October ’68 – Dillard and Clark: A Most Exellent Journey

Dillard & Clark – The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark

Continuing from my previous post featuring the great songwriter and Byrds co-founder Gene Clark, today we’re celebrating the second Clark record after setting out on his own, though technically it’s not a solo album.  The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark was released 50 years ago this month, just a couple of months after what is widely considered the seminal introduction to the country rock genre – the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo – and a few months after the lesser-known Safe at Home by Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band.  The album features a collaboration of Clark with banjo and fiddle virtuoso Doug Dillard of the famous bluegrass family and group, the Dillards, as well as future Burrito Brother and Eagle, Bernie Leadon.

fantastic-expedition-of-dillard-and-clark_4563025.jpg

I shared some background on Clark in my tribute here, and in Doug Dillard he found not only a freewheelin’ partner in crime in the emerging country rock genre, but also a fellow native of the Show Me State of Missouri.  Dillard (1937-2012) hailed from Salem, a couple of hilly hours away from Clark’s hometown of Tipton.  The Dillards were an established bluegrass act in the early 1960’s when they landed a recurring role as the fictional bluegrass group The Darlings on the Andy Griffith Show, appearing at various times from 1963-66.

1darlings.jpg
The Dillards as The Darlings on the Andy Griffith Show.  Doug is at bottom left.

This first Dillard and Clark album was a collaborative effort.  Though Clark took on the bulk of the songwriting, credits were shared with the multi-instrumentalist Dillard, as well as Leadon, who added banjo and guitar – the connection being Leadon’s previous involvement in the same San Diego teen bluegrass band as future Byrds member and Clark band mate Chris Hillman, who also contributes mandolin on two tracks on this album.

download (1).jpg

Due to the group’s personnel and timing of its release, The Fantastic Expedition… has understandably been compared with the Byrds great country rock achievement, not to mention that of the Flying Burrito Bros. the following year.  No doubt, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, this Dillard and Clark debut, and the Gilded Palace of Sin make for a great triple listening experience.  But whereas the Byrds and Burritos albums lean heavily on the pure country element, The Fantastic Expedition… features more of a bluegrass flavor complimented by vintage country.

maxresdefault.jpg

This album flows beautifully.  While Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as great as it is, does sound to me like a rock band playing country – especially on the tracks where McGuinn’s vocals are recorded over Parsons’ original takes – Dillard and Clark sound more seasoned at what they were doing, and they were.  In his AllMusic review, Mark Deming writes, “…they created a mature and confident sound that was exciting, thoughtful, and deeply soulful in a way those better-known albums were not.”

download.jpg

Have a listen to the opening track, Clark’s Out on the Side, for example.  I wrote in an earlier post that I don’t comprehend exactly what Gram Parsons’ term “Cosmic American Music” means, but crank this track or listen through headphones.  Its harmonies and heavy-yet-quiet pattering drums are as “cosmic” as anything you’ll hear in the country rock genre.  Frankly, the same goes for the the second song, She Darked the Sun, with its lyric:

She walked into my life with her cold evil eyes
With the length of her mind she darked the sun

From there the tracks vary in tempo, and it’s hard to imagine the musicians having anything but a great time laying them down.  The whole album is a perfect combination of virtuoso playing and some of the strongest singing of Gene Clark’s career.  Other favorites for me are Train Leaves Here This Morning – a song which makes me think of riverboats on the Mighty Mississippi during simpler times – featuring Donald Beck’s mandolin, With Care from Someone and The Radio Song, both with Andy Belling’s cool electric harpsichord, and In the Plan with its fantastic harmonies.

download.jpg
On stage at the Troubadour (L-R):  Bernie Leadon, Michael Clarke, Gene Clark, Doug Dillard.

Because of Clark’s refusal to tour due to his fear of flying, Dillard and Clark’s live presence was limited to a few notoriously drunken performances at L.A.’s Troubadour.  They would follow-up with a second and final album a year later which was less acclaimed but still very good.  As a common theme running throughout the work of Gene Clark, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark was a bolt of lightning and clap of thunder that relatively few people saw or heard.  It came about as a result of informal jamming between Gene and Doug, and with the rest of the band they fine tuned their sound into something timeless.  Again from AllMusic’s Deming:

Time has been kinder to this album than most of the genre’s founding works, and it’s a work rooted in tradition while reveling in freedom and new ideas and making the most of them all.

Cosmic, man.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Out on the Side
  2. She Darked the Sun
  3. Don’t Come Rollin’
  4. Train Leaves Here This Morning

Side Two:

  1. With Care from Someone
  2. The Radio Song
  3. Git It On Brother
  4. In the Plan
  5. Something’s Wrong

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fantastic_Expedition_of_Dillard_%26_Clark

https://www.allmusic.com/album/the-fantastic-expedition-of-dillard-clark-mw0000783755

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dillard_%26_Clark

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dillards

Gene Clark: The Byrd Who Wouldn’t Fly

It’s a rainy day in early October 2018, and Gene Clark still hasn’t received his full due.  It is happening, though.  Slowly but surely.  And, it’s somewhat remarkable considering we’re over 50 years removed from the first hits which he wrote, and it’s mostly the result of extremely well curated archival releases on small labels, well-written biographies and video documentaries, acknowledgements from current artists, and good ‘ol grass-roots efforts.

geneclark33-578x289.jpg

I must admit, I’m symbolic of how Gene has been overlooked by mainstream music fans over the years.  Though I was born a few years after Clark’s first and most important stint with the Byrds, I became a fan of that band at a young age – yet I had no idea until the 1990’s that Gene Clark was from my home state of Missouri and that he had written some of the Byrds’ earliest hits.  So, how did he become another unsung troubadour, a “songwriter’s songwriter,” who died too young, a somewhat obscure figure to the masses?  Call it a combination of personal choices, phobias, and bad luck.

