It’s Liza Minnelli birthday today. The actress/singer/dancer was born March 12, 1946 in Hollywood, California, the only child from the marriage of show-biz legend Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli.
Liza’s career album discography begins in ’64 with her Capitol debut Liza! Liza! and runs right up through 2010 with Confessions (Decca/Universal).
But there’s one that got away: The never-released album Liza recorded in 1971 with producer Rick Hall at the fabled FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
How do we know such an improbable recording even exists? Because the Minnelli/Muscle Shoals sessions left a paper trail through the Burbank CA headquarters of Warner Bros. Records. It begins with this memo from Rick Hall to WB President Mo Ostin, accompanying a tape of the just-completed album:
Mo passes the tape along to WB a&r man Ted Templeman, the ex-Harper’s Bizarre singer/guitarist turned Warner staff producer of the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Captain Beefheart, and Little Feat. Ted likes a lot of what he hears…but there’s just one “difficulty.”
Mo Ostin hands Rick Hall a ticket to “Pass-adena,” gently murmuring something about having too many female artists on his label already:
In the summer of 2008, I was hired as a contributing writer in the creation of The Rock Annex, described by Ben Sisario in The New York Times as “a smaller, quicker offshoot” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland OH. The Annex occupied a 25,000-square foot space beneath an Old Navy store at 76 Mercer Street in Manhattan’s Soho district.
For the Annex project, I wrote the text panels introducing each thematic section: “Roots and Influences,” “Moments to Movements,” etc. I created some captions for specific exhibits or artifacts. I also researched and wrote the descriptions for “New York Rocks,” a 26-foot long scale model of Manhattan identifying the location of two dozen different historic music sites. The Annex was slickly designed and built to a high professional standard by operating partner Running Subways. There were special exhibits dedicated to The Clash (where it was nice to see an old issue of my former magazine New York Rocker on loan “from the collection of Mick Jones”) and to “John Lennon: The New York City Years.”
The Rock Annex opened in late November 2009 with considerable fanfare. I attended the gala opening party, held in a vast Soho loft where corporate sponsors proffered freebies ranging from vodka shots to makeovers, with live performances by Dave Mason and Blondie’s Chris Stein & Deborah Harry.
This was less than three months after Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, plunging the US economy into its worst crisis since the Great Depression (and far from over, at this writing). Meanwhile, a ticket to the Rock Annex cost $26.50 — at that time, more than the Museum of Modern Art. There was a gift shop, but no screening room or performance/lecture space in which to hold ancillary events. The Rock Annex closed January 3, 2010 after just over a year in operation. The artifacts were returned either to Cleveland or to private collector who had loaned them; the exhibit components, including my text panels, were sold at auction a few months later.
Before the closing, I returned to the Annex in late December 2009 with my good friends Doug Milford and Eliot Hubbard–and with permission to photograph all but the John Lennon exhibit, in order to have a visual record of my work. Doug Milford shot the photographs posted below, and I thank him for his invaluable contribution to this post.
Marcus Shelby (born 1966 in Memphis TN) is an African-American bassist, composer and bandleader based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His lengthy professional résumé encompasses recordings, theatrical/film scores, music education, and assorted grants and commissions.
He also is the prime mover behind an ambitious project he calls Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The bassist has a personal connection to the subject of this inspirational work: Several members of the extended Shelby family participated (and were arrested) in the “ I Am A Man” march by Memphis’ Black sanitation workers that would mark the final campaign of Dr. King’s life in the week leading up to his assassination on this day in 1968.
This clip features the Marcus Shelby Orchestra with lead vocal by Faye Carol on a stirring big-band arrangement of the Curtis Mayfield classic “We’re A Winner.” (This is the correct song title, not to be confused with another Mayfield/Impressions hit “Move On Up.”) Additional performances from Soul of the Movement may be viewed at http://www.marcusshelby.com/video.htm.
“I’ve got two daughters and I wanted them to keep the story going. Getting it from my ancestors and passing it on…Storytelling is an African tradition and African-American tradition. I feel blessed I had the opportunity to do my part.” — Marcus Shelby
It was early May, the gig was two weeks away, and things weren’t looking good for the star of the show, Jerry Williams Jr. a/k/a Swamp Dogg.
The iconoclastic r&b singer/songwriter/producer had not played New York City in over a decade. (His last local appearance had taken place at Coney Island High, an East Village rock club that closed in July 1999.) The upcoming show was booked at City Winery, an upscale venue more closely associated with the music of Amy Mann, Steve Earle, or Suzanne Vega than with old-school, hard-core rhythm & blues. Advance publicity was light, advance ticket sales were lighter.
Swamp Dogg was “coming off” his 2009 album Give ‘Em As Little As You Can…As Often As You Have To… Or, A Tribute To Rock ‘N’ Roll — a collection of songs written and/or made famous by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. The CD was released by S-Curve Records through EMI — the first Swamp Dogg disc in decades to receive major-label distribution. Despite the best efforts of the S-Curve staff and myself (as his belatedly hired indie publicist), Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… soon went down in musical history as what S-Curve founder/label head Steve Greenberg ruefully described as “possibly the worst-selling album of both Swamp Dogg’s career and mine.” Although marred by its “canned” drum sound, Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… was nonetheless an audacious attempt to reclaim rock & roll as Black Music, a sui generis creation unlike any other album made by an African-American artist since I-don’t-know-when.
All in all, the stage at City Winery seemed set for deep disappointment if not outright disaster. Guess what?
Swamp Dogg killed. His set was a triumph.
The unknowing and unsuspecting among us were converted for life and sent forth into the night, frothing at the mouth and babbling in tongues of ecstasy. The true believers, your faithful scribe among them, were lifted to Soul Heaven on a pair of golden fried chicken wings (with choice of grits, black-eyed peas, or collard greens).
Swamp Dogg (lead vocals and electric piano) was backed capably and sympathetically by The Revelations of Brooklyn NY. I believe the personnel for this gig was Wes Mingus (guitar), Borahm Lee (keyboards), Josh Werner (bass) and Gintas Janusonis (drums) plus a three-man horn section. The set list went as follows:
1. “The Mind Does The Dancing While The Body Pulls The Strings” from Have You Heard This Story?? (Island, 1974)
We’ve waited with growing impatience through a solid hour of the opening Tomas Doncker Band (jammy and bluesy, with some good playing, weaker singing, forgettable songs) and another 15 minutes of changeover. Swamp enters from stage left, sits down at his keyboard, and gets things off to a rousing start: He’s in strong voice and looking resplendent in lime-green suit with matching hat, belt, tie, socks, shoes — hell, his drawers probably match. The audience, which fills a respectable two-thirds of this rather cavernous room, breathes a collective sigh of relief.
2. “Since I Fell For You” from Resurrection (S.D.E.G., 2007, with a cover shot of Swamp Dogg crucified)
Buddy Johnson‘s greatest hit, first recorded circa 1945, has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Tom Waits to the Sonics. Swamp got around to cutting the song in ’07 and sings the hell out of it at City Winery: The one-word description in my notebook says “Stratospheric!” Steve Greenberg turns to me and asks: “Why didn’t he put this on his S-Curve album?!”
3. “Synthetic World” from Total Destruction To Your Mind (Canyon Records, 1970)
The Revelations work up a nice MGs-type groove behind the Dogg’s impassioned vocal on this mid-tempo classic with its almost Dylanesque lines like “Friendship is like acid/It burns as it slides away…” Halfway through, Swamp Dogg launches into a semi-improvised rap — complete with Xanax reference — about suffering panic attacks while driving on Los Angeles freeways. Genius.
4. “Sam Stone” from Cuffed, Collared, Tagged & Gassed (Cream Records, 1972 — also includes “Lady Madonna” and Joe South‘s “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home”)
The Viet Nam War was still raging in 1971 when John Prine released this heartbreaking ballad of a heroin-addicted Army veteran on his self-titled Atlantic debut. Swamp Dogg covered it the next year and over time the song became a cornerstone of his live shows. Tonight at City Winery, Swamp brings “Sam Stone” sharply up to date: “Nowadays, those GIs ain’t comin’ home with dope habits,” he intones mournfully. “They’re comin’ home in coffins, from Iraq and Afghanistan…”
5. “Born Blue” from Total Destruction To Your Mind – Another great performance, with Swamp Dogg stretching and scatting on the title phrase.
6. “In My Résumé” from Finally Caught Up With Myself (Springboard International, 1977 — also includes “Slow Slow Disco,” sampled by Kid Rock on “I Got One For Ya” from Devil Without A Cause)
At this point, the show has transcended the conventions of r&b live performance. It’s now a combination of Baptist tent revival, therapeutic encounter session, and after-hours blue mood, imbued with a profound sense of personal truth-telling courtesy of The Dogg. What more can I add but mindless superlatives: “great,” “awesome,” “wow,” etc.
7. “Total Destruction To Your Mind” Swamp Dogg takes us home with a rocking version of his personal anthem, re-cut for Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… (and nicely covered by roots-rocker Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on Roscoe’s Gang in 1988).
The 45-minute set has passed all too quickly; Swamp Dogg and the Revelations have played all of their rehearsed material — but the crowd won’t let them go. After some hemming and hawing and one false start, Swamp and the band launch into an impromptu but devastating rendition of Big Joe Turner‘s “Crawdad Hole” that is the best piece of flat-feet-on-the-floor, stand-up blues singing I’ve heard since Howard Tate‘s NYC comeback at Village Underground in July 2001.
