it was a ground-breaking work. It was the introduction of their mobile studio, immortalized by Deep Purple as the Rolling Truck Stones Thing; a portable recording studio control room that could be driven up to any likely good-sounding room.

In the case of the Stones, this was a rented villa in the south of France. They were tax exiles, and wherever they took the truck became the most advanced recording studio in Europe. A true stroke of genius. More the shame, that it produced this turkey.

I'm sorry, but as they say, there's no there there. There's quite a few good songs, but they're not very well played or recorded. This is your brain on cocaine and heroin. Personally, I think the best song is “Happy,” which Keith Richards sings. He can't sing, but he manages to pull it off with grit and tenacity, and it's a great song. “Tumbling Dice” was a big hit, but I'd recommend Linda Ronstadt’s version. It's much better. As for the rest of the entire double album, there's nothing else particularly memorable. Yes, there's some pretty good songs, but they were badly abused.

Bottom line, if you're interested in learning about the Stones, save these two albums for last.

Honorable Mention

Every Album Before “Satanic Majesties”

There's a reason that the Rolling Stones are so popular and have lasted so long. Dig deep into their early catalog and you'll see why. The first album was largely covers of blues and old rock 'n' roll songs, which gave them time to polish their songwriting skills. Time well spent, I say. Lots of good stuff, and the backbone of Hot Rocks and their career to date.

Let It Bleed

From 1969, and the album between “Beggar's Banquet” and “Sticky Fingers.” Definitely transitional, and definitely good. This, not Banquet, is the one that shows them emerging from the shadow of the Beatles. A few weak spots, but Graham Parsons (of the Flying Burrito Brothers) was a big influence and exposed them to some deep Country music vibe. Another classic.

Some Girls

By 1978 the Stones were well past their peak, and yet this album holds up surprisingly well. The word most often associated with it is 'disco,' but there's quite a bit more to it than that. For that matter, the Rolling Stones couldn't sound like Chic or the Village People if their lives depended on it. They don't have the chops, but they don't really need them. There's plenty of R&B and even Country influence here.

Solid material, well done. And, according to those on the scene, practically a Mick solo album with the Stones supporting. Also the first album to really feature guitarist Ron Wood (ex-Faces), who replaced Mick Taylor. Taylor is a fine guitar player, but he played alongside the Stones, while Wood plays WITH them. He took the chair that had been occupied by Taylor and Jones and pulled it up to the table.

Steel Wheels

I put this album here for one song; Rock And a Hard Place. One of their all-time best, IMHO, and worth the price of the album. Mixed Emotions is pretty good as well, and the whole album holds up. Not a classic, but not bad; unlike several of its predecessors and successors.

The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band In the World?

There are those of you who are probably wondering why I didn't use this for the title of this essay. Well … are they?

Personally, my favorite band is Yes. Has been for a long time. Are they a rock and roll band? Uhh, that would be a big, fat no. Rock, most definitely, but not Rock 'n' Roll. It's an important distinction.

Yes, and it's roughly 10,000 different members over the half-century-plus of their existence, have consistently been among the finest musicians of the age. From singer Jon Anderson, guitarists Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin, bassist Chris Squire, drummers Bill Bruford and Alan White, keyboardists Rick Wakeman, etc., top flight musicians. Could they play rock and roll? Of course. They could play pretty much anything. But they're not a rock and roll band. It's not their native language.

Okay then, how about the Beatles? The Stones most important contemporaries? Were they a rock and roll band? Hmm, well, yeah, in the early days you could have called them that. R&R became something the Beatles, for lack of a better term, outgrew. But watch some footage of them live from 64 through 66 and, hell yeah, they could rock and roll!

Which raises the question; how do the Stones stack up as musicians? Umm … pretty well, I guess. Charlie Watts, the drummer, definitely was the premier musician. Look up the word 'pocket' in the dictionary and you'll see his picture. His main influences were bebop jazzers. He was so good, you didn't really notice how good he was. Pay attention to the drums on any Stones recording and you'll see what I mean.

Keith Richards is highly touted for his guitar style, and not without reason. For me, his solo on 'Heart of Stone' is one of the greatest ever. And when he got replaced as lead guitarist by Mick Taylor, he showed how great a rhythm player he is, which is an under-appreciated art form. Taylor was very good as well, and Ron Wood fits together with Keef like a glove.

Bill Wyman is one of those bass players you don't really notice, which makes him a perfect rhythm section mate for Watts. Brian Jones was the one who made them stretch out and be more creative, which made a big difference in their early days. Jones was also the one that originally founded the band.

Not one of these gentlemen could cut it with a band like Yes, with the possible exception of Watts, but they each hold up their end well. The Rolling Stones with Patrick Moraz on keyboards would be somehow diminished.

Which brings us to Mick Jagger. Great singer? No, no, afraid not. Great performer? Definitely, one of the greatest ever. Even if he may very well be the whitest man to ever live. His only real competition for that title is Alex Lifeson of Rush. Watch live footage of both and you'll see what I mean. Not meant as a put-down, but they're both such geeks!

Jagger's voice could best be described as adenoidal. Nasal. Pinched. Throaty. He could also be described as passionate. Compelling. Exciting. Gripping. Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him. Not a pretty voice, but he knows where to grab you. Ah-HAN-gee! Ah-HAAAN-gee! When will those clouds all disapp-E-E-ahrrr?

