“Pancho and Lefty,” written by the great cult country singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is one of those supremely evocative songs that is both touching and enigmatic. Obliquely telling the story of Pancho, a Mexican bandit similar to the legendary Pancho Villa, and Lefty, a broken down singer who may or may not have set up Pancho to be taken and killed by the Federales, the song saw its biggest success on Willie Nelson & the late Merle Haggard’s 1983 collaboration, Pancho and Lefty. The title track reached #1 on the country charts and it’s easy to hear why today
With Willie Nelson’s inimitably reedy talk-singing laying out the story in touching but unsentimental manner for two-thirds of the track and then Haggard’s instantly recognizable Bakersfield baritone coming in for the last verse and joining Willie for the last choruses, their “Pancho and Lefty” is a world weary tale of a bandit’s rise and fall and the more nuanced discontents of an aging singer. Miles away from the ultra-slick country confections of the time, it’s easy to see how the song’s bittersweet story arc would appeal to these gritty veteran country music outlaws.
But there is an even earlier version of “Pancho and Lefty” that gives the song’s moving mini-saga an achingly beautiful feminine retelling. One of the highlights of the supernaturally gifted vocalist Emmylou Harris’s 1977 standout album, Luxury Liner, her version of “Pancho and Lefty” was actually the first cover of this much-covered song. It’s also arguably still the best.
Famed as a great duettist and muse, most notably on Gram Parsons’ best solo recordings, Harris shows that she is more than up for leading a band and dominating a tune as a solo artist. With her utterly unique and ethereal soprano front and center, Harris’s version not only puts forward the tale of the outlaw and the singer as written but also seems to be bringing forward an even deeper level of meaning as relates to the song’s author. When she sings: “The poets tell how Poncho fell/And Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel/The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold/And so the story ends we’re told/Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true/Save a few for Lefty too/He only did what he had to do/And now he’s growin’ old” the connection that this is Van Zandt’s lonesome autobiography — and that he might think of himself as both the outlaw and the singer — really hits home. As great and enjoyably leathery as the Nelson-Haggard version is, it’s the lovely and soulful Emmylou Harris take that I’d pick to move me — and breath life into the spirit of Townes Van Zandt — every day of the week.
I sometimes feel that Bruce Springsteen is a victim of his own popularity as well as his perceived New York/New Jersey-ness, often dismissed these days as more of an institution than great artist, a touring extravaganza for nostalgic old East Coasters. But the length and breadth of his musical accomplishments places him firmly in the realm of the greats of Rock, somewhat so obviously that, like a certain type of Hall of Fame athlete, you take him for granted until you start revisiting his oeuvre. I consider him part of the Big 3 of 1970s power pop singer-songwriters along with Tom Petty and Bob Seger, all artists of great integrity and short story-like lyrical brilliance who also share the same talent of being able to surround themselves with phenomenal backing bands.
On 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, recorded two years before the breakthrough smash Born To Run, you can hear the young Springsteen growing by leaps and bounds and handily shedding the “New Dylan” moniker/trap that weighed heavily on so many talented artists in the 70s. The album contains the all-time concert fav “Rosalita” among several other standouts. But it’s the semi-title track, “The E Street Shuffle,” that gives a glimpse of the future for The Boss in terms of lyrical dexterity in painting a vibrant, multi-character milieu with a now-effortless rush of impressionistic words in contrast to the somewhat self-conscious overwriting of his debut Greetings From Asbury Park. Just as importantly, the track is the fullest realization yet of what would become the E Street Band’s trademark ultra-propulsive interplay between rhythm, melody and a big band sound that would lead to so many smash hits in the very near future.
The fully integrated sound that would lead Born To Run to such great musical heights is in full swing on “E Street Shuffle” with dazzling percussion, horns led by the dearly missed Clarence Clemmons’ big barroom sax and oddball instruments like a very wet and bouncy electric piano, as well as sizzling switches between Springsteen’s funk-inflected rhythm guitar and his incisive leads (the great Steve Van Zandt had not yet joined the band). Starting with a brief New Orleanian horn tune up, the song winds up being four and half minutes of unbridled joy and ecstatic catharsis, a tune about a party in the streets that sounds like a party in the studio. That there is a false ending and the last 50 seconds or so goes out with a nearly Isley Brothers-ish, oh-so-early-70s waketcha-waketcha boogie down guitar and horns orgasm makes this kick-ass track all the better.