Aaron Fuchs was still floating on the high of this show days later when he wrote:
“It was a rare occasion when a show so greatly exceeded my expectations. Aside from doing everything you’d expect from Swamp Dogg — all the songs you really wanted to hear, with stream-of-consciousness interludes — it was his entirely undiminished piercing tenor combined with his nods to the ages that made the show incredible. I have never, ever heard anyone cover Big Joe Turner’s ‘Crawdad Hole.’ And he ripped it.“
ADDENDUM: The unfortunate task of following this revelatory performance fell to the Revelations and their regular lead singer Tre Williams. I’d seen this group three times previously as headliners and always enjoyed them; I can recommend the debut CD The Bleeding Edge without reservation. For whatever reason, Tre’s vocal partner Rell Gaddis was AWOL from City Winery and their particular interplay — a neo-soul variation on hip-hop’s MC/hype man combination — was very much missed. Matters were not improved by the fact that perhaps three-fourths of the audience had left the venue immediately following Swamp Dogg’s performance.
INTRODUCTIONToday (5/12/2010) marks the fifth anniversary of the untimely death, at age 51, of my good friend Frankie LaRocka.
For several years prior to his passing, Frankie had been living with the debilitating heart condition called cardiomyopathy. On or about 5/5/2005, he underwent surgery at New York’s Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital to have a defibrillator implanted to regulate his heartbeat. He returned to his home at 55 Walbrooke Avenue on Staten Island but developed a high fever a few days later. He was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital on SI where the fever turned into pneumonia that Frankie, in his weakened post-operative condition, could not withstand.
Frankie LaRocka was the closest friend I made out of all the many people I met and worked with during my tenure at Epic Records/Sony Music (1989-2000). We came from very different backgrounds in terms of class, ethnicity, and education. But we shared a deep love of music and an enthusiasm for everything from Texas barbecue to Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 version of Dracula. Like any of us, Frankie had his flaws. He could be insensitive, resentful, and sometimes his own worst enemy. But FLR was not selfish or greedy, pretentious or snobbish. He didn’t believe in stepping on other people in order to achieve one’s own goals.
And whether he was talking to Ahmet Ertegun or to a bartender on Hylan Boulevard, Frankie presented the same face to the world: a broad, handsome face, with a big smile and a high–pitched laugh to match his almost child–like enjoyment of life’s pleasures.
He embraced and was involved with a lot of music not at all to my personal taste. He had a populist aesthetic, meaning he couldn’t relate to the art-school/intellectual side of alternative rock (cf. Talking Heads, Pere Ubu) or any music that he considered just too “out,” from the Slits to Albert Ayler. But when it came to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, the MC5 and the New York Dolls, we were in complete head-nodding agreement.
Frankie reveled in many aspects of what used to be derided as “corporate rock.” The Big Deal, the Big Hit, the Big Tour, the Big Schmooze after the Big Gig…from the vantage point of 2010, it all must seem very clichéd and even faintly ridiculous. But this was simply part of the environment in which FLR made his life and career, and his taste for it was tempered by his slightly self-mocking sense of remove.
(In case you’re wondering, to my knowledge Frankie was never addicted to alcohol or any other drug and never smoked cigarettes. Given his later heart condition and weight problems, his most dangerous vice may have been food, which he enjoyed with a gourmand’s gusto.)
When Frankie died, his longest and most detailed obituary ran in the Staten Island Advance daily newspaper (shorter notices also appeared in Billboard and Rolling Stone, among other outlets). This obit not only omitted many details but also contained a number of errors and misstatements: Frankie did not “join the band” of Jon Bon Jovi, Sony and Epic are not separate companies, etc.
I thought he deserved better, and several months later I began writing this biographical essay as a corrective to the SI Advance story. Eventually, it became a much longer piece that may have something to say, to some readers, about one man’s struggle to find and maintain his place in the late 20th century American music business as it went from post-Sgt. Pepper boom to Internet-ignited decline. The complete essay is published here for the first time.
Frankie LaRocka was born Franco Christopher LaRocca on April 17, 1954 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was the oldest of three children, later joined by brother Paul LaRocca (b. 2/17/57) and sister JoAnne LaRocca Scalici (b. 4/30/60). Mother Inez LaRocca (b. 11/16/28) died in 1991 of scleroderma (systemic sclerosis). Father Anthony (Tony) LaRocca (b. 5/25/27), a career engineer for Con Edison and a passionate opera fan, died of lymphoma in 2004.
Among the personal papers and effects given to me by Paul LaRocca after his brother’s death is a biographical essay dated 2/21/2003. It was written for a school assignment by FLR’s young next–door neighbor Jeremy Hill and its subject is quoted directly throughout (“I interviewed Frankie while he was cooking chicken cutlets in his kitchen…”). Some of the following details are taken from Jeremy’s article.
Frankie grew up in the Little Italy section of Manhattan and lived near the intersection of Mott and Broome Streets until age 12, when the LaRocca family moved to Staten Island. He attended St. Joseph Hill Academy from sixth through eighth grades; St. Peter’s Boys High School for one year, and New Dorp High School through graduation.
In 1964, when he was 13 years old, Frankie’s grandmother Josie bought him his first drum set, an “official Beatles” model. On 7/16/1967 he saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience open for the Monkees at Forest Hills (NY) Tennis Stadium, and from that moment on the Experience would be tied with the Beatles as FLR’s two all–time favorite rock acts. Years later he would not only acquire the autographs of both groups but also befriend and perform with Experience bassist Noel Redding.
Soon Frankie was playing semi-professionally with a series of popular Staten Island cover bands. The first one, Stem, formed in 1969 and included Tony Pompa, Frank Pagano, Steve Cannon, Frank Scribona, and brothers Bill and Dean Holtermann. The group broke up after two years, and in 1972 LaRocka and vocalist Pompa formed Fantasy with Peter Baron and Joe Vasta. In 1974, FLR earned an Associates Degree from Staten Island Community College, later renamed the College of Staten Island.
In light of Frankie’s turbulent sixteen–year marriage to and eventual divorce from his wife Nina (nee Timpone), and his loving but often fraught relationship with their daughter Adrianna, I was struck by this passage from Jeremy Hill’s essay:
“Frankie admires Paul McCartney ‘because he is an absolute genius.’ He likes how ‘[McCartney] stuck with his wife through everything and didn’t spoil his kids. He had passion, feeling and talent. I like how he balanced talent, music, and family.’“
In late 1975, Frankie LaRocka joined a band led by the glam-rock singer/songwriter/actress Cherry Vanilla. It was his first job with a Manhattan–based group playing original material.
The personnel included John “Buzz” Verno (bass), Kasim Sultan (keyboards), and Tom Morrongiello (guitar). Sultan later switched to bass and joined Todd Rundgren’s Utopia; Morrongiello has been Bob Dylan’s chief stage tech (guitars, keyboards) since the early Nineties. Cherry Vanilla released two RCA (UK) albums, Bad Girl and Venus D’Vinyl, but FLR did not play on either of these recordings.
In 1977, Frankie and Buzz Verno formed a new group with two other SI musicians, guitarists Johnny Rao and Thomas Trask. While riding on the Staten Island Ferry, Frankie ran into David Johansen whose previous outfit, the New York Dolls, had broken up two years earlier. Frankie talked up his new band and eventually nagged the singer into checking out a rehearsal.
“It was a one-in-a-million stroke of luck. He was by himself and I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, but are you David Johansen?” And he said, ‘Yeah. What about it, kid?’ And we started talking…I called him for weeks and tried to get him to come down, to take the ferry and we’d pick him up on the other side. We’d rehearsed a bunch of Dolls [songs] and r&b and shuffles, and we blew him away.” [FLR, from the liner notes to The David Johansen Group Live]
This aggregation became the first David Johansen Group (a/k/a The Staten Island Boys) and recorded the eponymous solo debut David Johansen, released in April 1978 on Blue Sky/Epic Records. It was Frankie’s first appearance on a major label, and
he was mentioned in a New Yorker magazine profile of David Johansen written by Stanley Mieses and published 6/12/1978. Frankie made several U.S. tours and one European jaunt with the Johansen band and stayed on into 1980. On 7/21/1978, the group headlined The Bottom Line in New York with guest appearances by ex–Dolls Sylvain Sylvain and Johnny Thunders.
“When David spotted Johnny in the audience and brought him up, it just kicked everybody in the ass. It was like the Stones at Altamont — without anyone getting hurt!” [FLR, ibid.]
The show was taped and released as a Blue Sky/Epic promo-only LP that quickly became a sought–after collector’s item. In 1993, Sony Legacy issued an expanded CD version as The David Johansen Group Live; Frankie was pleased and proud to co-produce this edition with Peter Denenberg.
“It’s as clear as day, that whole era. We weren’t making shit but we were happy to be alive and fuckin’ rockin’. That period in time could never happen again.” [FLR, ibid.]
THE EARLY EIGHTIES
The early Eighties were a busy time for Frankie LaRocka, who gigged and/or recorded with Scandal, John Waite, and Bryan Adams. In an interview with journalist Jonathan Grevatt sometime in the Nineties, Frankie recalled:
“I was doing what I really wanted to do – making records and touring. I was on a mission. I’m not a real technical player. I play with a lot of feel, which I have adapted in my philosophy of music: Keep it simple, soulful, and sincere.”
Scandal was a new wave–ish hard–pop band led by lead singer Patty Smythe and guitarist Zack Smith. The group was signed to Columbia and FLR played drums on Scandal’s self-titled debut EP. On a résumé prepared for his later hiring by Atlantic Records, Frankie noted that he played “(NYC) metropolitan area performances during band’s introduction,” i.e. early showcase gigs. In the same document, FLR says he “developed band, songs and sound with Zack Smith and [producer] Vinnie Poncia for first release.”
FLR was never quite a full–fledged member of Scandal and his photo appears only on the back cover of the original vinyl edition of the EP. Propelled by the minor hit “Goodbye to You,” Scandal entered the Billboard chart in January 1983; the EP breached the Top 40 and was certified gold. The group later hit platinum with the Warrior album and its Top Ten title single. Frankie did not play on Warrior or on subsequent Patty Smythe solo releases.