So just what is rock and roll, anyway? For the answer to that question, look to the people for whom it's their native language. Buddy Holly.  Chuck Berry. Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard. Elvis. Oh, you could start quite an argument over whether or not Elvis was really rock and roll. Maybe he was really country, or a crooner? Personally, I think he was rock and roll, even when he sang a ballad. As a musical style, it's wider than it's often given credit for.

And, it's probably also narrower. Jethro Tull, for instance, is rock, but not rock and roll. Ten Years After is rock and roll. Led Zeppelin? I would say so, yes. Guns & Roses, yep. Aerosmith, for sure. Brian Setzer? Eh, rockabilly skirts the edge, but it's arguable either way. And being able to stretch that boundary doesn't disqualify you, or at least it shouldn't.

The Stones can rock hard, but they're not Black Sabbath or Metallica. They can do a ballad, but they're not Sinatra. They did Satanic Majesties, but they're not a psychedelic band like a lot of the Moody Blues stuff could be called. They did Some Girls, but they're not KC and the Sunshine Band. They did Black And Blue, but they don't suck. Usually.

When you get right down to it, the only sub-genre within Rock Music Writ Large the Rolling Stones really fit into, consistently and naturally, is Rock 'n' Roll. But are they the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world?

Hmm … they just might be.


 







Sunday, December 12, 2021

Slide On, Slide Away

 

A good friend of mine, Ruben Hilbers, has been needling me about not posting on my blog. In a fit of pique, he's begun posting things about music on his own blog. He's a great guy, and very prolific on numerous topics, most especially Sci-Fi fan fiction. You should check out his stuff: https://xanthi-rising.blogspot.com/2021/12/another-musical-post.html?spref=tw

Anyway, here's my response:

~

You would think I would be good at sliding. Grew up in rural New Hampshire riding sleds, snowmobiles, and learned to drive in the snow in big, American rear-wheel-drive cars.

Not the case, I'm afraid. I think playing slide guitar is actually more like skiing, which I never learned to do. Should have, too, having worked at Loon Mountain and Mittersill ski areas for several years. But skiing has eluded me, as has playing slide guitar. It does make sense, though, because listening to a good slide player is like watching Jean-Claude Killy carve a hill.

As much as I love slide guitar, I have to admit I don't really like very many slide guitar players. Most of them . . . Let's put our cards on the table for a minute, shall we? Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood, Gary Rossington; I love their music, hands down, no question. But as slide players, they each leave a lot to be desired. In each case, their playing without a slide on their finger is much better. You may now strike me with heavy objects.

And don't get me wrong, there are plenty of very good slide players out there. Roy Rogers, for instance; not the singing cowboy, Dale Evans' husband, rides Trigger. No, the blues musician who, last I knew, recorded on Blind Pig records. Check him out. Warren Hayes, of Gov't Mule and later Allman Bros, is also very good. Along with just about everybody on YouTube who demonstrates slide, and does it 10 times better than I do.

Basically, if you want to hear slide done right – in my humble opinion – there are five people you need to go to. The first three, I refer to as:

The Triumvirate

These are, in no particular order; Joe Walsh, Bonnie Raitt, and Duane Allman.

Joe Walsh has stated that Duane Allman taught him to play slide, which makes sense. Mr. Walsh has got a beautiful, liquid tone, and in his 1970s glory days used a lot of phase shifter.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0x4El47O8Zs

In this clip from 1975, he's using a metal slide on a Les Paul. In more recent ones, he seems to have switched to a glass slide. Either way, he's pretty consistent about keeping it on his middle finger, which is NOT what the teachers normally recommend.

He also doesn't seem to take a lot of care about muting his strings, which is also highly recommended. I'm guessing, since there aren't a lot of notes bleeding in from the other strings, that he might be muting with his picking hand. Even so, with all those things in his style that are supposed to be mistakes, the tone is simply beautiful. He's not fast or flashy, but the notes ring out nice and clear. He's got beautiful timing sweeping into and out of notes. Overall, just a really good player.

Duane Allman is widely regarded as the greatest slide player of all time, and it's hard to disagree. (Although, I do, later on.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezPZxfS1jys

It's been tough to find anything on YouTube that really shows Duane playing slide. There are a number of videos from that era of the Allman Brothers, but they're not very well done. So I picked this one, because it has a lot of good photographs of him playing. And the audio is from the Live At Fillmore East album, which is an all-time classic. Remember, the Allman Brothers Band was only around for about two years before he died, and had only become really popular for a few months before his untimely death, so there isn't much film on their early days.

There are a lot of instructional videos that go deep into his style and techniques. They are definitely worth a look if you're interested in a master class on slide. One of the things he's famous for is his use of a Coricidin bottle for slide. It's a cold medicine that used to come in a small glass bottle. Soon after, they switched to plastic bottles, but the Jim Dunlop company makes a replica called the Blues Bottle. I've got one. Not that it's doing me any good.

According to his Wikipedia page, he liked using a Gibson SG for slide, although film from an Allman's concert shows him playing slide on a Les Paul. He used the slide on his ring finger. It's also said by several sources that he would play in open tunings, as well as standard. Again, no obvious muting with the left hand, so maybe he muted with his right.

I have to say, Duane Allman is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I could do a very long piece on him, and may one day, but for the sake of this essay I'll just keep to his slide playing.