Gene Clark was born in the small, central Missouri town of Tipton on November 17, 1944.  Early on, his family moved to the Kansas City area.  By the time he graduated from Bonner Springs High School he was a folk music convert in a band called the Surf Riders.  While playing a gig in Kansas City, he was discovered late one evening by members of the New Christy Minstrels (whose lineup included Barry McGuire) who hired him on the spot and with whom he recorded two albums in the early-mid 1960’s.  Upon hearing the Beatles for the first time, he quit the group and moved to L.A. where he met Jim McGuinn at the Troubadour Club, and the seeds of the Byrds were sewn.

the-byrds-1965.jpg
The classic Byrds lineup (L-R):  Hillman, Crosby, Michael Clarke, McGuinn, and Gene Clark.

From 1964-66, the biggest singles recorded by the Byrds not written by Bob Dylan were written by Clark, including Set You Free This Time, I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better, Eight Miles High, and She Don’t Care About Time.  But internal issues within the Byrds led to Clark quitting just as the band took flight.  These included their management’s decision that McGuinn would sing the major singles, including the Dylan covers.  Additionally, Clark’s fear of flying (which Crosby alluded to in the song Psychodrama City) was an obvious hindrance to touring.  Finally, there was resentment of the others toward Clark due to the songwriting royalties he was receiving while they were still struggling – something McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman acknowledge today as due to their immaturity at the time.  They were all so young and talented, and extremely ambitious.  Something had to give.

genedylanclose.jpg
Clark, showing the master where the new direction of music was headed.

Clark’s first solo album (though co-credited), Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, was a critical success.  It’s a fully realized, damn-near perfect country rock album right out of the gate.  Unfortunately, it was not promoted well and was released very close to the same time as his former band the Byrds’ Younger than Yesterday, which meant his record was mostly overlooked by the media and public.  Add to this his refusal to tour, and his fate as a solo artist was mostly set.

Going forward, he would release six more critically acclaimed albums, including his next two with Doug Dillard.  He also returned, along with David Crosby, to the Byrds for one final attempt at a reunion album in 1973, but it was a flop.  Additionally, he joined McGuinn and Hillman for a brief period.  But by the 1970’s, Gene’s time in the studio became sporadic.  He purchased a home in northern California and mostly avoided the L.A. scene, living off Byrds royalties.  He married and started a family, but his consumption of alcohol and other substances which drag a fellow down increased until he was mostly forgotten.

gene-clark.jpg
Clark, circa 1974

Sadly, his final straw came about as a result of something which should’ve been the instigation of a Gene Clark revival:  the release of Tom Petty’s version of I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better on his 1989 Full Moon Fever album.  Clark became flush with cash from songwriting royalties thanks to Petty, but he was also heavily addicted, and there his money and health went.  In January of 1991, all five original Byrds put aside their differences and took the stage for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.  Four months later, on May 24, 1991, Gene Clark died of heart failure at the age of 46.

bild12.jpg
One final hurrah:  the original Byrds lineup at the R&R Hall induction in January 1991.  Four month later, Clark (far right) was no longer with us.

There would be no latter career mega-group participation for him, nor would there be well orchestrated, 21st century, sober, smaller theater tours for the next generation (or two) of his fans to express their appreciation for the brilliant music he made.  There would be, however, a legion of fans and critical acclaim, both growing by the day, as well as a legacy of some of the greatest songwriting of all time.  Some of this can be heard on two recent releases consisting of amazing, previously unheard Clark recordings.

There would also be inevitable comparisons to other songwriting troubadours who left us too soon, namely Gram Parsons.  The thing is, if you aren’t already familiar with Gene Clark, you’ll have to discover him on your own.  Like Gram, Townes Van Zandt, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, etc., you’re not likely to hear Gene Clark on the radio.  But he’s not hard to find.  In fact, his music’s been around us all along.

3660af3c7c62c3dd3ed69805b34737a3.jpg
Full Circle:  Gene Clark’s final resting place in Tipton, MO, a couple of country miles from where I grew up.

As the main theme of my blog, begun in 2018, is 50th anniversaries of album releases, I missed out on celebrating Clark’s first solo album released in 1967 which I mentioned above.  Here it is in all its 28 minute folk/country/psychedelic/baroque-pop glory:

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Echoes
  2. Think I’m Gonna Feel Better
  3. Tried So Hard
  4. Is Yours Is Mine
  5. Keep on Pushin’
  6. I Found You

Side Two:

  1. So You Say You Lost Your Baby
  2. Elevator Operator
  3. The Same One
  4. Couldn’t Believe Her
  5. Needing Someone
51zClchM+sL._SY445_.jpg
A very nice documentary by Four Suns Productions, complete with interviews with McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman.

918dKYSmbsL.jpg

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Clark

http://foursunsproductions.com/Gene-Clark-Documentary/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Clark_with_the_Gosdin_Brothers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Byrds#Ersatz_Byrds_and_further_reunions_(1989%E2%80%9391;_2000)

 

October 7 – Tim Buckley’s Dream Letter

Tim Buckley – Dream Letter Live in London 1968

Today’s featured album is a live recording by Tim Buckley made on this day 50 years ago at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, though it wasn’t released until 1990.  It captures Buckley shifting into mid-career, stylistically speaking, and contains mostly songs from his second album, Goodbye and Hello, and his then yet-to-be-released third album, Happy Sad.

download.jpg

Buckley had one of the most distinctive voices in music, featuring a very dynamic vocal range – something that would also be heard from his estranged son years after Tim’s death.  He was exposed to jazz music by his mother and grandmother at a very young age, and as he developed as a musician and songwriter his muse took him places in the realm of jazz and avant-garde that all but ensured his commercial failure.  Despite this, much of his catalog is highly regarded by critics (and this fan).

