Friday, June 25, 2010

Tough Times for Rock Royalty

1980 was a rough year for rock icons. The Rolling Stones produced Emotional Rescue, a weak ass album that has some of their most dreadful songs - the title track and "Indian Girl"to name two - and continues that late '70's, early' 80's sound of Charlie's overly loud drums and disco-y beat. Dylan was in the middle of his Holy Trinity of Jesus-music. Saved, his loadoff entry of the new decade, was the worst of the three. Paul Simon suffered the first flops of his unblemished career in both the film and record of One-Trick Pony. Led Zeppelin bit the dust after drummer John Bonham did first. For the ex-Beatles, the year began with Paul McCartney in a Tokyo jail and ended with the assassination of John Lennon.

The musical legends of the 1960's were still dominaning the charts for most of the 1970's. It was the following decade that proved to be ten years of transition and grappling with relevancy (except for Lennon, of course). McCartney decade was a long slog of mediocre albums (1982's Tug of War the lone exception) and the abominable Give My Regards to Broad Street, a film that made Simon's movie look like Citizen Kane. Dylan's descent into dreck ended with his Traveling Wilburys rebirth in 1988. The Stones, well, the Stones finally fell apart. Tattoo You was a monster seller in 1981, but by mid-decade Mick and Keith had fallen out and the band was no more until Steel Wheels in 1989. Richards' first solo work, Talk is Cheap, is the best album of the 1980's by the erstwhile Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. There's no reason to get into Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's solo works. No on need be reminded of The Firm or The Honeydrippers.

Simon rebounded the quickest, with Hearts and Bones, Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. Perhaps because Simon was the least rock starish he made the easiest switch to middle age. To be fair, rock and roll had never grown old. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, they were strictly oldies acts by the time they were 40, blasting out their hits in Vegas and at state fairs. Elvis died cold and alone on his bathroom floor. How did one grow old gracefully and maintain a creative spark? This was uncharted territory.

Lennon did have the key with Double Fantasy, his last collection of songs. He wasn't looking backward on his youthful adventures. He was 40, a father and husband and that was fine. He was comfortable with it and sang with the passion and confidence of a man his age. For the others, it was starting around 1990 that they came to grips with who they were - superb songwriters and musicians. Turning 50, fuck that!

Since then, though sales don't show it, these artists have produced some of their greatest works. Dylan's last four studio albums (not including the Christmas album romp) stand up against any four records he's ever put out. McCartney has never released a consecutive string of five strong albums since he's recorded as a solo act. The Stones' A Bigger Bang is certainly as good as their best product since Exile On Main St. Simon keeps knocking them out, 2006's Surprise an adventurous and finely crafted work.

As much as these men created the rock and roll we know today, the music that merged 1950's animal energy with lyrical sophistication and poetry, they have created the mold for a complete and fulfilling career for rock musicians. The 1980's weren't easy, but it served as a period of growth. Sure, their fans waded through a lot of crap, but it was worth it to get these legends to where they are today.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The George Burns Catalog

After 7 year old Nattie Birnbaum's dad died during the influenza epidemic of '03, he formed The Peewee Quartet with some neighborhood pals. They'd sing on street corners, basements, wherever they could. Now how could Dolly Parton have known his story when she co-penned "Nickels and Dimes?" It's that song, wistfully sung by the very grown up Nattie, that closes the 1980 album I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. By this time, Birnbaum had been calling himself George Burns for nearly 70 years.

My tendency is to binge on records. After the family watched The Sunshine Boys, I immediately realized I had to buy George Burns albums. I loved his style of mumbling lyrics at a brisk pace. Why is it appealing? I don't know. Why do people like Yes? Taste can be a very mysterious thing.
A couple of eBay deals later and there I was, staring at three Burns LPs. Let's dig in.

The Sgt. Pepper spoof that greets you belies a serious endeavor in George Burns Sings (1969). The rushing pace that I expected was nowhere to be found. Buddah Records approached Burns, who assumed they were looking for laughs. Instead, label founder Neil Bogart presented the comic legend with a series of legitimate contemporary tunes to hash out honestly, not for yuks.

That's not to say the record is devoid of jokes. Just listen to "I Kissed Her on the Back Porch." But, dare I say it, Burns straightforward renditions are reminiscent of Willie Nelson, warbling with unpredictable, yet musically dead on instincts. His voice is warm and sweet, his New Yawk accent varying in intensity. "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Mr. Bojangles" are stand out tracks. Most view Jerry Jeff Walker's "Bojangles" as tribute to a bygone era. For George, its real life. Burns starred in The Big Broadcast of 1936 with Bill Robinson, Bojangles himself! The biggest surprise, both in selection and delivery, was George's take on Harry Nilsson's "1941." It's Harry's song about his the year of his birth, when Burns was a whippersnapper of 45. Perfection.

Walter Matthau looms over Burns in the upper right hand corner, but George Burns Sings predates the great comeback of the mid-1970's. Flash forward to 1980. Burns is now the Oscar winning actor for his portrayal of Matthau's aged vaudeville partner Al Lewis in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. For Burns' sake, he also played God in Oh, God! At the start of his tenth decade on Earth, George Burns found himself the last standing symbol of an entertainment world long gone and a multi-media star - movies, TV, books and, once again, records.

