Saturday, November 28, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Then, there's the new Rolling Stone, with Bono, Mick and Bruce and the cover, the entire issue dedicated to the performances and the Hall of Fame. It's self-promotion to be sure, but that's fine by me. Best yet. there's a DVD of the Induction ceremonies, the hands down best part of the institution. I ended up with the 3 disc set, although there's a 9 DVD box out there somewhere. I can only comment on Disc 1, but that took a few hours to go through.
The jams are fun, though no high level art. It's a hoot to watch little Paul Shaffer "conduct" the melee. I tell you, Springsteen is always having the most fun, whether it's singing "Oh, Pretty Woman" with his hero Roy Orbison, or harmonizing to "Green River" with his hero John Fogerty. Seeing Peter Green stand uncomfortably stage right as he joins Santana and the Green-penned "Black Magic Woman" is gripping; Green disappeared for years due to psychological and pharmaceutical issues. Prince rips the lid off "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." He is the best guitarist on the stage, but it seems like old warhorses like Tom Petty don't really appreciate him. Petty gives a condescending smirk as the former symbol wails away. only George's son Dhani Harrison revels in the fireworks.
The speeches are the best. That's when the real emotion spews forth. Jagger shows real affection for The Beatles, Fogerty shows intense hatred for the rest of Creedence. Clatpon's speech on wanting to join The Band tells a lot about the man, and was one of the springboards to the Maybe Baby blog. The bonus material on Disc 1 features full introductions. Springsteen's take on Jackson Browne as a chick magnet is hilarious. It explains Browne's greatness better than Jackson's own speech. Paul's "letter to John" is as much about Macca as about Lennon, but it is heartfelt and, when The Cute One embraces Yoko it is cathartic. A quick shot to the late Linda in the audience, weeping as she watches, is another heartbreaker.
There are some bits of real douchery. Brian Wilson's awkward reading is sad, for sure, but when Mike Love follows with a nasty speech, shitting on The Beatles, The Stones (was he drunk?), you realize what torment Brian went through working with this asshole. Jann Wenner reads The Sex Pistols' letter of refusal, to the guffaws of the tuxedoed audience. The big shots laughing at Johnny Rotten's spelling and spleen prove the nasty one is dead right. Pete Townshend's paean to his heroes The Stones is funny, sweet, uncomfortable and sincere.
How great must it have been for these guys to be young? The music, the girls, the money, the fame. Yet, growing old hasn't diminished them in the least. McCartney, The Stones, Dylan - they've invented what we think of as rock and are consistently creating what it means to be an aging rock star. They have stayed artistically vital and strong in a way that no one could have seen in the days when pop icons fizzled out by the age of 30.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
At a Martin Short performance last month, he joked that his worst moments far exceeded the best parts of his audience's life. Funny, yes. True, I don't know. I do know that I look at some famous folks in the news lately and, yes, end up feeling much better off. That doesn't apply, though, to Jay-Z or Derek Jeter. They rule.
Take Nicolas Cage. Here's a guy who had a lot going for him and now he's on the skids. Once he was a great actor, really, and now he's a histrionic farce. But that's on the opinion side. Lately, he has made headlines because he owes the IRS $6 million in back taxes. To pay off this huge debt, the Steve Austin of tax evasion is selling off his plethora of homes, collecting the millions needed for the government. Sure, it helps to have a lot of houses, but if you gotta sell them to pay your bills, what's the point. And, now that he's divorced from Lisa Marie Presley, I bet he can't even go upstairs at Graceland anymore. Family only, you know.
Randy Quaid. Here's a guy with a fairly decent list of credits, a journeyman who has carved out a successful career as a character actor. My fave Quaid roles - Seaman Meadows in The Last Detail and Ishmael in Kingpin. So, how does he get to be an alleged felon, accused, along with his wife, of ripping off fancy hotels to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars? Strange, right? I wonder what he was thinking and how he goes forward from here. That always scares me, the very idea of having to start all over, just when it seems like everything is going well. How do you muster the strength to do it again? It must take more than being believable as an Amish bowling phenom.
