Happy 75th Birthday George!
“All the world’s a birthday cake, so take a piece but not too much…”
Happy 75th Birthday George!
“All the world’s a birthday cake, so take a piece but not too much…”
Fleetwood Mac – Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac
There’s Fleetwood Mac, and then there’s Fleetwood Mac. And then again, there’s Fleetwood Mac. As Fleetwood, McVie x 2, Buckingham, and Nicks gear up for their Farewell Cash Grab 2018 World Tour®, today is a reminder that Fleetwood Mac is nothing at all like the band it was when it formed in 1967. That’s not a judgement, just a fact. There have been three rather distinct incarnations of the group: the current, “classic” Rumours lineup, the underappreciated early 1970’s Bob Welch era (Bare Trees is a personal favorite), and the original late 1960’s British blues rock band. Despite the various lineups and drastic changes in musical direction, the namesakes of the group, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, remain as the rhythm section. And it was 50 years ago today that their debut album, Fleetwood Mac (a.k.a. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) was released.
In 1967, guitarist Peter Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood, and bassist John McVie, all members of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at the time (actually, Fleetwood had recently been let go), decided to form their own blues group. They recruited slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer, and Fleetwood Mac was born. This initial release is straight-forward blues rock, with four covers and eight Green and Spencer originals. These guys certainly didn’t invent the blues, but along with contemporaries including all the bands where Clapton, Beck, Page, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Alvin Lee resided at one time or another, they played it with reverence for the innovators and continued to spread the word to a mostly white audience not overly exposed to the greatness of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Elmore James and the rest.
Blood, Sweat and Tears – Child Is Father to the Man
The debut album by Blood, Sweat and Tears, Child Is Father to the Man, was released a half-century ago today. While later albums by the band contain the radio hits, this one is the realization of founding member Al Kooper’s vision of adding brass and strings to a blues/jazz/pop blend to create a music hybrid not heard before (Chicago Transit Authority was released a little over a year later). The eight man brass section on the album includes trumpeter Randy Brecker. There’s no Spinning Wheel here, but the album doesn’t need it. There’s not a weak track, and it has maintained solid positive critical acclaim throughout the years.
I suppose this is as much of an Al Kooper post as it is a B, S & T post, as the band’s glory years were just around the corner. Al is one of my favorite peripheral (for lack of a better word) musicians in rock history: In 1965, after tricking producer Tom Wilson into letting him onto the session, Kooper improvised the famous Hammond Organ part on Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. He then went on to form The Blues Project before establishing Blood, Sweat and Tears. He left the band after this debut album on which he does the majority of lead vocals, and later in the year re-emerged in studio with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills for the seminal-but not-as-famous-as-it-should-be album, Super Session.
Did you know:
That the French horn at the beginning of You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones was played by… AL KOOPER!
Since long before 1968, westerners have journeyed to India in search of a different way of being within the confines of the material world. But no visit has been more documented, more celebrated, than that of the Beatles when they traveled to the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose spiritual guidance they had begun receiving the previous August, in the beautiful surroundings of Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganges, northern India.
The group and their entourage arrived in two parties, with George Harrison and his wife, Pattie Boyd, her sister, Jenny, and John and Cynthia Lennon arriving on February 15. Paul McCartney and his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, and Ringo Starr and his wife, Maureen, arrived at the ashram on February 20. There they joined a larger group of seekers and Transcendental Meditation (TM) teachers-in-training for a months-long immersion in meditation and lectures by the Maharishi. Others of note at the retreat included John’s inventor-friend Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas, Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, jazz flautist Paul Horn, as well as Mia Farrow and her siblings, including sister Prudence.
The basic story is well-known. The Beatles had long beforehand grown weary of Beatlemania, George and perhaps John the most. With the combination of the death of their manager, Brian Epstein (while they were in Wales being initiated into TM the previous August), and the founding of their company, Apple Corps, they were quickly becoming untethered, stressed, and looking for guidance or at least a nice holiday. Ringo and Maureen stayed about ten days, the food problematic for his sensitive digestive system. Paul and Jane left after about a month – Paul to supervise Apple business and Jane for an acting engagement. The Harrisons and Lennons stayed on until April 12, famously leaving when the rumor that the Maharishi had made inappropriate advances toward Mia Farrow became fact in John’s mind due to Magic Alex whispering in his ear. Years later they would all express regret at their behavior in leaving the ashram as they did, assigning it to their relatively young age when they were there. This would be the final time the four Beatles traveled together.
