Bonnie Raitt

The Wolf at the Door

Ater 25 years in the same apartment, I moved on to new digs this year. It was time and all of the post-move changes seem to have worked out, and I am very thankful for that. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to move too far and it wasn’t a tedious or complicated process, but, somehow, somewhere, I lost a Howlin’ Wolf compilation that I had and I don’t have it digitally. Bummer! I have no Howlin’ Wolf on my person at the moment. I am Wolf-less. I haven’t been Wolf-less in years and the stuff I see on the iTunes store doesn’t look that great. It is incomplete. This is not a good thing.

Way, way back in 2011 (WOW!) I wrote this paragraph in a post on the illustrious Booker ‘Bukka’ White:

“I’ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. And…he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.”

That’s a pretty happening paragraph. Damn! I’m good. The same feelings I have for Bukka and his acoustic blues music, I have always had for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) and his gnarly, snarly, electric blues. Yea, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson and all of the rest were great. No doubt. Willie Dixon, of course, was the premiere songwriter of them all. He was also an awesome bass player and over the years played with pretty much everybody. But Wolf’s brand of blues and his awesome presence, live or on record, cannot be beat. He towers over other performers by a mile and this is why he was also a huge influence and a big favorite of people like Bonnie Raitt, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Brian Jones and his little band from Britain, The Rolling Stones.

Wolf was a big dude — 6 foot 3, 300 lbs. and his brand of blues was dangerous and menacing…’cause even when he was sitting down wearing accountant glasses he still looked menacing. Like Bukka White he sang about the very dangerous things he knew about: evil, riding trains, liquor, fights, women, more fighting, life, and more women. His best songs, whether original or not, are my favorite versions of those songs: Smokestack Lightning, Sittin’ On Top of the World, Evil, Moanin’ at Midnight, Wang Dang Doodle, Killing Floor, Down in the Bottom, Back Door Man, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, How Many More Years, and I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline). All of these tunes featured Wolf’s booming, bassy, bad-ass testifying shouts, whoops, snarls and, yelps front and center, while his guitar, slide guitar and harmonica punched, jabbed, accented and punctuated his backing band’s steady rolling rhythm. This produced a beautiful and sometimes terrifying musical atmosphere as Wolf’s. It was, as legendary producer Sam Phillips recalled, “This is where the soul of man never dies.” His voice was as big as the country; too big to be contained by music hall, bar or the radio. Often imitated, but never equaled, it was an unparalleled instrument gave all of his material an instantly recognizable brand and edge. This version of Smokestack Lightning is a bit different from the recorded version but it illustrates the Howlin’ Wolf’s blues train: the swingin’ kit hits, guitar screams and stabs, piano tinkles, and bass rumble working together simultaneously while Wolf rides the top of the boxcar shouting, moaning and lowing his orgy dream tale of train-riding and woman-loving. [LateEdit: I love the recorded version of this song. It has all of the elements of this live version but is driven by Hubert’s hypnotically repetitive Chicago-by-way-of-the-Delta guitar riff. Definitely serves up the essence of the Howlin’ Wolf sound!]

While Wolf had the showbiz image of the dangerous, fly-by-night, criminal badass, he was actually a very conservative, hard-working and responsible bandleader. Financially he always did well; so well he was able to pay his band better than anyone else and even provided health insurance, which is why he had the best band in the business and players, like guitarist Hubert Sumlin, stuck around for the duration of Wolf’s life and career. It was all about the music, which Wolf gave forty years of his life to before succumbing to various health ailments in 1976. Prior to that he was able to capitalize on the blues revival in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and he taught all of youngsters what roadhouse blues was really all about.

Hubert Sumlin was also a huge part of the Howlin’ Wolf sound and a lot of his licks show up later in stuff like Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song and various Cream covers that everyone has heard a million times. He was the perfect foil for Wolf’s voice, guitar and harmonica sound. Whether the band was on big stages or in small, intimate situations, they always turned it out in great rockin’ rhythm and blues style!

So what am I gonna do? I have to find the complete sides collection somewhere, but no one buys CDs anymore do they? I don’t do the streaming, so I guess I’ll have to go to a store. Holy Cow! I’ll have to work up to this…I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Brave New World?

Musicians, artists, writers, designers and other creative people are in a perpetual state of harried flux as they try to keep up with all of the technological advances that have enabled revolutionary methods for creating and communicating. This is also true of businesses who have long been the arbiters of content creation, distribution and world-wide entertainment. As the changes gather momentum and the multitudes that are interconnected in cyberspace share INFORMATION, everyone must hustle to stay ahead of the curve or they run the risk of obsolescence. The old modes and models are fading away and younger generations come of age with no frame of reference to how the business of creation and delivery to marketplace was done before technological advances enabled these new paradigms. Unless you live in a cave you know this has created a great degree of tension: lively discussions, court cases, large fines, threats, jail time, and even death.