I couldn't help but think long and hard on the nature of success and failure as I watched Brian Wilson last week (see previous post). A certifiable legend, but happy? I don't know. Pretty brutal upbringing with an abusive dad, inconsistent support from his band mates, who were also family, and a breakdown that lasted on and off for over 20 years. Is his a successful life? Hard to say, though I wouldn't want to switch places with him.
I used to play a game with myself (wait, that sounds wrong). I used to think about who I would rather switch places with. Paul McCartney - not bad, though the downsides are early death of mother & ridicule of press. Joe Namath - pretty good, though I'm not sure I like the burning out so fast. There were others whose lives I would inspect closely, in case of a "Freaky Friday"-like experience. I take it as a healthy sign that I don't think that anymore.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
J. and I had seen Brian's Smile tour when it stopped in Saratoga, four years ago, I think. It was amazing. Just seeing Brian Wilson is something. His troubled past is known to all in attendance and there's a lot of love and support sent his way from the crowd. He needs it, too. Not as fat as he was in the '70's, not as fit as he appeared in the late '80's, Wilson is a nervous hulk, sitting behind a tiny electric keyboard. His anxiety and awkwardness are always apparent, but were less front and center in 2005 when he and his amazing band went through the most famous lost album in rock.
Not so on Tuesday. Without the triumph of Smile, Wilson was shakier than the first time I'd seen him. He performed Beach Boy hits, as well as reaching for some lesser known album cuts. The Beach Boys were always, in my estimation, a hits-only type of group with the exception of Pet Sounds. I remember my shock when I started going through their LPs and found, to my delight, a huge catalog of great songs. When Brian and the band began playing "Salt Lake City," I was knocked out. It's an odd tribute to a square town, and a wonderfully incongruous tune. "Custom Machine," "The Little Girl I Once Knew" (which Wilson declared the best record he'd ever produced), joined the setlist, lost songs finally given their due.
The Beach Boys were an intensely competitive group. When the Mike Love-edition of the group played Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, also in 2005, Love trashed talked Justin Timberlake for some reason. Brian too dissed his rivals. "The Stones couldn't do a ballad like this," he boasted as an introduction to "Please Let Me Wonder." That song is, in my estimation, the greatest Beach Boy tune, and Brian's high, pristine tone on the original is one if the most beautiful vocals ever put to wax. It was sad to hear him now, straining for even the middle range. Yet, he is so compelling and tragic a figure that it works.
Wilson is childlike and he and The Beach Boys had a juvenile sense of humor. You can hear it on a few spoken word album tracks that made it as filler on their records. It was clear that that silliness would be on display during the show. Hell, they opened with "Monster Mash." A few jokes back and forth, with Brian and a band member referring to each other as "Pilgrim," was immediately tiresome.
While the Smile tour was a complete victory, this show was tinged with melancholy. Brian was so odd, so uncomfortable, so fragile. And, for the bulk of the concert, he and the group completely ignored Lucky Old Sun, Wilson's masterpiece from last year. Then, as the show was winding down, a troika of selections from Sun were played and they were magnificent. "Southern California," which looks back on his dream of singing with his brothers, will break your heart more than a big wave wipe out.
"At 25 I turned out the light, 'cause I couldn't handle the the glare in my tired eyes." Think about those lines from "Going Home." Brian Wilson was a kid when the pressures of writing, producing and recording got to him, resulting in a nervous collapse. What did he miss, what did we all miss, when he disappeared from the rock scene? He's back, and doing pretty well, but I couldn't help mull over the deep tragedy of the man. With the band winding down, I spotted Brian offstage, standing perfectly still, a sad figure bathed in blue light.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Darlene Love, darling of the Phil Spector girl groups, was ushered in and, I gotta tell you, The E Street Band can do everything. For "A Fine, Fine Boy" and "Da Doo Ron Ron," the Spector studio created Wall of Sound was reproduced live. It was something of a sonic miracle. Bruce couldn't be happier.
Love left the stage after a smooch or two, and Morello reappeared. Springsteen announced they'd do a song from one of the greatest groups to come out of England. The Beatles? The Stones? The Animals? Nope, much to his credit, it was The Clash. "London Calling" segued into "Badlands" and, after all this, it was hard to not give 'em a smile.