But at the time of this performance Buckley was still in folk-jazz mode, and he performed with a band featuring Lee Underwood on guitar, David Friedman on vibraphone, and Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on stand-up bass.  The recording also shows Buckley had a sense of humor, judging from the between-song banter.  On the whole, I consider Dream Letter to be a very enjoyable listen.  Standouts for me include Buzzin’ Fly, Phantasmagoria in Two, Carnival Song/Hi Lily, Hi LoDream Letter/Happy Time, and Wayfaring Stranger/You Got Me Running.  This is a beautifully recorded concert, delivered in full on this release.

p01bqnwl.jpg

Tim Buckley seems to have been “one of those artists” for whom things just didn’t fall into place, and he also didn’t help himself when it came to album sales and expanding his audience.  He was shy and not friendly with the media, and his rather extreme stylistic changes, which almost seemed to be made out of spite, only alienated what fan base he did have as the 1970’s ensued.  When he died of a heroin overdose in 1975, he was broke and had met his young son and future shooting star, Jeff, one time.

Tracklist:

Disc One:

  1. Introduction
  2. Buzzin’ Fly
  3. Phantasmagoria in Two
  4. Morning Glory
  5. Dolphins
  6. I’ve Been Out Walking
  7. The Earth is Broken
  8. Who Do You Love?
  9. Pleasant Street/You Keep Me Hanging On

Disc Two:

  1. Love from Room 109/Strange Feelin’
  2. Carnival Song/Hi Lily, Hi Lo
  3. Hallucinations
  4. Troubadour
  5. Dream Letter/Happy Time
  6. Wayfaring Stranger/You Got Me Runnin’
  7. Once I Was

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_Letter:_Live_in_London_1968

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Buckley

https://www.allmusic.com/album/dream-letter-live-in-london-1968-mw0000308470

 

October ’68 – The Steve Miller Band Sails On

The Steve Miller Band – Sailor

Are there albums you enjoy from start to finish, yet because they don’t necessarily contain much in the realm of the dynamic they’re not often on your radar?  For me, the Steve Miller Band’s Sailor, their second album of 1968 and second overall, is just that.  Released 50 years ago this month, this offering of West Coast psychedelic blues rock is a nice reminder after years of subjecting myself to the same handful of Miller’s 1970’s hits on classic rock radio to the point of switching stations whenever a song like Jungle Love comes on, that Miller, Boz Scaggs, and company were making very good records from day one.

69 SMB 19 8 Group best corpr.jpg

Sailor is a nice combination of blues and psychedelic rock which featured the first contributions from Miller’s Dallas prep school buddy Boz Scaggs.  Of its opening track Song for Our Ancestors, AllMusic critic Amy Hanson suggests that it sounds so much like Pink Floyd’s track Echoes, released three years later, that “one wonders how much (Pink Floyd) enjoyed Miller’s own wild ride.”  The beautiful Dear Mary sounds like a song Lenny Kravitz might have channeled years later, and the drums on Lucky Man are really cool in their heavy but not overly loud mix.  Glyn Johns was responsible for that, as well as the rest of the album’s production (as he was with the band’s first album earlier in the year).  Living in the U.S.A. and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Gangster of Love are the more famous tracks here, as well as Quicksilver Girl due to its inclusion in the 1983 movie The Big Chill.

download.jpg

This is the kind of music that sounds like it’s being played by extremely gifted musicians and songwriters who are not overly concerned with stardom.  Like Mike Bloomfield before him, Steve Miller has a passion for the blues, and his fame was a by-product of his genuine love for what he was doing.  The Joker and Fly Like an Eagle may have been his meal ticket (just as Silk Degrees was for Boz Scaggs), but I don’t know that it got any better than the Steve Miller Band’s first four or five albums, all from 1970 or earlier.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Song for Our Ancestors
  2. Dear Mary
  3. My Friend
  4. Living in the U.S.A.

Side Two:

  1. Quicksilver Girl
  2. Lucky Man
  3. Gangster of Love
  4. You’re So Fine
  5. Overdrive
  6. Dime-a-Dance Romance

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailor_(album)

https://www.allmusic.com/album/sailor-mw0000689837

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Miller_Band_discography

October ’68 – Donovan, Paul Horn, and Echoes of India

1968 saw four album releases from attendees of that well-known spiritual retreat which took place in Rishikesh, India at the beginning of the year.  The Beach Boys released their album Friends in June, and in October Donovan released his classic ode to time spent with the Maharishi.  Perhaps lesser known (even though it sold a million copies) but still very significant is the work of jazz flautist Paul Horn, who recorded his album in April while still in India, although the exact release date other than the year 1968 seems to have been lost.  Today I’m celebrating these second two releases.

Donovan – The Hurdy Gurdy Man

Donovan Leitch is a bit of a mysterious figure to me in the world of music.  He isn’t nearly the self-promoter that many of his peers are/were, and it’s never really occurred to me to learn much about him (his autobiography is now on my reading list).  Without looking it up, I have no idea when the last time was he toured the US or what he’s done in recent years.

Is he considered an influential “heavy,” as evidenced by his participation alongside the Beatles at the famed retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in 1968 where he shared guitar techniques with the Fabs, or is he a “lightweight” Dylan wannabe hanging onto Bob’s coattails as depicted in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back?  Fifty-plus years on it doesn’t really matter, if it ever did.  As with any artist, you either like their work or you don’t, and I like Donovan’s music, especially The Hurdy Gurdy Man, released 50 years ago this month.

