5

098: John Sebastian, ‘Younger Generation’

Posted by jeff on May 30, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

“…and I sure am glad I got a chance to say a word about the music and the mothers in Nashville.”

Nothing in the world pleases me more than to sing the praises of John Sebastian (b. 1944). Except maybe singing the songs of John Sebastian.

John’s not a household name, perhaps. He’s of course best known as leader of The Lovin’ Spoonful, one of the first, best and most successful American groups of the Beatles’ era. (The name comes from Coffee Blues, by Mississippi John Hurt. What does it mean? Heh heh heh. Ask yo’ daddy.) One must remember that in 1965, there were almost no American rock groups around. The Byrds were just starting up, electric Dylan was a bewilderment, and Haight-Ashbury was just a bohemian neighborhood. The future early rock icons were still wallowing in a variety of musical backgrounds – The Byrds and the Grateful Dead in folk, Blood Sweat & Tears in blues and jazz, Paul Revere in a PR office, and Simon and Garfunkel in college. John Sebastian and his buddies were New Yorkers through and through, products of the jug band (1930s, homemade instruments such as a washtub bass, a washboard, spoons, kazoo, and, ah jugs) revival of the 1950s. They called their bag ‘Good Time Music’, and it certainly was. It was also the harbinger of a renaissance of sex, drugs, love and anti-war protests that changed the face of the world.

Read more…

Tags: , , ,

 
5

263: Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian), ‘Summer in the City’

Posted by jeff on May 26, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo Henry Diltz

Photo Henry Diltz

The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Summer in the City’

The fascinating quotes from Sebastian are taken from an interview in Paul Zollo’s fine “More Songwriters on Songwriting”, a fine book by a nice guy. Go buy it and read it. Tell them Groucho sent you.

The Good Fairy came to me on gossamer tiptoes this week and asked me what rock star I’d like to be reincarnated as.

Even before I’d rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I shouted out: “Mickey Mantle!”
“Sorry,” said the fairy, “He can’t carry a tune. It’s gotta be a real musician.”

“Shoot,” said I, profoundly disappointed at having missed perhaps my only chance to ever be The Big Mick. A real musician? That’s pretty easy. John Sebastian. Who wouldn’t want to be John Sebastian?

YouTube Preview Image

He’s sweet. He’s funny. He’s aw-shucks brilliant. He writes more great songs than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. (Back in the day when I played guitar, I did a whole program of about 20 Sebastian songs.)

He created (okay, ‘arguably’) the first American rock group, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and composed a million great hits for them.
He’s got a musical vocabulary the size of the Big Noise From Speonk (folk, country, blues, jug band, rockandroll, and a whole bunch of personal dialects).
He’s rock’s answer to Cole Porter, more deft with a couplet than anyone else on the block (‘And I could feel I could say what I want/I could nudge her and call her my confidante’.)
He’s one of the best harmonica players in the business (his dad was a pro on the instrument).
He politely declined the invitation to be part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Sebastian.
And he comes across as a warm, sincere human being.

The band that never was.

The band that never was.

When the Spoonful hit the scene in August 1965, America’s answers to the British Invasion were The Beach Boys (circa “Party!”), The Four Seasons and The Supremes. Like I said, America’s first rock group. They had a string of seven straight Top Ten hits: ‘Do You Believe in Magic’, ‘You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice’, ‘Daydream’, ‘Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Summer in the City’, ‘Rain on the Roof’, and ‘Nashville Cats’, the latter three from their third album, “Hums”.

But not just seven straight hits. Seven straight great songs that became hits.

Photo Henry Diltz

Photo Henry Diltz

And I can think of no better way to spend Friday morning than to sing his praises, but there are so many of them that I hardly know where to begin. C’mon Jeff, just throw a dart.
‘Summer in the City’ it is.

Upon his return from England (jamming with George on sitar), Sebastian’s 15-year old brother came to him with a bossa nova tune that included the chorus “But at night it’s a different world, go out and find a girl…”.

John decided to write a verse (“Hot town, summer in the city/Back of my neck getting’ dirt and gritty”)  “with a  whole bunch of tension in the front part so that when we come to the chorus, it’s going to be like falling off a cliff.”

Wheezin' like a bus stop?

Wheezin’ like a bus stop?