What is at the center of many of these disagreements are the issues of ownership and control. Who controls information? Who owns the content? Who controls the means of content delivery between people? Do laws that were written before this technological explosion took place still apply and should they? Are they even relevant anymore? Who should decide? What role do individuals have in deciding the fates of their entertainment? How much does the sharing/interaction process now affect and relate to the creative process? Is it time for new business models? Is the idea of music as a business outdated, outmoded and irrelevant? These issues can be expanded out into the greater realm of topics that are at the forefront of national and international discussion: How big is TOO BIG? Should any company or organization be TOO BIG TO FAIL? Are corporations people? How does the immense wealth of certain individuals and corporations negatively effect the electoral process in what are supposed to be democracies or republics? Are large, heavily-centralized entities really sustainable? Do they serve producers and consumers better than a smaller, more decentralized businesses? CAN’T WE JUST GO BACK TO QUAD-STEREO 8-TRACKS?

Some of these issues have already been explored on this blog:
here, here, here, here, and here. Though technology has changed the landscape dramatically in the last 20 years, the business of music, content development, delivery to an audience and copyright has always been an ongoing evolution. Here are some opinions on the current state of the music and entertainment industry from people you may know and some you don’t.

Zoiks! Gene Simmons from KISS blames the fans for ruining the music industry and hints that music as we know it will disappear because there is no incentive to make it without the potential for some kind of profit. I don’t completely disagree with the second part of his point, but the first part is a real doozy. Gene’s mad as hell and not taking it anymore…BTW, have you seen KISS Visa Card? He’s looking a little bit like The Terminator in this clip and I’m not sure what all the talk about “Big Tits” is about. (Women play music too, amirite?) I don’t know why, but this interview and the credit card and the “business” reminds me of this Young Ones sketch from the early 80s. Maybe this interview is supposed to be comedy.

And now for something totally and completely different. Here’s a point of view RANT I saw on one of my social media connections. I was actually surprised when I read it because usually this connection is pretty guarded. Maybe jet lag or a hacker had something to do with it but the sentiment has never been retracted. I’m not going to say who it was because this wasn’t an official publicity release. What really matters is this is a pretty successful musical entity that obviously has the same concerns as any musician regarding copyrights, control, etc.

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You’re probably thinking that the above author must be a punk rocker, death metal player, or someone with a lot of steel embedded in his/her face(NO, NO, and NO). Nothing is said about rap music or breasts and there is a very low opinion of Hollywood and the people in the entertainment industry. How Un-American! The author must be French! (NO). They also don’t care they’ve been ripped off. What gives?? The quote references the documentary below on the notorious online entity known as The Pirate Bay. Founded in Sweden in 2003, the site helps facilitate peer-to-peer file sharing by providing links to various types of (torrent) files that are posted (and downloaded) by users all over the world. The documentary is worth a watch when you have a moment. Many of the main drivers to all of the controversies that surround this BRAVE NEW WORLD (?) issue are contained within.

Here’s a letter to the editor of The New York Times that came to me via ROCKRAP. This is a very official type of communiqué on another aspect of the music industry. The author of the letter is Rubén Blades, a Grammy Award-winning singer, actor and activist.

“…Tom Carson’s review of Clive Davis’s “Soundtrack of My Life” (March 17) states: “As the head of Columbia Records in the 1960s, he discovered, among others, Janis Joplin.” Record executives do not discover artists: they stumble upon them. Not even Christopher Columbus would have had the chutzpah to claim he “made” America. Undisputedly, Davis contributed to making such talents publicly known. But at whose expense? Joplin probably never received her fair share of royalty payments and may never have owned her masters; nor is it likely that her family inherited the full financial fruits of her work. These usually go to people who can’t sing, can’t write, can’t play and yet end up millionaires, while true artists, like Rodriguez, end up broke and ripped-off. That record executives step forward to usurp credit for artists’ success is not uncommon. More disconcerting is that their self-serving accounts are considered worthy of review in your pages.

RUBÉN BLADES, New York

I believe that maybe this was part of the letter. I can’t find the original. If you’re confused about how we go from Janis Joplin to Rodriguez, I think Rubén is talking about Sixto Rodriguez, another very interesting music story. While there are some who would think that Rubén is being unduly harsh, the entertainment industry is completely PACKED with people who share his sentiments. Genre-defining, instrument-reinventing artists like Jimi Hendrix and his Experience made a whole lot of money for people who didn’t even know what end of the guitar to hold. If the influence of The Blues and Blues songs on rock and roll music was measured in dollars almost all of the early blues artists would’ve been very wealthy. Most of them died with much less.

What about big rock bands, like The Rolling Stones…what about them? They certainly have been very successful over the years. Probably have a good outlook on how the business is run, etc, etc. Mick Jagger expressed his views on file sharing in an interview with the BBC during the anniversary celebration of the release of Exile on Main Street. Mick’s answers are in blue type:

Things have obviously changed a great deal since those sessions. What’s your feeling on technology and music?