JS43648350.jpg

Donovan’s record, an interesting mix of folk, pop, eastern influences, and jazz, gave us two singles in Hurdy Gurdy Man and Jennifer Juniper.  The album’s tone is set by Donovan’s tremolo voice in the title track, and by use of the tambura which was given to Donovan by George Harrison while in India.  Harrison also contributed a line which was unfortunately removed to shorten the song for the radio.  It went:

When the truth gets buried deep
Beneath the thousand years asleep
Time demands a turnaround
And once again the truth is found

The Hurdy Gurdy Man is an enlightened teacher – in this case the Maharishi – who helps seekers awaken from their thousand years sleep to find the truth.  The song is a testament to the freewheelin’ and, uh, foggy nature of how recording sessions unfolded back then, as there were session musicians used who went on to become quite famous, though other than John Paul Jones as the arranger and bass player it’s not entirely clear who.  According to Donovan, Jimmy Page and Allan Holdsworth played electric guitar and John Bonham and Clem Cattini played drums.  Page and engineer Eddie Kramer claim Page played, though Kramer says Bonham did not.  Anyhoo…

5c4a775a1d9f79e01983d904d06996d9.jpg

Other than the two singles, favorites for me include the tambura drone-drenched Peregrine and Tangier, the dreamy and brief The Entertaining of a Shy Girl, and the jazz influenced Get Thy BearingsThe Hurdy Gurdy Man is a rather tidy collection of songs which hold up well to my ears.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Hurdy Gurdy Man
  2. Peregrine
  3. The Entertaining of a Shy Girl
  4. As I Recall It
  5. Get Thy Bearings
  6. Hi It’s Been a Long Time
  7. West Indian Lady

Side Two:

  1. Jennifer Juniper
  2. The River Song
  3. Tangier
  4. A Sunny Day
  5. The Sun is a Very Magic Fellow
  6. Teas

Paul Horn – Inside the Taj Mahal

Jazz flautist Paul Horn was a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation who joined the Beatles, Donovan, Mike Love, Mia Farrow and others at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh in February 1968.  He had previously worked with Chico Hamilton, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Cal Tjader when he recorded Paul Horn in India and Paul Horn in Kashmir in 1967 (now both available on one disc).  Then, upon leaving Maharishi’s ashram after the retreat, he snuck a tape recorder into the Taj Mahal on April 25, 1968 and began playing his flute.  The guerrilla recording which resulted from it is titled Inside the Taj Mahal, or simply Inside.

MI0002941054.jpg

The album has been described as Horn playing not only his flute, but the building itself with its long sound delay creating a type of ethereal echo which couldn’t be created in studios at that time.  A security guard was about to ask him to cease playing, but was so moved by what he was hearing that he allowed Horn to continue.  The haunting vocal on the album was improvised by a complete stranger who happened to be under the massive marble dome at the same time.  Unfortunately, he was not credited.

Horn-Harrison
Paul Horn and George Harrison at Rishikesh

Inside the Taj Mahal is considered a pioneering album in the realm of “world” or “new age” music.  It’s a good choice for drifting into or out of meditation, or for the spiritually disinclined, for sinking back into a comfortable chair late at night with a snifter of brandy.  In my case, it’s both.  Paul Horn was nominated for a Grammy five times during his career.  He passed away at the age of 84 in 2014.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Prologue/Inside
  2. Mantra I/Meditation
  3. Mumtaz Mahal
  4. Unity
  5. Agra

Side Two:

  1. Vibrations
  2. Akasha
  3. Jumna
  4. Shah Jahan
  5. Mantra II/Duality
  6. Ustad Isa/Mantra III

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hurdy_Gurdy_Man

https://www.allmusic.com/album/the-hurdy-gurdy-man-mw0000203921

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inside_(Paul_Horn_album)

https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2013/jul/03/101-strangest-spotify-paul-horn

September 1968 Wrap Up – A Singularly Singles-Oriented Month

September of 1968 was the quietest month of the year on the 33 1/3 rpm scene, but there were a handful of significant singles releases, some of which continue to maintain a cozy existence on oldies radio stations heard in dentist’s offices across the land.  Let’s give ’em a spin and move on to October, what say ye?

9/7/68  Led Zeppelin perform for the first time as The New Yardbirds:  Jimmy Page and his new recruits played their first gig – a show booked while the Yardbirds were still together for which there was still a contractual obligation to play.  It was held at the Gladsaxe Teen Club of Gladsaxe, Denmark.

L_new_yardbirds.jpg

9/68  Three Dog Night – Single:  One

One, so they say, is the loneliest number.  It’s also a number that was written by Harry Nilsson.  It was the second single from Three Dog Night’s first album, and it reached #5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

9/68  The Turtles – Single:  Elenore

This track was included on LP The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, and was a satire of their own hit record, Happy Together, which their label wanted them to record more songs like.  It reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Oddly, Elenore, their satire of Happy Together, also sounds kind of like Three Dog Night’s version of Harry Nilsson’s One.  Hmm…

9/68  Steppenwolf – Single:  Magic Carpet Ride

This was the lead single from Steppenwolf’s second album, thoughtfully titled The Second.  Good late-60’s guitar and keyboard driven rock music.

9/68  Gordon Lightfoot – Single:  Bitter Green

While not a major hit – not even in Canada (peaking at #44) – this is one of the earlier tunes of Lightfoot’s that I like.

9/18/68  The Who – Single:  Magic Bus

Magic Bus was written by Pete Townshend in 1965, but not recorded until May 1968.  It wasn’t a particularly successful single, but went on to become one of the Who’s more famous tunes.  I wwaaaaanit, I wwaaaaaanit…(You caaaaaaaan’t have it!)

9/30/68  Diana Ross & the Supremes – Single:  Love Child

No longer known simply as the Supremes, this Motown track is from their LP of the same title, and it reached #1.

