Music Business

The Death of the Electric Guitar (Slight Return)

 

Last summer I wrote this fine article on the DEATH OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR because it was a terrifying, tumultuously timely story, affecting every guitarist in the land, right? Well, kind of, sort of, I guess. I wasn’t sure then, I’m less sure now. Would you like to know my thought process and the various bits of info I have gathered on the subject? Well, you might want to read the original article first, but if you already have (or in your head said “Go eff yourself, I don’t need to do that!”) away we go:

In the original article I tried to point out that many of these articles want to go all DOOMPORN as if the end of a few companies equals the end of rock and roll, the end of music…or the end of the world! It begs the question: Will Alex Jones be commenting on this issue at some point in the near future? Will the collapse lead to the Zombie hordes taking over or everyone living like the Road Warrior? I don’t think Guitar Center going out of business (if that happens) will lead to the end of the world, but WHAT IF? Can’t we just go back to the days when millions of dudes “rocked out” and everybody listened to the cutting-edge, magically sublime sound that was Warrant? I wish we could, but there is lots to talk about, like…

The other issue(s) that I explored rather humorously in the original post were a) how lack of “live” heroes equaled huge loss in revenues for the guitar industry (so let’s use holograms), and b) how Guitar Center and that model of business never resonated with me and finally c) maybe the finance guys and the people writing these articles are kind of full of poop. Well I’ve got new information man…certain things has come to light… In just the past few months there have been articles further detailing the plight of Gibson and Guitar Center. On May 1st Gibson filed for bankruptcy protection, which includes:

The change in control will give noteholders equity in a new company, replacing stockholders including Chief Executive Officer Henry Juszkiewicz, who owns 36 percent of the company, according to the filing. Those noteholders include Silver Point Capital, Melody Capital Partners LP, and funds affiliated with KKR Credit Advisors. Juszkiewicz and company president David Berryman will continue with the company upon emergence from Chapter 11 “to facilitate a smooth transition during this change of control transaction and to support the Company in realizing future value from its core business,” according to the announcement.

Doesn’t the language in that paragraph make you want to staple your face to your jacket lapel? Me, I’m to-ta-lly convinced turning Gibson Guitar over to companies named stuff like Silver Point Capital is just going to make everything crackerjack okay-fine. I’m not the most brilliant financial mind going, but according to Wikipedia, current CEO of Gibson Brands Henry Juszkiewicz , “acquired Gibson in 1986 for $5m USD with Gary A. Zebrowski and David H. Berryman” and now given that they are looking at about 500 million in debt, I’m going to have to say that financial mismanagement could maybe, probably, be an issue. Either that or somebody sprang for WAAY too many pizza lunches and took WAAY too many cabs to work. Also, as of 6/23/18 this was posted on his Wikipage: Juszkiewicz poor management of Gibson has caused a steady decline in the company, eventually leading to the company filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in May of 2018. (Holy Glass Ceiling Batman!). Then… there is the Guitar Center saga. A few years ago, Bain Capital (you know that name because Mitt Romney), invested heavily in Guitar Center and they also invested heavily in Toys R Us…that iconic toy brand that just closed all 730 of it’s domestic stores.

WHOOOPS!

In this article, titled Bain Capital Sees Three Investments Stumble, we see what is typically called…I think, bullshit? Right? Right? Because having one company that you are heavily invested in close ALL of its domestic stores sounds more like a full-on face-plant, not a… “stumble”. The other company, Guitar Center, is currently “stumbling” with one billion dollars in debt. *Breathtaking*. Of course Gibson and Guitar Center’s fortunes are intertwined and both companies need people to buy, buy, buy guitars if they are going to reduce their debt loads. So, while a lower number of people buying Gibon guitars at Guitar Center is not a good sign in general, it’s an even worse sign now…because DEBT.

But, of course, the finance guys never admit they messed up. Slow sales is all your going to hear and that isn’t any surprise. Another factor is there are a lot of old people involved in the conversation and you know Old People — They are ANNOYING! Back in the day they were easy to avoid; you didn’t visit except on Thanksgiving. But now old people in the form of so called “music gurus” are weighing in on the fortunes of these companies and it’s a whole lot of LOL. Are these guys genuinely clueless, too old to keep up, or are they full of it because they are heavily invested in the industry mantra that it wasn’t financial mismanagement… it was the lack of new guitar heroes? Let’s go to some quotes and you be the judge:

I would be hard-pressed to name any new ones,” (guitar heroes) George Gruhn, owner of the Gruhn Guitars shop in Nashville, told the Daily News. “You’ve got Joe Bonamassa who is a great player. But he isn’t selling as many guitars as the other big time heroes. And Eric Clapton is arthritic. He’s having difficulty playing and is retiring from touring.”

Gruhn was quoted in my original article and he seems to be the go-to guy for all of these articles. Question: Why mention Clapton? He is 73 years old. People who are 73 shouldn’t be expected to drive youth trends and young people are not going to emulate 73 year olds in 2018. This is not rocket surgery. Personally, I don’t believe Eric Clapton “sold” a lot of guitars to players from the late-80s until now just like I don’t believe Lou Reed sold very many Shure microphones, even though here is an ad that features him trying to do just that. Speaking of Lou, did you know he had a mullet at one point? I had kind of forgotten that. That is a mighty fine mullet. Can’t we just return to the good old days of Lou Reed: The Mullet Years? Actually, no we can’t because George has more to say: Here is another quote from George that makes you wonder if he ever heard the term “cognitive-dissonance”:

Baby boomers are the best customers I’ve ever had. They’ve driven a lot of the guitar trends, but they are aging and many of them are downsizing their guitar collections,” Gruhn added. “This doesn’t mean that guitar sales are dying, but instrument sales in general are under stress.”

He continues:

Gruhn acknowledged that the demand for both acoustic and electric instruments has fallen. “I think the guitar market was built up into a bubble at a pace that was unsustainable,” he said. “It’s leveled off to something that reflects more normalcy. Factories that were designed to produce 100,000 instruments a year may now find that their demand has dropped to 75,000, and that’s a problem because now you have higher overhead.”

Not so fast says Andy Mooney, CEO of Fender Instruments:

Sales of fretted instruments are in great shape and Fender’s electric guitar and amp revenues have been steadily rising for several years,” he said…“electric sales are holding steady, acoustic sales are on the rise, and ukelele sales are exploding.”