“The E Street Shuffle” shows Springsteen and the E Street Band very near the peak of their rapidly developing powers as crafters of great American narrative Rock ‘n Roll. The characters spring to life with muscular, impressionistic lyrics, a Springsteen hallmark that would only become magnified with time. And the genuine ebullience and optimism of “E Street Shuffle” would be carried over and amplified on Born To Run but then begin to quickly fade into something much more pessimistic about the broken promises of the American dream with the edgier Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the very sad, downtrodden The River, the misunderstood, highly disillusioned Born In The USA and then the utter despair of Nebraska. Revisiting “The E Street Shuffle” it’s nice to hear a young Bruce and his compatriots healthy, vibrant and bursting at the seams with joy. All the more so because, just like most things in life, that spirit of unbridled optimism wouldn’t last.
As a bonus, here is a pretty friggin’ great live version from 2012 in Denmark where Bruce & the band are joined by the Roots for a good ol’ fashioned block party sing-a-long. From all the miles he’s traveled and the ups and downs he’s been through, The Boss’s enthusiasm for performing and collaborating still shines though and it’s clearly infectious even on an entirely new generation of musicians. The energy the two bands are giving each other while sharing the stage is a joy to behold.
2016 has officially become one of those singularly awful periods in Rock history, like 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a single plane crash. Or that fateful stretch from 1970 to 1971 when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all OD’d. Continuing this year’s traumatic trend, the world lost the whirlwind musical talent known as Prince this past Thursday, April 21st. The Purple One joins his fellow chameleonic, gender-bending artist David Bowie, as well as Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey among the colossal figures in the Rock pantheon who’ve passed away this year. (Another we lost in 2016 is fabled Beatles producer George Martin, who thankfully lived to the ripe old age of 90).
It’s easy to forget with the passing of time what a controversial figure Prince was when he broke onto the scene in the early 1980s. But then, with album titles like Dirty Mind and Controversy he made it clear he was courting it. It was the Reagan era, a promised return to straight-laced, wholesome American values after the free-love 1960s and the if-it-feels-good-do-it pre-AIDS 1970s. Yet here was this diminutive, light skinned African American emerging fully formed from Minneapolis of all places, dressed like an English dandy and singing some of the dirtiest come-ons ever put to vinyl. A wonderfully unusual lover man — handsome yet pretty, satyr-like but delicate and petite with his pencil thin mustache, long hair and soft speaking voice belying his powerfully expressive singing style — it wasn’t hard for the manly men and hair metal rockers to make fun of Prince. Except that while they and their buddies were down at the local watering hole drinking Buds and listening to Slayer, Prince was systematically bedding their women and bringing those lucky ladies to previously undreamed of paroxysms of ecstasy.
With his utterly unique musical gift for passionate eclecticism, effortlessly blending Soul, R&B, Funk and Rock into one heady hedonistic potion with which to intoxicate listeners, he wasn’t just upsetting to uptight macho guys or self-appointed moral police like Tipper Gore’s dumb Parent’s Music Resource Center. Prince was downright revolutionary, challenging the established musical order of that era. A light-skinned black dude who could shred on guitar like a latter day Hendrix or Ernie Isley while simultaneously promising to ravage America’s daughters of all colors — was he an R&B/Funk sensation or a crossover artist like Michael Jackson, another rare performer who couldn’t be contained or labeled by the then-prevailing radio segregation between “R&B,” “Pop” and “Rock”? Was he just a borderline obscene libertine provocateur or in fact a sensitive sensualist poet-prophet for a new generation? The answer to all of those and many more questions about Prince was invariably Yes.