-Stephen

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/led-zeppelin-first-concert/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_(Harry_Nilsson_song)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elenore

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Carpet_Ride_(Steppenwolf_song)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitter_Green

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Bus_(song)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Child_(song)

 

September 16 – Springsteen: My Top 15 Albums – The Final 5

Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons - 1978.jpg

Recapping 15-6:  15. Tracks 14. Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 13. Tunnel of Love 12. The Rising 11. Live in New York City 10. The Ghost of Tom Joad 9. Born in the U.S.A. 8. The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle 7. Magic 6. Live/1975-85

5. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

“Unguarded teen-underclass poetry” – that’s how critic Robert Christgau referred to the songs that make up Springsteen’s debut.  I wouldn’t say this album is overlooked or underappreciated, but every time I play it I have that “Oh man, I forgot how good this is!” moment at some point, usually by the fourth track, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?.  This album, recorded in 1972 but released the following year, is Bruce perhaps at his most Dylanesque.

Two of its songs ended up being radio hits for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band:  Blinded by the Light and For You.  Too bad Bruce’s version of the former didn’t garner much attention beforehand, as it might’ve prevented some awkward moments experienced by people singing along to it on the radio with hilariously misunderstood lyrics.  Growin’ Up, Does This Bus Stop…, Lost in the Flood, Spirit in the Night, It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City – that’s a nice career for some.  A great debut for Bruce.

Greetings_from_Asbury_Park_NJ.jpg

4. Nebraska (1982)

Bruce dug a little deeper into the underbelly of society for themes which make up the songs on this album, songs that feature a mass murderer (based on a true story) and others who have run afoul of the law and who have little to no hope for redemption.  Even his hint of absolution in Reason to Believe is little more than a glimmer.  Nebraska is a set of demos Bruce recorded at home on a four-track recorder which he intended to record with the E Street Band.  They did record them, but ultimately it was decided to release the demos as the album, which, in my opinion, took balls.  It paid off.

This album was a slightly acquired taste for me, but not too much.  I was already versed with some of it having heard a few of its tracks on Live/1975-85.  But oh, is this a bleak record.  It’s not just that it’s mostly acoustic, it’s also the production with the all the reverb.  He sounds alone on these songs.  I feel like I’m on a dark highway in the middle of the night when listening to it.  The album cover looks like the songs sound.  When Nebraska was released in September of 1982 I was 11 years old and the only care I had in the world was that the Cardinals would reach their first World Series in my lifetime.  Musically, I was more interested in Men at Work, The Cars, and A Flock of Seagulls.  It would be a few years before I discovered this album, but it’s been with me since.

Bruce_Springsteen_-_Nebraska.jpg

3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

I consider Darkness to be #2-B in my ranking.  If there’s a deciding factor which puts it behind The River, it’s that I’ve probably enjoyed these tracks done live a little more than the studio versions.  That’s really not any kind of criticism though.  Bruce is in rarefied air with this one.  It’s raw, guitar driven rock that’s full of anger and angst – about growin’ up, about girls, about reckless abandon – that hits hard right out of the gate and doesn’t stop for 43 minutes.  Badlands, Adam Raised a Cain, Candy’s Room, Racing in the Street, The Promised Land, Streets of Fire, Prove it All Night, and the title track are all fantastic.  And, as we later learned, he had a couple more album’s worth of good songs left in the vault.  Crazy!

BruceSpringsteenDarknessontheEdgeofTown.jpg

2. The River (1980)

As with Nebraska, the album as released was not what was originally intended; in the case of The River, it was going to be a single album of the more upbeat rockers but ended up as a double with the full range of joy and hard knocks.  The River is the delineation of Bruce’s songwriting and the E Street Band’s sound of the 1970’s and what came later.  Now, young male protagonists are out of school and breaking free from parental constraints and finding just how difficult the road ahead will be, and the girls who had previously been heard from while in a much more carefree state are also facing the responsibilities of adulthood sooner than they expected.

But there’s still the joy of rock and roll, cars, and girls.  It’s not all factories and loneliness.  These songs are more cleanly produced than their predecessors, and they sound bigger and somewhat cinematic.  It works perfectly on The River.  If I have to cite one release as possessing the quintessential Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band sound that has endured throughout the years, this is the one.  There’s not a throwaway track to be found to my ears, but some of the songs I enjoy the most are The Ties That Bind, Sherry Darling, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), The River, Point Blank, Fade Away, and Stolen Car.  I don’t know the first thing about hotrods, but even Ramrod is cool.  To me, that song is rock ‘n roll at its purist.  Not only is there no filler, but as with Darkness, he had enough material at the time for another album or two.  Just an absurd level of output.

The_River_(Bruce_Springsteen)_(Front_Cover).jpg

1. Born to Run (1975)

I don’t assume that Born to Run is everyone’s favorite Springsteen album, and I took a minute to think it through before I listed it as mine.  The obvious choice can sometimes be the lazy choice.  But not this one – not for me, anyway.  This was Bruce’s make or break album, and it took 14 months to make.  Some of my favorite Springsteen lyrics are found on this record, from the “soft infested summer” of Backstreets to the “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain” of Jungleland.  Additionally, I hear some of the best musicianship on all of his albums with Clarence’s sax playing on Born to Run and his epic solo on Jungleland, as well as Randy Brecker’s haunting trumpet on Meeting Across the River.  Roy Bittan’s piano and Clarence’s sax on She’s the One make the song, and it’s a great one even without them.