By that time, Frankie had moved on to a new band formed around English rock singer–songwriter John Waite. After a moderately successful run as front man of the Babys, Waite released his first Chrysalis solo album Ignition; it entered the Billboard chart in July 1982, hung around for six months, and peaked at #68. FLR played drums throughout the album including the belated single “Change” (#54 in April 1985) and toured with the Waite band for six months in 1982 (also per his résumé).
In 1984, John Waite scored a massive international Number One hit with “Missing You” and the Top Ten album No Brakes; Curly Smith played drums on those sessions. But Frankie was back at the kit for several tracks on Waite’s next Chrysalis album, Mask of Smiles (1985). (Contrary to the SI Advance notice, Frankie did not sign John Waite or any other act to the Chrysalis label.)
In February 1983, Frankie auditioned for Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and within days was rehearsing for a tour in support of Cuts Like A Knife, Adams’ just-released second album for A&M Records . Other personnel included Keith Scott (guitar, vocals), Dave Taylor (bass), and John Hannah (keyboards). The Adams group toured with Journey in the spring and summer of 1983, trekked through Europe in the fall, and finished the year with a tour of Japan. The band performed live on German television and appeared Stateside on “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold.”
Cuts Like A Knife generated two Top 20 singles, hung on the chart for 89 weeks (peaking at No. 8), and went platinum with U.S. sales of over one million. FLR did not play on any of Bryan Adams’ studio albums but he performed on a live radio broadcast (possibly issued as an A&M Records promo disc) and on a rare Adams EP.
“Frankie was the greatest fun to have on tour. His ‘Staten Island-isms’ kept us all smiling and his personal grooming techniques kept us all wondering if Oil of Olay was, in fact, a good thing to use for men’s skin care. Frankie was a very dear person and an inspired musician, and I send my deepest condolences to his family. Rock on, Frankie – you made a big difference to our lives!” – Bryan Adams, May 2005
Frankie scored one other significant recording credit in this period: In 1981, as a hired session musician, he played drums on “Runaway” by Jon Bon Jovi, who had not yet formed his own band.
The song was first issued on a radio station compilation LP and unexpectedly began to garner airplay throughout the New York area. “Runaway” led to the formation of the band Bon Jovi and their signing to Mercury/Polygram Records. The original recording was included on Bon Jovi’s self-titled debut album, which was released 1/21/1984 and eventually certified gold. But so far as I’m aware, FLR never played a live gig with Jon Bon Jovi and did not play on any Bon Jovi tracks other than “Runaway.”
When Bryan Adams came off the road and returned to the studio, Frankie rejoined John Waite’s touring band in 1985 for dates in the U.S. and Japan. The group now included Tom Mandel on keyboards, guitarist John McCurry, and FLR’s former Fantasy band mate Joe Vasta on bass, but the road was getting old.
“I was out with Bryan Adams and I was getting kind of bored playing the same fifteen songs every night,” Frankie told Jonathan Grevatt. “I felt there was no future in it for me.” When Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun extended the offer of a job in the label’s A&R (artists & repertoire) department, Frankie readily accepted.
A&R (1) – ATLANTIC RECORDS
Atlantic personnel records show that Frankie LaRocka was employed as an A&R representative from 2/13/1984 until 3/9/1990. Our man wasn’t quite ready to relinquish his drum seat, however. While ostensibly holding a full–time executive job at Atlantic, Frankie proceeded to join two more bands—both of which recorded for rival labels!
The first of these was Eastern Bloc, which began in early 1986 as the songwriting partnership of Mark Sidgwick and ex–Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Kral joined by bassist Tony Shanahan with FLR on drums.
“At that moment, Frankie pretty much was drawn to the A&R scene but he kept drumming as a way to keep in touch with the scene and with his roots. He was a great bandmate—gregarious, with a cheeky sense of humor—and hit a solid backbeat that never wavered. He always gave 100% and never bitched or moaned about anything.” – Mark Sidgwick [Eastern Bloc]
In the summer of 1986, Eastern Bloc self–released an EP, Wall to Wall, that led to their signing by Passport/Polygram and the 1987 album Eastern Bloc. Pat Benatar’s partner Neil Geraldo mixed the single “You Got Love” and the band filmed a video for the song but like most of the records ever released, Eastern Bloc didn’t sell and the group split amicably in 1988. Mark Sidgwick recalls playing with Frankie on Bye Bye Route 66 by pop–folk group Devonsquare (with guest guitarist Stephen Stills) and on the 1988 Warner Bros. album Lost To The Street by Alex Rozum.
Company of Wolves was a big–haired hard rock band (think Def Leppard from Staten Island) with Kyf Brewer (lead vocals), brothers Steve Conte (guitar) and John Conte (bass), and FLR on drums. Some demos they cut with engineer Peter Denenberg led to a contract with Mercury/Polygram. The band’s self–titled debut appeared in 1990 and spun off the middling radio and MTV hits “Call of the Wild” and “The Distance.”
Frankie appeared in both videos, but he split a few months later and Company of Wolve broke up circa 1995. (The Denenberg demos were compiled for a 1998 album entitled Shakers & Tambourines.) Steve Conte now plays with the reconstituted New York Dolls and Mike Monroe (ex-Hanoi Rocks) as well as his own band The Crazy Truth.
“As the band began to take off and tour, Frankie made the decision to quit, citing his wife Nina and young daughter Adrianna as the reason he needed to keep to his A&R job. After all, he had succeeded in getting his own band signed to a giant competing label! It backed him into a corner and I think it ate him up inside. He’d call us when we were on the road and say, ‘I was having dinner when you guys went on last night. When I looked at the clock, I dropped my fork.’”
“I first visited Frankie’s A&R office at Atlantic in 1985…It was insane. Tapes covered his desk, and collections of Japanese toys and tchotchkes lined the windowsills, including a giant Godzilla. There was a live alligator in an aquarium. On one wall was a color poster of the David Johansen Band on stage and over the faces of the band members who had died, Frankie had drawn big black Xs with a Magic Marker.” – Kyf Brewer [Company of Wolves]
[NOTE: In accordance with Kyf’s recollection, I distinctly remember Frankie telling me that at least two and perhaps three members of the Johansen band had died before the year 2000. But Frankie’s close friend and fellow Staten Islander, Deane Holtermann, emailed me today (5/10/2010) to report that “I was hanging out with Johnny Boy (Rao) and Buzzy (Verno) just recently, like a month ago, and Thomas (Trask) is living in Williamsburg.” As Mark Twain wrote to a friend in 1897: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” — A.S.]
Meanwhile, back at Atlantic Records, Frankie signed the MTV–ready hard rock band Mr. Big, led by former David Lee Roth bassist Billy Sheehan. (Their name came from the song “Mr. Big” by Free, another of FLR’s all-time favorite bands.) The self–titled debut Mr. Big entered the Billboard chart in July 1989 and made it to No. 46 but a second LP, Lean Into It (1991), reached No. 15, spun off a No. 1 single (“To Be With You”), and was certified platinum.
It was Frankie’s biggest hit for Atlantic, where he also worked with Blue Rodeo and Dirty Looks, and on the two-million selling Lost Boys soundtrack. After moving to Epic Records, his office decor included a framed note from Mr. Big manager Herbie Herbert stating that FLR was the person responsible for the band’s signing to Atlantic. This kind of recognition was important to Frankie, who deeply resented other higher–ranking executives’ occasional attempts to take credit for his discoveries.
A&R (2) – EPIC RECORDS/SONY MUSIC
In an internal memo dated 6/26/1990, Don Grierson announced the appointment of Frankie LaRocka as Associate Director of A&R for Epic Records (a division of CBS Records, soon to be renamed Sony Music). It’s likely that Frankie had started his new gig a month or two earlier, since usually there was a time lag in the dissemination of hiring and promotion notices.
“I saw this band at Nightingale’s on Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, and there were about 20 people there,” Frankie recalled to Jonathan Grevatt. “However, all of these people had this grin on their faces that was really contagious. They were all dancing and just having a great time.”
With the blessing of his new boss, Epic Senior V–P of A&R Richard Griffiths (who had replaced Don Grierson), Frankie signed the NYC jam band Spin Doctors. In January 1991, he launched them in low–key, low–budget fashion with the Up For Grabs EP, recorded live at the Tribeca rock club Wetlands. Spin Doctors’ first full–length album, Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, was issued in August 1991 – the same month, and on the same label, as Pearl Jam’s debut Ten. While MTV, radio, and the press were going gonzo for grunge (Nevermind by Nirvana was released 9/24/1991), the unpretentious and uncool but undeniably catchy Pocket Full Of Kryptonite just kept selling more copies – and then some more – week after week.
By June 1993, Kryptonite had made the Billboard Top Five. It stayed on the chart for 115 weeks and ultimately sold over five million copies in the US and another five million internationally while spinning off the hit singles “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (#17) and “Two Princes” (#7). When Richard Griffiths announced FLR’s promotion to Director of A&R in an internal memo dated 9/1/1993, he noted Frankie’s “pivotal role in the debut success of Spin Doctors.”
“After the Spin Doctors broke [in 1991], I saw Frankie at some event and went to congratulate him. We hadn’t spoken in quite some time, but I went over to shake his hand. ‘Frankie, congrats on the Spins,’ I said. ‘Good work.’ He replied: ‘Thanks, Steve — it’ll buy me a few more years before I have to open that pizzeria with my uncle on Staten Island!’” – Steve Conte [Company of Wolves]
Pocket Full Of Kryptonite was the commercial pinnacle of Frankie’s A&R career, and as album co–producer (with Peter Denenberg) it might have made him a lot of money. But later FLR told me that under the terms of his employment contract, his earnings from any given Sony Music project were capped at $300,000 – not an inconsiderable sum, but nowhere near what he might have earned as an independent producer of a 10 million-selling album.
