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258: Stephen Stills, ‘Do For the Others’

Posted by jeff on Mar 10, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

10-03-2017 11-16-28Stephen Stills, ‘Do For the Others’

All the photos here are from the really lovely “Carry On” booklet.

It’s been an uplifting, memorable, dream-come-true week, hosting the royal couple of modern a cappella in Israel – Sir Duke Peder Karlsson and the uncommonly unique Lady Katarina Henryson, founding members of The Real Group, musicians/pedagogs/mensches non pareil – to work with my love-child, Vocalocity.

So our energy reserves are way, way down below the red line, my fingers running on fumes, which means you guys are going to get off easy this week. No endless piles of meaningless, esoteric facts or mind-numbing ramblings on cockamamie theories and personal impressions which wouldn’t even interest my own mother.

snowWe’re just gonna give you one fine song you might have missed – ‘Do for the Others’, from Stephen Stills’ first (eponymous) album, 1970.

I stumbled across “Carry On”, a 4-CD retrospective of his career (curated by Graham Nash, who performed the same service for himself and for David Crosby) and have been knocking around his career, reading a fine interview (from Paul Zollo’s “More Songwriters on Songwriting”, which I highly recommend); watching a 1979 concert to see what happened to him after he fell off my radar (pretty much what I had guessed: immeasurable talent floundering in search of something to say); listening to “Carry On”; checking out some later Crosby Stills and Nash; and re-enjoying some of my old favorites, especially his first solo album.

I’ve discussed a couple of my favorite Stills before: SoTW 198, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Rock and Roll Woman’; and SoTW 072, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ from the fascinating “Just Roll Tape”.

pianoWe all know that Stills at his best is about as good as things get. And we all pretty much get that an awful lot of his output since those peaks has been pretty mediocre, even patience-trying.

I think Stephen Stills is one of the most talented musicians of my generation. When he’s on his game, he’s right up there in the pantheon. But from my recent nibbling around the edges – if you stop at 1970, you’re not missing anything essential.

I’m watching the aforementioned video from 1979. At 11:00, he begins a drum solo. I do what I usually do when the drum solo rolls around – reach for the Next button. But wait! I’d just read in Zollo’s interview that the drums were Stills’ first instrument.

HendrixAnd we’re talking about the guy who plays acoustic guitar on the first CSN album; who plays piano on the live ’49 Reasons/For What It’s Worth’ from “4-Way Street”; who plays bass on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Night in the City’; who plays organ on ‘Love the One You’re With’; who goes nose-to-nose guitaring with his buddy Jimi Hendrix on ‘No-Name Jam’ from “Carry On”; who does the horn arrangement on one of the finest 7/4 rock songs ever written, ‘Cherokee’. So the guy has all the credentials in the world.

But the drum solo is still just a drum solo. Sigh. And to be perfectly honest, the jam with Hendrix is pretty boring for me. And the ‘Cherokee’ is more memorable for the curiosity of the time signature than for the song. Et cetera. And the 1977 “CSN” album – yeah, it’s got more admirable moments than I’d remembered. Bottom line? I ain’t gonna go back to it in the near future.

guitarsBut still, Stills.

Like on ‘Do for the Others’, which is right up there with his finest cuts with Buffalo Springfield and early CSN. Which is saying a whole lot.

The entire album is pretty darn fine. Check it out if the mood suits you. You won’t find any epiphanies, but it’s a very respectable listen. It was recorded mid-1970, just months after “Déjà Vu”. Guest artists included Hendrix, Clapton, and Ringo, as well as Booker T. Jones, Crosby and Nash, John Sebastian and Mama Cass. Y’all might not remember back then, but that sort of stellar guest cast was unheard of.

silverOne little point worth mentioning – Stills recorded ‘Do for the Others’ (the snow photos here are by Henry Diltz) all by his little lonesome. All the instruments. All the voices.

The “Carry On” compilation offers up a 1971 live duet performance of ‘Do for the Others’ with the late Steve Fromholz, actor, playwright, record producer, whitewater river guide and Poet Laureate of the State of Texas.

Guys, my forehead just hit the keyboard. I promise to bore you at greater length next time. Class dismissed early. You didn’t get a 50-year treasury. But you sure did get one gem.

