music friday: on this date in 1967

What actually happened on this date is a matter of dispute.

Bill Graham offered his "Opening the Fillmore Summer Series" with a six-night stand, June 20-25, at the Fillmore Auditorium. Jefferson Airplane were the headliners. They were coming off of their second album, the seminal Surrealistic Pillow. They were also coming off a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which took place just a few days earlier, June 16-18, with the Airplane playing the Saturday night show.

Second on the bill was Gabor Szabo, a prolific jazz guitarist who recorded five albums in 1967 alone. Here he is at Monterey in 1967, although in his case, we're talking about the Monterey Jazz Festival:

The opening act, at least the first night of the six-night stand, had also played at the Monterey Pop Festival. When Graham booked him for these shows, the man was mostly unknown. After playing the Fillmore shows and a few others on the West Coast, he signed on as the opening act for The Monkees, who were on their first U.S. tour. While our Fillmore man was American, he had hit first in the U.K. ... Monterey was the first time he got the attention of American fans, so to capitalize on that, it was thought that the Monkees tour would expose his music to a larger audience.

It didn't work out. His music wasn't quite what the Monkees fans were looking for, and he dropped out from the tour after eight shows.

Here he is, introducing himself to America:

There are many stories about what happened at that Fillmore stand. I'll let Airplane biographer Jeff Tamarkin tell the story, from his Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane:

What exactly happened that week at the Fillmore is a matter of conjecture, but from most accounts, the Airplane played the first night, June 20 (and perhaps the second), then canceled out of the rest. The official word was that Grace's voice gave out, forcing the Airplane to pass on the other shows, with Janis Joplin - newly benefiting from the Monterey raves - and Big Brother and the Holding Company replacing them. That's how Mitch Mitchell, drummer of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sam Andrew of Big Brother and Bill Thompson all remember it.

Another popular version of the story goes like this: The Airplane, on that first night, saw what Hendrix was capable of doing to an audience and, although they did finish out the week, they switched the billing so that Hendrix could close the show. Yet another assessment - a minority opinion - has it that the Airplane stayed the whole week, closing the show as planned.

But one thing everyone agreed upon was that Hendrix took the old rulebook and threw it out the window. He married technology and technique in a visionary way, yet for all of the pyrotechnics and drama of his act, his music oozed soulfulness, sensuality and spirituality - there was nothing phony about it.

I don't want to let this go without noting again how diverse Bill Graham's concerts were in those days. A folk-rock band with psychedelic tendencies, a jazz guitarist from Hungary, and Jimi Hendrix.

Finally, a bonus. Big Brother may or may not have taken over for the Airplane during those Fillmore shows, but they (and Janis) definitely made a splash at Monterey. She's great in the movie, but they edit "Ball and Chain" to remove the psychedelic guitar solo. So here they are a couple of months before Monterey, from a little show that was broadcast on the local public TV station. It got some play on the underground FM radio stations ... it's a bit more raw than the version on Cheap Thrills:


music friday: elton john

There was a bit of discussion on the Rocketman post regarding Elton's music, so I thought I'd pick my ten favorite Elton John songs. I might say I'm not a big fan, but just being able to choose ten songs means I like him pretty well. I think these are in chronological order. I don't have much to say, so I'm just putting the songs out there.

"Your Song".

"Take Me to the Pilot". Neither Elton nor Bernie Taupin seems to have the slightest idea what this song is about, which is why I think it is the ultimate Elton John song: lyrics that sound meaningful but aren't, but no one cares because the chorus is so catchy.

"Country Comfort". I came to this via Rod Stewart, which explains the link. (My list of favorite Rod Stewart songs would be longer than ten.)

"Tiny Dancer". Repeating the link to the Almost Famous scene I used in the Rocketman post. That scene is really the only reason this song makes my list.

"Honky Cat".

"Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding". My second-fave after "Saturday Night". The lead guitarist's name is Davey Johnstone.

"Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)". Why yes, I do prefer Elton the Rocker to Elton the Balladeer.

"Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting". My fave.

"The Bitch Is Back".

"Solar Prestige a Gammon". The ultimate extension of the "Take Me to the Pilot" school of lyrics, which are presented here in total (note that Elton sings these lyrics with the same happy abandon he uses for many more "meaningful" songs ... it's all the same to Elton):

Oh ma cameo molesting
Kee pa a poorer for tea
Solar prestige a gammon
Lantern or turbert paw kwee
Solar prestige a gammon
cool kar kyrie kay salmon
Hair ring molassis abounding
Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin
Cod ee say oo pay a loto
My zeta prestige toupay a floored
Ray indee pako a gammon
Solar prestige a pako can nord


bushwick bill

I have nothing original to say about Bushwick Bill, who died Sunday at the age of 52. But I shouldn't let his passing go unnoticed. I was never his intended audience, but on at least two occasions, he got my attention. The first was on Geto Boys' great "Mind Playing Tricks on Me", where Bushwick took the final verse, about Geto Boys out on Halloween. A man wants to take them on, and