Unfortunately, Frankie’s standing within Epic Records seemed to decline in tandem with Spin Doctors’ sales. The half–live/half–studio Homebelly Groove (1992) was rushed out to capitalize on Kryptonite‘s success. A second studio album, Turn It Upside Down, was a poorly sequenced set of uneven songs; with a mere two million copies sold worldwide, it was deemed a commercial disappointment. In almost a textbook example of the hubris endemic to the major labels in this era, Epic rented the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to film a video for the song “Cleopatra’s Cat.”
(Spin Doctors covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” for a million-selling Epic soundtrack album that accompanied the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia. LaRocka and Denenberg co–produced the Spins track, which later gave rise to the erroneous assertion that FLR “produced the Philadelphia soundtrack.” But he’s co-credited for just one song out of ten; Glen Brunman, Jonathan Demme, and Gary Goetzman shared executive producer credits for the full album.)
A trio comprised of former C.B.G.B. employees Tommy Victor (vocals, guitar) and Mike Kirkland (bass) with ex–Swans drummer Ted Parsons, Prong was the most radical, raw, and aesthetically adventurous act on Frankie LaRocka’s Epic roster. Prong’s aggressive sound, sometimes dubbed “industrial metal,” was a clear influence on bands like Nine Inch Nails and (unfortunately) Korn.
Prong was signed to Epic in 1989 by Bob Feineigle and released Beg To Differ the following year. After Feineigle left the company, Frankie guided Prong through four further Epic albums including Cleansing (1994) which included some of the band’s best–remembered songs like “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck.” Since 1996, Tommy Victor has revived Prong periodically with various personnel: At this writing, the band is gearing up for its umpteenth US tour, co–billed with Fear Factory. After FLR’s death, Tommy offered this remembrance:
My band Prong was under Frankie’s direction for pretty much all our Epic Records releases. He was executive producer of Prove You Wrong (1991), Cleansing (1994), and Rude Awakening (1996). He was also very involved in designing and compiling the remix album Whose Fist Is This Anyway (1992). Frankie LaRocka was not only a major contributor to my art and career with Prong but also godfather to my only child, Victoria. If anyone could ever assume the role as “Godfather,” it was Frankie—he looked the part, as well!
Working with Prong at Epic Records, Frankie went beyond his job and got involved with our lives. He was paternal, truly caring, at times showing tough love. When I remember the times he bitched me out, I realize now how often he was correct and simply spreading his knowledge.
In the studio, behind his desk, at dinner, or on the phone, Frankie was the funniest motherfucker ever. I remember a discussion about the pre-production budget for our Rude Awakening record in which I kept pushing for A-DAT machines, digital eight-tracks and the like.
Frankie pulled out a $50 bill. “Here,” he said. “Go over to The Wiz [electronics store], buy one of those little Dictaphone things, put in the rehearsal room, and leave it on.” Meaning: “Fuck all that tech shit, get busy with the songs!” – Tommy Victor [Prong]
Blitzspeer emerged from more or less the same East Village metal/hardcore scene as Prong. The personnel were Scott Lano (lead guitar, vocals), Phil Caivano (lead vocals, guitar), Curt Fleck (bass), and Louie Gasparro (drums). Blitzspeer were what the Brits would call a “second division” band, never destined for the big time but enjoyably gritty and high–spirited.
Frankie recorded Blitzspeer live on July 22, 1989 at NYC club Limelight (now an upscale mini-mall) and Epic released a seven–song EP of originals (“Road Machine,” “City Boy”) plus a prosaic cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams.” A glossier full–length album, Blitzspeer Saves, followed in 1991 but went nowhere and the band split up. Phil Caivano began driving a cab and picked me up one night on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. (He later moved to Los Angeles, joined Monster Magnet in 1998, and also did production work with Electric Frankenstein and other bands.)
HENRY LEE SUMMER
An AllMusic.com review of his 1989 album I’ve Got Everything describes Henry Lee Summer as “a completely undistinguished heartland rocker most notable for sporting a mullet that could blanket a grain silo.” But after amassing respectable indie–label sales in his home state of Indiana, the singer was signed to Epic in 1987 by Richard Griffiths, who may have hoped to replicate Mercury/Polygram’s success with another Hoosier rocker, John Mellencamp.
Summer was no Mellencamp, as it turned out, and in 1993 Griffiths handed Frankie LaRocka and Peter Denenberg the thankless task of producing Henry Lee’s fourth and final Epic album, Slamdunk. This stillborn effort only served to heighten Frankie’s disenchantment with Epic and the tensions between himself and Richard Griffiths.
In addition to Spin Doctors and Prong, a 1/11/1994 internal memo from Frankie to his boss lists the following Epic acts under FLR’s direction: Joe Satriani, Eve’s Plum (with singer Colleen Fitzpatrick, who later scored as pop/dance solo act Vitamin C), the ahead–of–its–time hip–hop band SSL a/k/a Smokin’ Suckas Wit’ Logic, and the scarcely remembered Watershed, who released an EP and an album entitled Twister. Also in the works was a Mick Ronson tribute disc — best known for his work with David Bowie‘s Spiders From Mars and Bob Dylan‘s Rolling Thunder Revue, the guitarist had died of liver cancer on 4/29/1993. (Mick and FLR had been friends since the time of David Johansen’s second album, In Style, which Ronson produced.) Not much happened with any of these acts, and today only Satriani still has an active career.
When Sony Music declined to renew his employment contract in the summer of 1995, Frankie could not easily forgive or forget. His standing within the company may have declined but nonetheless it was a prestigious and well-paid gig that he hadn’t wanted to lose. Having shown prescient enthusiasm for a host of new bands, he’d been dismayed and disappointed when not allowed to act on his instincts. In October 1995, FLR vented his feelings in a two–page, single–spaced letter to Richard Griffiths in protest of his perceived maltreatment, with copies to Epic President Dave Glew and Sony Music Executive VP Michelle Anthony:
“…I feel your actions toward me were unfair, misleading, and without just cause. I truly believe that my termination had nothing to do with my performance or my professional abilities…”
“I do not go after the flavor of the week. But I do have a long history in this business and my background as a musician has proven invaluable to me throughout the years. I share a special rapport with the Spin Doctors and Prong as these bands have great difficulty trusting big corporations and yet they have all yielded to me on creative decisions and permitted me to guide them. These musicians are aware that I’ve already been through exactly what they are enduring – I’ve performed, I’ve toured, I’ve lived on the road, and I’ve gone through the personal and professional upheavals that are unavoidable.”
Frankie cited a number of then-sought-after acts for which he’d raised his hand early – all of which, he claims, were rejected by his department head:
“I presented Spacehog to you before the band had a final line-up and a management company behind them. Within weeks, Seymour Stein had signed them [to Elektra]…I mentioned Our Lady Peace eight months before our International department circulated this record [OLP was picked up by the other Sony label, Columbia]…I tried to get you excited about Pavement ten months before they signed directly to Warner Brothers [actually Capitol]…”
But Richard Griffiths had moved on: He wasn’t about to reconsider his decision or ask the Sony higher–ups to offer Frankie an improved severance package. In a brief reply dated 10/16/1995, Griffiths wrote that although he’d “always been fond of you personally…there were numerous times when we agreed but there seemed to be more and more when we didn’t. I hope life is treating you well, and that there are some good opportunities for you out there.”
Among Frankie’s papers is a copy of an undated one-page letter in which he discusses his vision of what it means to be a creative A&R person. The letter isn’t signed, so we can’t be sure he sent it; and there’s no salutation, so we don’t know to whom it was addressed. But this paragraph seems to sum up FLR’s philosophy of A&R and his personal sense of mission within the music business:
“We need to be in every nook and cranny, basement, rehearsal and recording studio seeking out new talent. And we need to engage the tentacles of of local radio, retail, clubs, booking agents and local rags in our search. Focus and diversity are the keys to working and breaking new bands. I’m really disturbed by the trend in the music business [toward] more corporate influence and the emphasis on profits at the expense of creativity and building careers. It’s about the passion for the music, not the level of arrogance.” [My emphasis — A.S.]
A&R (3) MERCURY RECORDS / STRAIGHT LINE & SAVOY ENTERTAINMENT
This is where things get murky, even to those of us who stayed in close communication with Frankie LaRocka after his departure from Epic/Sony. Between 1996-1998, label head Danny Goldberg employed FLR at Mercury Records on a consultant basis rather than as a full-time employee. But a later résumé lists only one act, Outhouse, for Frankie’s stint with Mercury and it appears that no recordings by this group were ever released. In a Billboard photo dated 7/5/1997, Frankie is identified as a “Mercury A&R exec” but an A&R colleague at the label, Steve Greenberg, couldn’t recall any acts he may have worked with in this period. (However, Steve vividly remembers FLR once describing his philosophy of A&R: “I’m ziggin’ while everyone else is zaggin’.”)
A Billboard written by Carrie Bell and dated 9/4/1999 announces the 9/31/99 release of the debut album Sun by Portland, Oregon–based band Lisa Hayes & the Violets on Straight Line Records, a new label described as “part of Denon Active Media’s Savoy Entertainment Group (SEG)” with North American distribution by Atlantic Records.
Straight Line, Bell reports, “is run by a team of veteran producers/performers/A&R executives including President Ed Roynesdal, Senior VP of A&R Frankie LaRocka, and VP of A&R Stan Lynch, who was a founding member of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers…” Frankie was the key man in hooking up distribution for Straight Line through Atlantic Records, where Ahmet Ertegun was still an FLR fan.