Prince was aided and abetted in his cross-cultural takeover by the coincidental rise of an even greater societal force, MTV, becoming one of the budding video network’s omnipresent early stars with his seminal (literally) video for the double-entendre filled “Little Red Corvette.” 1984 saw the culmination of Prince’s conquest with the spectacularly popular, semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain, the massively successful album of the same name and its host of high-charting hits, not least of them the gospel-infused title track, which became as close to a theme song as the ever-changing Prince ever had (or maybe it was really “Dirty Mind”). As someone who went to that movie upon its initial release in a small-town theater while away at school, I can testify to Purple Rain‘s impact on a bunch of horny teenaged white kids, even if today we might look back and see nothing much more than a long form video with a typically 80s outsider-makes-good storyline. With the United States still very much on Cold War footing with the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation pervading the darkest corners of our young minds, when Prince sang “We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause/We’re all gonna die!” on “Let’s Go Crazy” it was pure catharsis. Not to mention a fine excuse to live it up to the fullest right freaking now.
If Prince would never achieve those Olympian heights again his place in the pop music firmament was nonetheless firmly enshrined. He dabbled with Bowie-esque gender bending, as on the especially erotic yet thoroughly empathetic “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” He went through backing bands like Kleenex and collaborated with other artists with a similarly hyperactive drive, writing hit songs for the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Nicks and many others, while also shepherding new acts like Vanity, Bria Valente, Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E. He split from his record label, self-released his music and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, then returned to a major label and started using Prince again. All the while, as he cranked out a ton of amazing music with or without further chart success, it was clear that he was not only his own unique phenomenon but also the spiritual heir to all those great musicians who merged the sacred with the profane, from the Delta bluesmen to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Rick James. In the process he created an unsettling, stimulating, booty shaking mix of something close to sexual Gospel music for the modern age.
Most of all, Prince refused to be pigeonholed. He was simply the greatest singer/producer/arranger/guitar player/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and showman of his time, the fantastic culmination of 20th century African-American music in one diminutive, hyperkinetic package. In the end there was no one like him, before or since. The purple light’s gone out all too prematurely. But we can thank the heavens for his tragically brief but utterly amazing 57 years on this humdrum planet. Because the eternal soul of Prince will always be here to guide us, his dearly beloved mere mortals, and help get us through this thing called life.
Once in a while I like to compare the same really good song done by two really good artists. In rare cases, you can get several versions that all work in different ways. Four is pretty unprecedented but In this case it’s warranted. Because the song in question is the reflective, melancholy Jackson Browne classic, “These Days.” Logically, most of us tend to think of the great singer-songwriter’s own version as THE version. It was released on his second album, 1973’s For Everyman, with a beautifully clean and relatively spare arrangement, highlighting Browne’s distinctively straightforward and non-self pitying vocals as they play against the very sad lyrics and the evocative guitar solos.
But Browne’s years as a teenage songwriting prodigy meant that this was not, in fact, the recorded debut of “These Days.” That honor would go to the enigmatic German artist, Nico, most famous for strangely yet appropriately taking lead vocals on 3 tracks for the Velvet Underground’s debut album (at Andy Warhol’s insistence). When Nico went solo for her 1967 album, Chelsea Girl, there was “These Days” with then-lover Jackson Browne on acoustic guitar, no less, and six years before he would get around to recording it for himself. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tannenbaums, you’ll know this version, where Nico’s trademark Teutonic non-emotive, not-really-singing seems to fit the bittersweet, offbeat comedy of that great movie.
More cover versions would not be confined to the past, though. Like few other songs in Rock, “These Days” was certified catnip for different artists’ interpretations. No sooner had Browne recorded his own version of the song, putting Nico’s in the rearview, than Gregg Allman almost simultaneously released a version for his 1973 solo debut album, Laid Back. In truth, Allman had helped Browne with his For Everyman arrangement so it seems only fair that the Southern Rock god would get to interpret it his way. Allman’s take was so good, with his trademark weeping guitar and the stoically resigned double-tracked vocals, that Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone called it “the definitive version” of the song, better even than the songwriter’s own. High praise indeed, even if Mr. Browne and his die-hard fans might disagree.