Bonnie Raitt is a hero of mine, regardless of her guitar playing. She's the daughter of professional musicians who got into the blues at an early age. I haven't seen it documented anywhere, but the word going around at the time was that she would look up the old blues players and help them out. Sippie Wallace is on at least one of her early recordings, for instance.

There was a story that one time she ran into either Mississippi Fred McDowell or Mississippi John Hurt washing dishes in a restaurant, but that likely is apocryphal as I've found no documentation of it. Still, that story got around about her because she was known to champion forgotten folk and blues musicians. She has stated that some of these musicians taught her to play guitar, which I can easily believe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpTOVnd-9gA

This is a live vid of a song called “Gnawin' On It” featuring Roy Rogers, who I mention in the beginning of this piece.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krF6LpUXODc&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=5

Yeah, I know, it's a music video, she ain't really playing. Still, it's a good video of a great song, and in miming and lip-synching to the recorded track, she does show a little of her chops. The live version is excellent. She's playing with a thumb pick and muting with her index finger, the slide on her middle finger.

Every picture I've ever seen of her, she's got what appears to be the same green bottleneck. She ain't flashy, but she don't have to be. Bonnie Raitt is an example of a player who can say a lot with one note. I also like this video because Dennis Quaid is one of my favorite actors, kind of a poor-man's Dustin Hoffman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nW9Cu6GYqxo

I include this one because Bonnie is also one of my favorite singers. Say what you will, but if you don't like this performance, you have no heart to break.

I know I've gone a little far in presenting Ms. Raitt, but she is the only one of the three mentioned above of whom there is a sizable library of video showing her playing. There's probably quite a bit more of Joe Walsh, but Duane Allman is sadly under-documented. It's worth your while to dig around.

The Two

This is it, the two greatest slide guitarists of all time, period.

Ry Cooder: This guy has just flat-out done it all. He should be given a permanent residence at the Smithsonian Institution because he is a true national treasure. And that would be true if he'd never put a slide on his finger.

Having said that, his recorded output is a mixed bag. Some of it, I find downright unlistenable. His tastes are all over the map; hell, all over the globe, literally. He's probably best known these days for Buena Vista Social Club, which documents a trip he made to Cuba to jam with a mess of famous Cuban musicians from the pre-Castro days.

His other best-known albums by the general public are A Meeting By the River with V. M. Bhatt, a Hindustani classical musician, and Talking Timbuktu with African musician Ali Farka Toure. Early on, Ry was a member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, featured on the Safe As Milk album. He can also be heard on the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed.

His own recorded output includes excursions into gospel, calypso, (Into the Purple Valley) ragtime, vaudeville, (Jazz) folk, (Paradise and Lunch) '50's R&B, (Bop 'Til You Drop, which was also the first album ever to be recorded digitally) Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, (Chicken Skin Music and Showtime) and, of course, blues. And that doesn't even begin to get into his movie soundtracks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8TSo3fjzZ8&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=7

I believe this is from the soundtrack to the movie “Crossroads,” which starred Ralph Macchio and Joe Seneca. I love this movie, because it's a blues song writ large; campy, overblown, and beautiful. Macchio was schooled on how to appear to be playing guitar by Arlen Roth, and they did an excellent job. In fact, in this scene his playing looks fine, but this rich tone, dripping in reverb and tremolo, was supposedly being done on a Telecaster through a Pignose amp. Of course, only a guitar player would have noticed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TD4o3VDnftI&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=8

This is it; the famous guitar duel from the same movie. Jack Butler vs. Eugene whatever Ralph Macchio's character was named. Except Butler is really Steve Vai, and Eugene is mimicking what Ry Cooder played in the studio. The duel is over Willie Brown's (Joe Seneca's) soul, with Vai representing the devil. In the movie, it's made to appear that Vai/Butler wins, until Eugene breaks out some bitchin' classical chops. Y'see, he's a Julliard student who … aw, watch the damned movie.

Okay, no disrespect to Vai, but COODER WON THE DUEL! Before the classical bit, which Vai actually played. But I don't care, dammit, Cooder had already won. Drop the mic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcbW8DmTvKs&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=9

Now, a lot of people believe that you have to set up a guitar almost like a lap steel, with ridiculously high action, to be able to really play slide on it. Shoot, Ry's using a capo on this tune. (That means, the action is low enough that the intonation isn't changed when he capos on a higher fret. With high action, it would be horribly out of tune.) There's a really good version of this song on the soundtrack album for the movie “Cocktail,” but here, you can see the man play.

He's really one of the few great slide players that are actually doing the things a guitar teacher will tell you to do; slide on the pinky, muting with the other three fingers. He's also using what looks like a standard-issue Dunlop glass slide. But check that guitar out! Definitely not a Strat as Leo imagined it. I remember reading about the pickups he put in it, don't remember what they were, but WOO!

Let's get one thing out of the way right now; don't matter what guitar you use. Good slide playing ain't gonna happen because you got a guitar like your hero's got. Ry uses a bastard Strat in this, who knows what in other settings. Duane used an SG or Les Paul, Bonnie likes Strats but plays all kinds of things, Joe likes Pauls and Strats and whatever, Roy Rogers usually uses that crappy little acoustic guitar with a humbucker in the soundhole.