(In addition to releasing contemporary rock/pop music through Straight Line, SEG controlled the venerable Savoy jazz catalog and reissued classic recordings by Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Scott, and Errol Garner among others. In the 44th annual Grammy Awards, SEG’s Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings 1944-1948 was nominated for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Recording Package. But other than his position with an SEG–affiliated label, Frankie had no connection to this or any other Savoy jazz reissue and was not cited in the Grammy nominations.)
Straight Line/SEG was under-capitalized from the start. In terms of promotion, airplay, and marketing, the struggling company couldn’t achieve liftoff to a point where Atlantic would sit up, take notice, and begin to flex its corporate muscle. Lisa Hayes’ Sun quickly set, and the same fate befell another of Frankie’s releases, Silver Zone by the Stones/Faces–sounding band Glimmer. By 2002, Straight Line/SEG was in disarray. In early 2003, Frankie LaRocka made his last stand in the music business, alone.
A&R (4) STRAIGHT LINE PRODUCTIONS
Frankie founded Straight Line Productions with the goal of discovering new talent that he would either sign directly to a label or record himself and then license in various territories. He applied all of his ability, experience, and dwindling physical energy to this effort, but with scant results.
Straight Line projects included an album by ex-David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick entitled Zig Zag, with guest appearances by Bowie, the Cure’s Robert Smith, and Joe Elliot of Def Leppard; it was released through Sanctuary Music in 2003 with minimal impact. Frankie appears to have signed a Canadian band called Finger 11 to Wind-Up Records: A Straight Line press release from 2004 took credit for the deal and stated that one of Finger 11’s albums had gone gold. But I’ve been unable to substantiate these claims — that gold certification may have been for Canada only — or otherwise determine the extent of FLR’s involvement with the band.
Frankie had never given up the drums and had ample practice space in the Walbrooke Avenue house that he owned and occupied to the end of his life. In the early Nineties, he played some sporadic gigs (mostly in Europe) with bassist Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A 1995 show in Prague, with Ivan Kral and Anthony Krizan on guitars, was released in 2002 as Live from Bunk R – Prague by Noel Redding & Friends. But any real friends (or fans) of the participants should steer clear of this set of Hendrix and classic rock cover versions. (Noel Redding died May 11, 2003 at age 58. Among Frankie’s papers, I found and saved several handwritten postcards that Noel mailed to FLR from his home in County Cork, Ireland.)
In 2004, with his health in decline and fighting to maintain a foothold in the music industry, Frankie found a Springfield, Missouri band called happyendings and got them signed to Clive Davis’ J Records. The back story behind this unexpected and heartening victory included perhaps the most grueling airline trip of FLR’s life – a hair–raising tale of snowstorms, cancellations, and an eight–hour layover in the Cleveland airport – but he got the deal done. happyendings recorded in Los Angeles with überproducer Bob Rock (Mötley Crüe, Metallica) but I can’t ascertain if the album was released or shelved.
Up until a few weeks before his death, Frankie LaRocka was gigging and recording with Hot Monkey Love, a blues–rock quartet of veteran Staten Island players including Jack O’Neill (lead vocals), Jordan Lee (bass), and Bob Delross (guitar). His final recordings appear on HML’s self–released CD Primate Blues.
“I think when I was young, I would just go with the flow and say, ‘Wow, man, I’m playing drums behind this one and that one,’ but now I think of it as more of a business. But also, I feel lucky to be making a living out of something that I really appreciate and really love. How many people do you know that say, ‘I’m really happy at my gig?’ I feel honored and content that I stuck with it. I honestly love what I do.” – (FLR, quoted in the Staten Island Advance, 5/13/2005)
I last saw Frankie at Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital in Upper Manhattan on 5/4/2005. Only a day or two from heart surgery, he was anxious and upset, and I did whatever I could think of to put him at ease.
I had my iPod with me and slipped the headphones on him to play “Don’t Give Up On Me,” the title track from soul singer Solomon Burke’s superb 2002 comeback album. Frankie had never heard the tune before but he dug it immediately. As he listened intently, nodding his head with the tempo, he said: “This is great, man. We should do this song with Hot Monkey Love—Jack could sing the hell out of this!”
There he was: Lying in a hospital bed, IV stuck in his arm, preparing for a risky medical procedure–and yet still looking forward to the next rehearsal, the next gig, the next good thing that life had to offer.
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget that moment.
And I’ll never ever forget Frankie LaRocka.
The weather in Austin had been beautiful since I arrived on Wednesday but sometime in the predawn hours of Saturday, a thunderstorm blew in off the plains. When I awoke on Saturday morning, the rain had stopped but the temperature had dropped 20-25 degrees. It stayed cold right through Sunday — dropping into the 30s on Saturday night and as cold as I’ve ever felt at SXSW. At the many open-air gigs all over town, it was rough going for performers and audiences alike.
My first stop was Jovita’s, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant and bar in South Austin where radio station KDHX was sponsoring two days of its “Twangfest” parties with performances by a whole bunch of folky/rocky/country singer-songwriters including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chuck Prophet, and Tim Easton along with the band I went to hear, the Waco Brothers. Spearheaded by the irrepressible Jon Langford, they began as an offshoot of the Mekons; the Wacos have included other members of that long-lived UK punk band, although other than Langford I couldn’t have named any of the people on stage at Jovita’s with any certainty.
The Waco Brothers still play with the energy, enthusiasm, and ragged edges one might expect of a band formed fifteen days rather than fifteen years ago. None of these guys can sing any better than I can (one reason why I don’t listen to their records) but I’ve always found the Wacos’ uproarious rebel spirit to be utterly contagious. Packed in with the crowd at Jovita’s, I was singing/yelling/cheering along from the second chorus of the first song and I don’t even know any of their songs. The set also included what was either the worst or the best version of George Jones’ “White Lightnin'” ever performed anywhere.
WACO BROTHERS – “TOO SWEET TO DIE” (Live at Jovita’s, 3.20.2010)
From Jovita’s, I moved on to Friends of Sound, a South Congress record store, where the Milwaukee soul band Kings Go Forth were set to play a mid-afternoon set on the patio. KGF’s Luaka Bop debut album, The Outsiders Are Back (released 4.20.2010), is likely to be one of my favorite non-reissue releases of 2010, and I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t been hired to write the band’s press bio (which you can read here).
Although hewing close to their recorded arrangements, Kings Go Forth sounded great at Friends of Sound. There is much more to their instrumental sound than, say, a straight-up homage to the JB’s or the Stax/Volt house band. The Latin percussion adds a Curtis Mayfield/Major Lance flavor, the bass and drums have a churning rock power, and in the trumpet/trombone unison lines I heard the cavalry-charge quality of the horns on a classic reggae track by Burning Spear (to name one example). I also loved the harmonies of the three-man vocal group up front led by Jesse Davis a/k/a Black Wolf with Dan Fernandez and Matt Norberg. Check out this clip and see if you agree:
KINGS GO FORTH – “ONE DAY” (from the Luaka Bop album The Outsiders Are Back)
I got back in the car and drove under the I-35 overpass into East Austin. I found a small down-home gallery called Birdhouse, located in the ground floor of an aging two-story house on César Chávez Boulevard, and an mixed-media art show entitled “Where They At”. Curated by photographer Aubrey Edwards and journalist Alison Fensterstock, the show examined the New Orleans hip-hop sub-genre known as bounce music.
“Bounce music [is] a phenomenon born out of New Orleans housing projects,” wrote Edwards and Fensterstock. “Mardi Gras Indian chants, brass band beats, and call-and-response routines equally inform bounce music, which almost invariably samples the Showboys’ ‘Drag Rap’ (a.k.a. ‘Triggerman’). Its lyrical patterns focus on sex, parties, and dancing, and invites — even demands — audience participation by calling out dance steps or prompting replies.”
Now, until about a week earlier I’d barely heard of bounce music, which seems to have spread beyond New Orleans only recently even though the earliest recordings (cf. “Buck Jump Time” by Gregory D) appeared more than 20 years ago. But I’d been enlightened by John Swenson’s excellent essay, “A Lucky Bounce,” published in the March issue of Off Beat. Thanks to Swenson’s article, I made sure to add the Birdhouse show and Saturday night’s bounce showcase at Submerged to my SXSW must-see list. I’d also learned that bounce music, at least as practiced in New Orleans, welcomes gay, lesbian and transvestite performers — something I’d never seen at any of the hip-hop shows I’ve attended since the early Eighties.
The Birdhouse exhibit was small but well-assembled and intriguing. It include excerpts from interviews with and color photo portraits of leading bounce artists (Katey Red, Big Freedia, Magnolia Shorty) along with other shots of some pretty scary-looking New Orleans clubs where they perform. I discovered that “Where They At” had run for nearly two months in New York at the Abrons Arts Center on Henry Street (i.e. a 15-minute walk from my apartment) and I’d missed it completely. (Edwards, Fensterstock, and their “Where They At” co-conspirators have created a deep and ever-expanding archive covering two decades of bounce and hip-hop music in the Crescent City.)
It was now around 5:00 p.m. and a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered outside Birdhouse for a brief front-porch performance by DJ Jubilee. You know all that post-Public Enemy talk about “having skills” and “conscious rap”? About how a DJ’s greatness lies in his or her ability to blend the unlikely and the unexpected into a mind-melding new creation? Well, all that stuff went out the window with Jubilee and his DJ (mixing from a laptop — I didn’t catch his name). Because bounce music is dance music — first, last, and always. And if there’s a message in that music other than the demand to shake dat azz to a walloping monolithic beat (the sampled bass line of “I Want You Back” surging from the noisy murk), then I failed to grasp it.
But: There are times when shakin’ dat azz feels like not only the most fun you can have standing up but an almost profound act of personal and cultural liberation. “Put your key in the car and back it up, now back it up!” commanded DJ Jubilee as he mimed his instructions — ridiculous, right? Kindergarten hip-hop, right? Except immediately everyone started doing like DJ Jubilee. It was wonderful — a total blast of fresh air amidst the white-guitar-band overkill of SXSW and a tantalizing taste of things to come later that night.
