Welcome to the April issue of ShortRiffs, the monthly column here at The Guitar Cave that explores all relevant aspects of music, art, guitar, life, guitar and more guitar. I hope everyone out there is doing well and getting his or her guitar thang on! Did I mention guitar? I have a couple of items for this month, including the news of guitar legend extraordinaire, Allan Holdsworth’s passing. As always, thank you for your continued patronage!
Allan Holdsworth — Legendary British shred king and all-around influential modern guitar hero passed away at age 70. He came on the scene in the 70s, playing with bands like Soft Machine and Tony Williams Lifetime and from the beginning it was obvious that his unorthodox, self-taught style was in a league of its own. He cited John Coltrane as his main influence and I think you can hear (and see) that in the clip above, or pretty much any Holdsworth performance. He really came into his own in the 1980s and it didn’t hurt that big-time players like Edward Van Halen and Frank Zappa sang his praises. Edward cited Holdsworth as an influence on solos like Fair Warning‘s Push Comes to Shove. You can read more about the Van Halen/Holdsworth relationship here.
While Allan never achieved wide fame and fortune, he kept true to his ideals as an artist and was a major influence on many a guitarist over the years. His credo was always about live musical excellence as he said in 1987: “My music is written with one goal in mind: to improvise. It’s like explaining a great story in words, but without words, much faster than you could with words. It’s like a direct line of instantaneous communication where you don’t have to wait for the end.” This awesome talent and commitment he had for the guitar life is definitely what prompted his fans to come up with 6X the amount needed for his Crowdfunded Funeral Campaign in just 3 days! Pretty sad we live in a world where a virtuoso of his caliber could be in such rough financial shape, but there it is. There are many great live videos on YouTube, as well as some instruction stuff and it’s worth checking out. RIP to a great guitarist and musician!
I had an opportunity to peruse Bill Wyman’s book Rolling with the Stones recently. Not only was Bill the bass player for the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World for 30 years, he was also a meticulous diarist, so the book is jam-packed full of fun and interesting facts and anecdotes. Well worth the price if you have been thinking about picking it up! I will make mention of some other things I came across while reading the book in later posts, but one item that really caught my eye as I leafed through it was this quote in reference to the Gimme Shelter movie.
I have never seen this before (which is surprising) but it actually confirms quite a bit about what I wrote in the post on the movie a few years ago. Attributed to Albert Maysles, this quote is from March of 1970, 4 months after the notorious Altamont concert. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two well-known 60s counterculture movies: Easy Rider, a Peter Fonda-imagined scenario of “a modern Western, involving two bikers traveling around the country and eventually getting shot by hillbillies” and the Maysles reactive documentary of the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour. The obvious difference between the two is that an imagined scenario is not factual in the sense that most people define it, while the Rolling Stones tour of 1969 actually happened. So what was Maysles implying by this quote? Did the directors use the Easy Rider scenario as a framework for how the movie would handle the Altamont concert? Was this a commentary on the state of affairs of 1969 United States of America? Typical movie promotion?