MY GOD!! EXPLODING UKELELE SALES! Take that George Gruhn, guy who probably slaps a Trucoat® finish on the instruments you sell. Maybe it’s my mistake for taking these guys seriously. They are being ironic? sarcastic? with all of these articles saying “WE NEED A NEW GUITAR HERO”. What they really mean is “HOLY SHIT WE ARE SO FUCKED!” Because if manufacturers have been cranking guitars out at that volume for years, and you factor in all of the used electric instruments from the 50s through today currently available, PLUS all of the instruments Baby Boomers are dumping (and want to dump) on the market, at what point does every American family need to have 12 kids just to give every electric guitar a home? I don’t think Eric Clapton can fix this! Through the years I think I had 22 string instruments and I only ever bought 4 brand new ones and I started buying in the 70s. Since I have known a lot of guitar players over the years I can say with confidence that my experience isn’t unique. So, in addition to financial mismanagement, a completely over-saturated market (which I alluded to in the original piece) is also a component to this tragedy.

Another interesting aspect to this Los Angeles Times article that wants to address “changing tastes” is the very predictable notion that the solution to too big to fail is…more too big to fail. There’s a three-step progression at work here that’s pretty insidious, unless you find it hilarious; the two emotions are not necessary mutually exclusive. The first step are the sellers with the Muh Generation bullshit. The second step is that this generation can’t do it on it’s own and this is articulated by one Louie Concotilli, owner of Mugzey Music:

The bigger problem, according to Concotelli, is that most aspiring players don’t want to put in the time to become proficient on the instrument…“If they do want to learn they’ll just go to YouTube, but they’re not getting the proper instruction,” he said. “…kids these days, it’s all about instant gratification. No one wants to take six months or a year to learn. They don’t want to do the work.”

Who else is sick of these friggin’ kids at this point? Bunch of lame-bodies for sure. Not only does this generation (unlike prior generations) need guidance and help learning, but they also need A BIG FRIGGIN KICK UP THE ASS SO THEY DO THE WORK! So here we reach the third step. A solution in the form of a chain, courtesy of Corporate America:

One of the brighter spots in the industry these days can be found in School of Rock, a Canton, Massachusetts-based chain of 207 music schools which span 10 countries worldwide. Elliot Baldini, the company’s senior vice president of marketing, said the schools are designed to draw students in by giving them more of what they actually want to learn.

Right…because a chain of 207 music schools is how all of those Baby Boomers, including Eric Clapton, learned how to play. Because no one learns on YouTube, where a search for “Guitar Lessons” pulls up 14 million results and where some instructors (including some I list on this blog) have upwards of a half-million subscribers. Because on YouTube you can’t ever find that song that you actually want to learn, even though it’s designed to be user-driven. Because you need a chain of two-hundred+ schools to teach people music and that’s a bright spot in the industry. I believe that the guy mostly responsible for guitar sales in the Golden Age (the 80s) was Van Halen, not Eric Clapton, although curiously Edward is never mentioned as a driver of guitar sales in these articles. When he and his band came on the scene in 1978 he was playing a piece of crap guitar with one pickup and one knob that he built himself. The industry responded by building and selling a whole bunch of guitars patterned on his design. “The industry,” even when it tries to sell the idea that it “leads,” usually “responds”. Maybe they could respond by doing something else Edward Van Halen did. He donated a whole bunch of his guitars to low-income schools so young people who might not have the finances or exposure in their home have a chance at learning how to play the instrument. If every school in America had some guitars in it that would certainly get rid of a whole lot of inventory, wouldn’t it? That would also get rid of the problem of “nobody” playing guitar. Don’t I have great ideas? They should give me a cabinet position in Washington!

All kidding aside — and that was a lot of kidding you just read through (whew!) — I’m not disputing the charge that fewer guitars have been sold in the past ten years (to 2008), but I don’t think you can directly relate that to whether less people play guitar, especially world-wide. It would be really interesting to see industry sales stats going back to the 1950s when rock n’ roll exploded! I’m not the only person who is cognizant of the fact that instrument sales probably were not a straight-line increase from the time the Les Paul came on the market until 2008 when sales (at least as far as the data we can see) started slipping. If you’ve been around long enough you certainly remember companies and guitar models from back in the day that have no sales stats today because they haven’t existed for a long time. Who buys a Mouse Amp these days? Do you remember the Aria Pro II? That company still exists! See, how bad can things really be then? I believe there have been these peaks and valleys throughout the past half-century, and would be very surprised if there were not some very slow sales in the late 70s and late 90s too. It’s the nature of the world we live in that there are cycles and changes. There have always been people who have tried to make people aware of these facts and what the future might portend and a few of these people were quite famous, including The Geico Caveman…no seriously…David Bowie.

Around the 1:45 mark he talks about brands and subgroups and genres and how the music business has fractured from where it was in the 60s and 70s when definite BIG artists and one or two different ways of doing things were the rule. In the 70s if someone wanted to play music there were limited options compared to now. Of course the business behind those limited options was HUGE because everyone had just those choices, but a whole lot of people wanted to be in the business. Obviously a whole lot of people still want to be in the music and entertainment business, but today there are many more ways to go about that. Saying Eric Clapton over and over again is not going to solve any of the current problems and may in fact be part of the reason these problems arose in the first place. Remember…there were plenty of people who worked at record companies in the 1990s saying “Ho ho ho FILE SHARING is nothing to worry about!” But those people don’t exist anymore. Gene Simmons killed them. So you see…adapting is very important.

The fact is, there are guitar heroes out there who aren’t household names like Clapton or Van Halen, yet they influence people through the magic of their talent, presence and music. Gypsy Jazz players I have written about on this blog, Stochelo Rosenberg and Stephane Wrembel, to name just two, are the reason I bought a new guitar a few years ago. Just have a look at all of these other people and their guitars that they had to buy from somebody because it’s pretty hard to make a Selmer-Maccaferri type guitar on your own. (Although some can people do it). Gypsy Jazz wasn’t even really a genre of music until the 1990s and now people spend some serious coin on guitars and all manner of peripheral equipment so they can go out and get their swing on. I mention this genre because I know something about it. There are many other genres and sub-genres out there (just like Bowie said there would be) that I know nothing about because I’m old or haven’t been exposed to them. The Gypsy Jazzers are not going to get Guitar Center out of trouble, and neither will the players in these other smaller genres, but they certainly make it possible for other individuals and companies to have a business and make a living. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it has always been! God Bless America! It’s not all about the numbers! It should be about the quality and creative solutions, because they are out there. If I can think of a few, you know there are plenty more. If not, there is always 2112!