DON'T MATTER! It's all in the fingers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TatIF6WhxM8&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=11

I don't even know if there's any slide on this, it's just a great song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InQMhyDHhJ8&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=12

Ry live on TV somewhere. There's a killer version of this on his first live album, Showtime. Here, you get to see what he's doing, and what he's doing it with. Gray glass bottleneck (although I remember reading that he sometimes uses a metal slide, depending on what he wants for a tone. I could be mistaken, though) on the pinky, muting the strings, no picks on his fingers, and that Martin guitar is to die for. A D-41, I think. I played one once. It begged me to put it back, because I wasn't worthy.

Sonny Landreth: IF there's a better slide guitar player than Ry Cooder – and that's a big IF – it is this gentleman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pdpJuX1gDE&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=13

No less than Eric Clapton has called Sonny Landreth the most advanced guitar player on the planet. Like Cooder, Landreth has played with everyone under the sun. Unlike Cooder, he remains distinctly himself. Cooder goes all over the map and is able to blend in with anybody. Sonny don't blend. He jumps out of the speakers like a runaway freight train.

This is an excellent video because it shows pretty much the whole bag of tricks with nothing to distract; from the Dumble amp, to the floor full of pedals, (There's an excellent Rig Rundown video from Premier Guitar magazine on his setup) to the magical finger gymnastics, all served up with a heaping helping of Louisiana hot sauce.

And let's get one thing straight, right out of the gate; Sonny ain't no blues player. He can play the blues, and just about anything, but his roots are in Zydeco. He got his start playing with Clifton Chenier. Zydeco, btw, is something worth your while to look into. Besides Chenier, there's Queen Ida, Boozoo Chavis, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Subdudes, Beausoleil, and a whole world of wild, crazy music to get into. If you're gonna lump Sonny in with anybody, think Dr. John.

People who write magazine articles are finally coming around and referring to his style as Slideco. For decades (he turned 70 this year) people have lumped him in with blues because he plays slide. He smiles, takes it, and moves on. A true gentleman, by all accounts.

Every couple of years he shows up in Guitar Player magazine, often on the cover, and they pick apart his style once again. The thing that seems to amaze everyone is that he frets notes behind the slide. You have to remember that, like most of these great players, he doesn't jack the action way up. He has such a delicate touch with the slide that he puts it on the string and then frets a note behind it, and there's enough room between the slide and the frets that the note rings out clearly. Try it, I dare you.

That blows me away, for sure. But so does all the other stuff he does with all the fingers of his right hand. He's a freakin' orchestra! Segovia would like to have his right-hand technique. (For you non-guitarists, Google it.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIky9KbaWc4&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=15

The artist that Sonny has probably worked with the most is John Hiatt, who just happens to be one of the great songwriters of the last 50 or so years, right up there with Dylan, Neil Young, John Prine, and a couple Englishmen named Lennon and McCartney. Among other things, he wrote one of Bonnie Raitt's big hits, Thing Called Love. He bills his back-up band as The Goners, but it's Sonny's regular band. He's only on a couple of Hiatt's albums but has toured with him extensively. In live videos, Hiatt has made it clear he knows how lucky he is to have a musician of Sonny's caliber backing him up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEhGBb2gvGI&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=18

I read a review of a Sonny Landreth album once in which the writer took him to task for not being a good singer or songwriter. Excuse me? I think he's excellent at both. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they would still be good albums if they did not include his guitar playing.

For a primer on his solo work, I recommend the albums “South of I-10,” “Outward Bound,” and “Levee Town.” All his other stuff is good, too, and very consistently so, but I consider these his best work.

One thing that becomes readily apparent at first blush is that he is very proud of being from the Mississippi bayou country, deep in the South of Louisiana. It's the central theme of most of his songs, from “Congo Square,” to “This River,” “Bayou Teche,” “USS Zydecoldsmobile,” and on and on.  Port of call, Opelousas.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpydHh4MK8Y&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=19

The studio version of this song is better, IMHO, but this shows a lot of his technique. He likes open tunings, although there are some songs he does in standard tuning. He even occasionally records songs on which he doesn't play slide, but rarely more than one or two per album. He also wears the guitar quite high on his chest, which gives him a lot more control over what he's doing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GfVNFEV3No&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=20

A studio version of a song for you here. This really makes his Zydeco roots jump out. Listen to that drum beat. That is not the blues. Just break out a bottle of fine gulpin' wine, and raise Cain!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35fC8VWp8nY&list=TLPQMTExMjIwMjHZuCnV_fj3eg&index=24

The first Sonny album I ever bought was “Outward Bound.” This was my exposure to someone that I'd read about for a long time, but had never heard. My mind is still blown.

~

If you've gotten this far, you may be interested in digging a little deeper. Two names I would recommend you investigate for the history of slide guitar are the two Johnsons; Robert and Blind Willie. (They are not related.) Both have been referred to as the best by such people as Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and many others. It's also worth checking out players like Son House, Charlie Patton, and Tampa Red. For early electric slide go to Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker and Elmore James, among others.

Now, if you're sitting there wondering, where's David Lindley on your list? Or Cindy Cashdollar, or Jerry Douglas? Ahem, excuse me, but those people play Dobro or lap steel, not slide guitar. They may be able to do that, but it's not what they're known for. And if I'm not mistaken, they would be the first to explain that what they do is a different discipline from any of the people named above.