As I noted originally, it is important to realize that the Altamont concert that everyone got came about in part because of a dispute over film rights. The locale had to be moved at the last minute and that was partially the reason for how the Stones “found” America or why there was an “Easy Rider” angle in the first place. The Maysles quote equates the real violence, chaos and hippie bad vibes of Gimme Shelter with the scripted violence, chaos and bad vibes of Easy Rider, but a better-organized concert (that may or may not have included a film) might have gone off without a hitch and there would’ve been no tragedy to document and a different America to find. (If you are looking for a modern equivalent, look no further than the FYRE Festival). Gimme Shelter would have just been a concert movie with some backstage and studio moments with the band. Here is a quote from an excellent piece by film guru Godfrey Cheshire:
If the Maysles brothers are vulnerable to any charge, it’s that Gimme Shelter includes several scenes of Stones lawyer Melvin Belli (who had defended Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) and various management types negotiating the site of the concert yet never mentions its own influence on the events it chronicles. — emphasis mine
So why I bring this up again is that I think it’s important to view this whole thing as two things; the Altamont concert (1) and, Gimme Shelter, the movie (2). They are not the same thing even though they have been interpreted as such. A similar idea might be Alfred Korzybski‘s the map is not the territory idea. Over the course of the last almost 50 years the Alamont concert has become synonymous with the downfall of the Love Generation. I recently read two items online that alluded to this well-accepted Bye Bye American Pie idea. However, the intention of my original post was that 1) some of what we understand about Alamont from Gimme Shelter and other sources is wrong; 2) the movie did not explore any of the complicated relationships that existed in the Bay Area counterculture; and 3) the counterculture was well on its way to imploding long before the Stones left for the ’69 tour. The fact that people still give much more weight to the event as the problem and not a manifestation of something that was already collapsing speaks not only to the power of the film, but also to it’s inadequacy. There were crucial elements left out of the narrative which make it’s standing as some kind of explanation for what went wrong in the late 60s lacking because (as Cheshire says above) of what it neglects to mention. We also will never know what visuals were not spliced into the finished reel. I’m not trying to go all Grassy Knoll Zapruder Film on this topic but the fact is no one who draws these huge conclusions about what Altamont MEANS was in the first 50 rows or backstage at the concert. Those conclusions have been drawn from this movie or from other people’s conclusions or the commonly-accepted conclusions drawn from this movie. That it might have been the desire of the film makers to make a definitive piece of 60s cinema (maybe or maybe not) in the vein of Easy Rider is understandable; that is what artists do. The problem occurs when the audience and the culture accepts the art as reality, which it isn’t. Gimme Shelter sort of aspires to reality, and many people accept it as reality, but at the end of the day, it’s only a movie.
Here’s something else from the writing angle that I stumbled on while surfing: rockcritics.com, a (obviously) rock critic website that happens to include many former writers from Guitar Player Magazine. Good stuff — all of it! Lots of great reading and many clickable links! As I was reading through Jas Obrecht‘s entry I see that he has a new book coming out called Talking Guitar and it looks splendiferous! I always like Jas’s writing and remember many of his interviews vividly. He was the first guy to sit down with Edward Van Halen on his first assignment (after Pat Travers blew him off!). But he has also interviewed many others over the years and he always asked the right kind of questions and understood what people like me (and many others) out there wanted to know. In his twenty-year Guitar Player career he always delivered, so I think this book will be great! When I went out and did my own interviewing for a few years I know I was heavily influenced by what I read in the pages of Guitar Player. I was always determined to find out the choicest guitar player nuggets my subject could provide because that is what I wanted to hear and I knew that is what the readers wanted to read. I feel I owe a bit of a debt to guys like Jas and the others because they really showed us how it is done and done well, and I try to maintain those standards even today with this blog project.
Finally, a musical appreciation of sorts. I recently found a cassette of The Cars first album I’ve had forever. Great stuff. Always loved it. Back in the 80s I worked at a store in Soho and Cars’ guitarist Elliot Easton lived on the same block. I used to see him walking around a lot. We never had any involved conversations, just nodded or said “hey”. He was always friendly and pleasant, which was a rare commodity in 1980s New York.
The Cars had lots of great songwriting, fine ensemble playing and vocals and plenty of compact brillanté guitar. (Here is a great retrospective from Elliot). Easton was and is one of rock’s preeminent lefty guitarists and he comes from what I think of as the George Harrison School (he even quotes licks from I Will on My Best Friend’s Girl); use the solos and guitar parts to create either a song within a song or cool little counterpoint melodies. Fine stuff too, always very inventive. Plus, he and Ric Ocasek had lots of really cool guitars — they even made Dean Guitars look smart and respectable!
The store I worked in was pretty hip and it attracted a lot of celebrities. One afternoon Ric Ocasek came in with his girlfriend/wife, Paulina Porizkova. He stood at the door looking very ill at ease while she shopped. It was a bit funny because he is really tall and looks like Ric Ocasek. There are a lot of celebrities who can blend in, women without the outfit and make-up especially. I used to walk by famous people in Soho all of the time without doing a double-take. But you couldn’t miss Ric. He looked like he really didn’t like being there, so I never bothered him, but he kind of looks like that all of the time. Maybe he really enjoyed the place. Whatever. For ten years he, Elliot and the rest of the band provided a great soundtrack to a generation of people and all of that music still holds up. It was simultaneously familiar and futuristic in a very New Wave way and I can count many great memories while The Cars music was playing on the radio. Good Times!