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Elvis Presley: The Searcher — A Review

I had the opportunity to view another rock-documentary with the mysterious, yet evocative title, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This film seems to have originated with the desire of Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla, to show Elvis as the artisté that he was and the process of this discovery is a long and detailed one, I must say. I wasn’t quite expecting the level of minutiae that came my way when I sat down to view the movie and had I known…well I might have penciled out another week or something. I have to ask: Does the world really need another Elvis movie? Hasn’t this story been told about a million times by now? Is this just another one of those cynical money-grabs by people in the industry who are really just making product for other people in the industry? Sure seems like it to me. Let’s check out some details.

Did you ever rent one of those Elvis biographies on VHS from Blockbuster? Or watch a 1 hour documentary on AMC at like 2 am? Yea! Totally! Me too! One summer afternoon a long time ago I watched 3 of these specials in a row because it was the anniversary of Presley’s death and the family and I were trapped in a hotel room on the Jersey Shore because of bad weather. So if you’ve SEEN those, you have more or less SEEN this movie as well. In addition to all of the recycled Elvis footage there was also stock footage from sources like this VHS tape that I used to have called Times Ain’t Like they Used to Be : Early Rural and Popular American Music, 1928-1935. I spent most of the first half of the movie with my own Mystery Science Theater 3000-type dialogue that consisted of: “Seen it. Yea, seen that. Heard that. Yea, totally used to have that. Wow, they’re using that too, eh? Man, I’m really tired. What time is it?” I didn’t even make it through the first half of the film, called it a night and went to bed. This movie is over three hours long, (which is first of all, completely unnecessary) and what happens is the visually-interesting quality of the film is missing for someone familiar with the subject so storytelling is supposed to compensate…I guess? The director, Thom Zimny has worked with Bruce Springsteen and is real big on NARRATIVE. Dude…seriously. Write a book. I don’t wanna watch NARRATIVE.

The focus on NARRATIVE means the film uses a type of Ken Burns approach to production: still photos, zooming, voice-over interviews, repeated somewhat corny motifs (a bicycle with a baseball card in the wheel). This approach kinda, sorta works if you are producing a documentary on the Civil War, but in the wrong hands, done the wrong way the voice-overs often sound like Mansplaining. I don’t need Springsteen dissecting the transcendence of Gospel Music. He, Robbie Robertson and Tom Petty did most of the musician voice-overs (except for some old stuff they dug out from Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips [seen it, heard it]). It’s better when “guests” are on camera, as in the Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll film. Hearing these guys expound heavily behind some of the visuals was really annoying and Tom Petty was the only interesting voice-over artist. Why do all of these movies end up with rock writers bloviating in the background? How about some singers or musicians like, Robert Plant? He’s a HUGE Elvis fan. Those tales of Led Zeppelin meeting Elvis in the 70s are amazing! Here’s Jimmy Page wearing an Elvis on Tour Ribbon so you know he’d be down for reminiscing. The Beatles had an impromptu jam with Elvis in 1965. Their memories of meeting Elvis were a lot more entertaining. Paul drives a boat while remembering in this footage. How cool is that? Add that stuff and for good measure get more Scotty Moore involvement. Then get Page, Jeff Beck, and Brian Setzer to give guitar demonstrations on “that sound”. Have Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding talk about those Sun Sessions and Treat Me Like a Fool and how great and influential and downright life-changing it all was! Yes! What we’re going for is footage and commentary that is the same quality as Little Richard talking about his big toe shooting up in his boot (because he loved Jimi Hendrix’s playing so much). Can you feel the magic here? I should be in pictures.

Finally, there is obviously an attempt to avoid any notion that the King of Rock and Roll also became the King Of Cheeseballs and the King of the Tabloids later in his career. The audience is supposed to accept the proposition that a guy who appeared onstage in caped rhinestone jumpsuits, zonked on any number of different medications, performing karate moves while singing Suspicious Minds to over-the-hill babes grabbing for his scarves…was a totally serious person. I’m sure there was a lot of high-fiving in the post-production room when the movie was done, but I was there in the early 70s and even then 13 year-olds like myself knew the only person less serious than Elvis was Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. The next person who wants to make an Elvis movie should be forced to use the following suggestions: 1) The musicians above appear in the movie; 2) Examine the appeal of The King to his fans; 3) Explore the still vibrant Rockabilly and Psychobilly communities; 4) Discuss the weirdness that always surrounded the King–The Memphis Mafia, Presley’s interest in the Occult, UFOs and Conspiracies, and finally 5) How real and imaginary elements of the Southern Gothic tradition and the rest of these items are indispensable to Presley’s story and as much a part of rock n’ roll as the “devil at the crossroads” is to blues legend. Otherwise you’re just left with a big WHY? I still don’t have an answer for that question, but I’ve spent enough time with this subject already, so we’ll just have to leave it to the cosmos to figure out.

Stuff from the Vault

I moved recently and during the process found a some items from back in the day that I’ll be posting over the next few weeks. I’ve decided I’ll turn the blog into a kind of an online scrapbook — crammed with all kinds of things from my life. But variety is the spice of life. Anyhow, the pic above of Kirk Hammett is from an old magazine. I had to get rid of a bunch of old books and magazines ’cause I moved to a smaller place. But I tried to keep interesting or photogenic things so they will turn here at some point. Kirk Hammett is one of the great players the last thirty years. He’s had a pretty great career and his band was mega-influential too! Also, I used to play through a Mesa Boogie. Loved it!

Today — I have a few pics that were taken at a Johnny Winter show in the early 2000s. I think this was at BB King’s in NYC. Johnny wasn’t in the best of shape; this was after he fell and broke his hip, hadn’t recuperated fully, and was on a lot of drugs. The story of those days, which involved a possible shady manager, is not a very good one. But thankfully Johnny got better and did really well in his final years. From what I remember, at this gig he played almost all blues and ended with Highway 61 Revisited on his old Firebird.