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15

072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)

Posted by jeff on Mar 15, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

The people and things closest to you eventually become invisible to you. That which you see every day for decades becomes so imbedded in your processor that the nerve endings are dulled to them. Strangers are in clearer focus than your parent, your child, your spouse. Familiarity breeds transparency.

So it is with music. Take The Beatles, for example. I listened to every cut of theirs several bejillion times, from the day they were released. They’ve been inaudible to me for decades. I used to try tricks like listening to only one channel with the bass cranked up while hanging upside down. It worked a little, but I got dizzy. The newly remastered set? The same. If I really, really focus, while lying on a bed of nails, with two prison guards dashing me with a bucket of freezing water after each cut, I can summon enough concentration to probe the music just a bit. But usually, if I want to experience a Beatles song, I just close my ears and play it in my brain. Ye olde portable neuro-jukebox.

Judy Collins & Stephen Stills (Photo: Graham Nash)

So you can imagine my pleasure when by some fluke of nature or warp in history I’m able to hear a piece of near and dear, great music from 1968-9. Remember Act III of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, when (now-deceased) Emily ignores the Stage Manager’s advice and returns to ‘regular life’ for just one day? Well, I did.

One of my most epiphanous moments in music, I remember it clearly, was reading the then-new and revolutionary rock music tabloid Rolling Stone, sometime in the late summer or fall of 1968. There was a small, modest item in the lower left corner of the front page: ‘Graham Nash (of The Hollies), Dave Crosby (recently fired from The Byrds) and Stephen Stills (of the recently disbanded Buffalo Springfield) have been hanging out together. There are rumors that they might form a new group together.’

I sensed then and there that that trio would create a new aesthetic in popular music– elegant, intelligent, and beautiful music with a level of vocal harmonies unknown since the Ink Spots. I had more than an inkling of the impact Crosby, Stills & Nash would make on popular music, way before I heard them. If only they had been selling stock, I’d be a rich man today.

In 1968, The Byrds were the premier American rock group. Their albums “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” were among the best of the era. Jim/Roger McGuinn was the leader, bassist Chris Hillman was a serious contributor, but madman David Crosby contributed the magic, especially in vocals (‘Eight Miles High‘, ‘Renaissance Fair’, ‘Tribal Gathering’. The Hollies were a pretty darn fine British invasion group, their best songs based on tight harmony (‘Bus Stop’, ‘Pay You Back with Interest‘).

Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield was an LA-based rock group led by army brat/southerner Stills, Winnepegian Neil Young, and NYer Richie Furay. All three evolved through the folk music scene into rock. They were immensely talented, sharing the songwriting and guitaring and lead singing, and unfortunately spent most of their energies fighting rather than creating music. When they did shut up and sing, it was occasionally divine.

I’m not going to go off on my anti-Neil Young Big Chief Wah-Wah tirade here. Let it suffice to say that I view him as a talent far inferior to Stills, pretty much an obstacle and an annoyance.

As a live band, Springfield debuted on April 11, 1966 and gave their last concert May 5, 1968. They made three albums. The first, containing Stills’ immortal ‘For What It’s Worth’, has very little else that’s listenable. (Here’s Buffalo Springfield singing it live on the Smothers Brothers TV show, including Tommy in a cowboy outfit, Stephen doing a Chuck Berry duckwalk, and the guitars painfully untuned.) The second has some of the best music to come out of early rock, especially ‘Bluebird’, the immortal ‘Rock and Roll Woman’ (here’s a live version!) [See also SoTW 198]. The third album had some stunning Stills songs (‘Questions’, ‘Pretty Girl Why‘), but no coherence, as the band was already in its death throes.

Last month, Buffalo Springfield announced a reunion gig, which was supposed to have taken place last week, in support of the special-needs school backed by Neil Young, where his two sons learn. Well, I hope it makes them happy, and that they make a lot of money for this worthy cause. But in the twoscore years since CS&N and CSN&Y’s breakups, they’ve periodically risen from the grave to haunt gullible, desperate fans with bloated and pathetic echoes of their former demideific selves. I’m not even going to give you any links to that non-music. It’s just painful. Let’s just stick with the Good Old Days.