The origins of slide guitar fade into the mists of history, mostly coming from a people about whom there is little history written. Back before music could be recorded, it was made by people with whatever instruments were available. An easy way to play guitar was to tune it to an open chord and lay a metal bar, a knife, the broken-off neck from a bottle, or the bone from a ham across the strings. It was even common to string a piece of baling wire between two nails driven into a wooden fence and change the note by sliding one of these things up and down it while plucking the string. That's known as a Diddley-bo, by the way.

Around the turn of the last century, in the early days of recording, Hawaiian music became popular. Thousands, even millions, of guitars were sold to people who wanted to make the weeping, wailing sounds that magically transported them to the South Sea islands. The first electric guitars were lap steels. This craze and the early blues slammed into each other like a runaway freight train. Aloha, baby.

Most great slide players usually play slide almost exclusively. Joe Walsh is the exception on this list, but he does play a lot of slide. Bonnie and Duane played a lot of standard guitar, but slide is more prominent in both cases. Ry and Sonny rarely play any other way.

Andres Segovia, the great classical guitarist, once said that the guitar is the easiest instrument to play badly. You too can play slide guitar, which is even easier. Take a guitar and tune it to an open chord. If you don't know how, go bug a guitar player. If you don't know one, just turn those little knobs on the end of the neck until it sounds musical. Then lay something hard on the strings and pluck away. There, you're a musician!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

San Francisco

 This is one chapter from my novel, "Nobody From Nowhere."  It's the story of a young man in the mid-to-late 1970's who becomes the lead guitarist for an up-and-coming band, The Wolves.

Dawn Kelly is the lead singer.  She's considerably older than James Grant, the guitar player.  She used to be in a group in the '60's named Medicine Stones, which was part of the San Francisco scene.  The band fell victim to a number of problems, from infighting to drug addiction.  It ended when she got busted for heroin and went to prison for a year.

When she got out, she formed The Wolves.  In this chapter, the current tour has taken them to San Francisco.  It's the first time she's been there since Medicine Stones broke up, and she's giving James a bit of a guided tour.

- - - - -

11 – San Francisco

Dawn and James stood at the corner of Post and Steiner streets outside the Winterland Ballroom. In a few short hours, they would use their 20 minutes to try and make an impression on the music fans of San Francisco.

Union Square’s just a little ways up there,” she said, pointing up Post Street. “We used to jam there. Played at the Fillmore, People’s Park . . . s***, I don’t think there’s any place in this town we didn’t play.”

She was trying to have a good time showing her young guitarist some of the city she knew so well. The trouble was, everything she laid eyes on dredged up ghosts from the past. Too much of it made her want to run into the bus and put her pillow over her head. Or, find a dealer and score some smack.

James, on the other hand, was fascinated. He’d been to Boston a couple times, Manchester and Concord, New Hampshire, but from here he could smell the Pacific Ocean. “Then you must have known Janis Joplin?”

Oh, man, I knew ‘em all!” she said. “Loved hanging out with Big Brother. Used to get high with Jim Gurley all the time.”

Wow! I love his playing!”

Dawn was surprised. “Really?!? He plays entirely different from you.”

Yeah, but it’s some bad s***,” James said. “Just hang on and let fly. You can’t make that stuff up!”

Dawn laughed. “Professor, you never cease to amaze me.”

So, you said you guys played Woodstock. Did you do Monterey Pop?”

No, but I went as moral support. In some ways, it was like a battle. San Fran versus Hollywood, with some Brits thrown in. Who knew Hendrix was gonna steal the whole show? But the Frisco team did well, I thought. And it all proved to me that the first two letters in ‘lame’ are LA.”

They walked down the street, James continually pumping her with questions. She was usually close-mouthed on the past, but was getting comfortable around the kid. It gave her a chance to remember the good stuff. Riding her thumb from Boston, finding kind strangers, the Haight in the Sixties, opening for Santana and Quicksilver Messenger Service at the Fillmore, busking for quarters at Fisherman’s Wharf. She even admitted about the time she slept with Janis.

No way!” James said, a bit shocked.

I have a hard and fast rule,” she said. “I try to only do what feels good. And the things I like . . .” She gave him a wink. “. . . I try ‘em again.”

He blushed a little. They hadn’t slept together since that first night, but she knew he was getting lucky on a regular basis. How could he not? With that face, and his ‘aw, shucks’ demeanor, he was irresistible. She was sure that every girl he nailed thought she was his first. She made a mental note to find out if he’d learned anything in the interim.

She was about to regale him with the tale of her passionate love affair with the other girl singer, Angel, just to shock him some more when they went around a corner. When she saw who was coming toward them, she stopped short.

Gotta quarter?” the disheveled man asked.

She gave him a sour look and dug around in the pocket of her jeans. She found a coin and handed it to him. “Hi, Tom,” she said, immediately wishing she hadn’t.

He accepted the coin and squinted at her. Then, a huge grin split his matted beard.

Dawn?”

The one and only,” she said. James could see how tense she was.

The scruffy man aimed his gaze at James. “So . . . this your kid?”

She laughed. “No, man, just a friend.”

James stuck out his hand. “I’m James. I’m the guitar player in her band.”

Tom looked at the hand, then shook it like he was handing someone a dead fish. Dawn shot James a quick shut-up glance.

James, huh?” Then the rest of the information seeped through and he turned back to Dawn. “You got another band?”