“So I tried to write this angular thing in a minor key that then opens up like a Jewish folk song by going to the subdominant chord in a major way. Like “Exodus”. And “Evening of Roses” – from which it was stolen. So the idea was to start with something that has that minor mode and then move into the major for the chorus.”

That means that the context of the chorus is A minor, our ear expects the subdominant (IV) to be D minor, but instead you get D major. This is what it sounds like in “Exodus”, written in 1960 by Austrian-born half-Jewish Ernst Sigmund Goldner (father of Andrew Gold), who at the behest of director Otto Preminger ‘spent time in Israel’ in order to write the sound track for the movie. (The lyrics, which we’ll spare you here, were written by über-goy Pat Boone).

Zally, John

Zally, John

“Evening of Roses” (“Erev shel Shoshanim”) is indeed an Israeli folk song, written in 1957 by native-born Yosef Hadar, the best-known version of which was sung by The Dudaim duo. It is still a staple in Israeli folk dancing circles (if you’ll pardon the pun), summer in the city of Tel Aviv.

Sebastian: “So the idea was to start with something that has that minor mode and then move into the major for the chorus. And it worked. Then we had the verse and the chorus. And in the process of recording it Seven Boone, the bassist for the Spoonful, had a fragment that he played constantly in rehearsals. And I thought this could be the bridge. And it was also in a different time signature, so it did a thing that was almost classical in really taking you from one mood to another. And between that and just a nice accident, then it started to sound like Gershwin, like “American in Paris” to me. And in that he was imitating traffic. So let’s imitate traffic. Let’s get some traffic!”

John_Sebastian_1970_300Thanks, John. You’re doing my work for me this week. Here’s Lenny Bernstein himself conducting the New York Philharmonic playing Gershwin. I can sure here that traffic, can’t you?

Sebastian: “So we hired this old radio sound man who came in and helped us find traffic and particular car horns. And then we ended it up with that pneumatic hammer.”

Original legendary Columbia trash can

Original legendary Columbia trash can

The recording starts out with session man Artie Schroeck playing piano and a whack-o drum smash. Engineer Roy Halee (the undercredited 3rd partner of all of Simon & Garfunkel’s great recordings): “They had a great garbage pail at the Columbia studio. You put a microphone inside this thing and whack the side of it and it was a gigantic explosion. You could never duplicate that wound with some of the synthesized stuff. Everything The Spoonful did was a little bit different and I loved recording with them because of that.” According to Zally, it had “some of my best chakka chakkas” on guitar. And that piano riff. And John’s vocals. And his lyrics! (“Hot town, summer in the city/Back of my neck getting’ dirt and gritty…Cool cat, looking for a kitty/Gonna look in every corner of the city”).

So there you have it – an entire 3-movement urban rock symphony in 2:45. I was a Midwestern teenager in August, 1965. But thanks to Sebastian and the whole crew of merry pranksters, I could feel the heat of scorching New York days and breezy New York nights – a year before the summer that everything exploded.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

241: John Sebastian, ‘Welcome Back’

098: John Sebastian, ‘Younger Generation’

052: The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Girl, Beautiful Girl’

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

 
4

236: Jacob Collier, ‘Hideaway’

Posted by jeff on May 14, 2017 in A Cappella, Jazz, Rock, Song Of the week

 

jacobcgreg_gormanThere’s this kid from London, Jacob Collier. He’s 22.

Since achieving majority, he’s been releasing videos he’s produced and recorded all by himself. In his room in his parents’ home. Alone, as it were.

At least that’s his cover story. I don’t believe a word of it. I’ve been watching his videos, and I’m convinced he’s an alien. He displays musical and visual abilities way beyond the ken of Homo sapiens from Planet Earth. It wouldn’t surprise me if he turns out to be the front man for some nefarious intergalactic conspiracy to invade our minds.

Skeptical? Watch ‘Hideaway’, the first video for his debut album “In My Room”, due July 1.

See what I mean? The superhuman, multi-octave, mind-bogglingly rich vocals? His prowess on every instrument you’ve heard of and a few he seems to have invented (a miniature acoustic bass)?  The outlandishly inventive visuals?

The humans I’ve encountered, even the musically gifted ones, can’t conceive of stuff like that, let alone execute it. By themselves. At the age of 22. Alone in their room in their parents’ house.