Yes, this is also the sentimental choice for me.  This is due in part to the iconic jacket, which speaks volumes about the bond Bruce had with Clarence, a bond that could never be replaced and which took an entire brass section including Clemons’ nephew just to begin to make up for the musical loss on stage.  From the operas out on the turnpike and ballets fought in alleys to the heartbroken making crosses from lovers and throwing roses in the rain, and all the rest of Bruce’s hungry and hunted, chrome-wheeled and fuel injected characters steppin’ out over the line:  Born to Run delivers everything when I think of Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band.  It’s rock and roll poetry, as well as a desert island album for me.

Born_to_Run_(Front_Cover).jpg

 

Some bonus Bruce-related hilarity:

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greetings_from_Asbury_Park,_N.J.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebraska_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(Bruce_Springsteen_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darkness_on_the_Edge_of_Town

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_to_Run

September 15 – Springsteen: My Top 15 Albums, Pt. 2

060673-philly-photo-nwx.jpg

Recapping 15-11:  15. Tracks 14. Hammersmith Odeon ’75 13. Tunnel of Love 12. The Rising 11. Live in New York City

10. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

When this album was released it had been eight years since the last Springsteen album with the East Street Band, and over three years since his last release of any sort.  Given that the interim two albums were the questionable same-day twin releases with that “other” band, fans were hungry for a “real” Bruce album.  (To play the “what if?’ game, I feel that Human Touch and Lucky Town could’ve been pared down to a very good single E Street Band album.)  The Ghost of Tom Joad, while not an E Street Band record, went a long way toward satisfying that hunger and was rewarded with the 1997 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Bruce channeled Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie for this batch of mostly quiet, acoustic songs which shed a light on the human element of race, immigration, and the every day struggle in a way only Springsteen can.  To me, a true testament to how good these tracks are is how songs such as Youngstown and the title track are transformed into something just as good if not better as rock versions in a live setting, giving guitarists Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello, respectively, a chance to really shine.

The_Ghost_of_Tom_Joad.jpg

9. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

The first album of Bruce’s I listened to, this one is the Godzilla smash hit of his catalog.  Besides great songs, its success was fueled by relentless touring as well as MTV.  Everybody was aware of this record, including non-fans.  Even my older sister saw him on this tour, and I doubt she could name one song of his then or now (yeah, I’m kind of bitter that she saw him in ’85 but I was still too young to go to a concert).  It’s an album I don’t listen to much anymore; I simply grew tired of it.  But it’s still deserving of a top-10 spot.

BruceBorn1984.JPG

8. The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)

Song for song, this is a top-3 album that is probably way too overlooked by fans.  The reason it isn’t rated higher here is because of the way it was recorded, but it’s difficult for me to put my finger on as I don’t consider myself an audiophile.  I do feel it sounds a bit rushed even though it took months to record.  But again, these songs!  Bruce really started to embrace more of a rock sound compared to his debut, also from 1973, and the vignettes he created about life in the city included songs that have remained concert staples.

This is the E.S.B. pre-Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steven Van Zandt.  David Sancious is on piano and keyboards, and Vini Lopez plays drums.  These songs performed live are right up there with his best work, and hopefully one of their shows from this period will become available as part of Bruce’s live archives series.  Personal favorites include 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Kitty’s Back, Wild Billy’s Circus Story, and of course the show stopper Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).

TheWildTheInnocent.jpg

7. Magic (2007)

Magic, the most recent Springsteen studio album in my ranking, was the first one with the E Street Band since 2002’s The Rising.  In my mind, it’s a continuation of the stories told in The Rising from the points of view of people that we all seem to know.  Only now he’s moved on from grief and the hope for healing and redemption – something that very briefly brought Americans together after 9/11 – to the disillusionment of the individual and national consequences of endless war and reawakened societal divisions that resulted from it.  It’s an angry album which perfectly captures the feelings of dread that many of us felt in those years which, for some of us, haven’t fully dissipated.

Standouts for me are You’ll Be Comin’ Down, Your Own Worst Enemy, Gypsy BikerMagic, Last to Die, and Long Walk HomeGirls in Their Summer Clothes provides a nice mid-album respite, and it reminds me of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys.  At the end of this high energy roller coaster of an album, Terry’s Song is a sad but very touching tribute to Bruce’s long-time friend and assistant, Terry Magovern.  Also, Bruce looks like a complete badass on the cover photo.  Yeah, yeah, I’m a fanboy.

Bruce_Springsteen_-_Magic.jpg

6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band:  Live/1975-85 (1986)

As I mentioned in my intro to this series, this box set kick-started my Springsteen fandom in the mid-1980’s.  From the solo piano version of Thunder Road (my favorite rendition) recorded at the Roxy in ’75 which opens the box set to the arena-anthemic, Tom Waits-written serenade to Jersey Girls that closes it out, this release was a true revelation to me.  The energy in these performances never fails to rev me up, including Side 6, a.k.a. the solo acoustic Nebraska set.

I vividly remember calling my mom into my basement room to listen to his heartfelt stories which lead into The River and War because I thought (and still think) they were great and I wanted her to “get it.”  I don’t know that she did.  I also recall listening to Seeds for the first time, and in my sheltered 15-year-old mind thinking, “Do people actually live that way?”  I learned they do.  I also learned that Fire was a Springsteen song and not the Pointer Sisters.  And all those tracks from the first six albums – what an introduction!  I was beginning to form what I later recognized as personal convictions and a worldview, and this was an early soundtrack for it.

Bruce_Springsteen_Live_75-85.jpg

You can probably predict what the final five will be, but can you guess the order?