Judy Collins & Stephen Stills (Photo: Robert Altman)

As far as I can unravel the chronology, around the time of Buffalo Springfield’s breakup, in the spring of 1968, Stills (b. 1945) was hanging out with the very popular and very modestly talented Judy Collins (b. 1939). On April 26th, he accompanied her to a recording session in NY for what was to become her hit album “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. He was there as boyfriend and studio musician. Stills was a very fine multi-instrumentalist, and has provided the musical backing on acoustic guitar and bass for albums as fine as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue“.

Collins’ album includes Ian Tyson’s song, ‘Someday Soon’, which would become a signature song for her. In this clip, Graham Nash interviews her about the origins of ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (written by Stills for her); then Stills joins them on stage to perform ‘Someday Soon’.

At the end of the session, he bribed the engineer to stay and allow him to record some songs he’d been working on. Judy went home, admonishing him “not to stay here all night.” Stills relates: “I peeled off a couple of hundreds and told the engineer, ‘I’ve got to record these demos or I’ll forget everything.'”

He took a cassette of the songs with him (which he soon lost) and forgot about the session. In 1978, the studio was about to close, and the owner told one musician named Joe Colasurdo to ‘take whatever tapes you want, they’ll just end up in the trash bin’. He took home a box of reel-to-reel tapes, intending to record over them. But one had the name Stephen Stills on it. He heard it, realized that it was a lost treasure. For years he tried to contact Stills to give him the tapes. (If you’re a mortal who has ever tried contacting a celebrity, even for wholly legitimate reasons, you know how utterly frustrating that can be). Eventually he met a friend of a friend of Graham Nash, and got the tape to him. At a recording session with Stills, without saying a word, Nash put on the tape. Stills, and everyone else, was floored. Nash told him he should release it untouched.

And, thank goodness, he did. Because it’s so vivid, so vibrant, that it’s enabled me to hear this music afresh. In an NPR interview, Stills calls the music here innocent, much higher than he can sing it today. He said that rediscovering this tape is “like being on a dive and finding a gold sovereign.”

Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968” (that’s what he said to the engineer at the start of the recording) contains 13 songs, none of which he’d recorded previously. This wasn’t a nostalgia trip; it was an initial take on material which would serve him for years to come (he would later record nine of them on subsequent albums). The best known include a cover of Lennon’s ‘In My Life’, and Stills’ ‘Change Partners’, ‘Wooden Ships’, ‘Helplessly Hoping‘, and our Song of The Week, the iconic ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes‘.

I find it particularly remarkable that these recordings are so well-cooked. There’s no fumbling, inventing words for unwritten verses, or trailing off when he doesn’t know exactly how to finish the song. He’s a consummate, serious artist, this Stephen Stills.

His guitar playing is stunning–intense, commanding. He uses mostly open tunings; in ‘Suite’, it’s a tuning attributed to Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer, EEEEBE (see the Wikipedia article). His vocals are jaw-dropping technically, and affectively wrenching. This is really fine music, folks.

Crosby, Stills, Nash

Stills is a pretty strange character. There’s one video of him at a very laid-back concert “Celebration at Big Sur”, everyone very mellow and stoned and acoustic, until he gets into a fistfight with a fan that rubs him the wrong way. This three-part interview (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) from 1972 shows a variety of his facets–on the one hand, mispronouncing the word ‘eclectic’ and inventing stories about dodging machine-gun fire as a boy during a junta, on the other hand (in the first part), showing us his open tuning and playing Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ for us solo, and then in part 3 playing ‘For What It’s Worth’ on the piano.

Just Roll Tape” carries more than a modicum of historical interest. After all, Stephen Stills of April, 1968 wasn’t just ex-Buffalo Springfield, he was of course also pre-Crosby, Stills and Nash. Three months after our SoTW recording, at a party at Mamma Cass Elliot’s house, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to repeat a new Stills song they had sung, “You Don’t Have To Cry.” He improvised a second harmony part; they immediately realized that something unique had occurred. They soon went into the studio, and in 1969 released their eponymous first album, making them an instant supergroup.

Together with ‘John Wesley Harding‘, ‘Music from Big Pink’, and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, ‘CS&N’ was a harbinger – and catalyst – of the new direction the music and the mind of the generation would take. Prior to this music, the world was electric, frenetic and violent –Jumping Jack Flash, speed and Vietnam. On the horizon was the fallout from Dylan’s motorcycle accident, a distinct turn inwards to the organic, the acoustic, the earth-bound. A wholly new reality.

‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ was a theme song of this change. It was also a hit, ranked 426 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and a symbol of the generation. CS&N would perform it at Woodstock, the signature moment of the festival. “This is the second time we have played in front of people, man. We are scared shitless.” Here’s a lovely montage of the three of them talking, arguing, and singing, including Stills singing ‘4+20’ in the famous appearance on the Dick Cavett show the day after Woodstock, still wearing their mud-caked clothes.

The ‘Just Roll Tape’ version of the song is virtually identical to the record version, with two verses inverted and without the ‘Doo-doo’ ending. “That was an afterthought in the studio.” (I got a particularly perverse pleasure from Stills’ story in the NPR interview about how the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, who were “heroes of ours”, sang this section for him. Why is it that when I sing the praises of this group (see SoTW 030), people look at me strangely, whereas when Stephen Stills does it, the girls all swoon?

He also says there that he prefers ‘the middle part’ (‘Friday evening’) of “Just Roll”‘s ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ to the recorded version. For my money, it’s all very fine. I love how he tunes, and without taking a breath, flies into the song, as if he’s afraid he’ll be tossed out of the studio at any moment and wants to get it all down before that happens. He’s on. Or ‘It’s my heart…’ where he goes into a high, high falsetto, and his aim is oh-so-true. Stevie Winwood would be impressed.

In the interview, the song is referred to as a breakup song. For all the myriad times I’ve listened to the song, I suppose I couldn’t rattle off the lyrics. I just read through them (printed below, with a transcription and translation of the Spanish at the end). The lyric is far more coherent, unified, and communicative than I’d thought. This isn’t a random assembly of musical parts. It is indeed a suite in the fullest sense, a telling story of the end of a relationship.

At the end of the NPR interview, Stills thanks Joe Colasurdo for giving him the tapes. “The guy is my friend for life.” Well, let me join you in that, Stephen. Thanks for the very precious gift, Joe. And thanks, Stephen.

It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore,
I am sorry.
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud
I am lonely.
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are
And you make it hard.

Remember what we’ve said and done and felt about each other,
Oh babe, have mercy.
Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now,
I am not dreaming.
I am yours…

Tearing yourself away from me now
You are free and I am crying
This does not mean I don’t love you
I do, that’s forever,
Yes and for always.
I am yours…

Something inside is telling me that I’ve got your secret.
Are you still listening?
Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart,
And I love you.
I am yours…

Friday evening, Sunday in the afternoon
What have you got to lose?
Tuesday morning, please be gone I’m tired of you.
What have you got to lose?
Can I tell it like it is? (Help me I’m suffering)
Listen to me baby.
It’s my heart that’s a-suffering (Help me I’m dying)
It’s a-dying, that’s what I have to lose.
I’ve got an answer:
I’m going to fly away.
What have I got to lose?
Will you come see me Thursdays and Saturdays?
What have you got to lose?

Chestnut brown canary, ruby-throated sparrow
Sing the song, don’t be long, thrill me to the marrow.

Voices of the angels, ring around the moonlight,
Asking me, said ‘she’s so free, how can you catch the sparrow?’

Lacy, lilting, lyric, losing love, lamenting
Change my life, make it right, be my lady.

Que linda me la traiga Cuba,
La reina de la Mar Caribe.
Cielo sol no tiene sangre allí,
y que triste que no puedo vaya,
Oh va, oh va, va.

Translation:
(Oh, what beauty Cuba brings me,
The queen of the Caribbean Sea,
Sunny sky has no blood over there,
And how sad that I cannot go,
Oh go, oh go, go.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

061: The Doobie Brothers, “What a Fool Believes”

038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
We enjoy your comments and will try to respond to all of them.
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as eMusic or Amazon

Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
We enjoy your comments and will try to respond to all of them.
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as eMusic or Amazon.

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198: Buffalo Springfield, ‘Rock and Roll Woman’

Posted by jeff on Jul 25, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Buffalo Springfield, ‘Rock and Roll Woman’
Buffalo Springfield live video miming ‘Rock and Roll Woman’
For What It’s Worth’ live on the Smothers Brothers Show

Buffalo Springfield Wallpaper

1969.  I’m 20 years old, a junior at a large university in the Midwest, living in a loft near campus and having a good time:  avoiding classes, immersed in film, poetry, and herbs, but mostly immersed in The Music. Those were heady days indeed.