I remember, for example, hearing The Beatles’ ‘Rain’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ for the first time. I remember the quantum shock in my brain experienced witnessing the leap of imagination those recordings presented:
This is something new.
This is a new world of aural and conceptual possibilities.
Jacob Collier brings to mind that degree of innovation.

11149736_10155461213615300_860916725934077395_o

Jacobs

One of his favorite formats has been multitracked videos of jazz and pop standards, driven by (by his own account) Brian Wilson-inspired vocals, often a cappella but occasionally garnished with a knockout lead instrument or five. I wanna tell you, this is seriously impressive stuff.

But he’s also been venturing out into the big world, starting at the top – here he is guesting with the hottest, coolest band in the world today, Snarky Puppy:

QuarterMaster’, a live performance in which he solos on the melodica. Seriously.

Don’t You Know’, from Snarky Puppy’s new DVD/CD “Family Dinner – Volume Two” in which he plays piano and sings multi-tracked, live!!, using a device he invented with a team at MIT, the ‘harmoniser’ – a thingie that enables him to sing in chords that he’s playing on a keyboard. Huh? Did we mention that he’s 22?

L2R: Jacob, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea

L2R: Jacob, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Chick Corea

But he’s also been starting to appear live, using another home-made invention in collaboration with the MIT guys, a  one-man, multi-instrumental, multi-visual tool that allows him to simulate on stage the multi-track vocals/videos.

This is the kind of impression he’s been making on people:

“Talent oozing out of every pore”— Jamie Cullum
“Fucking unbelievable” — David Crosby
“The most talented kid on Earth today” — K.D. Lang
“Magnificent!” — Chick Corea
“Blown away” — Steve Vai
“I have never in my life seen a talent like this… Beyond category. One of my favourite young artists on the planet – absolutely mind-blowing” — Quincy Jones
“Wow!! Jacob, your stuff is amazing” — Herbie Hancock
“Staggering and unique… Jazz’s new messiah” — The Guardian

Conquering the world

Conquering the world

I don’t know how far he’ll go, this alien whippersnapper.

His guiding light is Brian Wilson. His new album is named after the Beach Boys’ song, ‘In My Room’. Here’s Jacob’s ruminative piano treatment of the Brian song. (For comparison, check out Paul Simon’s solo treatment of ‘Surfer Girl’).

Gary Usher, co-writer of the lyrics with Brian: “‘In My Room’ found us taking our craft a little more seriously. I played bass and Brian was on organ. The song was written in an hour… Brian’s melody all the way. The sensitivity… the concept meant a lot to him. When we finished, it was late, after our midnight curfew. In fact, Murry [the Wilson brothers’ father] came in a couple of times and wanted me to leave. Anyway, we got Audree [the Wilson brothers’ mother], who was putting her hair up before bed, and we played it for her. She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful song you’ve ever written.'”

portrait-7cfbb0cc13526d9f92b4b75752b32534_h

Brian at 22

Brian: “I had a room, and I thought of it as my kingdom. And I wrote that song, very definitely, that you’re not afraid when you’re in your room. It’s absolutely true.”
Jacob echoes not only Brian’s harmonic and orchestrational genius. He also speaks of ‘his room’ as his natural environment.

One of the innumerable talents of Squire Jacob that I find profoundly unsettling is his self-assurance. He’s out there doing mind-bogglingly new and exciting stuff with folks like Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock and Jamie Cullum, and he behaves with aplomb and confidence as if  as if he’s been selling tens of thousands of copies of this stuff for 10 years.

Let’s step for a moment into the form/content dichotomy.

Jacob at 22

Jacob at 22

In purely musical terms, at 22 Jacob is way beyond Brian. He’s not churning out the original surfing/hot rod hits that Brian was at that age; but he is going to town harmonically in a way Brian would only begin to attempt several years and several albums later in “Beach Boys Today!” But as an innovator of sound, technique, tools? Jacob is standing on Brian’s shoulders. The Wilson brothers had a midnight curfew, and the personal computer was 30 years away. I don’t know if Brian even had a reel-to-reel machine when he wrote ‘In My Room’. Jacob really does create a new world every three or four days (that’s how long it takes him to make a multitracked ‘cube’ vocal video).