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ghost_of_Tom_Joad

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_in_the_U.S.A.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_(Bruce_Springsteen_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wild,_the_Innocent_%26_the_E_Street_Shuffle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Live_1975%E2%80%9385

September 14 – Springsteen: My Top 15 Albums, Pt. 1

The parameters of my rankings change depending upon the artist.  For Bruce, box sets and live releases are included, with the exception of his live archival releases which are available to order and download from his website.  There’s simply too much material there to cover.  The same thing goes for his archival studio releases The Promise (from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions) and The Ties That Band (from The River sessions).  Otherwise, this could be a 50 album list, and ain’t nobody got time fer that.  As for his most recent three studio albums, Working on a Dream, Wrecking Ball, and High Hopes, they’re all good and very listenable, but in my mind they kind of run together unlike his earlier work and I haven’t spent as much time with them.  It takes time for me to make a serious connection with an album.

That said, let’s get rolling…

1004Carv.jpg

15. Tracks (Box Set) (1998)

With the release of this four-disc set, I began to understand just how enormously productive Bruce had been over the years.  While some of its 66 songs are demos, alternate versions, and B-sides, it’s mostly made up of fully formed but previously unreleased songs that could’ve comprised albums which don’t exist.  Among the many highlights for me are the opening four tracks from Springsteen’s 1972 audition with John Hammond at CBS Records, as well as Thundercrack, Brothers Under the Bridge, and the demo for Born in the U.S.A. – the definitive version in my mind.  If that song had been released on Nebraska as originally recorded, its meaning wouldn’t have been lost on so many people, and it certainly wouldn’t be hijacked for use at political rallies as it is to this day.

Bruce_springsteen_tracks

14. Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 (2006)

This concert was recorded November 18, 1975 shortly after the release of Born to Run, and was Bruce and the E.S.B.’s first appearance overseas.  It’s a historic performance, and one which Bruce felt a lot of doubt and anxiety about.  But you’d never know it from listening to the disc or watching the DVD.  They may or may not have been at their peak, but I’d argue they were never better.  Young and hungry they were.  Spirit in the Night, Lost in the Flood, and the epic 17:14 Kitty’s Back are among my favorites here.

Hammersmith_Odeon,_London_'75.jpg

13. Tunnel of Love (1987)

What goes up must come down, so they say.  Springsteen’s skyrocketing international fame over the previous couple of years had taken a toll.  His marriage had fallen apart, and he had turned very introspective.  While members of the E Street Band contributed to the recordings on this, Born in the U.S.A.‘s followup, it’s officially a solo Bruce Springsteen record.  It yielded five singles, and among my favorite tracks are Ain’t Got You, All That Heaven Will Allow, Brilliant Disguise, Spare Parts, and the title track.  Even Tougher Than the Rest has grown on me over the years.  Tunnel of Love is considered by some critics to be one of the best albums of the 1980’s, and I agree.  Additionally, I like the live Chimes of Freedom EP that emerged from the accompanying tour.

TunnelOfLove1987.JPG

12. The Rising (2002)

As I mentioned in my introductory post for this series, Bruce has captured some significant moments, periods, and moods in the US with songs that many of us can relate to.  One need not have actually been laid off at the lumber yard or auto plant, or have a clue how to rig a junk car in the driveway just to make it run one more day.  Daily struggles are daily struggles, regardless of background.  And 2002’s The Rising, his first studio release in almost seven years, is one that cuts very deeply for many people.

For better and for worse, this is Bruce’s 9/11 album.  It’s full of tracks which allude to that awful day and its aftermath from the perspective of every day people who lost loved ones, while our collective sense of security was shattered.  But true to form, Bruce doesn’t leave listeners without hope for redemption (this aspect was more fully unveiled during his live shows on the Rising tour).  I listened to this album quite a bit for the first few years after its release, but until recently I hadn’t played it in a long while.  Not that I want to forget, but it’s just kind of sad to listen to.  I did play it a couple of days ago on the 17th anniversary of the attacks and realized possibly more than ever just how good most of its tracks are.

Springsteen_The_Rising.jpg

11. Live in New York City (2001)

As I begin to write about this album, I’m wondering why I have it placed higher than the live Hammersmith Odeon release.  I suppose it’s because it represents a Springsteen show I’m personally familiar with having seen him on that tour.  For me, the opening four tracks alone make this release worthy of inclusion.  My Love Will Not Let You Down->Prove it All Night->Two Hearts->and the rock version of Atlantic City blow me away every time.  A couple of other favorites here are Lost in the Flood and the electric version of Youngstown with Nils Lofgren’s incredibly grungy and intense guitar solo that takes the listener up and up, all the way to the end of the song, without letting you back down.  I blew out a speaker in my old Geo Prism to that one.

61zUyGKLspL.jpg

Up next:  10-6

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracks_(Bruce_Springsteen_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammersmith_Odeon_London_%2775

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunnel_of_Love_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rising_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Springsteen_%26_The_E_Street_Band:_Live_in_New_York_City

 

 

 

September 13 – Bruce Springsteen in My Music World

As an introduction to my top 15 Bruce Springsteen albums, I thought I’d share a bit about the road I’ve traveled with his music.

635936384777018320-bruce-madam-marie.jpg

Most of us music fans can probably name an artist/band or two who, despite their fame and critical acclaim, we mostly missed on for years before discovering them one way or another.  The same applies to specific albums.  One might be excused for such oversight when, as in my case with the 50th anniversaries of album releases that make up the bulk of this blog, they weren’t yet born.  (It’ll take three years of blogging before I can say I was alive at the time of the release of a 50-year-old album.)  It’s also pretty normal for a child not to be tuned in to current music.  But for me, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen is a curious case.