BB Kings was kind of a weird place, but it hosted a whole lot of pretty impressive shows over an almost 20 year residence. It closed earlier this year. Supposedly they are looking for a new space and hopefully they find one, but it ain’t gonna be easy, because everywhere is expensive and the brick and mortar can’t afford it, including the clubs and music venues. Most of the music stores are already gone. But this night with Johnny Winter occurred back in a cheaper and more appealing time. It was my girlfriend’s birthday and, in addition to hearing some great music, we ate way too much and drank way too much…and then we ate more and drank more with the other couple at the table. We were a mess getting home that night for sure! Back then eating and drinking at BB Kings Time Square was like eating and drinking in Atlanta or something. All of the portions were effing HUGE! Even the mix drinks were huge. I think my girlfriend’s gin and tonic was 32oz! The club is downstairs like a cavern, and then when the show is over and you are BLOTTO from drinking a bunch of 32 oz alcoholic drinks…you ascend and exit directly into THE LIGHTS OF TIMES SQUARE! Total stimulation overload…like if the police pull you over and shine a flashlight in your face! It will either make you lose your buzz or fall over. We barely avoided falling over. GOOD TIMES!


Long Strange Trip Movie Review

Update: I have decided to use a new rating system for everything I review. So I am putting the 4-star rating on this post even though it has been up for a week. I re-watched parts of this documentary and it is definitely as good as it gets. I can’t recommend enough!

Thanks to friends in the business, I was able to watch the “sprawling” Grateful Dead Documentary, Long Strange Trip over a few nights last week. Most people will need a few nights as the movie, or collection of long video chapters, totals over four hours in length! Holy Cow, just like one of those versions of Dark Star in the mid-70s! The film is directed by Amir Bar-Lev, who I have never heard of prior to this, but he is originally from Berkeley, is a total Dead Head, favors 1973 and Dark Star as Best Year/Cut and specializes in Documentary-type films so basically…he was a natural to assemble? create? manufacture? this film. Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers as is Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann’s son, Justin. All of the remaining members of the Dead are also involved in the film and are interviewed as are many others who were involved with the organization. Of course, Jerry Garcia makes many appearances in “celluloid” only, but he is there nonetheless…(as he would have to be).

I have to say, I think everyone involved did a masterful job and the movie is interesting, moving, inspirational, informative, entertaining and evocative. In some spots Long Strange Trip is also funny as hell and it doesn’t matter if you’re laughing “with” or “at”… or “both”. It’s as grand and expansive as the United States of America and it is a tale that really could only be set in this country. I don’t think one necessarily has to have been (or be) a Deadhead to enjoy the film, because the documentary nature allows for the focus of movie to shift constantly, yet always be contained within the larger world that even the Dead and their insular organization had to inhabit. Plus, it IS a pretty interesting story, especially if you as a viewer find anything about this era, style of music, or culture interesting.

The film begins in the 60s: the early days of the Beats, bluegrass, beginnings and such. We are introduced to Jerry Garcia and some of his early influences, musical and otherwise that will keep reappearing throughout the film. One is a girl (Barbara “Brigid” Meier), another is a movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which plays directly into his conception of and affection for “the weird” side of life. Garcia remains the primary focus within the larger story of the band for the duration of the film and even casual fans of the band are cognizant of this truism; the story of the band is the story of Garcia and it begins and ends with him. As the film moves into the hippie years and the Acid Tests, the final coming together of a cohesive musical unit, early recordings and a plan for future world domination, the viewer is introduced to a second set of visions for the future that originate with Garcia, but will affect everyone in the Grateful Dead: Jerry wants to have fun, business is for businessmen, six different people from different musical backgrounds will play fantastic, spontaneous in-the-moment music by listening to each other, and no one will be in charge. As the band comes together and is ALIVE, the movie uses the Frankenstein motif of creating a monster, tying together these sets of influences and early motivations that will continually appear throughout the rest of the movie.

The six chapters that make up the movie focus on these early beginnings, success in Europe in the early 1970s, the roadies and others within the Dead organization, things get out of control in the mid-70s, a triumphant return as a completely professional band, the band’s fans including the tapers, the success and downfall of the 1980s and 1990s. This breaks the long film up in an effective manner, especially if viewed on disc. Given the ambitious amount of material that the director set out to cover and all of the threads he needed to pull together to effectively illustrate how The Dead succeeded, sort of, kind of, but then it all went wrong (and was always destined to go wrong) had to have been pretty daunting task, but he pulled it off. I’m not sure I agree with the movie’s conclusions, but that will be discussed in a separate post because I’m trying to avoid spoilers if someone reads this and still hasn’t seen the movie. But you’ll see and hear Phil, and Pigpen, and Bob, Mickey, Egypt, the drugs, Bill, the wives and girlfriends, everyone on the set of Playboy After Dark getting dosed, The Wall of Sound, the endless tours, the good years and the bad, the laughs and the highs and lows, and well…everything. It’s all there and a lot of the footage is new and some of it is pretty amazing. There is one session of Garcia, Lesh and Weir working out their vocals on an early version of Candyman and that was way cool. I’d watch hours of clips like that, believe-you-me.

I was never a Deadhead; but I did see them once and I count American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead as two of the best albums of the 1970s (and some of the band’s best work) and they obviously occupy a special niche in music history. There really was no one else like them and there couldn’t be anyone else like them for the simple reason that it’s a miracle the project ever got out of the garage. I think the film does a good job at avoiding over-sentimentalizing some of the more mythical or dangerous aspects of the scene and some of my favorite moments include monologues and thoughts from Sam Cutler, road manager to the Dead, (and the Rolling Stones on their ’69 tour). He is a dissenting, ornery, voice of the outsider throughout the movie and indicative of characters of that time. (He seems to be the guy who lives in a van down by the river these days? But likes it?). He and Warner Brothers president, Joe Smith provide much-needed blasts of oxygen to counter the overkill Nitrous high of Grateful Dead weirdness, hippy fan adulation, roadie enthusiasm and Al Franken. Yes, Al is in the movie too and is a righteous Deadhead. I did not know that.