She shrugged. “Just futzing around.” James held his peace, having gotten the message.

Tom’s gaze wavered back toward James. “So, she probably told you all about me, heh?”

He gave Dawn a glance, looking for direction. He had no idea who this person was.

James, this is Tom Hayes. Oh, I’m sorry . . . Apollo. Like the Greek god, right?”

Tom’s eyes narrowed, and he looked back and forth between his old friend and her new one. “Dawn and me, we were in a band together,” he said finally. “We all had stage names. She was . . . well, she was Dawn. Couldn’t top that. Dawn, Angel, Frazz, Mikey . . . No, wait, he was . . . Hey, what did we call Mikey?”

Dead.” She gave her old band mate a look that indicated that her patience was at an end. “About a month after Angel. Or at least, that’s what I heard in prison.”

Tom scratched the back of his neck absently. “Oh. Right.”

She turned to James and cocked a thumb at her old band leader. “This is the clown that drove Angel and I up to the Emergency Room door and bailed.”

Hey, I saved your life,” he said with a scowl.

And your rich lawyer daddy hung that bus full of dope around my neck,” she spat back. “The judge said he’d have given me life, but his kids liked our music.”

Now, look, that wasn’t my –“ he protested, but Dawn cut him off.

This is also the bastard that got me addicted in the first place,” she told James. Then, in a sing-song voice; “You snort it, you can't get hooked.”

Why, you . . .”

Those were the last coherent words out of either of them for the next minute or so. The air turned blue as the two old bandmates screamed bloody murder at each other. James saw Tom – or, rather, Apollo – rear back to throw a punch at his lead singer. Before he could, the young guitarist grabbed the pinky finger of his other hand and wrenched it hard. The scruffy man immediately dropped to one knee and began to keen loudly.

It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir,” James said with a lot more calm than he felt, “but we really should be going.” He gave Tom Hayes, former leader and rhythm guitarist for Medicine Stones, a shove. The man plopped on his back and continued his whining, cradling his injured hand in the other.

James and Dawn made haste, around the corner and back toward Winterland. When it became apparent they weren’t being followed, they slowed.

Can you believe that f***ing bastard?” Dawn roared. “What kind of f***ing bulls*** was that? Why, that s***y, lousy, f***ing . . .”

James just walked along silently. Dawn could tell that he was upset. She took his hand in hers. “Okay, Professor, it’s fine. You did well. You okay?”

James gave her a wan smile, remembering something his grandmother once said to his older brother.

Y’know . . . when every third word out of your mouth is ‘s***’ or ‘f***,’ it reveals a lack of imagination.”

Dawn’s jaw dropped. Then she laughed and plunked her head on his shoulder.

Point taken,” she said.

They walked along until they got to the back of the auditorium that they would be playing in a couple hours.

I’m not mad about the jail time,” she said out of the blue. “I deserved it. What makes me mad is the fact that I used to believe in that so-and-so. You’d never know it now, but he looked like he could have been Apollo. And, man, could he weave his webs. There were three girls in the band, and he had us all in bed and begging for more. Sometimes, all at once. We had two singles on the charts, got to be on Shindig . . .”

She stopped and looked James hard in the eye. “That, my young friend, is what heroin does to you. What you saw right there is a dead man walking. He had everything, and now he has a monkey on his back, and it will ride him to his grave.”

Friday, December 18, 2020

Deja Vu All Over Again

 

Recently saw a very good documentary on one of my all-time favorite bands, Crosby Stills Nash and Young. (Fifty By Four) I'll skip the long, involved history lesson, as everybody who has bothered to read this far probably already knows it. And if you don't, and are interested, go to Amazon Prime and find the doc. It's very good.

 

David Crosby is the creative flake of the band. Which never really was a band, just a collective of friends. It actually seemed to be a way for three very good musicians and songwriters to get a gig together, who hadn't had any luck doing so before. They all came from other bands, who either folded, or kicked them out, or they left.

 

Cros was the one who got kicked out; by the Byrds, as it happened. I heard him explain in an interview once that the story was, he was asked to leave because of creative differences. The real reason, he says, is because he was an asshole. There are reports that this has never changed.

 

That's one of the things that makes CSN&Y so interesting. Each of these guys has his own role within the collective. Crosby's was to be the nut. Er, sorry, the genius. He had the wildest, most daring ideas. He probably wrote the best, and the worst, songs in their catalog. He also had the nicest voice in the band. Maybe the best, maybe not, but surely the nicest. He was responsible for writing and singing:

 

Guinnevere

Long Time Coming

Deja Vu

Almost Cut My Hair

The Lee Shore

Triad

Delta

and half of Wooden Ships.


In the 1980's, he went to prison on drug and weapons charges. When he got out, the other three dragged him into the studio. They've always insisted that they did this, not to cash in, but to support their friend. The result was a rather disappointing album called “American Dream.” Oddly enough, the best song on it (imho) was “Compass” by Cros:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sB1efHJAhn0


Stephen Stills was the engineer. Not as in, sound engineer in the studio, but builder. He could construct great songs on command, and played every instrument on the first CSN album except the drums. Of the original three, he has been the most prolific and consistent as a solo artist.