Holly George-Warren, Geoffrey Himes, and Geoff’s old friend Greg Timm got in my car and we drove to Manor Road for a very good Southern-style dinner at Hoover’s Cooking. Holly and I then plunged back into the Sixth Street maelstrom to Red-Eyed Fly, where Exene Cervenka gave a very good if not galvanizing account of herself with the help of an all-female band featuring violinist Tahmineh Gueramy and Dead Rock West vocalist Cindy Wasserman. I enjoyed Exene’s new and recent songs including “The Sound of Comin’ Down” and “(It’s Tuesday) I’m Already In Love,” and her son Henry was kind enough to snap a souvenir photo of the occasion.
I left Holly and went off to catch Kings Go Forth again, this time outdoors in the backyard of Galaxy. This set was at least 30% hotter than the one they’d played seven hours earlier and really lit up the crowd, few of whom seemed to ever have heard of the band before. Whatever time, effort, expense, and hassle it took to get these guys to Austin — at that moment, it felt worth doing.
It was now about 11:00 p.m. and over near the Austin Convention Center the bounce showcase was well underway at Submerged — in fact, I’d already missed Ms. Tee, Big Freedia, and (based on later YouTube research) the awesomely filthy-mouthed Magnolia Shorty. I’ve spent, like, no time in titty bars but Submerged sure looked and felt like one, with a mirrored wall at the back of its foot-high stage.
Before this post reaches an ungodly (and unreadable) length, let me just say: This show killed for the entire two hours I spent there. It had a blizzard of cross-cultural references, gender/identity switch-ups galore, some wild-ass (literally) audience participation, and a beat you couldn’t not move to. Not surprisingly, there was a large and avid multiracial gay/lesbian contingent in attendance. I couldn’t see too well from the back of the crowd, but it appeared that at various points in the show some female audience members took to the stage as unpaid extras to (you guessed it) shake dat azz.
I watched in wonder as the mind-bending Vockah Redu (wearing a visor constructed from cigarettes and “smoking” a stick of incense) was followed by the towering transsexual rapper Katey Red with her cheerful rhymes of anal sex, prostitution, and drug-taking. I also dug the versatile straight male rap duo Partners N Crime (who mixed some nice reggae bits with their NOLA funk) but after the sex-party-in-outer-space atmosphere created by Vockah and Katey, the dire street-warfare warnings of MC Black Menace‘s “Put On A Vest” (“or you gonna need a blood donor, nigga”) seemed almost quaintly old-fashioned. Joining me for this wildest of SXSW parties were a few other middle-aged rock-crit types including John Swenson, Bill Bragin of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and the New York Times’ Jon Pareles, who later called the Submerged show “one of the best events at the festival.” For a 41-second taste of the vibe of this unforgettable show, click on this YouTube clip of Katey Red live in 2007.
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
A month later, no wonder I can’t recall what I did all afternoon on my third day in Austin. But at some point, in the cavernous confines of the Austin Convention Center, I ran into my old friend Peter Jesperson. In 1975-1977, we worked together at Oar Folkjokeopus Records (Minneapolis MN) when he managed the store for owner Vern Sanden; today, Peter is senior VP of A&R for the estimable New West label, where he’s worked with John Hiatt, Drive-By Truckers, and Kris Kristofferson to name a few.
We hopped in my rental car and drove across the river to the Congress Avenue parking lot of a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store that — like every other available space in town, it seemed — had been converted into a music venue for the week. In so doing, we enjoyed that rarest of SXSW commodities, “quality time” — precious minutes of relative peace and quiet in which to carry on an actual audible conversation, catch up on each other’s lives, etc. Peter was another old friend of Alex Chilton who was coping with the shock and pain of his death amid the overwhelming hub-bub of Austin; I think it helped, a little, for him to tell a hilarious Chilton anecdote dating from the re-formed Big Star’s first gig, in 1993 in Columbia, Missouri. Anyway, we soon arrived at our destination to see the L.A.-based country rock band Leslie and the Badgers.
Peter’s enthusiasm for this group is boundless — I remember him carrying on in much the same way over David Bowie’s Station To Station in 1976 — but in this case did not prove wholly contagious. Leslie Stevens is a good singer, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris or Nicolette Larsen, but not an exceptional one; likewise, her band played well but not with any special fire or left-field surprises. My favorite song of the set was the Patsy Cline-inspired “My Tears Are Wasted On You,” a country weeper with a touch of jazz in the chords and melody. Leslie & the Badgers play the Mercury Lounge in NYC on Tuesday, 5/17/2010 — you can listen for yourself on MySpace.
My next stop — and last for the day, as I ended spending a good three hours there — was St. David’s Episcopal Church for a night of new-school UK folk music under the heading “Looking For A New England.” This show was made possible by funding from Arts Council England, i.e. the UK government’s cultural wing. I mention this fact because (a) the gig was truly great, the best multi-act showcase I attended at SXSW, and (b) it could never have happened without that government support. (Did you know that a US visa for a UK touring artist now costs upwards of $4,500.00?)
In any case, it was with a genuine sense of relief that I took my seat alongside a few dozen other listeners in the church sanctuary, an oasis of calm and tranquility just two blocks from the alcohol-fueled din of the Sixth Street club corridor.
It was now 9:00 p.m. so I’d already missed Gadarene and Olivia Chaney, but vocalist/violinist Jackie Oates (who’s from Dorset) had me from her first number, flawlessly accompanied by Mike Cosgrave on piano and acoustic guitar and James Budden on acoustic bass. I was especially taken with Jackie’s take on the traditional English ballad “Young Leonard” and a very moving lost-love song called “Past Caring,” but the whole set was excellent and later compelled me to purchase Jackie’s latest recording, Hyperboreans, which did not disappoint.
JACKIE OATES – “HYPERBOREANS” with James Dumbleton (acoustic guitar) and Mike Cosgrave (accordion)
Next up was Jim Moray (vocals, electric guitar), who offered a more rock-and-funk infused version of the folk music of the British Isles. Although he didn’t mention it, Jim is Jackie’s brother and he produced her aforementioned Hyperboreans CD, possibly at his own studio in Bristol (there’s no facility credited on the disc). His band included drums, violin, programmed bits from a laptop DJ, and another chap who doubled on violin and hurdy-gurdy. Jim seemed a bit nervous and talked a little too much between his numbers, of which my favorite was a twin-fiddles rendition of “The Wild Boar.” For a Child ballad (the title of which eluded me), Jim brought up rapper named Bubz. This combination almost worked as intended but not quite, and the same could be said of set closer “All You Pretty Girls,” a game attempt at an audience sing-along on this centuries-old sea shanty.
Trembling Bells, from Glasgow, may have sounded great. But at this point, exhaustion caught up with me and I confess to having nodded off for much of their set. Through the fog of half-sleep, I was stirred occasionally by the combination of Lavinia Blackwall’s pure soprano voice and the buzzing psych-rock flair of Mike Hastings’ lead guitar. Simon Shaw plays bass and the TBs’ excellent drummer Alex Neilson writes the songs. Fans of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the like should give a listen to Trembling Bells on MySpace.
It was Geoff Travis of Rough Trade who, earlier in the day, had urged me to see The Unthanks: “If you ask me who you should see, Andy, I’ll always name one of my bands because of course I think they’re the best!” I must thank Geoff publicly and profusely for this particular recommendation, because I loved the Unthanks. Initially I thought their name was some kind of punk-rock gesture, like calling your band No Thanks or Thanks For Nothing. In fact, it is the surname of the lead singers Rachel and Becky Unthank, as I would’ve discovered had I ever listened to an earlier version of the group known as Rachel Unthank & Winterset whose 2008 CD The Bairns was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in the UK.
The Unthanks were at full strength for their SXSW shows with pianist Adrian McNally; Chris Prince on guitar, bass, and ukelele; Dean Ravera shifting with equal skill from drums to acoustic bass; cellist Jo Silverstone, and the radiant violinist and harmony singer Niopha Keegan. They opened with “Twenty Long Weeks,” from Winterset’s 2006 album Cruel Sister, but much of the set was drawn from the Unthanks’ new Rough Trade CD Here’s The Tender Coming. Becky Unthank even did some lively clog dancing on “Betsy Bell,” the hidden bonus track that closes the album.
Of course, I hadn’t heard any of these songs before and perhaps it was due to this surprise factor — combined with a certain emotional susceptibility brought on by lack of sleep — that “The Testimony of Patience Crenshaw” brought tears to my eyes. The story told by the lyrics (in which a young woman coal miner describes her hellish working conditions), the beautifully performed music, Rachel’s heart-piercing lead vocal and even her distinctive Newcastle accent — on that night, in that room, the combination was just devastating. Here’s an earlier (undated) live performance of the song:
THE UNTHANKS – “THE TESTIMONY OF PATIENCE CRENSHAW”
Rachel Unthank later explained to me that this song is not of 19th century vintage but was composed in 1969 by the obscure English folk musician Frank Higgins — who based the lyrics on the written records of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842, the official inquiry to which the real Patience Crenshaw gave her real testimony. For further insight into the nightmare world of female and child miners during this period of British history, just read this Wiki entry for “hurrying.”
On the road in Europe at this writing (4.23.2010), the Unthanks have a North American tour set to begin in late June including an appearance at Joe’s Pub in New York. I’ll see you there.
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
A lunchtime BBQ road trip to Kreuz Market in Lockhart TX has been a SXSW tradition for some years now. In the past, this excursion was supplemented by other out-of-town drives, such as to City Market in Luling (more great BBQ) and even a (now-defunct?) catfish farm; but SXSW itself has grown so large and all-consuming that most attendees are loathe to leave Austin for even a few hours. I myself was glad for the chance to escape, especially with meat as exceptionally delicious as Kreuz’s waiting at the end of the 45-minute drive to Lockhart.