Someone came up with the idea of starting an Open University, where people who wanted to teach would meet with people who wanted to learn, without credit. Learning for the sake of learning, one of those revolutionary 1969 concepts. I gave a course in ‘The History of Rock Music’, which became quite a hit. I’d dude myself up in a paisley shirt with a clashing paisley tie, fluff up my jewfro, slip into my cowboy boots and go pontificate weekly in front of 75 rapt Eds and co-Eds.

Today you toss an iPod in the air and it’ll probably fall on someone who knows more about Stu Sutcliffe than I did then or do now. But then, by default and/or opportunism and/or cloistered adolescence, I was the Musical Guru of Clifton Avenue.

395004_383506678390790_237772615_n

Me, circa Then

It was a ruse. He didn’t teach me bubkes about classical music, which I regret even today. Could well be he tried, I admit. But what he was really there for was to pump my weed-addled brain, such as it was, about that music.
Jeff: “Here’s this group Buffalo Springfield. Very uneven, but some great stuff. Their main talent is a guy named Stephen Stills. This is his ‘Rock and Roll Woman.’”
SA: “Ah, that’s really great. You do realize that he’s juxtaposing two different scales against each other? (Sings the ‘La-la-la-la-la-la’ refrain.)
Jeff: “Um……”

For 45 years I’ve regretted not paying attention to SA’s explanation. So I took advantage of preparing for this posting by calling OG, the brainiest and talentedest musician I know. He’s 40, and I had the pleasure of introducing him to Buffalo Springfield when he was but a mere tyke. I called him yesterday, out of the blue. “Hey, OG, what key is ‘R&R Woman in?” Without pausing, he starts singing for me the melody line using the notes’ names instead of the lyrics.

buffalo-springfield-5100d25858f98OG: “D minor with an augmented 6th.  You know, the Dorian mode? But then it shifts into D major.”
JM: “Um….”
OG: “You know, like ‘Scarborough Fair’.” [Sings, note names instead of lyrics.] If it were a regular minor scale it would be [sings, with the 6th a half-step lower.] It’s a standard blues thing, where you play in major and sing in minor.”
JM: “Um…., sure.”

So I guess I had to wait 45 years to get thoroughly convinced that my Pooh brain ain’t ever gonna master musical theory to that extent. In my next incarnation, I am resolved to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark. That’s a promise.

But in this go-round, I guess all I’m going to get to do is nostalgize a bit about great songs like ‘Rock and Roll Woman’.

Rock and Roll Women

Rock and Roll Women

Buffalo Springfield was a flimsy amalgam of superegos, Stephen Stills (Louisiana), Neil Young (Canada), Richie Furay (Ohio) and Jim Messina (Texas). Based in LA, they hung together for a mere two years (from 1966) and three albums. The first is utterly forgettable except for the Hippie anthem ‘For What It’s Worth’. The second is their piece de resistance, including masterpieces from Furay (‘A Child’s Claim to Fame’), Young (‘Mr Soul’), and especially Stills (‘Everydays’, ‘Bluebird’, and our Song of The Week, ‘Rock and Roll Woman’.) The third is a collection of cuts recorded by individual members, some of them very fine (Stills’ ‘Pretty Girl Why’, ‘Questions’; Young’s ‘On the Way Home’, ‘I Am a Child’; Furay’s ‘It’s So Hard to Wait’).

Buffalo Springfield (the name refers to a company that manufactured steamrollers) existed in a perpetual state of adolescent identity crisis. The members squabbled, the group never really decided who it was. One cut is all Grateful Dead, the next quasi-Association. It’s not a multifaceted smorgasbord; it’s a coreless mashup. Their discography is as messy as the infamous Stills-Young relationship, leaving behind as many outtakes, studio demos and live recordings as Ghengis Khan did offspring.

Stephen Stills and Neil Young TalkingBut, oh, what music they made on the way to their dissolution.