However, DeCurtis’s declaration predates another very fine version of “These Days” that I’m especially fond of. Paul Westerberg of Replacements fame covered it for his excellent 2003 solo album, Come Feel Me Tremble, speeding it up a bit from the song’s traditional dirge-like pace, adding a loping, almost dobro like guitar in place of the standard 1970s country-rock flatpicking and playing against a nicely chugging rhythm section for momentum.
I think the interesting thing about Westerberg’s version compared to the other three, aside from his trademark ugly-beautiful, slightly wobbly and cigarette-damaged vocals, is that Paul was much older than the other three when he came to record this classic song of regret and resignation. Amazingly, Browne claims to have written “These Days” at the age of 16 (!), so his intense evocation of adult setbacks and heartbreak is precocious in the extreme. By the time he got around to recording it, Browne was still only 25. Allman was likewise a young man of 26 and even the eternally gloomy Nico was only 29 or so. Obviously Rock years are not like regular human years and you could say that even in their mid or late 20s this was a trio of old souls. In fact, Allman had lost his brother Duane and another bandmate, Berry Oakley, the year prior to tackling “These Days,” Browne was already a Rock veteran by 1973 and god knows what Nico had been through in her young life between her time in New York with Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvets. But when then 44-year-old Westerberg begs “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them,” you can tell that by this point in his life and career he’s had his fair share.
Any way you slice it, “These Days” is an amazing song open to different interpretations that still retain the essential forlorn quality of the lyrics. And no matter which version you prefer, you’ve got to hand it to the author for writing one of the great rock ballads. In fact, it’s hard to believe it sometimes gets overlooked in the vast Jackson Browne canon. I suppose you could chalk this post up to making sure this gem stays on your radar in one form or another.
If you’re looking for the ultimate in badass proto-gangster Blues, look no further than John Lee Hooker’s“I’m Bad Like Jesse James.” It’s hard to know where the deadly braggadocio ends and the frightening truth begins on this stone cold chiller of a track.
Adapting the tried and true murder ballad format to his patented thumping one-chord, heavily amplified blues chime, Hooker’s deep-as-a-well vocals are extra menacing. There’s no question that he’s serious as a heart attack and there’s no real subtext here even if he’s telling you to read between the lines. The message is crystal clear: You talk smack about John Lee’s woman after he’s done you a solid, you end up in the river. He’s got some boys to make sure of it — as in, four going down, but only three coming back. And, no, crying won’t help ya none. Not when the late, great John Lee Hooker’s done made up his mind that you got to go. Hard not to believe the man when he says he’s “Bad Like Jesse James,” wouldn’t you say?
Tyrone Davis (1938 -2005) was one of the great R&B artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, even if today he may not be the first name that springs to mind. At a time when radio formats were increasingly being re-segregated, T.D. had a string of huge hits that placed high on the R&B charts, although with diminishing impact on the overall Pop charts. In another era, even just 5 or 6 years prior, he might have a been a crossover star along the lines of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. But his artfully crafted, romantically remorseful songs ran counter to the prevailing trends in 70s-era Soul music, both in terms of their straightforward if dynamic compositions and in their almost total disregard for the red hot political topics of the day in favor of the timeless struggle for happiness between man and woman.
As so many musicians of color had before him, the Mississippi native traveled north and made his breakthrough in Chicago, where he was guided by the legendary producer Carl Davis (Tyrone even adopted that last name, changing it from his original surname, Fettson). T.D. had almost instant success at the tail end of 1960s with the pleading “Can I Change My Mind”. This breakout hit, originally a B-side, rapidly made it to #1 on the R&B charts and was #5 in Pop, minting the Tyrone Davis formula right out of the gate: a tightly arranged but not fussy horn arrangement propelling T.D.’s soulful tenor, which delivered, most importantly, the secret sauce: an inversion of the stud lover man persona into a flawed, vulnerable suitor begging for redemption.
From there he cranked out a series of fantastic uptempo soul ballads suffused with regret and second thoughts, filling the airwaves with sweet yet gritty pure Chicago Soul, always with a pleasing hint of his down-home country roots peeking through the worldly lyrics (for example, on 1975’s stellar “Turning Point”, we hear “toining point” more than “turning point” and “Loid, Loid, Loid” instead of “Lord”).
