Music Business

Rock! in Peace Ed King

Guitar legend Ed King passed away yesterday. A founding member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and a member of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ed was a great player and writer, helping to pen fantastic rock hits like Incense and Peppermints, Sweet Home Alabama, Saturday Night Special, Working for MCA, and Whiskey Rock-a-Roller. While he originally joined Skynyrd to play bass, original bassist Leon Wilkeson returned to the band after the first album, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd was recorded, enabling Skynyrd’s patented 3 guitar attack (Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Ed King) to take flight. The band had great success through the 70s but personal issues caused King to leave suddenly in the middle of the 1975 Torture Tour. He returned to the reformed, crash band in the 1980s until health problems forced him from the road permanently in 1996.

HOLY SMOKIN’ 60s BATMAN! That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Kind of hard to square “Incense” with Freebird or Sweet Home Alabama, yet the common denominator is all of the tasty sounds Ed produces on guitar. He always had a very unique playing style—he just looks different than most guitar players when he picks. This is his most famous moment; the song and solo …I heard ol’ Neil put her down…we don’t need him around anyhow.

As I related in the Lynyrd Skynyrd post from a bunch of years ago, I found a VHS bootleg recording of this 1975 Winterland Show in a video store long before it was online or most people knew it existed. At the time Ed King had his own online forum and he answered people’s questions and had his own commentary on various aspects of his career. It was really interesting and cool how open he was to interacting with people (like me) asking him stupid questions like, “Do you remember this gig? Did you know it was filmed?” (He did, and, there was a project in the works at the time that didn’t come to complete fruition).

While Ed had many great musical moments throughout his career, Skynyrd’s Second Helping album may be the pinnacle. It certainly has always rated high on my list. Besides co-writing and playing the lead on Alabama, he does the same on another Skynyrd standard (the oft set opener) Working for MCA. He also played the tasty slide on the acoustic number The Ballad of Curtis Lowe and performed all of the James Burton-esque riffing on his co-written Swamp Music. If that ain’t enough, he also wrote the liner notes for the album, and as albums go, especially 1970 rock albums, they don’t come any better than the first 2 Skynyrd records.

As the vid above shows, long after Ed was out of the professional game, he was still the consummate guitar picker and guitar fan. There are many videos out there with Ed talking about guitar, Lynyrd Skynyrd and music, music, music. He was a great player, a member of one of my favorite bands, and I feel lucky that I got to interact with him very briefly online. It’s sad to see him go, but I wish him Happy Trails and know that he’ll be jamming with all of the other great ones in that big band in the sky!

Astral Weeks — A Secret History of 1968

I embarked on this literary journey not expecting to derive any pleasure from the experience. While it seems hard to imagine given his status as a musical legend, I have never owned anything that Van Morrison recorded because I never really liked his voice or songs. I have never had a friend or acquaintance who was a fan; I have never even had a neighbor who played his music too loud. At the same time I know he is a very successful, popular, critically-acclaimed artist. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE WHO LIKE VAN MORRISON? So when my girlfriend brought this book home I thought, “Oh great…that guy.” But after reading just a few pages of this startling, impressive tome I realized that I was really holding a portable archaeological dig in my hands and Astral Weeks, the album or concept thereof, was the legend; that rumored underground prize — the literary, rocka rolla equivalent of King Tut! What a discovery! I have seen reviewers complaining that this isn’t a VH-1 style story of the album, so Boo! Boo! Boo!, because that is what they were expecting, but the book IS the story of that album placed contextually within a much larger, much more informative and entertaining “whole”. The book is a veritable hodgepodge of beanbags, black lights, bad trips, freakouts, and old laundry but history isn’t always comprised or composed of easily-digestible bites. A reader will also encounter highs and giggles, sunshine and success if the book is approach-eth-ed as one approaches a jigsaw puzzle: quietly, thoughtfully, and unburdened with preconceived notions. DISCOVERY was the spirit of the times after all.

When anyone tries to explain or quantify 1968, “Boston” does not come to mind. One reason this book is so out of left field is readers have already been “taught” the important points of the “story” of the decade and a fair amount of the info from Astral Weeks has been forgotten or was never public knowledge. The Standells had a hit with Dirty Water in 1966 and the Red Sox won the pennant in 1967, but 1968? Haight Asbury was hippie central. Los Angeles and New York had their music scenes. Chicago was put on the map because of the political turmoil of the Democratic Convention and many other cities exploded into flames and riots because of Martin Luther King’s assassination and ongoing anti-Vietnam War protests. But Boston? Probably most people would say: “I’m drawing a blank on that one!” Author Ryan H. Walsh returns to those days, ostensibly to find early performances of tracks that would become the legendary Van Morrison album, only to discover a whole strata of other people, events and connections, connections, connections. It’s like everybody knew everybody! And they were all complete weirdos in that lovable way that was 1968. We meet the shadowy Mel Lyman, who drifted from harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s jug band to Timothy Leary acid eater to an East Coast guru with a whole lot of power and a bigger family than Charles Manson. Luckily, he never killed anyone. Maybe. There are many a lurid tales of the ridiculousness of the music business at that time; the mob involvement, overwrought producers who thought they were geniuses and blatant attempts at thievery and swindling like sending multiple “C” level (one local hit record) type bands on tour in different areas of the country to maximize profits…and what happened when some of those bands crashed into each other. (Hilarity ensued!)

There are many tales of “The Bosstown Sound”, The legendary Boston Tea Party Club, the Velvet Underground, Jonathon Richman, Peter Wolf and all of the many bands who blew through Boston that year making it a great rock and roll place to be. Besides lots of rock and gurus we also encounter hippies, early experimental television with WGBH’s What’s Happening Mr. Silver?, Black Power, James Brown, The Boston Strangler, The Thomas Crown Affair, MK-ULTRA, legendary record executive Joe Smith (who also makes a few appearances in the Grateful Dead movie I reviewed and is the guy who made the payoff to get Van Morrison out of his “contract” with “the mob”), Yoko Ono, Avatar Magazine, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, drugs, revolution, disillusionment, and death and at least 25 other items I don’t recall at the moment. The author’s dogged inquisitiveness and desire to organically tie together all of the connections he encounters on his trip into the subsoil presents a startling whole; a fascinating tale and a secret history. Boston was the right-sized city to become one giant scene / dysfunctional family and there was much overlap on how all of these seemingly diametrically opposed forces interacted with and affected each other.

You may have noticed by now there are no links to anything in this review because you should read this book. I always read now with my phone in hand so I can look stuff up as I go along and because this book 1/4 story, 1/4 Police Gazette, 1/4 Encyclopedia and 1/4 Gemstone File I had lots to look up and I learned a lot and you’ll learn a lot too! By then you will also be on the edge of your seat and want to know what happened with Van Morrison and Astral Weeks; and did Mel Lyman die or did he fake his death and move to the South Pacific; and why did Lou Reed eat huge amounts of wheat germ before gigs when he was singing about heroin; and was Albert DeSalvo really The Boston Strangler or was it someone else; and will the loss of the power of radio, predicted by Edgar Cayce, usher in the age of Armageddon; and is this related to that one-eyed celebrity cult thing? And many more questions you never knew you had but now know that you NEED answered. Have Fun!

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 people 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!

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.