So the takeaway should be: See this movie because you’ll enjoy it. Grab your favorite sweets or sweetie, refreshments, *favors*, and flavors and boogie on down that grand highway of life like the band did all of those years ago. They were a special collection of people and it was a special time in history that will soon be gone forever.

Runnin’ Down a Dream

When Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers first burst on the scene in the mid-70s, I was…ah… suspicious — it seemed to me, inexperienced music fan that I was at the time, there was a possibility the band was aiming for pop stardom or LA pretty boy fame that could be leveraged into… I dunno…a career as game show hosts? Stars of the next Cameron Crowe movie? Well, it quickly became apparent that my radar had been faulty as Damn the Torpedoes, their big breakout album, proved to be a smart, rockin’ affair, chock-full of great tunes and great playing. Even at this point in his career there was an edge to Petty that, although he was laconic and laid back about it, basically announced to the world and any and all potential business associates, that he was always gonna do it his way. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but admire a person with those kinds of instincts and sensibilities. Though he never sounded or acted much like a Southern Rocker, for all intents and purposes Petty was; one just had to peel back the layers a bit to see it. And then, there was The Heartbreakers, his backing band. And what a band! Guitarist Mike Campbell quickly established himself as a “tastemaster”; a well-grounded player versed in all of the essential elements of great rock and roll styles, but disciplined enough to always support the singer and the song. Likewise for the keyboards of Benmont Tench. Neither guy ever overplayed his hand. The great rhythm section of Stan Lynch/Ron Blair gave Petty the ability to write songs as tight as The Beatles/Byrds or as loose and funky as Stax/Booker T and the MGs, which is exactly what he did and they always pulled it off awesomely. As the 70s rolled on into the 80s, Petty’s star kept rising and though some of the albums were not fully realized and some of the critics chided him for being shallow or not fully committed to I don’t know what, there was always that Tom Petty song on the radio that I didn’t change the dial on…and so the moorings of a 40+ year career were established.

By the mid 80s he was headlining a whole new genre — HEARTLAND ROCK; a “movement” that only lasted about 10 minutes in 1985, but is still a thing in programming jargon. How Petty and his band went from LA New Wave to heroes in Iowa in the space of 10 years is still a mystery. Perhaps LIVE AID had something to do with it. Or FARM AID. I dunno…the 80s were a little confusing. I was certainly confused sometimes…Talk about connecting with your (or somebody else’s) roots! U2 was probably more than a little jealous. After all they TRIED to do the same thing with Rattle and Hum and all they got was well-deserved derision. (Maybe it’s just me, but the guy who wears the sock hat constantly never sounded particularly “rootsy”). The truth is TP and the Heartbreakers kept building their nationwide audience by subterfuge; they had played Heartland-sounding music from the beginning, wrote great songs, and avoided all of the bombast and most of the overexposure that plagued other 80s stars (Phil Collins, Sting, Huey Lewis). Sure, Stevie Nicks sang with the band on a big hit song, but not liking Stevie Nicks is downright UnAmerican. The band was able to score hit song after hit song because that is the medium to which Petty excelled as a writer and probably how he related to rock and roll in the first place. So, as a band they were always around, no matter the “era”.

The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!

Then there was what I like to call the LIKE-ABILITY FACTOR. A lot of rock stars aren’t really very likeable, some are even complete a-holes. Yet, one always got the sense that Tom Petty was a pretty cool, down-to-earth, affable guy, even if he was ornery sometimes. You understood the orneriness and accepted it though because he was in a tough business and no matter who you are, everybody’s had to fight to be free. He didn’t take himself too, too seriously and was always honest about his feelings and intentions and that counted for a lot. You never felt like he was putting you on or telling you stories about people he read about in the newspaper. I hate that crap. With Tom it was always personal, but never overblown. He knew how to write and sing to people so they didn’t feel put upon. Did you know that the song I Won’t Back Down was inspired by an arsonist burning down Tom’s house? While he and his family were in it? Most of the house did burn down and the person was never caught and that’s pretty messed up, yet a very succinct and brilliant song came out of the ordeal. A song you could sing after 9/11 or in the cancer ward…or after someone tries to burn down your beautiful house. There was always that to-the-point authenticity to Petty’s single-based songcraft and the fact that he didn’t give you a 9 minute story like Dylan, turn it into a hopeless dirge like Springsteen or pile 34 different instruments onto the track like Mellencamp made you like him even more. He wasn’t ever gonna be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but, thousands and thousands of people were capable of singing along because they KNEW his songs. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, especially in today’s 8 second attention span world.

By the end of the 80s Tom completely looked the part of a wizened California mega-stoner with his acoustic guitar, his traveling top hat, and the friends in super high places: Harrison, Dylan, Lynn, Orbison, Garcia and Ringo. (You have to be cool if you have Ringo as a friend). He was in a very successful project with some of these “friends”, recorded a career-defining solo album, Full Moon Fever, and a suddenly a whole new era of Pettiness began. Just in time too because there was a whole new generation of angst-ridden Generation X youths who, in time, would come to appreciate Tom and the Heartbreakers just as the previous generation had…and for the same reasons. Unlike the loudmouth/controversial-type rock stars that prowl the horizon and the pages of tabloids, I don’t think there was an I Hate Tom Petty Fan Club out there in the universe. Even hipsters grudgingly respected him in that ironic kind of way. How could you hate a guy who wrote…

Take Back Joe Piscopo!

…into one of his chart-topping songs? Petty’s inherent goofiness and rock and roll sincerity made everybody sit up and RESPECT because he had that real deal gift for the art of communication. Even the songs that don’t sound like much will fool you. Listen again and you will find they usually contain a line or couplet that just defines life or a person’s place therein, and you’ll realize (after your 50th listen) that maybe it’s this small comment on emotions, the unfair nature of life, or unbridled human determination to go on that was the basis for the whole song in the first place. Tom did that a whole lot because these moments are scattered throughout his catalog. He would continue writing and recording songs for another two decades with the same sense of assurance and modeled on the same sounds and influences that always worked. In time, the band became an institution and I do believe that Tom knew that his time was coming to an end, at least as a rock star, so he loaded up the tour wagon one more time and went out like a boss, doing what he loved, taking it to the people like he and the Heartbreakers had been doing since the 1970s.

