When the Circus Leaves Town

…and we’re back! It’s been almost two years since I posted. I was diagnosed with a serious illness and had to have two surgeries, a few hospitalizations, and a bunch of other stuff. I spent last year in treatment and rehab and finally life has gotten back to a semblance of normal. The treatment was/is unpleasant, but since it seems to be working I’m not going to complain too much since the alternative (if treatment wasn’t working) no one would ever hear me complain again. Because of the surgeries, playing guitar can be a challenge, yet I find I’m playing better than ever and still enjoy it. People still read this blog and sometimes they write in and say nice things so I am going to keep it going for another year. There will be a flurry of activity over the next month or so, including a video lesson of my favorite licks. THANKS to everybody who wrote in last year about my post on Jim Croce and Maury Muehleisen. Also, THANKS to those folks who wrote to tell me of Bill Fritsch’s passing. He figured prominently in the 60s San Francisco scene and in my post Gimme Shelter and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. THANKS to everyone who comments or sends me messages! I really do appreciate it. I’ve adjusted to my situation. Everyone bangs into the hard wall of their mortality sooner or later. I’m grateful that I am still here and hopefully I’ll be here for a while.

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Some people who were really important in music, life and entertainment have died since 2014. I’m not trying to be overly morbid or anything, but some of these performers were really important to me and a whole lot of other people and their passing leaves a void where they once were. Soon there will be more great musicians in that band in the sky that on planet earth. The people who made the music and entertainment for the Boomer and Gen X generations are rapidly leaving town and it makes me wonder what will be left when they are all gone?

Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead! Wow! Shocking! Who will ever replace him? The guy had a rock and roll pedigree that went back to the 60s when he was a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He was in Hawkwind! He basically invented the brand of loud speed rock that he spent almost 40 years playing and never compromised for anyone. I saw Lemmy at Heathrow Airport in London back in 1988. I had just landed for a visit and then we were both at the luggage carousel. He was wearing an all white leather suit and his complexion, color, whatever you want to call it, was whiter than the suit. BADASS! Motorhead’s performance here is from the British sit-com The Young Ones, which featured comedian Rik Mayall, who passed away in June of 2014. A pioneer of early 80s alt-comedy, Mayall’s over-the-top performance in The Young Ones and many other appearances (BlackAdder, Bottom) earn him a rock and roll mention!

A long time ago I posted this interview with Yes bassist Chris Squire…well it’s not really an interview; he tells a story about opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in London in 1967. Squire’s band YES was HUGELY popular in the 70s and 80s and he was always a big part of their sound. It’s hard to imagine any dudes my age that weren’t touched by this band at least a little bit. Always amazing musicianship and songwriting and basically one of the main pillars of progressive rock. I still like to crank this up once and a while and thanks to YouTube a whole lot of their prime entire concerts are online.

Riley “Blues Boy” King, who I wrote about here back in the day was one of the most influential musicians ever. From his early days on radio, through his groundbreaking Live at the Regal album to world-wide super-stardom, no one played and sang the blues like BB. He was also one of the hardest working people ever and was playing his signature heavy vibrato blues/jazz licks right up ’til the very end. The fact that he influenced everyone from Eric Clapton to Duane Allman to Adrien Moignard speaks volumes on his talent and wide-reaching appeal.

While I was never a huge fan of any of these guys, they all made their mark on the development of rock guitar: Gary Richrath, Sam Andrew and Paul Kantner. I remember watching Gary Richrath on TV in the 70s and then seeing his band REO Speedwagon live in the early 80s. I really liked the live album, You Get What You Play For and was ok with You Can’t Tune a Piano But You Can Tunafish, but I hated the multi-platinum ballad rock of High Infidelity, so I bailed after 1981. I really dug his Les Paul/Marshall sound though and he really had it goin’ on back in the day. Definitely knew how to move a crowd! Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band and Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane/Starship were both legendary guitarists/instrumentalists and had long careers in the business. This clip of Big Brother at Monterey is the stuff of hippie nirvana and Kantner was the longest-serving member of the Airplane and the guy who engages Bill Fritsch of the Hells Angels in a “discussion” about the violence that is happening at the Altamont concert after Airplane singer Marty Balin gets knocked out trying to break up a fight. Here is that exchange along with the Airplane song The Other Side of This Life in all of it’s acid drenched, boob-shaking glory.