At some point either today — or was it yesterday? — I stopped in at Yard Dog, Austin’s premier folk art gallery, on the hip strip of South Congress Avenue. I ended up purchasing an enchanting small-scale collage entitled “The Gardener of Good Intentions” by the artist Bill Miller, and Yard Dog head honcho Randy Franklin threw in an official YD t-shirt with its evocative skeleton-buckaroo-on-bronco image created by Jon Langford.
From the Yard Dog web site: “Discarded linoleum and vinyl flooring is reclaimed as a medium for the artwork of Bill Miller. Creating an effect that lies somewhere between collage and stained glass, Miller’s innovative use of the linoleum’s pattern and
color is his signature style. Miller’s work has been recognized for rendering narrative moods and a sense of common memory. His unexpected use of patterns taps into the medium’s nostalgic familiarity striving to impart a sense of history and story within each piece.”
Nearly every SXSW I’ve ever attended has been marked (or marred) by one day out of four or five when I just couldn’t seem to get it together: to make intelligent choices among the vast array of performances, to successfully navigate the crowds and the traffic, or to keep up my dwindling reserves of physical energy. Today turned out be that day. I wasted some afternoon time in East Austin, looking for an art gallery event actually scheduled for the next day; tried without success to take a nap (impossible with this much adrenalin flowing through my veins), and stood around in the bright sunlight for about an hour at the New West Records party at Belmont, jabbering away like everyone else while some band or other “rocked” dully in the background (I didn’t even stick around for John Hiatt’s appearance).
Nothing seemed to be going right until night fell and I ventured into Prague, a black box of a basement bar that felt like a firetrap and smelled faintly of untreated sewage. In a perverse way, it was just the sort of place where you’d want to experience a multi-band bill of the Batusis, with ex-Dead-Boy-turned-memoirist Cheetah Chrome and founding New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain; the Jim Jones Revue again; and the chronically underrated and hugely entertaining Kid Congo Powers leading his latest combo, the Pink Monkey Birds.
In the event, I was so on edge and uncomfortable in the venue that I took a 45-minute walk and missed the Batusis entirely (although this time-out afforded me the chance for an enjoyable accidental run-in with ASCAP’s Sue Drew). I returned to Prague and a now-packed house that included Maxwell’s owner Todd Abramson and Dr. Ira Padnos a/k/a “Dr. Ike,” presiding eminence of the Ponderosa Stomp.
If the Jim Jones Revue were really good the night before at Belmont, tonight at Prague they unleashed a veritable jukebox firestorm of unholy proportions — the same songs, probably in the same order, just wound up tighter and cranked up higher. It was unbelievable.
Kid Congo did not try to match the JJR’s artillery power but merrily rolled through his set with a Farfisa organ-tinged garage sound and delightful new tunes like “Black Santa” and “Rare As The Yeti” from Dracula Boots — the group’s latest release on InTheRed Records, and one I fully intend to purchase in support of this punk-rock veteran (Gun Club, Cramps, Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds). The Kid’s not just dragging his tired ass around Clubland USA — he’s performing with real rock & roll flair and unpretentious musicianship combined with a distinctive up-front gay sensibilty. Catch him if you can!
Andy Schwartz at South X Southwest 2010 (earlier posts)
My memories of events from 22 years ago can be fuzzy, but I think my attendance at the South X Southwest music conference in Austin TX began in March 1988 with SXSW #2. I came back for 18 consecutive years until 2007, at which point I took two years off from this annual rite of spring before returning on March 15, 2010. I arrived in Austin shortly after 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday 3/17, picked up my rental car, and drove downtown to the Austin Convention Center to pick up the laminated, holographic, computer-coded badge that would admit me to the official showcases, the panel discussions, and all the rest. After checking into my room at the Embassy Suites hotel on South Congress Avenue, I walked with a couple of friends and fellow attendees over to Threadgill’s restaurant for dinner. Two hours later, Holly George-Warren and I were traveling in a hotel van across the Congress Bridge en route to Wanda Jackson‘s set at Beauty Bar when another passenger announced — after receiving a call, email, or Tweet — that Alex Chilton had died suddenly at age 59, just four days before he was scheduled to perform at SXSW with Big Star. Holly nearly screamed out loud before bursting into tears: She and her husband Robert Warren had been Alex’s friends for at least 25 years, and Holly had spoken with Alex just a few weeks earlier. I didn’t know what to say or how to comfort my friend and colleague on this shocking loss: Nothing like this had ever happened in all my years at SXSW, and it was a strange and painful way to begin this one.
(Alex Chilton and I met only once, under strained circumstances in Memphis in 1979, and my memories of the occasion are not especially warm or pleasant. In no way did this encounter diminish my deep appreciation of Alex’s singular talent and especially the three original studio albums he created with Big Star. He lived according to his own code and if you didn’t dig it, that was entirely your problem.)
Not really knowing what else to do, Holly and I continued on to Beauty Bar (a venue with all the warmth and charm of a large storage shed) where Wanda Jackson gamely gave her all while backed by the worst band I’d ever heard her play with. At first I attributed their fumblings to a lack of rehearsal, but as the hour wore on I began to think this was about the best these guys could do — a few days’ rehearsal would have made little dent in their innate lack of feeling for the songs, arrangements, etc. Holly, at least, seemed temporarily lifted just to be in the warm glow of Wanda’s presence, and at one point remarked to me that she held out the faint hope that Alex Chilton had faked his own death “just to get out of playing SXSW with Big Star!”
VINTAGE WANDA JACKSON – “SPARKLIN’ BROWN EYES” (“JUBILEE USA,” 1959?)
When the set ended, Wanda and her husband/manager Wendell retreated backstage — “backstage,” in this case, being a cramped, darkened hallway, piled up with other bands’ equipment and without even a chair for the 73-year-old singer to sit down on. This, I guess, was the best that the staff of SXSW and/or the proprietors of Beauty Bar could do for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee whose recording career began in 1954. For shame!
I’m not sure what made me so determined to see The Jim Jones Revue from England: I didn’t own their first album, didn’t know that front man Jim Jones had been in the overlooked Thee Hypnotics (1988-1995), and wasn’t aware that the current band had been in the studio recently with an old NYC acquaintance of mine, Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. At midnight, a decent-sized crowd gathered on the patio of a bar called Belmont and waited patiently while drums were set up, sound levels checked, etc.
Guess what? These guys killed. The Jim Jones Revue lift all their song structures straight from Fifties R&B, bolt on some witty and/or bitter lyrics, then drive the whole thing through a howling wind tunnel of overdriven guitars, pounding Jerry Lee/Jim Dickinson piano, and an unstoppable rhythm section. It’s kinda like Richard Hell & the Voidoids playing the music of Fats Domino, and it had me rockin’. (Come to think of it, the Voidoids did play Fats Domino a few times — a live cover of “I Lived My Life” — and while Jim Jones and Rupert Orton may not be the sophisticated jazz-influenced guitarists that Robert Quine and Ivan Julian were, they’ve still got that go-for-the-throat intensity.)
THE JIM JONES REVUE – “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL PSYCHOSIS”
It was after 1:0o a.m. and tomorrow would be another day at South X Southwest. This one, for me, was now over.
On Monday, March 15, I attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. This was hailed as “the 25th anniversary” although in fact the first induction dinner was held in early 1986. I did not attend that inaugural event but have attended the majority of inductions since 1987 including events held in Los Angeles (1993) and Cleveland (2009). I’ve never paid for a ticket — a tablemate told me the price was three grand apiece this year — but rather have earned admittance either through the largesse of my former record company employer or (more often) as an editorial contributor to the program book distributed to all attendees. Holly George-Warren has served for several years as the managing editor of this handsome volume, accompanied by a sampler CD assembled by A&R veteran Gregg Geller.
I know there are quite a few Hall of Fame haters out there — some of whom I count as friends — but I’m not going to take the time and space here to address their assorted beefs ranging from “Why isn’t Link Wray in the Hall of Fame?” to “Why isn’t Yes in the Hall of Fame?” I take pride in my past work on the program book and have had a blast at the induction dinners, even if a lot of the event’s spontaneity was sacrificed years ago to the strictures and rituals of a televised awards show. Here are my thoughts on the 2010 ceremonies, in chronological order by inductee:
GENESIS: Sorry, prog people, but I never did and never will “get” this group in any of its stylistic phases and personnel lineups. It was therefore entirely appropriate that guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish should have inducted the venerable British band, since I never “got” Phish either, even after attending one of their endless concerts (April 1998, Nassau Coliseum). I could relate to Trey’s fervent fan-boy appreciation: He spoke with the detail and devotion of a true believer and referred to Selling England By The Pound (1973) as “my all-time favorite album.” Certainly, this was preferable to Bobby Brown saying of Wilson Pickett, back in 1991, that he’d never really heard of Wilson Pickett until being asked to induct him a few weeks earlier.
[Perhaps it was just as well that Pickett was not even present for his own induction. I remember Seymour Stein portentously announcing from the stage that “Wilson Pickett is fogged in.” Since at the time Pickett was living in Englewood, New Jersey — roughly 90 minutes by car from Manhattan — I took this explanation to mean that maybe the defroster on his car had conked out.]
Phish then performed two long, meandering Genesis, er… compositions is what I’d have to call them, since they sure didn’t sound like “songs” as I define the term. After this mildly excruciating interlude, the honorees (minus former lead singer Peter Gabriel) took the stage, genteel expressions of gratitude were aired, and…oh fuck it, let’s get to
THE STOOGES: Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day began his induction speech in a curious but effective way. Having been born one year before the release of the Stooges’ Raw Power in 1973, Billie Joe had no personal memories of the original band performing in its own era. Therefore he chose to begin by quoting at length from Dictators guitarist Scott “Top Ten” Kempner’s account of the Stooges live at Ungano’s in NYC in 1970, as told to Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for their 1997 book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. (Anybody still with me?)