Davis was certainly limited by his strict adherence to simple, essentially throwback love songs, eschewing the prevailing trends in R&B music that embraced funkier, more elaborate and Afrocentric musical styles and also gave lyrical expression to political aspirations and grievances. Simply put, Tyrone Davis never made a protest song about the ghetto or racial oppression. That sort of overt social activism was not in his performer’s repertoire. And any dalliances he may have had with Disco later on did not exactly lead to memorable music to say the least. So no, T.D. will never be confused with Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays or Earth, Wind & Fire. But by staying true to his narrow range as a romantic Chicago soul man par excellence the best of Tyrone Davis, as typified by his standout sides for Dakar and Columbia, is really very good and well worth adding to any serious collection of classic R&B. If you’re looking to set the mood with some straight ahead romantic Soul, a selection of Tyrone Davis’ greatest hits will always get it done.
Maurice White had a composer’s sense of musical innovation, applying highly advanced theories to the rapidly evolving R&B of the late 1960s and early 70s to create a funky, sometimes disco-y but always feel-good stew that was also pleasantly steeped in astrology and ancient Egyptian mythology. Along with their contemporaries Parliament/Funkadelic and Kool & the Gang, EWF made the 1970s one of the most exciting decades for innovative and creatively satisfying African-American music with immense multicultural crossover appeal. Even the band’s more disco-fied hits like “Boogie Wonderland” were undergirded by an intellectual and musical rigor that allowed Jazz, Funk & Soul influences to bubble to the surface, subtly contributing to the overall vibe of ecstatic rejoicing.
Always focusing on the positive and the uplifting, Maurice White was committed to using the power of music for spiritual explorations and personal growth and seeking to put in sonic form the transcendence that comes from a profoundly positive shared experience. EWF’s live shows were legendary and remained inspiring right up until the end, a great multihued dance party for all their fans old and new. Earth, Wind & Fire incorporated African instruments such as Mr. White’s signature kalimba along with a killer horn section and the most up to date electronic keyboards. And then their songs were elevated to the stratosphere by the soaring falsetto vocals of Philip Bailey, as well as Mr. White’s own excellent vocal contributions. Truly, the best of Earth Wind & Fire inhabits a plane of musical excellence that moves both the booty and the spirit. If you could sum up Maurice White’s philosophy of self-improvement and spiritual nourishment through the power of music in one short phrase it would have to be “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. You’d be hard pressed to find a negative, downbeat sentiment in any of EWF’s extensive canon. Even their sad songs raise the spirit. And to pull that off without devolving into sappiness and pap takes a rare skill.
Maurice White surely exhibited that skill with a rare deftness and proficiency, the kind that seems effortless but is the product of countless hours of practice and study, of drilling a large crack ensemble, all while pushing musical boundaries and laying down a challenge to his peers to raise their game or get left behind. Go back and listen to Earth Wind & Fire’s best music and you realize how beautifully well crafted and elegant this alleged “pop” dance music is. it is one of the sins of omission in music criticism that R&B music rarely gets tagged with the “art” label. But certainly the seminal performances of EWF’s best recordings rise to that level, no matter how pleasing to the ear and the pelvis they are. Sadly, the genius behind so much of their tremendous success is gone now. But the music will live on as long as we’re capable of playing it. And when we’re looking for uplift and positive vibes, as well as rump shaking good times, there are very few other bands that will satisfy quite like Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s about as great a legacy as I can imagine anyone leaving behind for the world.
Finally got around to acquiring The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. I on digital after never replacing my old LP of it (probably still in a box in the garage beneath 10 other boxes of CDs!). I had forgotten what a great album it is. Not only the oft-played hits “Lola” and Apeman”, two relatively rare examples of humor propelling successful Rock songs, but also the wonderfully sardonic “Top of the Pops” and the groovin’ “Powerman”. Really the whole album has this lovely, organically acoustic feel via the liberal use of dobros, Martin guitars and banjos that contrasts sharply but pleasantly with the worldly, jaded lyrics. That also leads to an interesting Roots-Americana influence on a band that is really the most archetypally British of all the British Invaders. But perhaps my favorite track on this standout 1970 album is the beautifully wistful “This Time Tomorrow.”