I see Jacob potentially playing in a league with Brian Wilson, even John and Paul, some day. Why maybe? At the same time that they were creating new worlds of options, they were creating indelible, lasting music. Jacob’s not doing that yet. My sense is that he’s still rather overwhelmed by the tools and techniques he’s inventing as he goes along.

‘Hideaway’ is a big step forward. It’s an original song, although I admit that I thought at first it was penned by that prolific songwriter Trad, sort of like James Taylor’s ‘That Lonesome Road’. (I don’t think I was thinking of Bing Crosby’s 1933 ‘In My Hideaway’.) After you’ve amazed your brain a few times watching the video of ‘Hideaway’, try listening to it without the carnival of lights and images and personae and invention.

The song. It’s almost as good as the video.

imageBrian Wilson’s genius goes beyond those harmonies and that orchestration. Both serve to celebrate the core, the song. As brilliant as is the whole of each of the worlds contained on the Beach Boys’ finest songs, it’s all finally in service of the song, even “Pet Sounds”, even ‘Good Vibrations’.

As a musician, Jacob Collier is still a kid, albeit a prodigiously gifted one. He’s just beginning to venture outside his room, almost literally. If he has the focus, the fiber, the soul, to concentrate on core values – melody, lyric, song structure – Jacob Collier could well be one of the major musical voices of his generation.

Here’s a fine video of Jacob explaining how and why you should consider reaching into your pocket and supporting him. Know what? I did. It makes me a patron of the arts, to kick in a little dough for a kid I have so much respect and hopes for. Think about joining me in supporting him.

If you liked this post, you may like enjoy these previous Songs of The Week:

230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’ (“Pet Sounds” Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14)

118: Brian Wilson, ‘Surf’s Up’ (“SMiLE”)

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Tags: , ,

 
3

262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

Posted by jeff on May 12, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Dylan1970‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“New Morning”)

‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘This Evening So Soon’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Pretty Saro’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

From 1963 to 1967, Bob Dylan released the seven consecutive great albums (eight if you count the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. No one else, not even The Beatles, has made seven consecutive records that are at the absolute top of their game. It can legitimately be argued that no one else has made a single album that can stand with these eight, but that’s a different question.

Then came the motorcycle crash, two years of silence, and “Nashville Skyline” (1969), a clichéd, crooning bewilderment to his fans. I remember its reception well. There were those who said it was great, beyond our grasp; there were those who said it was regrettable schlock; the majority of us are still scratching our heads.

71wTIJj+1ZL._SL1280_Then came “Self-Portrait” (1970), a hodgepodge double album of covers of contemporaries (‘The Boxer’), traditional standards (‘Copper Kettle’), and sub-standard live cuts (‘She Belongs to Me’). Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of the album opened “What is this shit?” It was Dylan’s first commercial and universally critical failure.

Four months later, he released “New Morning”, a laid-back paean to family life. In my opinion, it stands in line with his great works. Not everyone agrees.

In the late 60s, some anonymous hippie entrepreneurs began printing up “bootleg” recordings of Dylan, featuring cuts from the Basement tapes. I was a proud owner of ‘The Masked Marauder’ and ‘The Great White Wonder’, the first and most famous bootlegs. In 1975, Columbia convinced Dylan to capitalize on the great public interest in these recordings, and released a double LP.

Another Self Portrait_1In 1991 Columbia began releasing official “Bootleg Series” CDs, of uneven quality and interest. To the utter amazement of many, there were indisputable gems among the dross, such as the brilliant ‘Blind Willie McTell’, inexplicably excluded from release on the mediocre+ 1983 “Infidels”.

In 2013, they laid on us “Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10”– mostly outtakes from “Self-Portrait”, with a few uninteresting alternate takes from “Nashville Skyline” and a few abysmal ones from “New Morning”with horrifying orchestration by the once deified Al Kooper. Outtakes from “Self-Portrait”? C’mon Bob – wasn’t the original bad enough?

But Dylan is Dylan, and there’s a reason he won the Nobel Prize. “Another Self Portrait” contains a number of unqualified, indisputable wonders that somehow justify the original disaster. As Rolling Stone put it, “a great record lurked inside all along.” I’m gonna chew the fat about a few of my favorites here.