1964-65 were the years of the British Invasion. American rock only began to become relevant in 1966, with The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield on the West Coast and slightly earlier The Lovin’ Spoonful in New York. All three, but especially Buffalo Springfield can be legitimately credited with introducing country music into rock (as well as rich, complex harmonies). Of course The Beatles had done it first (like everything else), starting with ‘What Goes On’ as a novelty in 1964, moving into ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You’ in the 1965 Rubber Soul period. The Byrds were exploring the same material as Buffalo Springfield at the same time, but Jim McGuinn’s dominant personality instilled a more cohesive vision in their recordings. The Lovin’ Spoonful were, like the Springfield, a patchy group, but Sebastian had his head screwed on more tightly, was much more careful a craftsman than the Springfields, and created a more significant body of work.

After the breakup, Stills recorded the hit Super Session with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and the fascinating “Just Roll Tape” which surfaced recently. Then in 1968 he joined up with David Crosby (ex-Byrds) and Graham Nash (ex-Hollies) to form Crosby, Stills and Nash, revolutionizing the aesthetic of popular music. Young recorded two solo albums before joining CS&N in 1969, initially adding a ‘why?’ to the group. Furay and Messina founded Poco. Later Messina joined up with Kenny Loggins, and Furay with J.D. Souther and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt their best, Buffalo Springfield was unsurpassed in creating groundbreaking music as singer-songwriter rocker musicians par exellence. ‘Rock and Roll Woman’ is them at their best, even if you don’t know the Dorian mode from a Vanilla Fudge sundae. The lyrics were supposedly inspired by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, that coolest of rock and roll women. According to Stills, the song “came from jamming with David Crosby at his house. We got hung up on the F to D change in D-modal, which is mountain minor tuning. We kept playing it over and over and over again.”

So 45 years on, we’re back where we started.  Déjà vu all over again, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and all that stuff. A retroactive thanks to SA for trying to teach me something. A current wink at OG for all his sharps and his flats. A hat doffed to Mssrs Stills, Furay, and even Young for their erratic but indelible contribution to the soundtrack of our times.

Buffalo Springfield was a flimsy amalgam of superegos, whose main common attribute was a group identity crisis. But, oh, what music they made on the way to their dissolution.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)
111: The Byrds (David Crosby), ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’

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0

144: Fleet Foxes, ‘Montezuma’

Posted by jeff on Aug 31, 2012 in Rock, Song Of the week

Fleet Foxes — Montezuma (studio recording)

Fleet Foxes — Montezuma / He Doesn’t Know Why (Live Video)

Fleet Foxes — Official Videos

I’ve been doubly blessed over the last few weeks. Barely had I begun to readapt to a diurnal schedul

e after The Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat when I flew off to Stockholm for The Real Group Festival, a celestial experience from which I’m still trying to not return. I’m still floating, all that great music, all those wonderful warm people, hot instrumental jazz from the far south, cool a cappella jazz from the far north.  I’ve been exposed to enough new music to keep me going for months.

But strangely enough, some weeks ago, before the first festival, I restumbled upon a young band, and a particular song of theirs has wormed its way into my ears and thoughts throughout all these festivities. It’s ‘Montezuma’, by the ultra-talented Fleet Foxes.

It’s my birthday next week, one that The Beatles made famous. If my modesty needed any reinforcement, my age is certainly reminding me that I’ll probably never know all the music that there is. If people would just stop recording and performing for a few years, I might have the chance to catch up, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

I was mugged this week, verbally and musically. I admit a lapse of judgment in wandering into a neighborhood I knew less than intimately, but I was curious. You know what they say about curiosity. I made some less than fawning comments and provoked from the neighborhood vigilantes a shit-storm (that means ‘a lot of negativity on the internet’) of xenophobia. They released a jingoistic rhetoric I hadn’t been the target of since the days I was accused of anti-Americanism for protesting the Vietnam War. Well, we all know how that turned out. I’m not comparing war and music, but I can’t help thinking of Stephen Stills, who was able to direct astute irony even at his own camp: “A thousand people in the street singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’”.

Robin Pecknold smiling

So how about I don the protective suit of: I’m a doddering old Woodstockian refugee, brain addled by youthful excesses and decades of earning a living respectably; I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’ at all; I’m not hip; I don’t talk the talk and I don’t walk the walk; I’m trying to coherently string a few sentences together about music I either vaguely remember from the nether depths of my aural memory or about newer music that reminds me of the good old stuff.