And so… I was shopping for Christmas dinner a few months after Tom Petty passed over and his voice suddenly filled the store, singing that silly Christmas song he released back in the early 90s and there I was, staring into a cheese display for three minutes. I saw Tom in many mediums, but going back to when I was still a teen, through all of the jobs I had, including many driving hours, when rock and roll radio was always on, I LOVED to hear his songs on the radio because they fit so perfectly. And now to realize that this voice, this guy, who has been singing and talking through this medium for more than forty years will only exist that way from now on — forty years of radio, concerts, MTV, and playing his music…forty years worth of LIFE blast through my head in the space of a few seconds. While it’s hard not to get sad and emotional, there comes the realization of not only the inevitability of life and death, but also, though I could’ve lived at any time, I lived in this time and heard all of this music and so much more… and my life was made so much richer by it.

Recently I was able to attend the Loser’s Lounge Tribute to Tom Petty and it was pretty fun. This long-running music cabaret has thrilled and chilled audiences for a quarter century at this point. WOW! This is the first time I’ve seen them though and this isn’t something I would normally do, but I’m glad I went. The basic band is HOT! They are led by Joe McGinty and they are seriously crazy good…probably the BEST drummer I’ve seen in a long time only because he was so solid and crushing and you need that if you are going to put on a show like this. But everybody else: bass, guitars, percussion and backup/lead vocals by the core band was just brilliant. They had my attention all night. They had guest singers come up for the long two sets of songs they did and while some of it didn’t work, the stuff that did more than made up. The evening made me realize even more how great Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers were, because even the stupendous versions by these great musicians still came up short and so would anyone’s attempt to try to copy one of rock’s truest originals. Fare thee well Tom…Thank you! May you run down that dream forever!

Django a Go Go 2017

This was an evening to remember! As I mentioned last month, I was psyched for this concert and I can say now that I had a fantastic time at Django a Go Go and saw some GREAT live Gypsy Jazz in one of the best venues in the world (Carnegie Hall)! It seems the accompanying bandcamp and smaller concerts out in Maplewood, New Jersey were also well-attended and a roaring success. While talking about it from the stage, organizer Stephane Wrembel described the whole idea as “CRAZY”, but it worked out beautifully. Stephane has been playing/promoting these concerts since 2004 so he is definitely adept at pulling all of the necessary elements together and had all of the right kind of help. Gypsy Jazz is more popular than ever in New York City!

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My girlfriend and I arrived at Carnegie Hall, had a nice glass of wine, checked out some of the history in the place at the museum and then made our way to our seats at about 7:30. Together we have seen some great shows at all of the big venues in New York over the years, but neither of us had ever been to Carnegie Hall. What a great place. So much history and a part of a very different time, yet it remains so functional in the modern era. The view from our seats was awesome — completely unobstructed, which is just what I was going for. While I’ve seen people say that the show was sold out, that isn’t completely true. Our area of the balcony was not, which was GREAT! We could really stretch out and enjoy the show and the others who were around us were cool and likewise had plenty of room. I knew the sound would be amazing. It’s Carnegie Hall! While the above pic might make it seem like the 2nd balcony is too far away, it really wasn’t. As I have mentioned on this blog in the past: it was Django Reinhardt’s 1953 version of Night and Day, this video of Stochelo Rosenberg and seeing Stephane Wrembel live that inspired me to learn Gypsy Jazz. I’ve seen Stephane in many incarnations over the years, but have never seen Stochelo. I have also never seen Al Di Meola live and so this was what I was psyched for going into the concert.

Stephane started the show to great cheers from the hometown crowd and after acknowledging the importance of the night and his thanks to the fans, began the show solo with his sublime version of Django’s Improvisation #1. His band joined him on the next tune, the very kinetic original number, Prometheus. As always, Stephane’s playing was brilliant and his band was great. They totally nailed the tunes and then provided great backup for everything else over the course of the evening. Nick Driscoll joined in on saxophone for a great Coltrane-type version of Django’s Troublant Bolero. Totally cool. There was some singing from David Gastine who did a Jean Sablon tune and then related that his dream had always been to sing Take Me Home, Country Roads at Carnegie Hall. Hmm. Not what one would expect at this show, but he nailed it, had people singing along (including us for a chorus [blame the wine]) and got a big ovation for a job well done. Stephane also played Bistro Fada, his very well-known theme for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris movie. Then they were joined by guitarist Larry Keel who played some serious Doc Watson country style guitar. The show reminded me of an old-time variety show or maybe Prairie Home Companion. Stephane explained that this has always been the theme behind this concert; bring many divergent styles and musicians together and make it happen!

Then it was time for Stochelo Rosenberg and he did not disappoint. He was CHARGED! He explained before starting that he hadn’t been to Carnegie Hall since 1993 when he was invited by the great Stephane Grappelli. Twenty-four years later he returned thanks to another Stephane and completely burned through his original, modern Gypsy Jazz classic, For Sephora. To see and hear him play this song live was an incredible experience. Everything I wrote about in this post regarding Stochelo’s incredible technique; his strength, touch, tone, and articulation was on full display. Even the other musicians onstage were just shaking their heads as he blazed through 4 choruses of the tune. It was brilliant! It was awesome! They followed up with a Django-era classic, Coquette that also sounded great! I could see everything Stochelo was doing and he was very animated and having a good time, which is a bit unusual for him. Usually he lets his hands do all the moving. Al Di Meola came out next and related that he too had played the hall 42 years ago with Chick Corea and also hadn’t been back since. He launched into a very dramatic classically-inspired solo piece that went through many movements before coming to a big climactic ending and then the ensemble finished with a blazing version of Indifference. During this tune, Stochelo, Al, and Stephane did all kinds of tag-team soloing and comping that was a prelude of the great things that awaited us in the second set. It was a pretty amazing first set and the show had already run more than an hour and a half. And it only got better!