Photos and film footage of the Beatles’ time in Rishikesh paint an idyllic picture of mid/late 20-somethings on a spiritual quest, evolving out of a life of short-lived pleasures enjoyed by elite celebrities and into something more meaningful and lasting. But while the trip did everyone some good by most accounts, you can take the egotistic rock star out of Swinging London, but you can’t always take Swinging London out of the egotistic rock star.
Associates made sure LSD and alcohol were available, a big no-no at a spiritual retreat (duh).* Also, John and Cynthia’s marriage was in its final throes, and he began each day with a trek to the local post office to check on the arrival of new telegrams from Yoko, to whom he would soon and almost always be attached. And much to George’s chagrin, Paul and John spent a lot of time writing songs that would end up on the sprawling White Album later in the year instead of meditating. Indeed, George was the single most serious practitioner among the four, and continued to be until the end of his life with lapses along the way like most of us mortals.
Another element to this period is the fine line a spiritual teacher walks between the teachings on one side and the commercialisation of it on the other. Obviously the Maharishi enjoyed increased publicity worldwide as a result of his association with the Beatles, and I have no problem with that in and of itself. When the dust of the 60’s settled, the awareness and popularity of TM became much more widespread. This was a good thing, and the Beatles, especially George Harrison, were a major reason for it. Was it inherently bad that the Maharishi was also a shrewd business man? I don’t believe so. Just as modern teachers such as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle generate large amounts of money through their writings and speaking engagements, so too did Yogananda and Vivekananda years before the Maharishi, and it was all for the better in my book.
*Subsequent to this post, I’ve read another account of the Beatles’ India Trip (Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs by Joe Goodden) which states the group was clean during their stay in Rishikesh. However, within weeks Lennon would develop a heroin addiction upon meeting Yoko back in London.
And finally, the main idea behind this trilogy of posts: Bob Dylan’s 1978 conversion to evangelical Christianity and the current reassessment of his musical output that resulted from it. What? I’m really going to talk about this? Why?
Having come of age during Dylan’s creative trough of the 1980’s, all I had to go by when I decided it was time for me to explore his music in-depth were the handful of hits I was familiar with from the radio. My first Dylan album was his Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Vol. 1 was out of stock at Streetside Records that day), and even that was challenging for a 15-year-old to dig into. My first Dylan concert was in 1988 when he was arguably still in the nadir of his career. That I’ve reached the point where I now embrace his most controversial and arguably most inaccessible albums seems a minor miracle.
By 1978, Dylan was spent. Having reached peaks of critical acclaim, fame, and fortune, the downward slope included the end of his marriage and negative reviews of his self-produced 1975 tour docudrama Renaldo and Clara (released in ’78), his ’78 live shows, as well as his album, Street Legal. He began searching for answers as many of us do, and as he’s told the tale (abridged here), one night a fan tossed a crucifix on stage toward the physically and mentally ailing star. Something told him to pick it up and put it in his pocket – something he never did while performing. At the next stop, in Tucson, AZ, he had a vision of Christ in his hotel room. From there he enrolled in bible study at the Vineyard Church in California, where a couple of his band members were involved. Thus began a roughly three-year period when Bob Dylan was transformed and his fans were bewildered by the fire and brimstone gospel rock coming at them from the stage and vinyl.
Dylan released the first of his “Gospel Trilogy,” Slow Train Coming, in the summer of 1979. The album had a contemporary gospel sound thanks to the production of Jerry Wexler (an architect of the “Muscle Shoals sound,” including works by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin) and lead guitar by emerging star Mark Knopfler, fresh off the release of the self titled Dire Straits album. His use of female gospel background singers carried over from the Street Legal album and would continue throughout the trilogy and accompanying concert tours. I first heard Slow Train in 1992 and liked it from the start, even if the message in the songs seemed a bit odd for a Dylan record.
The only exposure I had to the second and third albums, Saved and Shot of Love were songs included on his Biograph and Bootleg Series: Rare and Unreleased, Volumes 1-3 box sets, which I immersed myself in one snowy, solitary Christmas break during college. I thought the songs were o.k., but just couldn’t bring myself to add those two records to my collection. To be honest, female backing vocals (gospel or otherwise) just seemed so out of place on a Dylan album, and the production seemed too 1980’s. Furthermore, I had read really nothing positive about that phase of his career, and there were just too many other gems of his (and Neil Young’s) that I wanted to absorb.
However, time passed and we reached Vol. 12 of Dylan’s brilliantly curated Bootleg Series (the title is a misnomer for the uninitiated – these are official releases), The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966. Rumors soon began to swirl on the intergoogle that Vol. 13 would revisit the Born Again Bob era, and I was stoked. Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 was released in November of 2017 and covers his live shows from 1979-1981 where once again, as in 1966, Bob went out nightly to do battle with his audiences who went to his shows expecting to hear one thing but who got another. But this time it wasn’t merely that he wanted to play electric music, he now had a very serious message.