Stills came from Buffalo Springfield, a band that everybody name checks but never caught on with the public at large. They were built around the same basic concept as the Byrds; playing folk music with electric guitars and drums. Everybody in the band were excellent musicians, for early 60's rock musicians, but the leadership quickly became the property of Stills and fellow guitarist/singer/songwriter Neil Young. They were great friends who simply didn't get along. Egomaniacs can be like that.


When the band broke up, Young began a solo career and struggled. Stills didn't even get that far. He found himself doing studio work, including one of the landmark albums of the mid-60's, called “Super Session,” with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. He used his contacts to get a little studio time and threw together a demo tape, just himself on an acoustic guitar. This tape was released decades later as “Just Roll Tape,” but at the time, it got him squat.


A chance meeting with Cros and a Brit named Graham Nash came together so well, they became the not-quite-a-band we know and love today. Before going into that, a quick list of some songs that Stephen Stills contributed:


Love The One You're With

Southern Cross

Carry On

As I Come Of Age

Dark Star

Find the Cost of Freedom

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes

4 + 20

and half of Wooden Ships


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVUwrifwKrI


Graham Nash wrote their biggest hits. His school for this was a reasonably successful British Invasion band called The Hollies, and he wrote most of their hits as well. A great pop song craftsman, and a beautiful high tenor voice.


Lynn and I had the privilege of seeing him live a couple years ago at the Berklee School of Music's main auditorium in Boston. He was doing a tour in which he did his first two solo albums in their entirety (Songs For Beginners and Wild Tales). He and his band were fantastic. After doing both albums, and discussing the songs, he then went into a bunch of his better known works, including many from CSN&Y.


In many ways, he was the glue that kept this bunch of raging egomaniacs together, both musically and socially. His was the high voice that filled out those beautiful harmonies. And, his were the songs that got them on the radio, over and over again. Some of those songs were:


Teach Your Children

Lady of the Islands

Our House

Chicago

Immigration Man

After the Dolphin

Wasted On the Way

Just a Song Before I Go


In many ways, he was seen as the least of the three/four. He was probably the least skilled, overall, as a musician. And yet, his are the songs we remember the best. He was the lightweight, and yet his light songs often made the biggest impact.


Graham was the one that didn't come from the American folk and folk/rock movements. He probably has the most diverse catalog of any. Whether he wrote about romantic love, or his beliefs, you knew he meant it.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vnYKRacKQc


If that was where it ended, it all would have surely gone differently. Yes, there were conflicts between these three guys, but nowhere near to the extent as when they became a four-piece.


Neil Young had been in Buffalo Springfield with Stills, and the ongoing conflicts between the two were a large part of why that group didn't survive. From there, Young went on to a solo career and, while not a big star, was selling in respectable enough numbers that he was in no serious danger of losing his career. The same could not be said of the others.


CSN was a last-ditch effort for all three. It is very likely that, if their first record had tanked, they would have all had to go get real jobs. Say, didn't you used to be in the Byrds? When it turned out instead to be one of the biggest selling albums not by the Beatles of the entire decade, things changed. And when it got time to go out on the road, clearly, Stephen Stills couldn't bear as much of the load as he had in the studio.


According to that documentary, they approached Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and one or two others about supplementing the band. There were also a drummer and bass player, but to adequately reproduce the album in a live setting required another guitar player on par with Stills.


I've never been clear on why Young was made an equal member, and not just a side man; whether somebody or everybody in the band offered it to him, or if he made it a condition of his joining. At any rate, CSN became CSN&Y, for good and for ill.


In a way, Young duplicated Cros' role as the class genius. He did not, however, duplicate the role of class clown. Too many times, the problem with geniuses is that they're unreliable. In Crosby's case, it came out as getting too loaded to be functional, and then sliding into too addicted. For Young, this would manifest when he got bored and suddenly left. He also had, and apparently still has, no patience with which to suffer fools. And in the Neil Young universe, anybody could quickly qualify as a fool.


It's somewhat strange that they're all so strongly tied together. They didn't need Neil, and he didn't need the others. And you certainly can't say that magic happened every time they collaborated as a quartet. As a group, they did three studio albums, and two of them are pretty disappointing. (American Dream and Looking Forward.)


On the other hand, the first of their combined efforts, Deja Vu, is quite possibly one of the greatest albums in the rock canon. It is certainly one of my favorites. And, in a lot of people's hindsight, it is considered the lesser of the first two. It's not as cohesive, but lightning strikes rarely are. The list of Neil Young's contributions to their legacy is not as long, but it is quite dramatic:


Country Girl

Helpless

Ohio

American Dream


He is, by far, the most successful of the four as a solo artist. Graham Nash's solo albums, on the other hand, probably didn't sell as many copies all together as any one of the group's by itself. Same with Crosby. Stills had a good run in the 1970's, but not much since.


Neil is also, by far, the most frustrating of the four. By the late '80's, he seemed determined to drive away every fan he ever had. After Deja Vu, he had a big hit with After The Goldrush, and a huge one with Harvest, and then . . . who knows?


He would go back and forth between apparently trying to recreate Harvest, with records like Comes A Time; and then go off on some tangent with something that left people scratching their heads. He experimented with country (American Stars and Bars), punk (Rust Never Sleeps), blues (This Note's For You), rockabilly (Everybody's Rockin'), and even techno (Trans).