But that's not all folks. Looking for an excuse to keep playing, Bruce said, well, since the Yanks won, we gotta do more. But first, he addressed the crowd behind the stage. "We see you back there. How much did they charge you for those tickets? Hope they were free. Anyone from New Jersey?" When a few applauded to signify their Garden State status, Bruce quipped, "That explains it."
That wasn't all for Jersey. Professor Springsteen gave a geological lecture explaining that, though not everyone knows it, Jersey and Long Island were once connected, way before the continental drift, which is why the populaces are so similar. Tonight, on the neutral ground of Manhattan, the kings of New Jersey and Long Island would have it out and the reunion of the two land masses took rock and roll form as Billy Joel joined Bruce on stage.
I'd come full circle. My first show ever was a Billy Joel show at the Garden, and that memory came rushing over me. I never think of these two together, Joel is Springsteen-lite. "You May Be Right" gained some sack given the E Street treatment and Bruce was positively gleeful belting it out. When Billy sings, it's a faux toughness, a posture. Bruce added heft to Joel's tunes. "Only the Good Die Young" is thematically the same as "Thunder Road," but more clownish. Everyone was having a ball and, when they flubbed the ending, Bruce said "it can't end on that," and they got it right the second time around.
"New York State of Mind" sounded fine, if you like that sort of thing. "Born to Run" laid everything in the dust. Billy Joel, searching for the balls needed for the Springsteen anthem, reached for a Bruce impersonation to do the trick. You may gather that I'm not a fan of Billy Joel. That's true, but having him onstage was a great surprise and a monumental moment, regardless of what I think of his crappy songs. It was a Tri-State music fans' wet dream.
Bruce brought everyone back out for the finale, including Jackson Browne from the CSN set, and Peter Wolf of J. Geils, who, once upon a time would have warranted a real spot on the roster. They left us with Jackie Wilson's hit "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and, after six hours, we were as high as could be, sailing over the Garden, floating on a breeze of musical history.
Then, technical difficulties. There was no sound. We all watched as Stevie sat at the piano, tapping on the mike to no avail, getting increasingly agitated. With every silent minute, Wonder bobbed his head more and more frantically. Why didn't anyone go out to help him? It was not only uncomfortable to witness, but it sucked all the energy out of the building.
Finally, one live mike was found and, when Wonder yelled "Hello New York," the cheers were thunderous. This was, Stevie proclaimed, the 20th anniversary of his induction into the rock hall, and the 5oth anniversary of Motown Records. Were we ready to "turn this mutha out?" he wondered. Oh yeah, we were.
More sound problems followed, and after a loud "Aw shit!," Wonder sat down. OK, a little change was in order. "Can you hear this?" he asked. We could. "Is this good?" as he hit some keys. It was. Alright then. In honor of Bob Dylan, Stevie went into "Blowin' in the Wind." Great choice, great salute to rock history and a sing-songy tune to counter the sound problems.
Though the sound would continue to plague the performance for awhile, Wonder was undeterred. "Wanna hear some Little Stevie Wonder?" he asked, as if referring to another person. "Uptight," with vocals a tad muted, led it off, then Stevie stopped abruptly and soared into "I Was Made to Love Her." He had the crowd going now, and pushed them further with "For Once in My Life," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and "Boogie On Reggae Woman." The short, Vegas-y versions, not as short as a medley, not as long as a regular version, bugged me. His songs are too good for that kind of treatment. The sound was still not perfect and, though I love Stevie Wonder, I couldn't help but pray that this better be fixed in time for Bruce.
A litany of guests were scheduled to play during the set. The first was Smokey Robinson, who came on for "Tracks of My Tears." John Legend came on to do a bit of Marvin Gaye with "Mercy Mercy Me." Legend is fine, but he's no Marvin. No one is. Wonder invited his guest to sit at the piano and a remarkable thing happened next.
In tribute to Michael Jackson, Stevie began a pulsing version of "The Way You Make Me Feel." Watching on the video screen, it seemed as if Wonder was having a seizure and, with his singing suddenly halted, there was a bit of confusion. Then it became apparent that he was breaking down, weeping hard over the death of his fallen comrade. Stevie got it together and resumed the song, urging the crowd with "All hail Michael Jackson. We love Michael Jackson. Long live Michael Jackson." It was the most genuine emotional moment of the night. Wonder also paid respects to Lennon, Hendrix and Marley, but he Michael on his mind.