Encapsulating the yearning and ennui inherent in the constant touring of the Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, the song is 3:21 of musical bliss. From the jet engine opening to the wonderful banjo-guitar-piano interplay to the always excellent Ray Davies’ heartfelt but never maudlin lyrics, “This Time Tomorrow” is one of the great life-on-the-road Rock songs. It also fits in so well with Lola‘s leitmotif of all around disenchantment with the music business at large. After all, whenever you start doing something for money it loses a lot of its charm and romance, its bright-eyed innocence & enthusiasm. But the paradox is that Ray Davies and the Kinks’ very jaundiced reflections on their life as professional musicians vis a vis Lola Versus Powerman produced such a sparklingly gorgeous pop ballad. And like the best of The Kinks, it sounds as good and fresh today as it did 45 years ago. That’s writing what you know even though you may be sick to death of it and still turning it into gold.
Glenn Frey, one of the founders of the Eagles who, along with Don Henley, was a core member for the band’s entire existence, has passed away. He was 67. The NY Times Obituary is here.
Below are some of the most Glenn Frey-centric Eagles hits. Yes, they’re certainly straight ahead Album Oriented Rock that you’ve probably heard 8 million times by now. But they exhibit pretty damn good musicianship, wonderful harmonies and the hooks still catch 40 years on. There’s also a certain 70s zeitgeist infusing the music that few other bands have retained without seeming terribly dated or bombastic.
Frey served as singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Eagles, one of the most successful Rock acts of the 1970s, a radio staple and still one of the biggest selling bands ever. Frey, a Detroit native, and Henley, a Texan, apprenticed in the burgeoning early 1970s California singer-songwriter scene, including stints together in Linda Rondstadt’s backing band, before striking out on their own and founding the Eagles. Their genius was to mainstream Gram Parson’s “Country Rock” fusion and turn it into Top 40 radio gold. Frey admittedly learned much of his songwriting craft from Jackson Browne, perhaps the ultimate singer-songwriter of that period, famously living above him in LA and absorbing his hard working compositional technique, which featured endless repetition on piano and endless cups of tea. The two would later go on to co-author one of the Eagles biggest smashes, “Take It Easy”.
What hasn’t been said about the Eagles already? For one of the best documentaries on their big time Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, as well as the particular disfunctional dynamics of their ever-changing membership through the years, check out the epically comprehensive History of the Eagles. And for one of the funnier and most obsessive analysis of any documentary you will ever read, check out the great Bill Simmons take on History of the Eagles over at his Grantland site. His OCD dissection of the film and the band is the definitive take and probably one of the most enjoyable pieces of Rock journalism that I’ve read in a long time, even if it is all vicarious.
So another Rock ‘n Roll great has exited the stage. Even if the Eagles divided critical opinion back in the day, with New York and Mid West-based pundits regularly bashing them for their slickness, perceived sexism and very California-ness, such arguments seem quaint in era where a music magazine like Rolling Stone regularly puts American Idol winners on its covers. Take away the carping of the critics and the band controversies and the music remains solid, well made and enjoyable because it’s generally not going for grandeur just excellence. It survives and still thrives on its own merits and a greatest hits compilation belongs in any serious Rock fan’s collection at the least. Looking back, the Eagles go down as one of the very best of their hedonistic and slightly paranoid era and if they had only made “Hotel California,” actually an atypically dark and cryptic song for them, they would still have an entry in the Book of Rock. But they had a ton more hits and great tunes and so they’ve surely earned their own chapter. And Glenn Frey was a big, big part of that.
Still missing the man but reveling in the music. Here’s to a life well lived and a true Rock ‘n Roll innovator determined never to repeat himself. Now that he’s gone I think we can really see his impact on our culture at large was even more important than was generally thought on a lot of levels.