So we triple-teamed on him
Dropping them motherfucking B's on him
The more I swung, the more blood flew
Then he disappeared and my boys disappeared too
Then I felt just like a fiend
It wasn't even close to Halloween
It was dark as fuck on the streets
My hands were all bloody, from punching on the concrete
God damn homey
My mind is playing tricks on me

Here's a lyric video where the lyrics are almost correct:

That song appeared on We Can't Be Stopped, with one of the most famous album covers in music history. Bill had been shot in the eye, and a picture was taken in the hospital:

Bill's great solo song was "Ever So Clear" (he had been drinking Everclear when he was shot). "It's fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly."


rocketman (dexter fletcher, 2019)

In many ways, Rocketman is a typical biopic. It's constructed as a flashback, with Elton John putting himself into rehab and telling everyone his story from childhood to stardom. Of course, everything goes to shit ... there's the booze, and the drugs, and the moneyed excesses. It's nothing you haven't seen before, with the obvious difference that this time it's Elton John rather than Billie Holiday or that guy in A Star Is Born. You get a shitload of Elton John songs, which is why you came. Taron Egerton does well enough singing those songs ... he's not the problem. It's the arrangements of many of the songs that brings Rocketman down, with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" being the best/worst example. Here is how it sounds in the movie:

It starts out OK, if a little tame for what is arguably the hardest-rocking song Elton ever recorded. But just past the one-minute mark, the guitar disappears, replaced by a big band sound with some psychedelia tossed in. The real thing, though, was recorded with the guitar up front, leading the charge. You might want to remember the name Davey Johnstone ... he's nowhere in the movie, and even a simulacrum of his sound disappears into the movie version of this song, but he is crucial to how the original sounded.

The movie version sounds more like a Broadway musical than it sounds like rock and roll.

There's also a standard trope of bios about musicians that goes seriously astray here. Most of the songs are presented as context for something that's happening in Elton's life. It's the curse of the singer/songwriter genre. But at least James Taylor was singing about himself in "Fire and Rain". Elton John songs are written by Bernie Taupin. Taupin isn't exactly an autobiographical writer in the first place, but it's a serious misstep to take words Taupin has written and have them come out of Elton's mouth as if they reflected Elton's situation. The whole idea of making songs explain situations (his heart was broken so he wrote this song) is trite misguided, but even if you do buy into that, it makes no sense that Bernie writes lyrics, completely separate from Elton, yet the movie acts as if those lyrics speak to Elton's innermost being. (As if to prove my point, the one time the songs make sense is when Bernie sings "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ... at least the right character is doing the singing.)

And it's not just the original music that Rocketman is up against. It even goes where no other movie needs to any longer, for Almost Famous has already given us the "Tiny Dancer" segment for the ages. Here is Rocketman ... excuse the quality, the movie is too new for good clips, this looks like it was recorded with a phone off a movie screen, but you get the idea:

And here, the iconic scene from Almost Famous:

Rocketman's version is about Elton's sadness (voiced, again, using someone else's words). Almost Famous shows how music brings people together into a community. In one, the only thing we learn from the song is about Elton John's emotions ... in the other, we learn how people use music in their daily lives.

You will like Rocketman, if you just want the nostalgia of being reminded of songs from your past, if you want to see a reasonably good impression of Elton John, if you aren't bothered by the stock biopic tropes, if you don't mind that the score is better suited for a stage play than for a rock and roll show. I suspect that includes a lot of people. Not me.


music friday: dr. john

Had a different post ready for today, but made a quick change after hearing of the death of Mac Rebennack, Dr. John, The Night Tripper. This will be quicker than he deserves.

I first heard of Dr. John on his debut album, Gris-Gris, in 1968. I have written at length about the importance of the emergent FM "Underground" Radio on me as a teen. Gris-Gris came out as that radio was coming alive. Like many, I was conversant with New Orleans music because it was such a crucial element of early rock and roll. But I knew nothing of the culture, so when Gris-Gris came out, it was as if someone from Mars had made a record. There were a lot of weird records made in the psychedelic era. Many of them are junk, few of them had a lasting impact, even if I personally still listen to a lot of that music to this day. Gris-Gris may have been the most bizarre album of its time, and that's saying something. It was steeped in New Orleans' musical and cultural traditions. Not really knowing this, I experienced the album as weirder than it really was ... while it's still bizarre, listening to it now makes much more sense, because we can place it within our better knowledge of the traditions, and because we've listened to Dr. John for decades.

Here's a selection of his work. First, the lead track from Gris-Gris:

It was inevitable that the Doctor would turn to "Iko Iko", which he recorded for his excellent 1972 album, Dr. John's Gumbo. I've always been partial to this short video from some years ago which shows off his astounding piano playing:

In 1973, he finally had his hit single:

And in 1976, he turned up at The Last Waltz:

The last track on Gris-Gris was arguably its best: "I Walk on Guilded Splinters". While that entire album impressed me with its to-me other-worldliness, "Guilded Splinters" made for good cover material. One person made a Spotify playlist called "100 Versions" ... the title is a bit of an exaggeration, there are only 22 songs, but still:

Here's one of the tracks on that playlist: Cher's version from 1969.