Another cat from San Francisco I really dug was the late Dan Hicks — singer, songwriter, guitarist and swing band leader par excellence. Dan and his various bands like The Hot Licks and The Acoustic Warriors had that Hot Club meets Bob Willis swing sound and I have long been a fan. Supporting musicians included the incomparable Sid Page on violin, John Girton on guitar and future Hot Club of San Francisco leader/guitarist Paul Mehling. Vocalists Naomi Eisenberg and Maryann Price always helped give the band and extra layer of awesome-ability. All of Hicks’s songs were filtered through his trademark dry, deadpan humor and considering The Hot Licks opened for bands like Steppenwolf back in the early 70s I think it’s fair to say that he qualifies as a true legend in the acoustic/swing community. All of those old records, if you can find them, are treasures! I will write more about Dan and his bands in an upcoming post.

Glen Frey of The Eagles died recently and you know what’s amazing? I have had literally a thousand albums, tapes and discs pass through my hands over the years. I have weeks worth of songs on a hard drive. But I have never owned an Eagles album or even had Eagles songs on a mix tape. I don’t know what that says about them…or me? A whole lot of people did like The Eagles though…they sold an staggering amount of records.

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Of course the biggest star to pass away in the past two years was David Bowie. I wrote a post on Bowie’s first guitarist Mick Ronson way back in the early days of the blog. I must confess I wasn’t Bowie’s biggest fan. As a rockin’ dude, I certainly liked some of his stuff and loved Mick Ronson’s guitar playing, but thought Bowie’s output was uneven over the years. While I love tracks off of his first 6-7 albums, I don’t think he ever delivered a solid classic album like Rubber Soul, ZOSO, Who’s Next or Exile on Main Street. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was certainly very close. In the pre-Let’s Dance days, before he was a world-wide phenomenon, what I remember is that Bowie was really hot with the girls. Women LOVED Bowie. He had the same type of appeal as Freddie Mercury and Queen in that he combined hard rock with Bertolt Brecht and Edith Piaf so as a listener you were never sure what was coming next, rock and roll or a lounge act. Vocally, he seemed to be exactly equal parts masculine and feminine…sort of like how Miles Davis played trumpet. I probably appreciate his ambient music now more than I did before, but still dislike a lot of the “industrial” stuff. Don’t think I’m ever gonna be a fan of machine music…sorry.

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Bowie was a multi-instrumentalist and played a lot of guitar over the course of his career, including almost all of the guitar on the Diamond Dogs album, which had the “hit” title track and the genre-defining Rebel Rebel. He was also really good at bringing the right musicians together and pushed them to perform well. He worked with some of the best guitar players ever, including, Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Nile Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Earl Slick. Here is a video interview with the late Mick Ronson that serves as a great retrospective of his early guitar days, the years with Bowie, and offers some insights into Bowie the artisté.

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I listened to the Station to Station disc recently and it was pretty good—it’s fun to throw on discs that haven’t been played in a while. Golden Years is a pretty great song isn’t it? Back when I interviewed Mick Ronson in 1989, I mentioned really liking the guitar sound on some very early songs like Running Gun Blues, Black Country Rock, and Width of a Circle. He was pleasantly surprised that someone in America would know and like that material since the album, The Man Who Sold the World, in it’s pre-Nirvana Unplugged days, wasn’t very well-known or popular. I still like that material a lot…it was really fucked up…in a good way. David Bowie and all of his artistic partners definitely expanded the borders of music, fashion and art and he deserves a lot of credit for making life, music, and the arts more interesting and colorful…and my girlfriend really, really, really liked him.

The “5th Beatle”, Sir George Martin, just passed away last week at the age of 90. Wow! What a great life! If he had done nothing but produce The Beatles from 1963-1969 that would have been enough, but of course, he did much more than that. Since he was older than many of the artists he worked with over the years he brought a very paternalistic presence (as well as a great set of ears and a wide wealth of musical and technical knowledge) to every project he was involved in. He would also go on to produce another of my favorite albums, Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow. Totally awesome record, which is why it ranks a review in the right column.