You know we’re living in the end times … The scriptures say, ‘In the last days, perilous times shall be at hand. Men shall become lovers of their own selves. Blasphemous, heavy and highminded.’ … Take a look at the Middle East. We’re heading for a war … I told you ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ ‘ and they did. I said the answer was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and it was. I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation … Jesus is coming back to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years. –Dylan speaking to a concert audience, 1979.
Wow! Just, wow! As with Dylan’s buddy George Harrison regarding the latter’s 1974 tour, 2018 me would love to go back and be in the audience for one of those shows. I find it absolutely fascinating. It takes nerve and conviction to stand before your adoring audience night after night and unload some of the most buzz-killing sermons on the stage-mount ever heard, putting your career and possibly your life on the line. Keep in mind John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan, convinced he needed to eliminate the man he felt was his idol-turned-phony, in December of 1980 while Bob was in the middle of this phase.
I’ve subsequently owned and enjoyed the second two albums in the trilogy for a while now. The music on them is really good, and the production not nearly as bad as I’d allowed myself to believe it was when justifying to myself why I didn’t want to give them a serious listen. I had a pretty good feeling about the impending live archival release as well. Sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I love it. As with live versions of his songs from Desire featured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975, the songs on Vol. 13 are much more powerful and alive than their studio versions. As always, he changed song arrangements from time to time during the tours, each version with a distinct feel. I’ve even gained an appreciation for the backing vocalists – they belong on these songs. Exhibit A:
By the end of the 1981 tour, Dylan began to incorporate some of his classics back into his live sets. His next album, Infidels, was released two years later and was greeted with much positive feedback from fans and critics alike as it was a return to more of a secular, introspective songwriting akin to his mid-1970’s output. Evangelicals and cynics both might say that a three-year period of gospel music and sermonizing which seemed to suddenly end with no explanation suggests Dylan was insincere, but I strongly disagree with such a sentiment.
How do I reconcile my appreciation for this music and this period of his career in general? Despite the enigma that is Bob Dylan, he is human. Many humans search for meaning in life, and for some of us it involves a spiritual seeking that isn’t satisfied in the first discovery. Or maybe even the second or third. Or possibly ever. But like the man sang, we press on. Dylan is also an artist, and as such he expresses himself sincerely. I don’t believe Bob could do otherwise. We may not relate to the message, but it’s real. These songs are an expression of where he was in his life at that time, and I find it very compelling. And as a fan of music in general, I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be another songwriter like Dylan who will produce such controversial material, then survive the media and fan backlash to reinvent him or herself again and again. Springsteen, Neil Young, and U2 have, but only to a musical degree, not one concerning their message. The music industry no longer gives younger artists enough leeway to do so.
A couple of weeks back I attended a theater screening of the hour-long film that was included on DVD in the deluxe edition of the Trouble No More release (I settled for the condensed two disc set). It shows live performances with actor Michael Shannon giving evangelical sermons between songs. About 15-20 of us diehards were present, and I was almost as interested in how the others in the theater audience would respond to it as I would. When it was over, we all applauded. As I was leaving, I ended up in a conversation with a gentleman named Larry, a Dylan fan who graduated from college fifty years ago and who saw Dylan and The Band at the Forum in L.A. in ’74, and a young man named Cade who looked about twenty and who had very recently started on his Dylan journey as a result of Bob being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. How great is that? The three of us – three generations of Dylan fans – talked in the empty lobby for thirty minutes about what we knew and liked and could’ve easily gone on another half hour. One of the many things we agreed upon was that the Gospel Years are very deserving of their current reassessment.
The following clip appeared after the credits rolled, and to me was worth the price of admission by itself. It’s Bob dueting with backing vocalist Clydie King, presumably at a sound check, on a song made famous by Dion DiMucci fifty years ago this August.
Did you know:
1) That Dylan’s touring drummer during these years was Jim Keltner, who was also a friend of George Harrison’s who had been the latter’s drummer on that controversial and much-maligned 1974 tour? He was also the drummer on the Traveling Wilburys albums, which of course included Harrison and Dylan. I wish he would write a book about it all.
2) That Dylan secretly married and had a child with one of his backing vocalists, Carolyn Dennis, in 1986? They divorced in 1992, and they managed to keep it all private until 2001.