I consider myself to have been a music nut since the day I was born, and I’d imagine my family would concur.  I grew up in the 1970’s in a house teeming with rock, pop, and classical albums on any of our four turntables and radios.  Just no Bruce.  Newsweek arrived in our mailbox every week, and I’m fairly certain the October 27, 1975 issue with Bruce on the cover moved from our coffee table to the trash as quickly as the previous week’s TV Guide (he was also on the cover of Time the same week).  But when I was eventually turned on to his music, it gripped me and never let go.

s-l300

My first memory of hearing a Springsteen song is from late-1980/early ’81 when Hungry Heart was a radio hit, mixed in with songs by Sheena Easton, Rick Springfield, Kim Carnes, Pablo Cruise, Eddie Rabbitt, and Juice Newton (o.k., there was some Stones, Police, John Lennon, George Harrison, and ELO as well, but you get the picture).  But that was it.  Neither The River nor any of his previous albums had struck a chord with my older brothers yet, therefore I didn’t hear them.  In my unknowing young mind, Bruce was a one hit wonder who kind of faded away for a few years.  If The River didn’t find its way into our basement, 1982’s Nebraska sure as hell wasn’t going to.  And his other early classics?  I had no clue about their existence, at least not yet.

download.jpg

As I’ve acknowledged elsewhere in these pages, adolescence was a strange time to say the least.  I suppose I can rest easy knowing that some of you might’ve felt similarly.  In 1984 I could be spotted walking home from school wearing a tan Izod windbreaker, wrap-around “New Wave” sunglasses, Adidas Top Ten basketball sneakers (oh yeah, I was also going to be a professional basketball player), Levis 501’s that never looked like they were supposed to on me, and the daring beginnings of what I would later learn was called a mullet.  So, sooo confused.

download.jpg     8964m_2000x.jpg    10-7774.jpg

Musically speaking, I was all over the place.  I still am, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  But looking back to my early teens gives me a chuckle.  In those days I might follow Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits with a Culture Club or Madonna cassette.  The MTV Generation, folks – I was immersed.  Then in June of that year Born in the U.S.A. was released and the slow shift began.  Granted, this album was just as much a part of the MTV culture as those by Madness or Duran Duran, but I could tell this music had staying power without knowing much of anything about Springsteen.  It was real.

Growing up in the Midwest, John Mellencamp (a.k.a., Johnny Cougar, a.k.a., John Cougar, a.k.a., John Cougar Mellencamp) was our “heartland rock star” who sang of the trials and tribulations of everyday folk.  I liked his music quite a bit and still do.  But little did I know that the guy from New Jersey had long been the preeminent songwriter and performer in that genre.  As much as I appreciate Mellencamp, he was never really in the same league as Bruce with the possible exception of a couple of albums.  Something else I didn’t know was that my brother Paul was becoming a major fan of Springsteen’s while away at college.  Soon he was home on semester breaks, hanging out with buddies at the house, listening to and talking about Bruce.  And being the annoying little brother I was, I hung around like a loose tooth, soaking up as much as I could.

images.jpg     Bruce_Springsteen_-_1984_1024x1024.jpg

My first full-fledged exposure to what Springsteen is really all about came at the age of 15 in November of 1986 with the release of the then career-spanning Bruce Springsteen & the East Street Band:  Live/1975-85.  The Columbia, MO rock station, KFMZ, celebrated its release by playing the box set uninterrupted in its entirety over the course of three nights, and I was ready with a fresh pack of TDK D-90s and a cheap hand-me-down stereo that was an upgrade from my previous record/cassette combo player.

220px-Bruce_Springsteen_Live_75-85.jpg      kfmz1996.png

With my brothers long gone by that point, I had moved into their basement digs which I oh-so-cleverly christened the Cavern.  And it was there, on a musty old throwaway couch, that I settled in three late nights in a row with headphones on, awakening to some of the greatest rock ‘n roll ever while keeping my fingers crossed that the radio signal would remain clear while taping.  From the early club recordings to the stadium shows just a few years later, I was mesmerized.  Whether it was the full East Street Band on stage or his solo acoustic set of mostly Nebraska numbers, I had tapped into a completely different scene and was quickly converted.  The first two albums I bought after that were Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to RunThe River and Nebraska were later among the first ten CDs I owned.  As time went on, I absorbed them all.

In my world, the appeal of Springsteen’s music is a bit of a paradox.  As famous as he is, listening to him has mostly been a solitary experience for me.  Other than my brother and my wife, I’ve never had friends who were into his music.  There doesn’t seem to be much of a gray area with Bruce; as with Dylan, most folks seem to either really like him or really not like him.  There was one exception though:  I had a hard-partying friendly acquaintance from New Zealand named Tays who joined me on a rather harrowing two-hour drive in an ice storm to St. Louis to see Bruce on his Tom Joad tour in January of 1996.  It was my first Springsteen show.

bruce_tj_tour.jpg

I finally got the full East Street Band experience in Kansas City in April of 2000 with my brother, then in Austin in March of 2003 on the Rising tour.  Most recently, my wife and I caught his free outdoor show in Dallas in April of 2014 on an unseasonably cold and rainy day.  If there had been actual rows, we would’ve been in about the fifth, just off-center in front of Nils and Patti (we’re actually visible during a couple of brief moments during the pro shot show).  Hearing Tom Morello play with the band was one of many thrills that day, and it was more than worth standing in horrible weather for ten hours through other acts waiting for it.

As we wind down 2018, Bruce shows no sign of letting up.  Sadly, we’ve lost a couple of residents of East Street along the way in Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but the show goes on.  Besides creating great music for over 45 years, for many of us the Boss has been an important voice in times of national tragedy, war, and economic struggle.  With our current state of affairs, I can’t help but wonder if he’s working up another great album which speaks, to my ears anyway, the truth.  It might be a selfish expectation on my part, but probably not an unrealistic one.  He just keeps doing it.  I missed out on the peaks if not the entire careers of many of the artists I write about on this blog, but not Bruce.  He belongs on a short list of the all-time greats, and I’m grateful he’s been around as a very current songwriter/musician/performer during my lifetime.

Up next:  my top 15 Springsteen albums.

-Stephen