B.B. King slowly made his way onstage for a swing at "The Thrill is Gone." B.B. and Lucille left and Stevie performed "Living For the City." From there, he tore into "Higher Ground," Sting joining on bass. "Higher" dovetailed into "Roxanne," and the song never sounded better than with Wonder wailing on "red light." Then, back to "Higher," and out.
The last guest of the night was Jeff Beck. The connection here is that Wonder had written "Superstition" and was giving it to Beck, but then recorded it first for a hit. Some bad feeling there, but that was 35 years ago. Tonight, Beck was there to tear it open, and he did.
That's was it. Stevie stood up and said "we gotta go." The crowd gave out a big cheer for the Yankees score, a 3-1 victory over the Phillies in Game 2. Now, we all waited for Bruce.
Monday, November 2, 2009
With that, Simon introduced one of his '50's heroes, "one of the great voices of New York," down from Belmont Ave. in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci. "Yo!" Dion addressed the crowd with a familiar Bronx cheer and the even more familiar "The Wanderer." Simon joined two members of his band to form a singing trio, hunched around an imaginary oil drum, flames flickering over the rim as they stood at a street corner in their minds. Paul seemed very happy. Dion was one and done, and, after he left, Simon held center stage and created the first surprise of the concert.
Paying tribute to a friend that he loved, a friend who held the first benefit ever at MSG in 1971, Simon asked David Crosby and Graham Nash to join him in a version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." Now, the fact that Beatle George's benefit was to help save the starving masses in flood torn Bangla Desh, and this night's benefit was on behalf of the non-profit idea of the corporate giants at Rolling Stone was lost on the crowd. The night was irony free. It doesn't bother me one bit, I'm just sayin'. As to the song itself, it was a beautiful moment, and a new CSN was born.
The next bit of irony came after C & N left, Simon proceeding with "Late in the Evening." One Trick Pony, Simon's failed film effort of 1980, is a pretty good tale of a faded 1960's star named Jonah who recoils at the idea of simply parading his old chart toppers. Instead, Jonah wants to maintain his artistic relevance. Simon has definitely succeed where Jonah couldn't. Paul's last LP Surprise was an amazing disc that found him partnered with Brian Eno. For this night, Simon was Jonah, giving the crowd what they wanted. "Late in the Evening," the hit from the movie, was what they wanted.
Paul spoke of his radio listening days as a kid, and his devotion to Alan Freed, and he introduced Little Anthony & The Imperials. The resplendent group, who first met at the Ft. Greene Projects in Brooklyn, noted that they used to sing in the 34th & Lexington Subway station, right down the street. "Two People in the World" was an a Capella knockout.
I wondered how Simon & Garfunkel would appear. It seemed unlikely that Paul would introduce Art. I'm sure Garfunkel wouldn't stand for being brought on as a guest of Paul. So, after Little Anthony, there was a small delay and, with spotlight stage left, the two walked on together, but apart.
First, "Sounds of Silence" to a crazed crowd. New Yorkers love their Simon & Garfunkel, local boys who made good. "Mrs. Robinson" became a mini-tour of rock history. The song morphed into a Bo Diddley, "Mona" infused guitar riff. Would they play that? I was intrigued. Instead, they turned that phasing guitar into "Not Fade Away," then, back to Mrs. R. "The Boxer" followed, not one of my faves, and the interminable ending "la la lies" was mercifully short. By the way, Paul always thought that bit went on too long.
Of course, the final song would have to be "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Artie's voice was a bit husky, a tad fuzzy, emphasizing his overall Jewish grandfatherly image. Paul belted the hell out of the verse he sang, totally outdoing his friend/rival/enemy/partner/nemesis.
Total standing ovation, which led to an encore of "Cecilia." Jubilation indeed. The MSG mob was delirious with joy, but not so our uneasy duo. With the music over, Artie gave Paul a hug, and a friendly tap, from which Paul recoiled. He immediately bolted and they exited as they entered, several steps apart in a tense ceasefire.
Next up, Stevie Wonder.