After a short intermission, Stephane, Stochelo, and Al came out alone and Stephane related before they began how influential the Friday Night in San Francisco recording of Di Meola, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin from 1981 was to him and to many guitarists he knew. (It was to me too). I was expecting they might do this and as soon as I saw the three of them come out I knew they would! They launched into Mediterranean Sundance and it was EPIC! No, really, it was so good they all hugged at the end of the 12-15 minutes worth of awesome playing. I am not even going to describe how epic it was, but the playing from all three was magnificent! They followed it immediately with a great version of Chick Corea’s Spain joined by Keel and bass player Ari Folman-Cohen. Crazy good. For me everything that had happened between when Stochelo appeared and the end of Spain alone was worth the price of admission. But there was more! A great swinging version of Django-era Georgia on My Mind, with Stochelo playing all of Django’s brilliant lines and chordal fills and It Don’t Mean a Thing with sublime Freddy Taylor-type vocals on both by Ryan Montbleau. Then there was a great guitar hero version of Nuages (with a solo intro by Stochelo to open) that also featured some more great sax from Nick Driscoll. Finally, there was the big rave-up at the end with the Gypsy Jazz anthem, Minor Swing that included the great Paulus Shafer and Stephane’s student, Sara L’Abriola, that succeeded in bringing down the house!

The week after the concert I saw this page of the program (didn’t look at it the night of) and this review from Downbeat and both show a program I totally don’t remember in spots, but I think I’m remembering correctly. I know that Coquette was played because Stephane briefly introduced it as a song Django wrote (which he didn’t) and that had Stochelo shaking his head no (because he didn’t) while if they had played Djangology, that would have been true, since that is a Django Reinhardt composition. Minor Blues was definitely not played and neither was Dark Eyes and if Double Jeu was played it was worked in as a part of Indifference because I know Double Jeu from that awesome Romane/Stochelo Rosenberg DVD that I have raved about on this blog a number of times. Anyhow, I’m sure there had to be some alterations and spontaneity and that is what jazz is all about!

Finally, as I wrote here, I lost my mother almost a year ago to the day of this concert. She was always my Number 1 musical supporter and over the years I was able to take her to many different cultural events in NYC, which she always enjoyed. We never saw anything at Carnegie Hall though, but I like to think she was with me for this great night of music. My girlfriend lost her father about six months ago. He lived to the ripe old age of 94 and while that is quite an accomplishment in and of itself, the fact that he was stationed on Iwo Jima with the Japanese army when he was but a lad of 22 makes it all the more amazing. He was wounded in an air raid and was evacuated from the island before the final American assault. One of the bullets that struck him remained in his leg for his entire life. He passed away just after I bought tickets for Django a Go Go and bequeathed the field glasses from the his army days to his daughter to use for the concert. We were able to get up close and personal to some of the action on stage and that was great! After all of these years, and so many miles, they still work and he would’ve appreciated that they were put to such good use. Swords into plowshares and all of that. I felt very fortunate to have been a part of this evening with so much great music and great playing by all of the musicians. Of course, it was a monumental night on a personal level for me to see Stochelo! I am also glad that Stephane took it all on and set up such a great program of events and hope to see more in the future!

Christmas Time is Here — Part I

Wait, what? Christmas is over, right? Well, yes, the holidays have come and gone again. January is always a little bit of a downer, isn’t it? Especially if it was an enjoyable season. The holidays can certainly be a difficult time too, but this year was great for me and I was inspired to write this post and put it up now before I forget or the year gets away from me. You can come back after Thanksgiving and it will be here if you are Holiday-ed out.

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As I said in another post, right before Christmas I played a gig, my first in over a year. It was a GypsyJazz/Jazz type holiday gig and it went very well. Playing the gig got me thinking — musicians are expected to play Christmas songs and holiday music during the holidays, and many do. For some, it’s a chore and a real groan-fest, but personally, I’ve always enjoyed it. This year we played 5 songs in our 3 sets: My Favorite Things, Django Reinhardt’s version of Danse Norvegienne, our own arrangement of Let it Snow, a rowdy version of The Ventures Sleigh Ride (a real crowd pleaser) and a loose arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here that I have been playing for years. Since we had a clarinet player sitting in with us there was a very classy and Christmas-y vibe to all of these songs, even the ones that aren’t specifically holiday songs. I also heard a whole lot of Christmas music during the season and I’m sure everyone else did as well. So where did these songs come from? What makes a great Christmas carol? As a musician, should you and how can you work some holiday cheer into your repertoire?

Well, some history. The holiday that is Christmas evolved out of pagan, solstice, end of calendar (or seasonal) year celebrations a long, long time ago. The earliest Carols were sung in Europe thousands of years ago and were probably sung in celebration of all four seasons, but it is really the end of year, (Christmas) songs and styles that have survived. As early as 129 AD, Christians began appropriating these songs of praise and celebration and that year a Roman Bishop decreed that a song called the Angel’s Hymn should be sung at Christmas service in Rome. However, Christmas carols didn’t really take off with ordinary people until the Middle Ages when St. Francis of Assisi started staging Nativity Plays in Italy. Music was part of these plays and an important factor that changed the acceptance of the songs was that instead of the music being performed in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, the songs were sung in various native tongues, so the idea spread all over Europe as people were now able to more fully participate in the music and celebrations. This was controversial because in effect it adds an element of showbiz to religious rites, but this made the rites a more integral part of people’s lives, whether in church or not and thus began the Christmas Carol tradition. Or probably begat, if we use the language of the time.

The earliest English Carol was written in 1410 and reads and sounds more like a poem or lullaby than what we would commonly think of as a Christmas carol. There were many other similar type verses written during this time. In 1454, with the invention of the Gutenburg printing press, carols could be printed and distributed but, believe or not, severe factions within churches did not encourage such vocal celebrations. Oliver Cromwell actually banned Christmas Carols in England during the mid-1600s. And you thought The Grinch was bad! The first American Christmas Carol was written sometime in the 1640s by a man named John de Brebeurf and was called Jesus is Born (The Huron Carol). Though many churches in Europe would refuse to make carols a part of their celebration well into the 19th century, this was not true of ALL churches and the songs were composed and performed by theater companies, musicians, troubadours, and, of course, by great composers like George Frideric Handel and his very grand and famous Messiah, which was first performed in 1742. Or, from much simpler beginnings came arguably, the most famous Christmas carol of all, Silent Night. In 1818 an Austrian assistant priest named Joseph Mohr composed this three stanza ditty to be sung chorally at Christmas mass because the church organ was broken and could not be repaired in time for the holiday celebration. The first time the song was played the congregation heard the priest and choir director Franz Xaver Gruber sing accompanied by Fr. Mohr’s guitar. As it turns out, the guitar was Fr. Mohr’s favorite instrument! Silent Night would, spread across the world as a great song and would be the central carol to the 1914 spontaneous Christmas Truce between warring factions on the Western Front during World War 1. And it all started basically as a religious singer-songwriter guitar tune. Pretty cool, eh?