Technology and music have been together since the beginning of recording.

I’m talking about the internet.

But that’s just one facet of the technology of music. Music has been aligned with technology for a long time. The model of records and record selling is a very complex subject and quite boring, to be honest.

But your view is valid because you have a huge catalogue, which is worth a lot of money, and you’ve been in the business a long time, so you have perspective.

Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.

Are you quite relaxed about it?

I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records. But I have a take on that – people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

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NOTE: There are many more opinions and thoughts from various artists at the ROCKRAP site, including Tom Petty, Chuck D, Ice T and Pete Townshend, who provides a very eye-opening perspective.

In the following clip Lawrence Lessig presents an interesting overview on the early evolution of the music business, including the “Bidness War” between ASCAP and BMI, as part of TED talk he gives titled “Laws that Choke Creativity.” A very good talk and the historical parallels he draws are important for those who believe the issues that surround entertainment creation and delivery today are something new.

Another enterprising fellow who has garnered media attention lately is ex-hacker/businessman Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload and it’s associated sites. He rolled out Megaupload’s successor, Mega, in January on the 1-year anniversary of his arrest from copyright infringement and the forced-closing of Megaupload. Dotcom has been accused of costing the entertainment industry hundreds of millions of dollars and is currently fighting extradition to the USA for trial. He is defiant, believes he will be acquitted, and has plans to encrypt half of the internet to protect users from spying eyes. If for no other reasons, The Pirate Bay movie and Dotcom’s interview videos are interesting to watch not only because the networking, sharing, and business models are exposed, but it’s also amazing to see how it all GROWS, most of it virally. Dotcom estimates that at it’s zenith, Megaupload had 800 file transfers per second, 24/7/365. Fascinating! It’s important to note that there were plenty of legitimate users on Megaupload so it’s not like all of those transfers were “infringement” on anything.

Finally, are you one of those people who thinks music today is totally worthless? Does it seem everything in mainstream entertainment is written for a 12 year-old girl? Does the tired, formula-driven aura that surrounds the entertainment business remind you of other too-big-to-fail entities out there ravaging the landscape in an ever-increasingly desperate attempt to suck money out of your wallet while giving you nothing in return? Well, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! As a matter of fact, there are some really successful music icons who feel the same way you do! This last link is an entertaining, sometimes educational documentary on the music business in the USA. As a “movie” or “documentary” Before the Music Dies certainly has its shortcomings. The “flow” of the film could’ve been better and certainly watching it in clipped bits on Youtube doesn’t help. The film highlights some of the authentic artists performing today with live music clips but some of the performances are too long and I was skipping through to get back to the thread of the movie. Many salient aspects of modern “music production” — The 1996 Telecommunications Act, ClearChannel, Auto-tune, butt implants, quarterly profit returns and much more are covered and in some cases demonstrated to very grim or hilarious results (depending on your point of view). The numerous interviews (Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Doyle Bramahll II, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Questlove, North Mississippi All-Stars and Brandford Marsalis) are very illuminating to say the least. It warms my heart to watch performers who have reached this level of success deriding the superficial, profit-driven, multi-tentacled vampire squid that is the entertainment business today. Bonnie Raitt, Brandford Marsalis and Dave Matthews all have some great money quotes and Eryka Badu is awesomely funny in a biting, social-commentary kind of way. I recommend highly — enjoy the movie and figure out how it may or may not impact your career or musical journeys.

Fingerpicking Good!

Here is a collection of great guitar players doing their thing without the standard flat-pick that many people use. Most of these players should be familiar to any guitarist and all of these players have had an impact on guitar playing. Personally, I love playing without a pick sometimes and one the best things a player can develop is the ability to play either with or without. There are many reasons for playing this way including:

• The ability to play complicated patterns and contrapunctal lines
• Greater control for attack
• A wide variety of tones from using different parts of the hand
• Greater control for damping (especially slide players)

Of course some players reach a level of mastery or that makes the pick completely unnecessary. Other players would have a really hard time even approaching what they do if they had to worry about holding on to anything. What’s great about the following videos is many of them have close-up views so you can really get a good look at what’s going on. YouTube really is a GREAT learning device. Plus all this music is pretty brill don’t you think?

Chet Atkins*

Michael Hedges

Bonnie Raitt*

Wes Montgomery

Jeff Beck

Kaki King

The Allman Brothers (Derek Trucks / Warren Hayes*)

* Chet Atkins and Bonnie Raitt are both using thumbpicks, but they are also using their fingers and Warren Hayes is switching back and forth between using a standard pick and just using his fingers.

The crab picture I shot myself in Mexico a few years ago. I’m not sure what kind it is and it looked pretty ferocious in person but was really shy. It came out from under the porch of the bungalow one night while I was playing guitar.