That hat is never gonna touch that gray toupee and rest its brim on those fish lens glasses! George Burns in Nashville is simply another in a series of vocally challenged performers crooning in front of a crack team of Nashville session musicians. Ringo did it well on Beaucoups of Blues, Joey Bishop not so well on Joey Bishop Sings Country and Western. There's nothing wrong with this LP, a totally straight attempt. None of the songs are played as outright comedy, though some are too cute by half. He tackles "Ain't Misbehavin'" again, and, as he did on Sings, simply nails it.

Remember my Willie Nelson comment? Imagine my surprise when, on In Nashville, George sings "Willie, Won't You Sing a Song with Me." It's a great bit, Burns noting that Nelson has sung with everyone (and this was before Willie met Julio Iglesias!), and that they should get together. The offer is made and an opportunity missed. And Burns even had a television special tied in with the record. As the song fades, Burns pushes his credentials - I played God, I'm hot right now, I can help your career. Still, Willie demurred.

Also in 1980 came I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. Another piece of countrypolitan, there's a bit of vaudeville tossed in for good measure. "The Baby Song" is a ditty I'd heard Burns sing on TV, fast, funny, detouring into chatter as the punchline hit. Though slowed down and stretched out, it still works to great comic effect. Tom T. Hall's "One of the Mysteries of Life" starts with a touch of The Ink Spots in George's delivery. And Dolly's tune ends another pleasant album with a touching bit of autobiography.

I finally caught up with some Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. records that I've had on tape since college. That's the latest vinyl buying obsession. George Burns and Johnny Rotten - now there are a couple of contemporary record artists I'd love to have heard together.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shutter Island

How do I tell you about Shutter Island without telling you about Shutter Island? It's a phenomenal film, as un-Scorsese as any Martin Scorsese film in his canon. Except Kundun, of course. It is part crime drama, part Hitchcockian fantasy, with scenes a la the Dali dream piece in Spellbound.

I tell you what's been on my mind since I watched the movie a few days ago: Leonardo DiCaprio as the new Scorsese go to guy. No more is Robert DeNiro the onscreen image of Marty's films.

When DeNiro ruled the Scorsese universe, he was, as main character, a troubled individual, hard to peg as all-good, all-evil, or all-sane. Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin didn't see the dichotomy of their inner selves, not really. Sure, Jake pounded his fists and head against his cell wall, wondering why things turned out as they did, but it was all animal action.

Amsterdam Villon, Howard Hughes, Billy Costigan and Teddy Daniels, the DiCaprio roles, are quite aware of the split selves. If not totally aware, then at least they suspect thing are pretty fucked up. It gnaws at them, the shifting reality that they find themselves immersed in, whether by choice or not.

As he gets older, Martin Scorsese has morphed his anti-heroes into intellectual and thoughtful men who contemplate the deeply held angels and devils that live in us all. Now his characters contemplate their dual natures. Back in the day, they simply lashed out with feral ferocity. The only thing that Leo and Bobby share are an upper case "D" and a lower case vowel in their last names.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Today in Record Shopping

With K. out of town, 17 year old R. suggested we head up to Last Vestige in Albany and buy some records. Good idea. I had all good intentions to buy a few albums. I'm all caught up (look for a post on three, yes three, George Burns albums in the next few days). As Bobby Burns said, my best laid plans, once again, gang aft agley. How agley? Nineteen records worth. Some highlights:

Ever seen this?

Me neither. There are more Beatles bootlegs than I could possibly know, but this was odd. Turns out to be a 1967 issue of a 1964 unauthorized (I believe) hits album. The pic is not the copy I bought. Mine was all taped up, with a sticker from Nursery on Third Avenue. But for a buck, I had to get it.

Speaking of stickers, two albums, Free's Fire and Water and Dave Edmunds' Tracks on Wax 4 had stickers from St. Mark's Sounds on the cover. Ah, the memories of that beautiful store.

I always feel strange buying an album I should have had all along, like Edmunds above. But, life was a series of choices based on available coin back then (and still today in different denominations), so why feel bad. Therefore, I am proud, not ashamed, to announce that I finally got Public Image's First Issue and Second Edition. Too long not to have those. Also, got The Sex Pistols' The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, with a nice soundtrack sticker on the cover. I've been listening to a tape I made of the record for over a quarter century. Nice to have the vinyl.

Not having a seminal album like The Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty does tick me off. Getting it today for $1 more than makes up for its long time absence. Got their We Have Come For Your Children too, also a buck. Discs are in great shape, covers are much worse for the wear.

It's rare that an album from my want list appears in the cheapie bin, so when I saw The Animals' Ark, their early '80's reunion attempt, I was floored and, obeying the signs from above, packed it in. I took a quick peek at the nicer albums in the racks, the records I was intending to spend my time and money on. They'll just have to wait for next time (I'm talking to you Don Everly solo records).