Fleet Foxes are an indie band. For the baby-boomers among us, that’s a catch-all term the young ‘uns use to describe groups recording in their parents’ basements on inexpensive equipment, and self-releasing their music on small regional labels with limited commercial expectations. It includes a myriad of styles from grunge to intimate, all sharing low-tech and low-fidelity productions and an ethos of proud independence. It began in the 1980s and evolved into a scene unto itself, a plethora of local scenes worldwide, even an underground mindset.

Today the corporate music industry has co-opted the terminology, the sound, and many of the musicians. Numerous ‘indie’ artists have signed with major labels. A favorite of mine, Nataly Dawn, recently announced that she’s postponing the release of her Kickstarter-funded second album because she’s signed with a major label. I’ve been greatly enjoying her recordings and especially her videos for a couple of years now. She’s witty and wry and talented and as fetching as a fresh peach. Was it my imagination that in her postponement announcement her voice sounded a bit less innocent?

Robin Pecknold resting

I guess I’ll have to learn not to begrudge artists their pursuit of commercial success. They’re humans, they have their own needs (exposure, money, success), so who am I to tell them to stay hungry? But I will say that I could name off the top of my head half a dozen of my favorite bands and singers in recent years whose artistic achievements are in inverse proportion to their commercial reach.

Fleet Foxes, fortunately, found fame and fortune fortuitously, it would seem. Or perhaps fame and fortune found Fleet Foxes. (You can’t have too much alliteration, can you?)

The band was formed in 2006 in Seattle by Robin Pecknold (b. 1986; that’s 60 years after Chuck Berry, just for perspective). Their recorded output is LP “Fleet Foxes” and EP “Sun Giant” (both 2008) and LP “Helplessness Blues” (2011). Robin and his high-school bandmates had a good musical upbringing–their parents inspired them to listen to Hank Williams and Dylan and The Beach Boys and to practice. Pecknold was firmly anti-establishment in his approach to the music business (all the releases are on indie labels), but deeply steeped in The Tradition musically.

Respectful young Fleet Foxes

He praises Dylan and CS&N and Elliott Smith and The Zombies and Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat and Tears. It’s not only the visuals of this video of ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ that show how much he’s been influenced by “Pet Sounds”. Of the second album: “[I want to do the] vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling.”

Pecknold writes Fleet Foxes’ uniformly excellent material, plays guitar and sings lead, and his enormously talent has brought unsolicited success. The first album was Billboard’s Critic’s Choice album of the year, and the second was nominated for the Grammy as Best Folk Album of the Year.  But what about that ‘earworm’ that stuck with me throughout my recent fêting? (For all you old folks, that’s what used to be called ‘a catchy tune’.)

Montezuma’ is one terrific song, in every aspect – The melody, the hooks, the lead vocal. The lead vocals!! What a lovely juxtaposition, Robin’s open, unadulterated lead tightly enveloped by the backing mini-choir. Good job, you whippersnapper you!

The lyrics are pretty darn evocative, too, for such a young kid. I’m not sure which Aztec king the persona is, Montezuma I (c. 1398–1469) or Montezuma II (c. 1466 – 29 June 1520), a buddy of Cortez about whom there’s a wealth of legend. What’s for sure is that he’s a really old guy, long dead and endusted. There are two Tripolis, one in Libya, one in Lebanon. They’re both really old, too.

Which is something I can identify with, as well as with Pecknold’s Montezuma’s callow bewilderment regarding The Meaning of Life. But I guess Montezuma and I are old enough to give the young artist some advice: “Robin, you’re making some really fine music, even if you are just a kid. Don’t count your money, practice your guitar, take care of your voice, and keep up the good work. In a real long time from now, like sixty or five hundred years, maybe some kid will be listening to your music. Or even writing a song about you.”

So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter, 
Now what does that say about me?
Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love, 
Could I wash my hands of just lookin out for me?
Oh man what I used to be

In dirth or in excess both the slave and the empress will return to the dirt I guess,
Naked as when they came.
I wonder if I’ll see any faces above me or just cracks in the ceiling, nobody else to blame.
Oh man what I used to be,

Gold teeth and gold jewelry, every piece of your dowry, throw them into the tomb with me
Bury them with my name.
Unless I have someday ran my wandering mind away
Oh man what I used to be
Montezuma to Tripoli.

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