Finally, Dr. John occasionally turned up on the late, lamented series Treme. "Tryin' to show Ron Carter somethin' on the bass, it's like tryin' to show a whore how to turn a trick. It's unpossible maneuver." (Apologies in advance for my pathetic attempt to translate what the Doctor is saying.)


music friday: frequently played albums

The question has been asked on Twitter: What 5 albums have you listened to most in your life? Be honest, not trendy. I don't know how to be honest ... I mean, if I ask Last.fm, which has been tracking my Spotify usage for a long time, the album I have listened to the most is Pink's The Truth About Love, which I'm pretty sure doesn't reach the numbers of stuff from the 60s, to begin with. So, keeping all that in mind, here is what I came up with, in no particular order.

Honorable Mention to Children of the Future, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Dirty Mind, Surrealistic Pillow, Beggars Banquet.

Personal note: The White Album was released on November 22, 1968. My then girlfriend/current wife gave it to me for a Xmas present.


music friday: elvis: the rebirth of the king (mike connolly, 2017)

This is a not uninteresting look at Elvis from the BBC that treats him with respect as an artist, proposing that Elvis in Vegas was, at worst, underrated and at best, his peak. I'm not sure this tells hardcore fans anything they don't already know, but The Rebirth of the King could serve to counter those caricatures of Elvis in the 70s that are so prevalent with more casual fans. It's not junk, and it made for a fun 60 minutes.

Greil Marcus stands in for the critics, and he is eloquent when describing the '68 Special, offering insights in particular to "Baby What You Want Me to Do". Several of the people involved with the music Elvis made in the late-60s/early-70s turn up with some good anecdotes, many of which point to the professionalism Elvis the musician brought to the table in those days. As is often the case in documentaries like this, we only get snippets of songs, which has the feel of coitus interruptus.

An interesting connection is shown between Elvis and Roy Hamilton. Elvis loved Hamilton's work, and the film is pretty convincing at showing how his vocals were influenced by the R&B star (whose son is interviewed).

Here are a few highlights from the film, only I'm posting a fuller version of the songs.

And, for as long as it stays up, here is the full documentary:


small world: sipowicz, sha na na, and me

I once wrote an essay for a book titled What Would Sipowicz Do? Race, Rights and Redemption in NYPD Blue. A couple of days ago, the publisher sent a group email to all of the authors, letting us know that the book, which came out in 2004, will be going out of print. As I often do when I get included in an anthology, I check out my fellow contributors, looking for names I recognize. This doesn't always make me happy ... Alan Dershowitz turned up in one of those books ... but it's fun, especially in retrospect, to see the company I once hung out with. In the case of the NYPD Blue book, there was Joyce Millman, one of the founders of Salon, and David Gerrold, writer of numerous books and perhaps best-known for his association with Star Trek (he wrote the Tribbles episode, among others).

One of the writers in that book responded to the email, copying all of us, thanking the publisher for letting us know. I thought that was a nice gesture, and looked him up online, just to see what else he had done. His name was Robert A. Leonard, and the piece he wrote for the book was "Forensic Linguistics in NYPD Blue". Leonard himself is a distinguished linguist ... among other things, he is the director of the graduate program in Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra.

Looking at his Wikipedia page and elsewhere, I found that I actually had an experience with Leonard many years ago, June of 1970 to be exact. I had just turned 17, and a friend and I went to Fillmore West. The opening acts were Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and Pacific Gas & Electric, who had a decent-sized hit that year with "Are You Ready?"

My friend and I had never heard of the headliners. They had made their mark, though, in a movie which had been released a couple of months earlier that we hadn't yet seen: Woodstock. The band was Sha Na Na:

When we saw them, they were fun and energetic and very entertaining. Later I would learn that the original members of the band were students at Columbia.

I can still remember one song they played that night. Here it is at Woodstock (check out Jimi Hendrix taking in the act around the 1:15 moment):

The singer was "Rob" Leonard. According to Wikipedia, "Leonard spent two years with the band, until he stopped at the age of twenty-one. He left the band because he was offered a fellowship at Columbia Graduate School and wanted to further his education in linguistics."

Yes, my fellow author in the NYPD Blue anthology was the same man I saw sing "Teen Angel" at Fillmore West in 1970.


music friday: songwriters

Next month the Songwriters Hall of Fame will welcome its six latest inductees. Here is a song from each of those songwriters.

Dallas Austin: TLC, "Creep". "If he knew the things I did, he couldn't handle me, and I choose to keep him protected."

Missy Elliott: "Work It". "Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup."

John Prine: "Everything Is Cool". "Everything is cool, everything's okay. Why just before last Christmas, my baby went away."

Tom T. Hall: Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley PTA". "Mrs. Johnson, you're wearin' your dresses way too high."

Jack Tempchin: The New Riders of the Purple Sage, "Fifteen Days Under the Hood". "I got those dead-battery-broken-fan-belt blues."

Yusuf/Cat Stevens: "Father and Son". "If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them they know, not me."