  • The Road

    The Road

    Pretty Saro’is an English ballad that originated in the early 18th century, disappeared for a hundred years, resurfaced (via oral tradition in the Appalachians) in the mid-20th century, as recorded by Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bert Jansch and Mr Z himself.
    Dylan’s version is more direct, heartfelt, compassionate, and downright pretty than you’d believe. It’s just a heartbreaker of a song.

  • ‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ was written and recorded by Tom Paxton in 1970.
  • ‘This Evening So Soon’ is Dylan’s version of Bob Gibson’s “Tell Ol’ Bill”, here performed by Dave Van Ronk (yes, the subject of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’), an old cohort of Dylan’s from the Village days.
  • The words of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ were written as “A Border Affair” in 1907 by the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, Charles Badger Clark and set to music in 1925 by Billy Simon (a real cowboy!). It was originally recorded by Tex Fletcher (1936), but the best we could come up with is Texas Jim Robertson’s 1941 version. Sue me. Bob’s version is—oh, Bob! That piano! That voice! Oh, Bob!
  • Well, Well, Well -- Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    Well, Well, Well — Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    And our SoTW, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, which we’ve known and loved since it appeared on “New Morning”. The song has often been parsed as Dylan’s depiction of a meeting with Elvis in a Las Vegas-ish hotel – which never took place. They never met, in reality. But this fictitious non-meeting is memorable, both the released version (Dylan on piano, Kooper on organ, the whole band keeping the tempo moving forward) and the bootleg (Dylan on acoustic, probably David Bromberg on acoustic lead).

So it goes like this:

  1. I went to see the gypsy. I met him, but nothing happened.
  2. I snuck out on the pretext of making a phone call.
  3. A go-go girl caught me and said, “Try again, he’s a real guru.”
  4. I watched the lights on the river.
  5. I went back upstairs to his suite, but he was gone.
    (I went back downstairs to look for her, but) the dancing girl was gone as well.
  6. I thought about my childhood.
Meeting of Titans--Dylan (l), Presley (r)

Meeting of Titans–Dylan (l), Presley (r)

One other point that’s always intrigued me about the song. We’re at the height of drama, the meeting of titans, on the edge of our chairs, and what happens? “I went down to the lobby to make a small call out” (in both versions). A ‘small’ call, nothing that couldn’t have waited.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. If I were being paid to teach sophomore English, I could make up some sort of scenario that encompasses all that, but it would leave a bad taste in my mouth, and make the kids hate college even more than they already do.

Rescue Team

Rescue Team

There are differences in lyrics; nothing in the league of the “Blood on the Tracks” material, but telling nonetheless:

Bootleg: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he wished me well.”
Official: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he said ‘Well, well, well!’”
Giant win for O.

Bootleg: “How are you?” he asked of me/And I asked the same of him.”
Official: “How are you?” he said to me/I said it back to him.”
Giant win for O.

Official: “Outside the lights were shining on the river of tears/I watched them from the distance with the music in my ears”.
Bootleg: “Oh, the lights were on the river shining from outside/I contemplated every move, or at least I tried”.
A tie. Both are strained, underwhelming.

Kitchenette

Kitchenette

But the way he picks that up for the knockout ending? He couldn’t find the pretty dancing girl, “So I watched the sun come rising on/in that little Minnesota town.” Yow. Where did that come from?

But it fits so well with the dreamlike, non-sequiturial goings-on. In tone, and even in sense – with a mind-tingling stretch of the imagination. ‘What am I doing here, I’m just a boy from Hibbing?’

But what the heck? This isn’t James Taylor talking about Carolina or Joni Mitchell talking about Canada. Dylan doesn’t go back to Minnesota. He’s deleted it from his memory map. He changed his name, invented a new biography. So where did this suadade come from all of a sudden in 1970? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bob Dylan. Then wait 20 seconds and you get to meet another one.

dylan24n-5-web

Tracks

Official: “From that little Minnesota town” is repeated, with a resolution in major on the second phrase.
Bootleg: He says it only once, leaves it hanging in an unresolved minor chord, with a lovely, long instrumental outro.
Big win for B.

Both versions are convincing renditions of an enigmatic, intriguing song.  If I had to choose a favorite between the two, I’d choose both. But if you’re trying to make sense of all this, you’re barking up the wrong Gypsy. Welcome to Dylanland.

Tags: , , ,

Copyright © 2017 Jeff Meshel's World. All Rights Reserved.