Over the course of the last 150 years Christmas carols became an integral part of the Christmas and holiday celebrations and they became ever more popular (and big business too!). Bing Crosby‘s version of White Christmas is the best-selling single of all time according to various sources, with sales in excess of 100 million. Wow! Amazing what grows from such humble beginnings? Can you imagine the holiday season without the music we all know so well? In many ways, on a very emotional level, the music defines what we know and feel about the holiday season; the services, the memories, the presents, the dinners, the parties, the decorations, the celebrations, the stories, in sacred and secular manner. In the realm of modern discourse and pop culture it is no longer necessary or possible to separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the Christmas tree or Santa Claus. Over the years music has helped meld all of these elements together into this one big event that everyone recognizes. This is probably what terrified those early church leaders and why they tried so hard to prevent the secular carols from becoming a part of religious celebrations.

Nothing illustrates the Christmas package better than The Charlie Brown Christmas Special with the accompanying soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This classic from 1965 has entertained millions of children and adults for more than 50 years. Elements of the show include Charlie Brown bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, Snoopy winning a best decoration competition, Linus reciting the appropriate Biblical canon concerning the birth of Jesus Christ and a very unimpressive tree turned into the season’s most important symbol. It has been televised every year since it debuted and even today ABC currently holds the rights and broadcasts the Special twice in the weeks before Christmas. Guaraldi’s soundtrack has also sold well; over 4 million copies! While most of the people involved thought the show would be a disaster due to it’s slow pacing, simple animation, and weird mix of jazz and sacred (choir) music, it was a hit from the first broadcast. The show and the soundtrack are among the most loved holiday entertainment in the United States and you can check out the rankings HERE if you are interested. As with the Peanuts crew or St. Francis of Assisi’s church, the first few years I was in school we had an annual Christmas pageant. Two of the years I even had speaking roles and this was my first taste of performing. I’m sure this is true for many of you out there and this is what tradition is all about!

The 1950s and 1960s was a very classic time for a certain type of holiday music and nothing better represents this time than this album by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians — The Sounds of Christmas. Known during his lifetime as America’s Singing Master or The Man Who Taught America to Sing, Fred began with a self-created banjo orchestra that, over time, blossomed into one of mid-20th century America’s great Arts institutions. He also…wait for it, invented the Waring Blender. Because he came from the jazz background of the great bandleaders, there was always a whole lot of SWING and a fair amount of BLUES in the choral presentations, so in addition to perfect vocalizations there is also a whole lot of HIP Daddy-o! While he released many albums and was on television frequently during the late 40s and 50s, that was all way before my time. However, my parents had this record and hearing it instantly takes me back to holidays of yore. Fred Waring was described as a perfectionist and a taskmaster and the performances on this album are flawless. There are many examples of different groups trying to do the same arrangements on YouTube and I haven’t found one yet that is quite as sharp.

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The album covers a wide range of styles: Swing (Ring Those Christmas Bells, Santa Claus is Coming To Town); nostalgia (Opening, Carol Brothers Carol [written by W.A. Muhlenberg, who founded St. Lukes Hospital in New York City and was very influential in the development of early American Education]); Porgy and Bess style blues (Rise Up Shepherd an’ Foller, Go Where I Send Thee); the classics (Silent Night, O Holy Night) and six songs that were written by another jazz musician, unknown at the time, by the name of Alfred Burt. His carols began as a family tradition to accompany the yearly Christmas card to friends and relatives and were first heard outside the family circle in the early 1950s. He composed all of the music for these carols and family friend Wilha Hutson wrote the lyrics and they were a hit with choir groups that heard them. Hollywood recordings quickly commenced, but unfortunately, Burt did not live to see his creations sung and popularized by the likes of Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Fred Waring. They were very popular at the time and since then the carols have entered the popular Christmas music lexicon and there they have remained. This album contains: Caroling, Caroling, O Hearken Ye, Jesu Parvule, The Star Carol, Come Dear Children, and This Is Christmas.

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While many of these carols, like all carols, are very simple in structure, Waring’s arrangements take them to interesting places and the talent assembled to perform them was obviously top-notch. They do not make albums like this anymore! The Sounds of Christmas is available again so either relive the magic (if you grew up with it like I did) or check it out for yourself! It gets a 5-star rating on Amazon so I obviously know what I’m talking about *wink*!

Okay! Look for the conclusion to follow next week. Like a ride through the woods to Grandma’s house the posts will lead back to the guitar and how you can make Christmas songs your own!

Here is Part 2 of this series.

Happy 2017

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I hope everyone had a great holiday season and is looking forward to the New Year! It will definitely be one full of many challenges. I think we can agree on that, yes? No matter what comes along, music will help with anything the universe has in store. We’ve all seen how powerful the effects of music are on people in all kinds of situations and certainly I make it a point to never forget how healing the ability to play, listen and appreciate music is. Definitely one of the major joys of our existence on this planet. Never forget or take for granted!

Also, in the spirit of new beginnings, I am rolling out another type of Dispatch, one that will allow me to cover an assortment of small items within one post. It’s the same kind of formula as the GuitarSongs series, which I was really enjoying and will pick up again in a few weeks. ShortRiffs will cover everything going on in my life, music-related and not. The Gimme Shelter and Vital Van posts, which are full of music, but also full of other stuff, are two of the most popular posts I’ve done and I want to do more of that kind of writing. The name is a word play on the (guitar) riffs we all play combined with the old slang of “riffing”: a short piece of speech or writing that develops a particular theme or idea. Ideally, that is what I will attempt to do and maybe even have a thread that will snake through a few or several of these posts; like an old-time serial.

As always: I totally appreciate everyone who reads, comments, and sends notes. This blog is almost 6 years old with 116 posts and 50,000 visitors. I never thought it would be the thing it is today and I have only my awesome readers to thank for that! Take care and keep playing!