This aspect of popular music from years past that has fascinated me more and more in recent years – when an artist or band has confounded their fan base with a relatively major change in artistic direction and whose career survived if not thrived because of it – crosses into rock territory today. One well-known example of the latter is when a folk singer plugged in an electric guitar at a folk festival in 1965 and nearly instigated WWIII in the process. Other times, as with the case of John Coltrane, it has involved the intermingling of spirituality or religion with what is “supposed” to be secular music. This is a more delicate situation for artists.
By the time Bob Dylan, the folkie gone electric, had a vision of Christ in his Tucson hotel room in late 1978, mainstream rock audiences had already been exposed to songs of praise mixed in with their Eagles and Allman Bros. on the radio. Norman Greenbaum had a major hit with the fuzz box guitar-drenched Spirit in the Sky in 1969, and George Harrison had struck gold with My Sweet Lord in 1970 or ’71, depending on which side of the pond you were on. While there is always negative criticism on both ends of the spectrum (some evangelically inclined folks complained that Harrison deceptively added the Hari Krishna Mantra to the end of his song to indoctrinate unwitting youths into some foreign religion), these are benign light rock songs with great hooks – a winning formula.
But while a song here and there is one thing, dedicating entire albums and concert tours to the subject is another. Harrison had begun to antagonize some of his fans by the time of his Living in the Material World album in 1973, which features ten spiritually related songs and one lament about the never-ending saga that was the Beatles divorce. Then came his 1974 North American tour during which he refused to play any of his Beatles-era songs or otherwise made a mockery of them, and frequently berated his audiences for their evil ways. Add to this a nasty case of laryngitis and Ravi Shankar’s Indian musicians opening the shows and it was a recipe for disaster.
By most written accounts from the time it was a bit of a debacle, though some of that criticism has softened over the years. Other than a brief tour of Japan in late ’91 in which he performed clinical renditions of his hits with Eric Clapton and his band backing him, he never toured again. And the albums he would release after ’74 were more balanced in their spiritual and secular content. Forty-four years on, there is at least a small ground swell of fans calling for the Harrison estate to release a set of the better sounding performances from the ’74 tour. I know this because I’m one of them. They weren’t all that bad, and anyway it’s now part of the lore. If only George were still around to chant “Krishna!” at us while struggling through Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth) with a wrecked throat in hockey arenas around the country!
Oh dear, I’ve done it again. What was supposed to be another part of a brief introduction (which turned into a full post yesterday) has turned into another complete post. I guess I’ll change the title again.
John Coltrane – Om
Time has a tendency to turn axioms upside down if one is listening, reading, watching, etc. with an open mind. The Beatles were this after experimenting with psychedelics. Elvis was that after the army. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were something completely different once they started singing about what was “going on,” etc., etc. Clear delineations with no middle ground, right? Of course not. Not only do we listeners/fans change as we age, but so do the artists, obviously. What was once hip or great is now a punch line (Culture Club, anyone?), and what was too deep we now like to dive into and not come up for air for roughly 45 minutes. This is why there will probably always be “new” 50-year-old music for me to explore.
One example is an album I didn’t originally intend to write about, but which I realized segues into my main topic (which I’ll now save for my next post): John Coltrane’s Om, released posthumously late January/early February 1968 (Coltrane passed away July 17, 1967). Recorded in 1965, Om is a further exploration by the saxophonist into Eastern spirituality and avant-garde jazz. It is also widely considered his most disliked work. I find this interesting, as I feel the album only expounds upon his A Love Supreme recorded just months before, and that work is considered a groundbreaking classic.
But Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders push the boundaries of art even further out with their soprano and tenor saxes, respectively, and Trane is even more pronounced about his spirituality on this record. At a couple of points on the recording, he and a couple of others chant a portion of the Bhagavad Gita: “Rites that the Vedas ordain, and the rituals taught by the scriptures: all these I am…I am Om!” Certainly this must have ruffled the sensibilities of a waspy Dave Brubeck connoisseur. It wouldn’t be the last time an artist vexed their fans with the imposition of their spiritual leanings into vinyl grooves or on stage. Either way, Om is an acquired taste for the layperson such as myself, and I’ll keep nibbling.
But even if I don’t really understand what Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders were doing on this record, musically speaking, I appreciate the spirit in which it was done due to my own spiritual interests and an inclination to understand avant-garde or free jazz a little better. That’s my “in” for an album such as this, just as it was for its predecessor. Will I like it as much as A Love Supreme in the long run? Probably not. It’s really out there. But it doesn’t matter, because finding out is the best part of the journey.
But enough about jazz musicians exclaiming their newly found spirituality through their music, and on to folk and rock musicians exclaiming their newly found spirituality through their music…