For me, I largely lost interest in his continued output by the early '90's. Everything he's done in the last 30 years sounds the same, with a few notable exceptions. I liked Freedom, which had “Rockin' In the Free World” and a blistering cover of “On Broadway”. And the song “Let's Roll,” honoring the victims of 9/11, was great. The rest, or at least what I've heard, doesn't do much for me. Including Harvest Moon, which was supposed to be his great return to form.


Besides solo efforts, the four also worked in varying combinations. Crosby/Nash, a revived CSN, and even the Stills/Young band. At one point, there was even a Stills/Nash project in the works, but halfway into it they invited Cros. If a band is like a marriage, this group was more like they were fooling around. Hippies, y'know.


In the end, it was simply too volatile to survive in the long term. For one thing, they were all too prolific to ever be able to fit everything they wrote into one band. They'd have had to release three or four albums a year, and that would have quickly skewed in the direction of Stills and Young.


It's easy to dismiss these guys as musicians. There isn't a virtuoso among them. Nash is a serviceable enough guitarist and pianist, but if your band was holding auditions, he wouldn't make the cut. Unless, of course, you were looking for a songwriter or singer.


Crosby's guitar style is not the usual. He uses a lot of open tunings, which is part of what makes his songwriting so interesting. A big part of what makes him great is the way he voices chords; on guitar, piano, and he's had a lot to do with how the vocal harmonies work. You guitar players out there would be well served to find out what tunings he used for some of his songs.


In a way, writing a song is like owning a dog. A really skillful musician/composer can let the dog roam free. And yet, sometimes, you see that they've set a specific path, even dug a rut, of the favorite places they like to go. The places they've marked, and the food dish, so to speak. Many songwriters develop a template that they wind up using over and over; verse, verse, chorus, bridge; or whatever.


When you write using an open tuning, you're shortening the leash. It becomes a limitation of sorts, because the tuning is friendlier to a smaller group of chordal harmonies than standard tuning. And yet, those limitations also open up options that might not readily be available in standard tuning. In fact, if you use standard tuning chord shapes on a guitar that's tuned to an open chord, it creates some really interesting things.


This is a technique that Cros, and Stills, use quite a bit. The song, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, was written in a tuning of EEEEBE. He is alleged to have used the same tuning for Carry On and 4+20. (It's in the Wikipedia article, so it's gotta be true, right? Right?) So, it would be very difficult to use that tuning all night on every song. And, you can certainly play those three songs in standard tuning. But the tuning helped write the song. You tune your guitar, and start banging away on it, and pretty soon you've got a little pile of music in your lap. Gotta housebreak that dog.


Stills and Young were the band's lead guitarists and, to be honest, on a skill scale of 1 to Eddie Van Halen, neither of them score particularly high. Doesn't matter. Yeah, you Steve Vai/Ritchie Kotzen/Yngwie/Fripp/Guthrie Govan/Al DiMeola fans out there can scoff all you like. If you don't think it's possible to express passion with an acoustic guitar on your knee playing one chord, then you probably haven't read this far anyway.


To me, a great example of this can be found on the all-star Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute album. There's a version on there of My Back Pages, sung by Roger McGuinn. Eric Clapton takes a solo, and it's very nice. Sweet, harmonically interesting, carefully crafted, and very good. Then, Neil Young takes a solo. He proceeds to rip the song's head off and shit down its neck. I suppose you either like that sort of thing, or you don't.


Here's another good example:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAkMlzOBFbc


I would also note that the drummer on this is New Hampshire's own Johnny Barbata.


It's very easy to pick out which playing is Stills, and which is Young. They've been in a weird sort of competition since Buffalo Springfield. Stills' playing is much smoother; Young's is rougher, angrier. Stills used to hang out a lot with Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter, and they would jam for hours. Young plays like he found his guitar on the side of the road and has never heard anybody else play, before or since.


Now, there's nothing wrong with skill. Plus, skill and passion are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have both. But – and there's always a but to these – if skill was everything, rock and roll would never have existed. Sometimes, an artist is so good at expressing that burning thing inside them that skill doesn't matter. After that, it's up to the person with the ears to decide whether it's good or not.


It's hard to pinpoint why the second and third CSNY studio albums don't work. The songs are okay, but it's like they hired dull people to record them.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2OcysPh77E


This is one of Neil's from “Looking Forward.” The actual name is Queen Of Them All, but it's one of those tongue-in-cheek Neil songs that, seeing it was written in the late '90's, could just as well be Queen Of The Mall. This album's not actually too bad, but it doesn't seem to have the drive of Deja Vu. In fact, most of CSN's output in the late '70's on through is kinda the same. I don't know, I just think Neil should be more pissed off singing this, and Stills should be trying harder to cut heads.


My personal recommendation would be to listen to the first two albums; “Crosby Stills and Nash” and “Deja Vu”; and then the two live albums from that era; “4-Way Street” and “CSNY 1974”. They also have an excellent box set that includes a lot of alternate takes and solo stuff. And definitely check out “Fifty By Four” on Amazon Prime or DVD.


Happily, they're still around, although they're quite elderly these days. It's likely we'll never get another chance to see them live, but that's what I thought before going to see Nash in Boston. So, who knows? They are definitely important, if any creative person actually is. It's just entertainment, after all, but these guys, this grouping, is the bridge between the folk and folk/rock movements to the singer/songwriter movement.


Here's one last little treat. This is from the box set I mentioned above.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FK3TIYG9mqM