Probably this is as close as Kempner, the Dictators, McCain and/or McNeil will ever come to actually being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — which, for some observers, will sum up all that’s heinously wrong with the thing. Indeed, following a few heartfelt remarks of his own, Billie Joe proceeded to reel off a long list of his favorite bands not yet inducted into the Hall, ranging from the Germs and Social Distortion to DEVO and the obscure UK group Penetration (with Pauline Murray).
The Stooges’ acceptances were very moving. Drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist James Williamson were thoughtful and touching but Iggy Pop was positively gripping. He began his speech by saluting the audience with both middle fingers upraised and ended by nearly breaking into tears.
Maybe Pop was thinking of all the dead Stooges: bassists Dave Alexander and Thomas “Zeke” Zettner (neither one made 35), road manager-turned-guitarist Bill Cheatham, and especially founding guitarist Ron Asheton. Asheton died of an apparent heart attack on 1/6/2009, still aggrieved and mystified that his band had yet to be inducted into the Rock Hall after 15 years of eligibility and at least one prior appearance on the ballot.
“Here we are, in the belly of the beast,” intoned Iggy. And: “A lotta money and power in this room…But music is life, and life is not a business.” And: “Ron Asheton was cool.” And: “Danny was cool” — a nod to the thankfully-still-living Danny Fields, who signed the Stooges and the MC5 to Elektra Records over the same weekend. And: “The poor people who started rock and roll, they were cool.” Joined by bassist Mike Watt (on board since 2003) and veteran Stooge sidemen Scott Thurston (piano) and Steve Mackay (saxophone), the Stooges tore it up with their two-song set of “Search and Destroy” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” They succeeded at least partially in breaking through the audience’s well-fed placidity and offered a thrilling taste of the tour that will follow on Sony Legacy’s deluxe reissue of Raw Power.
DAVID GEFFEN: With Hall of Fame honors already bestowed upon music biz moguls like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Clive Davis, Chris Blackwell, and Mo Ostin, I suppose this was inevitable. Jackson Browne spoke with what seemed like genuine fondness for the man, invoking Geffen’s boundless enthusiasm for his artists and relentless efforts on their behalf. He managed to slip in the names of David Blue and Judee Sill, two Geffen signings that flopped in the marketplace (the latter’s fate was especially tragic) but whose work is more appreciated today. Of all that Eighties corporate rock crap that Geffen served up, like Whitesnake and Asia — the less said, the better. The honoree himself was at his most charming and disarming, cheerfully admitting that “I have no talent.” Geffen noted that his introduction to the music business occurred “when my brother was dating the sister of Phil Spector’s first wife” and thus provided David with entree to some of Spector’s legendary hit-making sessions at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood.
Safely stashed somewhere far from the Waldorf Grand Ballroom were the countless tales of insatiable greed and lust for power, of Machiavellian plots and whisper campaigns unleashed to destroy enemies, ex-partners, and even longtime friends. Details may be found in Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King’s 2000 biography The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells The New Hollywood, which Geffen initially authorized (and co-operated with) before turning on King and doing his best to suppress the book.
Little Steven Van Zandt inducted the Hollies with what can only be described as an unfolding oration on the past, present, and future of rock & roll. Part William Jennings Bryan and part Silvio Dante, it was really something to hear in this forum, although as Steve rolled along I wondered if he was about to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Like a 747 approaching Newark, Van Zandt circled over the subject of the Hollies for
about ten minutes before he finally came in for a landing with astute praise of their compositional, instrumental and especially vocal prowess. In the last-named category, Steven ranked the Hollies second only to the Beatles, a judgment with which I concur.(Got time on your hands? Read the complete text of Little Steven’s speech here.)
With blandly competent vocal support from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Pat Monahan of Train, original Hollies Allan Clarke and Graham Nash sang strongly on “Bus Stop” and an exhilarating “Carrie-Anne.” I was particularly impressed by Clarke, who retired from music in 1999 and may not have sung on stage since then; he and Nash have been close friends for sixty-three years. Things got a bit weird with “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” when another of the Hollies, Terry Sylvester, tried to grab Pat Monahan’s microphone away from him during this uncharacteristic Creedence-style rocker that — although intended for an Allan Clarke solo project (his is the only voice on the record) — became one of the group’s all-time biggest hits in 1972. Two other founding members, singer/guitarist Tony Hicks and the dynamic drummer Bobby Elliott, were MIA — reportedly fulfilling tour commitments in the UK with the version of the Hollies they’ve co-led for nearly two decades.
As is customary at these events, time was set aside for a still-photo montage of performers and music industry personalities who died in the year since the last induction ceremony. Among those depicted were the brilliant “American primitive” guitarist Jack Rose; fearless six-string adventurer James Gurley of Big Brother & the Holding Company); Memphis roots godfather Jim Dickinson; ex-Wilco member Jay Bennett; Richard “Squirrel” Lester of the Chi-Lites; rampant Fifties rocker Dale Hawkins, and folk music legends Kate McGarrigle and Mike Seeger. They’re all dead, and we’re left with…Adam Levine.
JIMMY CLIFF: He looked terrific and sounded great on “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “The Harder They Come” — all from the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, released in 1972. It’s anyone’s guess as to why this stirring singer and charismatic performer was never been able to match this early and groundbreaking success, despite extended major-label stays at both Warner Bros. and Columbia preceded in 1969 by a fine album for A&M, Wonderful World, Beautiful People. (The title track became one of Cliff’s only two US Top 30 Pop hits, followed in 1993 by a predictable cover of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”)
Jimmy Cliff was inducted by Wyclef Jean, who I find a little tiresome in his seeming ubiquity but who at least has a personal relationship to the artist. Years before Wyclef reached multi-platinum stardom with the Fugees, he recalled, his boyhood idol Jimmy Cliff accepted an invitation to crash at Clef’s modest New Jersey apartment after the two musicians worked a session at The Hit Factory.
ABBA: I collected a lot of their singles and occasionally still play their first two Atlantic LPs, Waterloo (1974) and ABBA (1975). These immaculately arranged and produced records are descended directly from Phil Spector’s greatest “Wall of Sound” hits, with added elements of Swedish folk music, French chanson, and Italian aria. Of the four members of ABBA, only Benny Andersson and Anni-Fryd (Frida) Lyngstad showed up at the Waldorf, and only Benny had something historically meaningful to say.
“We had no blues, not what you in America would call blues,” he said, but in Swedish folk songs Benny heard what he called “the sound of ‘The Melancholy Belt’ — sometimes mistakenly known as ‘The Vodka Belt’ — this region that stretches from Siberia to Finland to Sweden…If the sun disappears for two entire months, you can hear it in the songs, you can even see it in the eyes of Greta Garbo.” Swedish radio in the Fifties, he noted, consisted of one station that played very little music of any kind and no American pop or r&b. Record shops thus became the sole purveyors of the new sounds, and after Benny bought a copy of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957, “there was no turning back.”
As for the importance of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Andersson noted that at present there are about 250 inductees in all categories: “Imagine what our world would be like if none of those people had ever existed, or ever created…I think it would be pretty dull.” The surviving Bee Gees, Barry and Robin Gibb, inducted ABBA in rather jovial fashion, reading awkwardly by turns from a teleprompter. With Benny Andersson on piano, Nashville star Faith Hill sang ABBA’s massive 1980 hit “The Winner Takes All” with what the late Lester Bangs (referring to another artist in another time) once described as “all the soul and passion of a doorknob.” Hill’s performance was not enhanced by the extravagant arm-waving and finger-pointing of the other keyboard player to her right, whoever he was.
The hour was growing late as a radiant-looking Carole King spoke, soulfully and unpretentiously, about the historic contributions of her fellow songwriters and now Hall of Fame inductees Jesse Stone (1901-1999), Otis Blackwell (1932-2002), Mort Shuman (1936-1991), Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich (1940-2009). By this time I had stopped taking notes, being more concerned with my table’s dangerously low stock of red wine. But I paid enough attention to know that Cynthia Weil’s acceptance speech went on far too long, given the number of other award recipients (or their family members) lined up behind her and awaiting their turn to speak. Weil didn’t clear the room, but she certainly depleted it.
Jeff Barry had lobbied as long and hard for his own induction into the Hall of Fame as any potential candidate since the hapless Chubby Checker. But when this magic moment finally arrived, Barry was unable to attend the ceremony due to flight delays from Los Angeles and instead Little Steven read Jeff’s acceptance speech from his Blackberry. Students of the Brill Building may wonder why Mort Shuman was not inducted back in 1992 alongside his former songwriting partner Doc Pomus; and why Jesse Stone — a crucial creative force in the early years of Atlantic Records — couldn’t have been inducted sometime between, say, 1988 and 1995 since he lived to the age of 98.
The musical tribute to these inductees featured a rough-sounding Ronnie Spector on Barry & Greenwich’s “I Can Hear Music” and “Be My Baby,” the two songs she sang at my wedding in 1995; Rob Thomas (ex-Matchbox 20) singing Pomus & Shuman’s Drifters classic “Save The Last Dance For Me” (bleh); and FeFe Dobson (who?) giving a good account of herself on “River Deep, Mountain High” (by Barry/Greenwich/Spector). This segment and the evening closed with an all-hands-on-deck version of Jesse Stone’s immortal “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” led by Peter Wolf of the periodically re-formed J. Geils Band — another real rock & roll group that has made the ballot in past years but has yet to be voted in, despite selling millions of records for Atlantic (1972-77) and later scoring a Number One album with Freeze-Frame (EMI) in ’82.