Keyboard master Keith Emerson, from Emerson Lake and Palmer fame took his own life last week. According to reports he was suffering from depression and heart disease and shot himself with a firearm. According to his girlfriend, he was also suffering from hand issues that prevented him from playing at the virtuoso levels from his glory days and was trolled by fans on the internet who didn’t like his new music. Pretty messed up if that’s true…While I wasn’t ever a huge fan of ELP, like YES above, it was inconceivable that anyone from my background could not know who they were and recognize songs, like Lucky Man, From the Beginning, and Karn Evil 9 (Welcome Back My Friends), and Still You Turn Me On. One of the giant bands of the progressive era.

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While he wasn’t a musician I’d give a rock and roll salute to Ken Stabler, 70s quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. “The Snake” was a rock and roll outlaw cut from the same cloth as Ronnie Van Zant and Clint Eastwood’s 70s Man with No Name/Josey Wales characters. He had the rock and roll hair, “studied the playbook by the light of the jukebox”, practically invented the late 4th quarter comeback and led the Raiders to some of the most exciting victories in pro football and finally to Super Bowl victory in 1977. I used to LOVE watching the Raiders play late on Sunday afternoons. You just never knew what was going to happen until the final seconds were up. His family related that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama and Van Morrison’s When The Leaves Come Falling Down were part of the soundtrack to The Snake’s peaceful passing. One of his last acts before dying of complications from cancer last year was to donate his brain to a study of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). He was found (post mortem) to have had Stage 3 of the illness (in part or totally) thanks to all of the hits he took as a quarterback decades earlier. I wish he had achieved the recognition when he was alive, but I’m glad that he will finally be enshrined.

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Closer to home, right after New Year’s 2015, my friend and the long-time musical director for CAB CITY COMBO, Paul Rubin, passed away. I wrote about the Combo here and here back in the day and in wake of his passing a couple of albums have been released here and here. We had a lot of fun over the years making music and silliness and although we had stopped in 2004 there was always the possibility that we might do more. That’s the thing about death: it’s always so final. Paul was also a very good friend and everyone knows how hard it is to lose a good friend. Unfortunately, once the 50 year-old milestone is passed, losing people is something that becomes a bigger part of life. I always valued his opinion and input on things I was doing and he was an early supporter of my gypsy jazz enthusiasms. We went and saw Tchavalo, Dorado and Samson Schmitt along with Florin Niculescu one hot summer day in the Jazz at Lincoln Center space many moons ago. Great concert, great time. I had plenty of these moments with Paul over the years and I am glad I can look back with happiness and a certain measure of pride on all the things we did together.

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Finally, my mother also passed away last week. She and my father both had a great love of music, but it was my mom who always indulged my passion for it and helped me along the way. She had played horn and piano when she was younger and her side of the family was very musical. She also taught me the importance of fortitude, perseverance, and hard work in the attainment of meaningful goals. The first guitar I ever played was actually hers…given as a present by my father one Christmas. She was never a great fan of rock and roll and couldn’t understand why I played it so LOUD, but the fact that I liked it was enough for her to grudgingly respect some of it. She liked The Beatles, Yo Yo Ma, Arlo Guthrie, and Simon and Garfunkel. She was impressed with Eddie Van Halen’s writing and playing skills, loved classical music and enjoyed coming to Lincoln Center, especially if it was for The Mostly Mozart Festival. She was an influential, well-loved person to her family, friends and associates, but above all she was…MOM. It hurts to lose one’s mother, but now she is free and forever out of pain.

All of these people shaped me to one degree or another and some of them shaped entire generations. That kind of influence does not dissipate with their passing because it remains in their creations and in people’s memories. Guitar players and other musicians keep other musicians alive by playing their licks or covering their songs. Music that was written almost one hundred years ago is played constantly at blues, jazz, and gypsy jazz jams all of the time. We all owe a debt to those people who have meant so much to us and we can make their legacy (words, music, creations, thoughts and deeds) eternal and if we do, and if we bring some of our own legacy to the world, then we too will remain even after we are gone. The circle of life is, after all, the circle of life.

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